Shannon in Scotland: Bagpiping

Distinctive in both sound and form, the Great Highland Bagpipe has long been a standing cultural symbol for the country of Scotland.

Courtesy of Shannon Ho

Courtesy of Shannon Ho

Today, the instrument once associated strictly with the military has found its place in mainstream culture and continues to grow rapidly in popularity and public appreciation.

While the National Piping Centre (NPC) in Glasgow works to “promote the study of the music and history of the Highland Bagpipe,” the institution also places great emphasis on garnering creativity and accessibility beyond its highly traditional roots.

“It’s about being part of the evolution of the instrument and demystifying the horrible preconceived ideas of the tartans and the kitsch,” Finlay MacDonald, head of piping studies, said.

Located on McPhater Street, the building of the NPC also houses a shop, the Museum of Piping, an auditorium that can be rented out for events and The Pipers’ Tryst, an eight-bedroom hotel and restaurant.

Courtesy of Shannon Ho

Courtesy of Shannon Ho

The NPC opened its doors in 1996, with Roddy MacLeod as its principal. In the same year, The Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, now known as the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, introduced a degree in Scottish Music.

“The link between [the NPC] and the Conservatoire is a very strong one,” MacDonald said. “This relationship has really helped bolster the place of [the NPC] and its music community.”

In 2002, the Royal Conservatoire enabled a specialization of piping within the BA in Scottish Music.

Those pursuing the degree receive two 45-minute lessons a week at the NPC, lectures on history and repertoire, and classes on subjects like bagpipe technology amongst a broad spectrum that allows students to explore career possibilities beyond performing.

“We teach very practically, how you can have a career in music alongside the more academic, theoretical, historical analysis side,” MacDonald said.

Beyond the higher level of education, the NPC offers a variety of instruction at all levels. All are welcome to attend, from beginners who have never played to top professionals who wish to hone their skills and better improve their craft.

Options include evening and weekend group classes at each level, one-to-one lessons with an instructor, and lessons via Skype and the NPC’s eLearning portal.

The NPC also holds seasonal schools in various countries around the world including Italy, the United States and Germany.

In addition, the NPC collaborates with the Universities of Edinburgh, Glasgow and St. Andrews to provide a Study Abroad Piping Programme for international students.

One of the biggest factors of appeal for lessons at the NPC is its cast of top-rate instructors, perhaps some of the best players in the world today.

Along with teaching at the NPC full-time, Glenn Brown, originally from Milton, Ontario, is a competitive solo piper and the Pipe Sergeant of the prestigious Shotts and Dykehead Caledonia Pipe Band.

“I began playing at age nine. My mum who is a famous piper was heavily involved with the art,” Brown said. “Basically, my whole life revolves around piping. It’s great, and I wouldn’t change a thing about it.”

Callum Beaumont, who used to attend the NPC’s summer schools, also started playing at a young age.

“I grew up as a solo competitor, but for the rest of the world, I don’t think they realize the skill that is involved,” Beaumont said.

Both instructors are acutely aware of a certain stereotype that is attached to the bagpipes, and believe the NPC works to provide a greater insight beyond that.

“I know that the instrument has a kind of stigma attached to it, which is unfortunate, because when it’s played properly, it is amazing to hear,” Brown said. “The NPC [helps] promote what great things can be done on the bagpipe.”

Within the community, the NPC works to promote the accessibility of the bagpipes through programs like the immensely popular Piping Live! festival, now in its 12th year.

A week-long event leading up to the World Pipe Band Championship in Glasgow, the Piping Live! festival includes over 100 events ranging from concerts, workshops, gigs at cafes and art exhibitions.

“It’s a real celebration of lots of different pipes, [like] Bulgarian pipes and indigenous pipes around the world,” MacDonald said. “It’s not all about appreciating fine art, it’s very much about taking it out to the public and taking away the idea of seriousness. Anyone can try this, anyone can learn.”

Additionally, the NPC participates in outreach programs for children in underprivileged schools and directs the National Youth Pipe Band of Scotland, a non-competing band that brings together the most talented young musicians of the country to perform around Scotland and the world.

The NPC’s many projects and opportunities for instruction work actively to bring the bagpipes to a broad audience in the most accessible way. As MacDonald puts it, NPC has played a major role in the instrument’s evolution into the mainstream.

“My goal is to put pipers on the same level as any other musician you can think of,” MacDonald said. “But it’s important to have fun. If you’re not having fun, if you’re not enjoying it, [music] loses its whole essence.”