The following is an article that I wrote for Magic City Magazine. It appears starting on page 39 of the March 2015 issue. Please visit their website, or if you live in the Billings, Montana area, pick up a copy of the magazine. It’s well worth the read! And if you’re interested in Scottish culture and kilts, you may want to peek at two of my other posts: The History of the Kilt and Kilts vs. Lederhosen. To see the article as it appeared in the magazine, including photos, you can scroll to the end of this post and click on the thumbnail pictures.
One musical instrument has a dedicated word to describe its sound (“skirling”). One “instrument of war” caused a musician to be executed for treason just for playing it. One instrument is so iconic that it can call a specific country to mind by playing a single note.
That instrument is the Scottish bagpipes.
You don’t have to head for the Highlands to hear the skirling of the pipes, though. Although the sound of bagpipes echoing through Scotland’s misty moors in the gloaming is an experience you’ll never forget, you can hear that same sound much closer to home. The Billings Caledonian Pipes & Drums practice every Wednesday night at Billings West High School and offer free lessons in piping and drumming to anyone who is interested.
Despite being an icon of Scotland, the origin of this unique instrument may go back much farther. According to the Oxford History of Music, there is a bagpipe sculpture in the middle east from over 3,000 years ago, and it may have been the Roman empire that brought the pipes to Scotland.
In 122 AD, the Roman Emperor Hadrian had conquered much of the British Isles, but the Highlands of Scotland stopped him cold. Rather than continue the war, he built a 20-foot high ocean-to-ocean wall across Scotland to keep the Scots out of his empire. Modern Scots take quite a bit of pride in this, and Caledonia, the Latin name for the part of Scotland north of Hadrian’s wall, is now a romantic name for the whole country. This is why many pipe bands are called “Caledonians.”
By the 18th century, bagpipes had become as much a symbol of Scotland as the kilt. The pipes weren’t actually banned by the English when they put down the Jacobite Rebellion in Scotland, as many believe. In reality, the Act of Proscription of 1747 banned Highlanders from owning or bearing weapons, and from wearing “Highland clothes,” including tartans and kilts. But it did not mention bagpipes.
However, there was a bagpiper named James Reid who was captured and tried for high treason with a group of Scottish warriors that year. His defense was that he didn’t carry or use a weapon; all he did was play the pipes. The judge said that “a Highland regiment never marched without a piper…and therefore his bagpipe in the eyes of the law was an instrument of war.”
Reid became the only man ever executed for playing the bagpipes.
The Act of Proscription did drive many Scots from their country in what became known as the diaspora. Communities of displaced Scots cropped up all around the world. Many of the trappers and miners in early Montana were Scottish immigrants.
Bill Flockhart was one of the young men who left the shores of Caledonia in 1904 to seek a new life here. He found work in the mines around Red Lodge and became a part of the burgeoning Scottish community. After a time, Flockhart became concerned that new generations were losing interest in bagpipes. He took it upon himself to rectify that situation and began teaching anyone willing to learn. In 1963, a group of Flockhart’s students formed the Billings Caledonian Pipes & Drums.
Oscar Thompson, one of his students, still plays with the band. “I got interested by listening to the pipes when I was in junior high school and going to the Festival of Nations in Red Lodge,” he told us, “and ended up joining the band in the late 60s.” Thompson became pipe major (the musical director of the band) for a year or two by what he called an “unlucky draw.”
“No, I never intended on being the pipe major. I have more fun just piping,” he said with a laugh.
The band has had a number of pipe majors since, and Donell Small took over the position in 2003. Growth has been steady since that point, and the band now has 20 pipers, 5 pipe students, and 8 drummers.
“I got involved with the Caledonians in 1984,” Small says. “I had wanted to learn to play for a long time, having two Scottish grandmothers, but never got around to it.” One day, he just walked into a music store and asked them how he could learn to play bagpipes. They had no idea where to get bagpipes, but guided him to pipe major Jim Morrison (another of Flockhart’s students). Small showed up at the next practice and has been there ever since.
Bagpipes don’t exist in a vacuum, though. The band is, after all, the Caledonian Pipes & Drums. As much as the pipe major works behind the scenes to bring everything together, the drum major acts as the public face of the band, leading either with his drum or with an ornate baton known as the mace.
“Some drum majors refer to themselves as the ‘eye candy’ or the ‘peacock’ of the band,” said the Caledonians’ current drum major, Lee Stadtmiller. He likens all-volunteer bands like the Billings Caledonians to herding cats. “This isn’t a well-organized military band. Sometimes I’ll start off leading and turn around to see nobody there.”
If you are interested in learning the bagpipes, the band offers an excellent opportunity.
“Show up Wednesday night at practice and take the lessons,” Thompson advises. “It’s pretty tough to just start on your own. The band can get you off on the right foot and it makes learning much easier.”
Maureen Wallace, who has been a member for two years, concurs. “The band was instrumental in keeping me focused and giving me goals to shoot for. I could pipe when I joined, but they made me a piper.”
The costs can be somewhat daunting. A good set of new Highland pipes starts at about $1,300, and the outfit costs even more than that. But you can start out for much less. A high-quality practice instrument called a “chanter” costs under $100, and the band can loan you most of the rest when you’re starting out.