Bagpipe Resurgence Comes to the U.S.

A quarter of a million people flock to Scotland's Edinburgh Castle every summer to drink in the drone of the pipes.

"It's a different instrument, compared to anything else," said Cpl. David Dodds, a member of the British army's Royal Scots Dragoon Guards. "You know, it's really chilling, a chilling sound it produces."

"There's a certain magic that the bagpipes have," agreed Brig. Melville Jameson.

This ancient instrument, which the Scots have played for centuries, is enjoying a renaissance. The Royal Scots Dragoon Guards have just signed a $2 million recording contract, and released an album that's topped the British classical charts for six weeks.

They have served four tours in Iraq and are now on a sold out 68-date musical tour of the United States.


At the other end of the spectrum: The Red Hot Chilli Pipers. It's like stadium rock in kilts. They wear black kilts and belt out bagpipe adaptations of hits like Queen's "We Will Rock You." This summer, they'll hit the British rock festival circuit.

Global Demand

But fans of both the traditional and modern don't just want to listen. They want to play. At Kilberry Bagpipes, a store in Edinburgh, they can't keep up with the global demand. They're even shipping pipes to American soldiers in Iraq.

"We've had orders from some obscure village in the middle of Russia, someplace," said bagpipe maker Dave Wardell. "Why? I don't know."

Perhaps it has something to do with the success of the annual Edinburgh Military Tattoo festival which features bands, bagpipers and drummers. Now there are similar events in the U.S., Canada, Australia — even in Russia and China.

As it turns out, bagpipes aren't even Scottish — they most likely originated in the Middle East, thousands of years ago. The Roman emperor Nero played them, and the Pakistani army still plays.

But think bagpipes, and you will think tartan, hills and glens.

"It's become ours. It's become Scottish. We've made it ours. And we've perfected it," said Neil Manderson of Kilberry Bagpipes.

"Scots tend to go abroad, and when they do travel, they always take a bit of Scotland with them, and more than that, when they go abroad, they try to educate everybody else into the correct way of doing things, i.e. the Scottish way of doing things," said Captain Steven Small of the Black Watch.

For the Scots, bagpipes aren't just an instrument. They're a weapon of war.

"It lifts the spirits of the Scottish soldier when he hears the bagpipes. It's amazing. You see them marching along without music, and then, suddenly, the pipes strike up and they physically raise an extra six inches," said Small.

Bagpipe School

The British army even has its own bagpipe school. Apparently, it takes at least six months to get to grips with the instrument.

"It takes some blowing power, and, of course, the skill and coordination. It's rather like, if you can tap your head and rub your tummy at the same time, you've probably got it," explained Jameson.

We went to my old school, an hour north of Edinburgh, to see if I've got what it takes. The school has its own band. Boys and girls now play the pipes — oh, how it's changed since my day.

Gemma Sole, one of those Glenalmond College pipers, did the best she could to show me the ropes.

How easy is it to coordinate the breathing, the squeezing? "Well, I was quite rubbish when I first started," confessed Sole. "But it gets easier as you go on."

And yes, it is as hard as it looks. When I tried, the pipes actually came apart in my hands.

So, why learn? Playing makes you look like a blowfish. And the pipes can reach 111 decibels — that's louder than a pneumatic drill. In the wrong hands, it's torture.

"Being played by someone who knows how to play them, they will not sound like a strangled cat. You get a lovely sound from the instrument," said Manderson.

It's a sound that does something inexplicable to anyone with a lick of Scottish blood. But even those of you not lucky enough to be Scottish seem drawn to the drone.