Brian Sweeney comes as close to seeing under the kilts of the Stuart Highland Pipe Band as is decently possible. It is a mysterious world of Scottish lore and tradition and present-day multi-tasking: piper or drummer on weekends and insurance adjuster on weekdays. If this is study of (fair & balanced) Scottish esoterica, so be it.
[x Boston 'Zine]
By Chris Sweeney
Tag Cloud of the following piece of writing
Adam Holdaway is tipsy. In the past hour, he has gone from downing plastic cups of Steam Whistle pilsner to swigging Johnnie Walker Black Label and Jameson straight from the bottle. Kneeling on the first seat of a charter bus in front of 48 other passengers, his Somerville accent slurs over the PA system: Remember, he warns, “We can’t go through the border with open containers.”
It’s dusk on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, and Holdaway, along with the rest of the Massachusetts-based Stuart Highland Pipe Band—arguably the best competitive bagpiping outfit in the United States—have had a very long day. The band, known as the Stewies for short, is coasting home from the Kingston Scottish Festival, a cutthroat clash of traditional dancing and bagpiping staged on a campground in Ontario. While such anachronistic activities may conjure up images of "Braveheart’s" lush landscapes, suffice it to say that the venue looked more like the set of "Trailer Park Boys" than a proper battlefield for North America’s finest practitioners of the Scottish arts.
Here at home, the average Bostonian is most likely to associate bagpipes with parades, funerals, and the Dropkick Murphys. There is, however, an insular group of competitive pipers who can harness the sharp, searing cacophony of the instrument—part atonal yawp, part skull-splitting drone—and make it sing. Those graced with such virtuosic skills are rarely the ones performing at your neighborhood bar on St. Patrick’s Day or marching down Main Street on the Fourth of July. To hear their talents, you need to head to far-flung Scottish festivals and Highland Games, where bands battle one another for international supremacy.
The world of competitive piping isn’t entirely new to me. Growing up, I had a few friends who started playing as tweens and earned college scholarships for it. I’ve seen guys roll out of cars after competition weekends with hangovers that would make Hemingway cringe. I’ve heard the tale of the piping priest who puked all over himself on the bus, the gent whose beer shits burst from his kilt and splattered down his leg mid-performance, and the overseas drum corps that railed through an eight ball at every practice.
So when I began following the Stewies this past January, I had visions of a Hells Angels–Mötley Crüe mash-up—in kilts, of course. But while they may be insane, they’re not crazy in the manner of Sonny Barger or Tommy Lee. Instead, their brand of lunacy is a rabid fanaticism for an instrument rooted in medieval warfare. Each competitor on this bus has devoted an ungodly amount of time, patience, and dollars to one of history’s most misunderstood musical pursuits. For the love of the ancient craft, they don wool kilts and knee-high knit “hose” in the dog days of summer, marching through open fields and baking in the sun. Band members include wunderkind teenagers who attend bagpiping summer camp, drum freaks who spend hours debating color schemes of snare shells, and professionals from every rung of the career ladder, who burn through a year’s worth of vacation days when competition season arrives.
As the bus winds its way through Canadian pastures, the mood is dark and getting darker. Sitting immediately behind me, chaperoned by his father, is a 15-year-old they call the ManChild, a Sagamore Beach–born boy named Evan McManus. To my right is Erik Van der Leeuw, a cop with a telltale buzz cut who’s been munching expired Imodium A-D tablets and regretting last night’s order of clams from Jumpin’ Jack’s Drive-In. Over there is snare drummer Don MacLeod, a 54-year-old engineer at Raytheon whose father founded the Stewies back in 1964. A few rows back, Campbell Webster—at 18 the youngest professional piper in the United States—empties what’s left of a Johnnie Walker bottle into a keg cup. Further down the aisle are tenor drummers Lorna McGonigal, who turns 26 at midnight, and Amanda Forster, who graduated college one day ago. Instead of partying with friends, Forster ditched the celebrations to spend her holiday weekend traveling to rural Ontario for a performance that lasted five minutes and 42 seconds.
