Well I'll be blowed
The Field|January 2022
Bagpipes, long associated with royal reveille and haggis, are hitting the right note in other areas
MARY SKIPWITH
Bagpipes, alongside the recorder and violin, vie for the title of Marmite instrument. There are few sounds more excruciating than a recorder being blown by an enthusiastic toddler or a violin being scratched into submission by a learner but, for some, bagpipes clinch it. For them, the initial noise of the bag filling with air is how one imagines the love child of a pair of barber’s clippers and a vacuum cleaner might sound. This then escalates to a drone not dissimilar to a half-hearted wail from a child who has long forgotten what he is complaining about but persists nevertheless.

However, for the majority, bagpipe music is powerfully evocative, stirring the soul and conjuring up images of the untamed Highlands, majestic stags and national pride all beautifully packaged in a tartan ribbon of sound. As the official instrument of Scotland, soldiers have been beckoned to the battlefields, sportsmen energised for their national matches and pageants promoted with the rallying notes from bagpipes. From celebrations to commemorations, they play their part in enhancing already heightened emotions.

Even the most stoic viewers of the funeral of HRH The Duke of Edinburgh must have felt a lump lodge in their throats as the lone piper marched solemnly out of St George’s Chapel. The swirling skirl of the historical lament Flowers of the Forest gently fading as the coffin was lowered simultaneously wrenched and swelled hearts. Pipe Major Colour Sergeant Peter Grant was the man who had the honour and responsibility bestowed on him that day. He admits, “I was well aware that my performance was about to be broadcast to 12 million people worldwide so there was a lot of pressure prior to playing. However, when it came down to the moment my nerves went – I think because I was involved with the service. I felt a sense of emotion and sadness when I saw Her Majesty, who had lost her husband of so many years.”

Piping was destined to be part of Grant’s profession from a young age. Taking up the instrument when he was seven, he was already proficient in his teens. Then, he tells me, “I joined the Army after seeing The Queen’s Royal Guard at Balmoral Castle. Mesmerised by how smart they were, I wanted to be part of it. It was always my ambition to play at the Braemar Gathering and after I achieved this, I wanted to take my hobby to another level.” It’s fair to say he’s passed muster.

Grant’s reference to Gatherings alludes to the royal family’s long-embedded love for Scotland, which extends to the bagpipes. Indeed, Queen Victoria created the position of Piper to the Sovereign in 1843 upon discovering that the Marquess of Breadalbane had his own personal piper. It is a role still active today, traditionally held by a serving, non-commissioned officer and Pipe Major from a Scottish or Irish regiment. One of his most important duties consists of playing beneath HM The Queen’s window every morning at nine o’clock for a quarter of an hour when she is in her primary royal residences. Imagine the drinks party conversation:

“So what do you do?”

“Well, I’m The Queen’s alarm clock.”

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