Blowhards: The Stuart Highland Pipe Band

On the road, down the bottle, and across the border with Boston’s greatest competitive bagpipe band.

stuart highland pipe band

Photograph by John Kealey

Adam Holdaway is tipsy. In the past hour, he has gone from downing plastic cups of Steam Whistle pilsner to swigging Johnnie Walker Black Label and Jameson straight from the bottle. Kneeling on the first seat of a charter bus in front of 48 other passengers, his Somerville accent slurs over the PA system: Remember, he warns, “We can’t go through the border with open containers.”

It’s dusk on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, and Holdaway, along with the rest of the Massachusetts-based Stuart Highland Pipe Band—arguably the best competitive bagpiping outfit in the United States—have had a very long day. The band, known as the Stewies for short, is coasting home from the Kingston Scottish Festival, a cutthroat clash of traditional dancing and bagpiping staged on a campground in Ontario. While such anachronistic activities may conjure up images of Braveheart’s lush landscapes, suffice it to say that the venue looked more like the set of Trailer Park Boys than a proper battlefield for North America’s finest practitioners of the Scottish arts.

Here at home, the average Bostonian is most likely to associate bagpipes with parades, funerals, and the Dropkick Murphys. There is, however, an insular group of competitive pipers who can harness the sharp, searing cacophony of the instrument—part atonal yawp, part skull-splitting drone—and make it sing. Those graced with such virtuosic skills are rarely the ones performing at your neighborhood bar on St. Patrick’s Day or marching down Main Street on the Fourth of July. To hear their talents, you need to head to far-flung Scottish festivals and Highland Games, where bands battle one another for international supremacy.

stuart highland pipe band

Adam Holdaway makes a living as a piper and plays more than 200 gigs a year. / Photograph by John Kealey

The world of competitive piping isn’t entirely new to me. Growing up, I had a few friends who started playing as tweens and earned college scholarships for it. I’ve seen guys roll out of cars after competition weekends with hangovers that would make Hemingway cringe. I’ve heard the tale of the piping priest who puked all over himself on the bus, the gent whose beer shits burst from his kilt and splattered down his leg mid-performance, and the overseas drum corps that railed through an eight ball at every practice.

So when I began following the Stewies this past January, I had visions of a Hells Angels–Mötley Crüe mash-up—in kilts, of course. But while they may be insane, they’re not crazy in the manner of Sonny Barger or Tommy Lee. Instead, their brand of lunacy is a rabid fanaticism for an instrument rooted in medieval warfare. Each competitor on this bus has devoted an ungodly amount of time, patience, and dollars to one of history’s most misunderstood musical pursuits. For the love of the ancient craft, they don wool kilts and knee-high knit “hose” in the dog days of summer, marching through open fields and baking in the sun. Band members include wunderkind teenagers who attend bagpiping summer camp, drum freaks who spend hours debating color schemes of snare shells, and professionals from every rung of the career ladder, who burn through a year’s worth of vacation days when competition season arrives.

As the bus winds its way through Canadian pastures, the mood is dark and getting darker. Sitting immediately behind me, chaperoned by his father, is a 15-year-old they call the ManChild, a Sagamore Beach–born boy named Evan McManus. To my right is Erik Van der Leeuw, a cop with a telltale buzz cut who’s been munching expired Imodium A-D tablets and regretting last night’s order of clams from Jumpin’ Jack’s Drive-In. Over there is snare drummer Don MacLeod, a 54-year-old engineer at Raytheon whose father founded the Stewies back in 1964. A few rows back, Campbell Webster—at 18 the youngest professional piper in the United States—empties what’s left of a Johnnie Walker bottle into a keg cup. Further down the aisle are tenor drummers Lorna McGonigal, who turns 26 at midnight, and Amanda Forster, who graduated college one day ago. Instead of partying with friends, Forster ditched the celebrations to spend her holiday weekend traveling to rural Ontario for a performance that lasted five minutes and 42 seconds.

Right now, nobody onboard wants to admit it, but today’s competition was a big deal—the season opener in the competitive bagpiping schedule, and a rare opportunity for the Stewies to face off against other top-level bands before heading to Scotland in August for the World Pipe Band Championships, an annual event that attracted 30,000 spectators last year and was streamed live to U.K. audiences on the BBC.