Right now, nobody onboard wants to admit it, but today’s competition was a big deal—the season opener in the competitive bagpiping schedule, and a rare opportunity for the Stewies to face off against other top-level bands before heading to Scotland in August for the World Pipe Band Championships, an annual event that attracted 30,000 spectators last year and was streamed live to U.K. audiences on the BBC.
During today’s competition, the Stewies played big, in sound and in size—seven snare drummers, three tenor drummers, a bass drummer, and 21 pipers. Hours after the results were announced, their performance was uploaded to YouTube and has been viewed by thousands. In the following weeks, it will be analyzed and scrutinized by discerning ears around the world. When the Stewies are on point, tearing through a medley with their drones locked and snares sharpened, it’s a sensory experience that can spark a primal desire to chug a keg of ale and bareknuckle box the ghost of William Wallace. But achieving this thunderous output is a study in harmony. Competitions are judged on the integration of pipes and drums, the quality of the group’s sound, and its precision, among other factors. Rarely does one player make or break a performance. This afternoon’s competition, however, wasn’t like most.
As the sun drops and the U.S. border draws closer, the darkness on the bus flickers and then, briefly, lifts: A dozen or so bandmates begin chanting, “Char-ly. Char-ly. Char-ly.” Campbell Webster chuckles, offers me a gulp of scotch, and joins the saucy chorus: “Char-ly, Char-ly.”
Charly Slagle is a 25-year-old piper who’s been with the Stewies since 2011. He flew in from Denver, where he moved a few months ago, for today’s event. Exhausted, Charly is a few beers deep and doesn’t care for the attention. “Definitely one of the longest days of my life,” he’d later recall.
The day starts at 6:30 a.m., when carloads of Stewies pull into a parking lot behind Macy’s at the Crossgates Mall, in Albany, New York. Though headquartered just outside of Boston, the band attracts elite players from New Jersey to New Hampshire. Today’s itinerary is not for the weary: On the road by 7 a.m., drive to Canada, rehearse, compete, drink, climb back onto the bus, and return to the Albany mall’s parking lot by 1:30 a.m.
Make no mistake: Pipe bands do not travel light. It’s windy outside as players load the undercarriage of the bus with an endless array of items: pipes, drums, tuners, harnesses, kilts, ties, vests, dress shirts, brogues, Glengarries, capes, cases of water, a few bottles of beer and booze. At 7:09 a.m. we’re rolling, and Adam Holdaway, the pipe major, is on the PA for the first time of the day. “Thanks for being on time everyone,” he says. “That’s a fucking record first.”’
Today, the Stewies are out to prove a point—that they deserve to be in Grade 1, bagpiping’s elite upper echelon. To understand the chip on their shoulder, and the blend of eagerness and anxiety looming over the 222-mile ride north, we need to venture briefly into the weirdly bureaucratic weeds of competitive piping and the long, sometimes violent history of the Great Highland bagpipe.
Early versions of the instrument date back to at least the 16th century, when Scottish clans would blast battle tunes to ignite the warrior spirit and intimidate opponents before slaughtering one another in bloody, ruthless clashes. As the region stabilized over time and warlords stopped fighting, they needed something to fill the competitive void, so they sent their greatest athletes, their best dancers, and their finest pipers to huge Olympics-like competitions known as Highland Games. The current championships are descendents of these games.
Today, bagpiping is a worldwide pursuit: There are more than 285 competitive bands in the United States alone, made up of thousands of pipers and drummers. The bands are divided into grades based on skill: Grade 5 is the lowest, akin to Little League; Grade 1 is the majors. To compete at the World Pipe Band Championships in Glasgow—attracting more than 200 entrants from countries such as Japan, Oman, Pakistan, Ireland, France, and Canada—bands must register with the Royal Scottish Pipe Band Association, commonly known as the RSPBA, which uses a grading system nearly identical to the one in America. For years the Stewies were, by both U.S. and RSPBA standards, a Grade 2 band. But in May 2014, Holdaway received a letter from the RSPBA informing him that the Stewies had been bumped up to Grade 1. In its letter, the RSPBA said the decision was based on the fact that the Stewies had absorbed several players from a respected Grade 1 band in Albany that had shut down.
