Gimme a smile: Bagpipes an' a' that

Christmas presents are opened and already broken, New Year’s Resolutions are made and likely broken as well, and it’s time to turn our thoughts to the next rollicking holiday: Burns Night.


Robert Burns, the poet bard of Scotland, born 250-some years ago in January, inspires a yearly party to rival St. Patrick’s Day. We’re all Scots on Burns Night, when we can wear the family tartan, sip a dram of whiskey and drink in the cacophony of the bagpipes.

They say the definition of a gentleman is someone who knows how to play the bagpipes, but doesn’t. I guess my husband is no gentleman. He delights in playing his bagpipes — with the pipe band in the Fourth of July parade in Juneau, or with electric guitar and drums in his Celtic rock band.

The bagpipes are more than just plain loud. Unlike many other instruments, they come with considerable cultural baggage. You don’t just play the bagpipes and leave it at that. No, you immerse yourself in Scottish lore, down to the wearing of the kilt. The pipes simply don’t sound right unless they are played in a kilt (never call it a skirt!). Now it’s hard to find a kilt for sale at Fred Meyer, or even L.L. Bean. You have to send away to Scotland, or to Pakistan if you’re looking for a budget kilt. Think about that — a Scottish festival celebrating the Celtic heritage, led by bagpipers dressed out in Pakistani kilts. Those Scots are indeed a thrifty bunch.

But the bagpiper is not properly dressed in a kilt alone. There’s any number of accessories: pins, jewelry, sporrans and, of course, the small silver flask. The well-dressed bagpiper would never go out in public without a flask — preferably monogrammed — filled with single malt whiskey. My husband contends that the whiskey is for seasoning the bag, or for drying out the mouth of the piper to avoid unsightly drool. Couldn’t be for bolstering the courage of the man about to appear in public with bare knees showing, could it?

So now you have a guy (or a gal, of course) dressed in a plaid kilt with all the accoutrements, laden with an unwieldy set of bagpipes. It’s enough to make an exhibitionist out of the shyest performer. Bagpipes cannot be played in anonymity. They are loud and flashy and cause a stir, if not consternation, wherever they go. One bagpiper at a party can stop all conversation and send children scampering from the room with hands pressed over their ears. Seven bagpipers in a smoky bar can set hard-bitten bar patrons to dancing the fling and calling for “Amazing Grace.”

The most mysterious part of bagpipe culture has got to be the food. Picture a piper in kilt and sporran eating a cheeseburger at McDonald’s. It can’t be done. Haggis is the food of choice or, should I say, “of tradition.” It’s hard to imagine anyone choosing to eat a concoction of liver, onions, oats, and God only knows what else, ground up and cooked inside a sheep’s stomach. Blame the poet Burns, who immortalized this strange dish in his famous “Ode to a Haggis.” Every bagpipe fan has heard this poem, and every one inwardly curses Burns for not having the sense and foresight to write “Ode to a Potato” instead. At least the potato has its own skin, thus eliminating the need for that sheep’s stomach.

The fact remains that bagpipes and bagpipe culture fascinate all who encounter them. One of the band members tells the story of the evening he played his bagpipes on a beach in Juneau to the appreciative ears of a seal sitting on a rock drinking in the sounds of the pipes. The poor seal’s flippers probably weren’t long enough to cover his ears.

• Peggy McKee Barnhill lives in Juneau with her three kids and bagpiping husband. She’ll be celebrating all things Scottish at the Celtic Arts Festival in Juneau this year on Jan.19 at the JACC: .


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