As the pipe band competition season has finished in Scotland, the season is just beginning in Australia and New Zealand.
My social media feed just now is full of pipers and drummers from all over the world who are travelling to Australia to compete at the Australian Pipe Band Championships in Sydney.
I’m continually amazed at the places pipers and drummers can end up by playing in pipe bands and I find myself very fortunate to have travelled all over the world by playing the bagpipes.
Aside from my adventures with the Red Hot Chilli Pipers, my first ventures abroad were with various pipe bands to play at Celtic festivals in Brittany such as the Lorient Interceltic Festival.
Two solid weeks of playing pipes and socialising with other pipers from Celtic nations was an incredible experience that certainly influenced my playing style and I now look back on that time with great fondness.
Shortly after becoming Pipe Major of The Royal Burgh of Stirling Pipe Band at 18 years old, the band were invited to perform in China for a cultural festival.
I remember there being real nervousness amongst older members of the band about taking on this trip, the logistics of getting a full pipe band over to Beijing with pipes, drums and kilts seemed too much.
However, the younger guys in the band were determined to enjoy this once-in-a-lifetime experience. Now, nearly 20 years later, there is still a special bond between the group that went to China. My lasting memory was marching the band down the Great Wall of China, an image that appeared on the front page of many newspapers in Beijing the next day.
This global travelling of pipers and drummers isn’t a new thing – pipe bands have been travelling to attend all sorts of events at far-flung locations across the globe for many years now. My principal teacher, Pipe Major George Lumsden, told me about some of the incredible trips, from Brazil to Russia, that he ventured on during the 1960s and 70s with the Edinburgh Police Pipe Band.
Many of the piping stories about how the members of the famous British Caledonian Airways Pipe Band led the lives of ‘A’ list celebrities in the 1970s and 80s by flying around the world performing at star-studded events have now passed into piping folklore.
It’s true to say that everywhere the pipes have gone, pipe bands have shown themselves to be outstanding ambassadors for Scotland and they’ve been welcomed with open arms – and an open drinks cabinet…
The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo has without doubt been one of the major factors in this global love of pipe bands. From its inception in 1950, the military pipe bands of the Scottish Regiments have been front and centre of this spectacular event and given a global platform which now extends to 100 million people around the world watching on television every year.
For many viewers, the highlight of every performance is the sight and sound of the Lone Piper playing a lament on the ramparts of Edinburgh Castle. It’s also the highlight of many a piper’s career.
History was made at the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo in 2016 when Scottish soldier Lance Bombardier Megan Beveridge became the first regular army female piper to take on the prestigious role of the Lone Piper at the Scottish capital’s annual military music extravaganza.
Megan, a 21-year-old who hails from Burntisland in Fife, first made piping history earlier when she became the first female and the youngest piper to pass the very exacting Army Pipe Major’s course. She was selected for the honour of being the Lone Piper by the army’s
Director of Army Bagpipe Music and Highland Drumming, Major Steven Small, who has carried out the task many times himself as a piper for The Black Watch – now known as The 3rd Battalion The Royal Regiment of Scotland.
Megan was the sole focus of the 8,800-strong audience on the night as she was lit up on the castle ramparts playing the famous lament Sleep Dearie Sleep to close the finale.
Before each performance of the Tattoo, The Lone Piper has to welcome the Salute Taker for that show. They perform the ceremony of the Gaelic Toast, where the Lone Piper and Salute Taker each drain a quaich (Scottish drinking cup) of whisky, the piper recites the Gaelic Toast welcoming the Salute Taker to the castle, wishing them, the Queen and everyone there the best of health, and then they drink together.
The piper then gives a salute and the Salute Taker takes their seat. Megan was apparently more nervous about the Gaelic Toast than she was about the piping!
As far as her ambitions are concerned it’s great to hear Megan is keen to go all the way.
‘I hope to get promoted and get my first Pipe Major’s appointment and then work at the Army School of Bagpipe Music and Highland Drumming in Edinburgh and eventually become the army’s senior Pipe Major,’ she said.
‘After that I hope to be the Sovereign’s Piper and work out of Buckingham Palace and travel with the Sovereign.’
Now that would be travelling in style…
Stuart Cassells BA Scottish Music – Piping, BBC Young Traditional Musician of the Year 2005, is a founder and original musical director of The Red Hot Chilli Pipers.
This feature was originally published in 2016.