For those who read Pipes Drums magazine religiously and scour bagpiping message boards, the Stewies’ upgrade was shocking, and high international drama. After reading the letter, Holdaway felt blindsided. It was as if the Pawtucket Red Sox had been called into Fenway for Game 7 of the World Series. “It was an oh-shit moment,” he says.
The upgrade meant that the band now had just weeks to orchestrate and master an additional medley. Many of the Stewies were pissed that they had spent months practicing for Grade 2, where they expected to place among the top teams, but now—having to compete in the major leagues—were almost sure to be creamed. Rumors spread through the piping community that a disgruntled Albany player or a pissed-off Grade 2 competitor in Scotland had tipped off the RSPBA about the Stewies’ influx of talent. Holdaway even went so far as to formally appeal the decision—asking to be moved back down to the minors—to no avail.
Here’s the thing, though—in Glasgow, the Stewies exceeded everyone’s expectations. “We were one place away from actually qualifying [for the finals], believe it or not,” Holdaway says. “We had nothing to lose, and I think everyone just left it all out on the field. It spoke volumes.” In light of the group’s 2014 world-championship performance, U.S. pipe-band officials decided to upgrade the Stewies as well, making them one of only two Grade 1 bands in the country. (The other is California’s LA Scots, a rival the Stewies hope to stomp at this year’s world championships.)
Which brings us to today’s competition in Ontario: It’s the Stewies’ North American debut at the premier level, and the first time they’ve competed since the 2014 world championships. The stakes are high. There are naysayers who argue that the band is a fluke and didn’t deserve the upgrade. A win at a season opener, on foreign soil, would send shock waves from Boston to Scotland and silence their critics. To emerge victorious this afternoon, they will need to outperform three other Grade 1 bands, all Canadian powerhouses: The Toronto Police Pipe Band, the Ottawa Police Service Pipe Band, and the Peel Regional Police Pipe Band.
Near the Canadian border, the bus passes a final American outpost, Fort Drum. Pondering its battalions and weaponry, piper Andrew Douglas, the bus’s resident wiseass, quips that it’s a good thing the United States has a fort so far north to defend against possible Canadian attacks. Think John Candy in "Canadian Bacon." A few minutes later, as we arrive at the checkpoint, everyone quiets down save for Douglas, who is still cracking jokes: “I’d laugh if we pull up and they’re like, ‘Is Campbell Webster on the bus?’”
It’s an inside joke, but the truth is that if we do get pulled off the bus for a long and exhaustive probing at the border, it will almost certainly be Campbell Webster’s fault. As everyone onboard knows, the last time the baby-faced teenage phenom with jet-black hair traveled to Canada, he sparked an international incident involving elephant ivory, a set of bagpipes, and the queen of England.
Born in Windsor, England, to a pair of professional bagpipers, Campbell Webster started playing the instrument shortly after his fourth birthday. At the time, his father, Gordon, was serving a four-year stint as Queen Elizabeth’s personal piper. Wherever the queen was in residence—Buckingham Palace, Balmoral Castle, Windsor Castle—so too was Gordon Webster. If the queen desired to have pipes accompanying her eggs Benedict, Gordon performed. “He was actually the only man to ever be the pipe major of both the First and Second Battalions of the Scots Guards, as well as being the personal piper to Queen Elizabeth,” Campbell tells me with pride.
Everyone on the bus is, to some degree, a pipe geek, but Campbell has centered his entire life around the instrument. “Everyone I surround myself with and everything that’s around me is all about piping,” he says. Now living with his family in Concord, New Hampshire, he works 40 hours a week at the nearby Gibson Bagpipes factory, where he spends most of his days painstakingly handcrafting reeds—the small slivers of cane that allow woodwind instruments to produce sound. He also teaches piping, and picks up wedding and graduation gigs in his spare time. Given his pedigree and intense focus, it’s not surprising that the 18-year-old comes off as cocky; he tells me that he’s a stronger piper than his father.
