The Highland bagpipe: "voice" of the local Scottish community

Jan 31, 2011

Go ahead and joke about the bagpipe: It sounds like a dying cat!

Just don't joke in front of 15-year-old Alexander Schiele. The Snohomish resident plays in two Northwest Highland pipe bands and commutes twice a week to Vancouver, B.C. just to learn from some of the world's best.

Nothing compares to playing the pipes, he says, while rehearsing with the Northwest Junior White Spot United Pipe Band in Shoreline on a recent Sunday night.

"There’s no other experience. It's almost like an out of body experience. You know? Your pipes and you are working together and they become almost another living person."

The Highland bagpipe became famous when the British used Scottish regiments in the military in the 19th century.

Since then, its unique sound has made unusual forays into popular culture, including appearances in the comedy, "So I Married an Axe Murderer." And rock group AC/DC used the pipes in its 1975 song, "It's a Long Way to the Top If You Wanna Rock and Roll."

The Northwest Piping Community

There are 25 competitive Highland bagpipe bands in the Northwest. And there's another two dozen pipe bands that play recreationally.

Schiele also plays with a second competitive band: Dowco Triumph Street Pipe Band, based in Vancouver. Triumph, which attracts players from as far south as California, is ranked 12th best pipe band in the world.

The Procession of the Haggis, with bagpipe

At this time of year, the bagpipe often takes center-stage at many Robert Burns' dinners held throughout the Northwest. The 18th century poet is known as "The ploughman's poet" and is adored by the Scots. He was witty and blunt and on Rabbie Burns night, a certain food is celebrated with great fanfare.

The food is called haggis. It's made out of all sorts of organs and oats stuffed into a sheep's stomach. During the Burns' dinner Procession of the Haggis, it's a piper that leads a platter of the food out from the kitchen. The haggis gets sliced with a sword and then a Burns' ode is recited.

There's also plenty of whisky.

But in spite of the food, drink and the Highland dancing, it's the music of the pipes that really affects members of the local Scottish community.

Just ask James Monroe, president of the Celtic Arts Foundation, and a retired professor at Skagit Valley Community College. The other night, Monroe, in a kilt, joined 100 people in Mount Vernon for a local Burns' dinner. And as the Triumph band played, he explained the power of the pipes:

"I didn’t know about my heritage for a long long long time. but when I heard 'Amazing Grace' Whew! You know, it’s just unbelievable."

He tears up.

The Mount Vernon-based Celtic Arts Foundation hosts events throughout the year to preserve and celebrate the Scottish arts. This weekend, it's hosting an intensive bagpipe school. Schiele, who hopes to one day earn a college scholarship in bagpiping, will attend.

Then there's the Mastery of Scottish Arts concert on Friday at Seattle's Benaroya Hall. Scheduled performers include "gold medal" pipers from Scotland, as well as fiddlers, drummers and dancers.