When Gordon Webster retired from competition, he gave Campbell a set of pipes that had been built in 1936, with decorative ivory mounts and ornate silverwork on the drones—the very set he had played every day while serving the queen. Campbell cherished the gift and made it his primary instrument. Less than a week before heading to Scotland with the Stewies for the 2014 world championships, Campbell traveled to Canada for a small competition with his mother, his sister, and his friend Eryk Bean, who is also a piper in the Stewies. After the event, when the group attempted to cross back into Vermont, it was as if the U.S. Border Patrol agents were waiting for them.
“Do you have your ivory pipes with you?” one asked at the checkpoint. Campbell and Bean explained to the agent that they had called ahead to make sure it was legal to travel with their instruments, and had obtained the necessary permits required under the 1975 Convention on International Trade in End angered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. Because the pipes were built long before the treaty, the ivory was exempt from seizure. Still, the small Vermont border crossing wasn’t an officially designated port, and there was no Fish and Wildlife inspector on hand to process such items. After hours of frustrating negotiation, the talks began to get heated, and then collapsed. “Finally, one of the [Border Patrol] guys comes out and says, ‘Listen, we seized your pipes. You’re not getting them back. You’re most likely never going to see them again, so you might as well go home.’”
Campbell’s heart sank. The pipes had priceless sentimental and historical value—but, more important, he needed them to compete in Scotland the following week. The Stewies took to social media, and soon the story was picked up by the Associated Press and relayed around the world. Reaction to the news was overwhelming: An online petition demanding that the pipes be returned garnered thousands of signatures in the first 24 hours. Pipe makers in Scotland offered loaners. Conservative bloggers howled about the horrors of a bureaucracy so vast, vile, and heartless that it was seizing heirloom instruments from teenagers. Finally, the Republican U.S. senator from New Hampshire, Kelly Ayotte, stepped in and pulled a few strings. Campbell and Bean got their pipes back mere hours before leaving for Scotland. “We made sure that they worked,” Campbell says, “we did a TV interview…and drove straight to the airport.”
And that was the last time Campbell had crossed the Canadian border. The entire incident was such a media nightmare that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that in light of Campbell’s experience, the agency would review its rules pertaining to ivory imports, noting that musicians “have a unique situation.”
Back in the Albany parking lot, Campbell had assured me that he’d left his ivory-adorned pipes at home today. Now, at the checkpoint, two polite and cheerful Canadian officers scan our passports, not bothering to check the undercarriage. Moments later we’re across the border, on schedule. A few minutes past noon, we roll into a dusty parking lot at Rideau Acres Campground in Ontario. It’s go time. Holdaway grabs the PA: “I want everyone in uniform by a quarter to two. I don’t want people scrambling to get their shit together.”
Pipe bands are not democracies; they are dictatorships with strict chains of command that roll up to one of two leaders: the pipe major and the drum sergeant. The two men who presently reign over the Stewies are Holdaway, who’s been with the band since 2002, and drum sergeant Scott Fletcher, who joined in 2012.
Standing 6-foot-1 with a broad chest and a cinderblock head, Holdaway cuts an imposing figure when dressed in full uniform. The 34-year-old grew up in Somerville, where as a kid he’d ride his bike the length of the city’s Memorial Day Parade every year so he could listen to the crew of parading pipers. “The sound and the pageantry of the uniforms really kind of got to me,” he says. He picked up a practice chanter—an instrument similar to the plastic recorders forced on children in elementary school—and learned “Amazing Grace” the first night. He took classes, which in turn opened up doors to a few local bands, which in turn benefited from Holdaway’s youthful ambition. He tried a year of college in North Carolina on a piping scholarship before returning to the area and staking his livelihood on his talents.
If you want to piss off Holdaway, all you have to do is ask what’s under his kilt, do your best Mike Myers–inspired Fat Bastard impression, or tell him that his instrument sounds like a bag of drowning cats. Piping is Holdaway’s life, and his only means of supporting his wife and soon-to-be-born son. Whereas most Stewies are weekend warriors with full-time jobs, Holdaway is a working musician who takes on 200 to 250 piping gigs a year—weddings and funerals, corporate fundraisers, private parties. Like any good dictator, Holdaway can dress down the rank and file with a few words and a sharp tone, then lift their spirits with his next breath. During a practice early in the season, he cringed when he heard a young player, whose instrument was woefully out of tune, strike a sour note. “That’s my backup bagpipe that I play at negative-22-degree funerals,” he scowled at the offender. “Hopefully you can get yours to sound like it.” Minutes later, though, he reassured everyone that they were “further ahead than [they’ve] ever been in February.”
Leading the drum corps is Scott Fletcher, who is far more subdued than his counterpart. The 27-year-old is 5-foot-5 with a carved jawline swathed in stubble. Like many of the Stewies, Fletcher came to piping through his family: His dad was a piper, and his two older sisters were accomplished Highland dancers. He exhibited the markings of a prodigy from the moment he picked up the sticks at age six. Together, the family performed at Faneuil Hall, Harvard Square, and the Boston Common, busking for loose change. As Fletcher excelled, he found himself on bigger stages. In high school, he was the North American Amateur Drumming Champion—a fact he made abundantly clear to his school’s marching-band instructor when he quit in order to focus solely on playing in pipe bands. “I was a little wanker at that stage,” he says. “I was beating people three times my age, and I rose through the ranks really quickly. I got to the pro class within just a few years.”
Fletcher, who works as a consultant for an insurance company, had crossed paths with Holdaway countless times over the years, but it wasn’t until 2012 that they joined forces under the Royal Stuart tartan. The Stewies have thrived under their leadership, and the band now has more than 70 dues-paying members. In addition to the Grade 1 ensemble, the Stuart Highlanders also have bands at Grade 5 and Grade 4. Having multiple bands helps lower the barrier of entry to the craft and creates a natural pipeline of fresh talent to be groomed for Grade 1.
Once the bus unloads its passengers onto the Ontario campgrounds, the Stewies split into clusters of drummers and pipers. As far as competition venues go, this is as bare-bones as it gets. A dirt parking lot gives way to a few hundred acres of flat fields littered with picnic tables, porta-potties, and a midway of Canadians selling everything from Celtic jewelry to barbecued brisket. Toward the center there’s a stretch of grass—roughly half a football field long—that’s been spray-painted with a white starting line and the white circles in which the bands must perform. With their gear unloaded, the Stewies stake out a small plot behind a few mobile homes and claim it as their rehearsal turf.
In a corner of the park, young girls in dresses of shimmering green and red tartan leap, skip, and twist through centuries-old Highland dance moves. The beer tent serves cups of Steam Whistle and a stand sells pink-hued sausages the size of billy clubs. Vendors hawk argyle wellies and sweatshirts adorned with the Union Jack. The Kiltmaker booth, run by a woman named Margaret Jackson, will sell you an eight-yard, hand-sewn kilt for between $780 and $840, depending on the tartan. Nearby, another booth offers a 52-inch William Wallace sword for $130, a medieval warrior ax for $80, and a "Walking Dead" sword with a leather shoulder strap for $350.
After an hour spent traipsing through the world of tartans, sausages, and cheap beer, I make my way back to the bus, where Holdaway informs me that he’s cut one young piper from today’s performance for hitting a single wrong note in rehearsal, calling him “a liability.” Fletcher has also decided to cut a drummer who has yet to master the rapid-fire sections of the tune. Despite being dropped from the performance, benched players are expected to stay in full uniform, help tune instruments, and take care of whatever other needs arise. With everyone in full dress, the band runs through a few more practice sets. At 4 p.m. they amble over to the designated final tuning area, a grassy square marked off by a series of wooden stakes. “No sunglasses,” Holdaway booms.
Playing the bagpipes is hard. Playing them in competition is really hard. Performers who’ve perfected the art of circular breathing are able to feed air from their lungs into the blowpipe, which fills a bag that in turn funnels the air up into the three drones to form a chord. Meanwhile, they’re simultaneously fingering notes on the chanter. And on top of that, they’re marching in close formation to gracefully form a circle inside the area marked by white spray paint.
Perhaps the most difficult part is keeping a group in harmony. Tuning more than 20 sets of bagpipes is a process one piper describes as akin to “riding a wheelchair in sand.” Highland pipes have three drones rising from the bag—the tallest is the bass drone, the shorter two are tenor drones—and each has its own reed. If a single drone on one player’s instrument is out of tune, the resulting discord can sink a band. But that’s not the only hazard. There’s also the chanter, which plugs into the bag and also has its own reed. It needs to be tuned, too. And there’s the unsettling fact that a bagpipe is an instrument built for the outdoors—but that responds, sometimes aggressively, to the elements. A change of just a couple of degrees, or a slight jump in humidity, can make perfectly tuned bagpipes sound like a goose trapped in a suitcase.
Throughout the afternoon the Stewies have kept their cool, but the mood shifts to an impenetrable seriousness during the final tuning. “Let’s do an attack,” Holdaway orders. The attack is arguably the most critical element to a clean performance: It’s the point at which the pipers simultaneously strike their bags and deliver the introductory E-note, a staple of every medley. The dry run is precise; the instruments are in tune and roaring. Still, Holdaway barks, “Let’s do another attack.”
At 4:20 p.m., the Stewies march in formation to the starting line. A few hundred spectators circle the field, eager to hear the Americans. Holdaway checks in with one of today’s four judges—there are two to evaluate the piping, one for the drumming, and one who rates the overall ensemble. He then turns and faces his legion: “Right, quick, march,” he shouts. The drums roll, each player begins marching, the pipers drop their left elbows on the bags, and the drones scream to life. It is a majestic union of sound and step as they march toward the white circle on the field.
Just as the performance gets under way, however, a spectator next to me throws up his hands in disbelief. “They blew the attack,” he says. “They just lost the competition in the first two seconds.” Personally, I didn’t hear a thing.
The Stewies work their way through the medley that they’ve been perfecting for half a year. Tenor drummers flourish their mallets, spinning them above their heads and snapping them back into place on beat. The bass drum reverberates through the circle and into the crowd. The snares pierce the air and punctuate the pipes’ layered melodies. The four judges circle the band, stone-faced, jotting notes on clipboards like large-animal veterinarians inspecting a Clydesdale. Six months of training boils down to less than six minutes of performance.
As the band exits the field, tensions are high. The drummers are confident about their performance, but the pipers are not. They bicker and blame one another for a minute or two before their nerves settle. Holdaway is unsure of how well they did, and tells me the band’s immediate reaction is the same after every performance—over-analysis and self-doubt. They never walk off the field thinking they’ve won. While the pipes weren’t as clean as he would have liked, he says, he didn’t hear anything catastrophic.
There’s just enough time to suck down a cold one from the coolers on the bus before the ceremonious gathering called Massed Bands, during which every group that competed today lines up and plays a thunderous rendition of “Scotland the Brave,” one of Scotland’s unofficial national anthems. A small white drone hangs in the sky, filming the synchronized throng of tartan, drums, and pipes. When the tune comes to an end, the results are read aloud into a microphone. For the Stewies:
Last in piping.
Last in ensemble.
It’s all poor Charly’s fault. Charly Slagle, the piper who flew in from Denver, blew the attack. He came in a split second too early on the E—maybe it was nerves, maybe he had too much air in the bag. Whatever it was, it’s a fluke, like spending months training for a marathon, getting into the best shape of your life, and then tearing your Achilles tendon as you push off the starting line. The best pipers in the world have blown attacks, and it’s a damn hard mistake to recover from.
In truth, it’s the kind of wound that calls for alcohol. After the results are announced, Slagle and most of his bandmates pack into the beer tent, which is at capacity and spilling out onto the lawn. There’s a palpable division of frustration and jubilance between the Stewies’ pipers and drummers. Scott Fletcher comes by with four beers in hand, which he distributes to members of his drum corps—his group had performed flawlessly.
A half-hour later, Holdaway and Fletcher are the last ones to board the bus, sharing a brief exchange just outside the door. When they finally climb the stairs, Holdaway hoists a nearly drained bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Label and sends it down a line of clamoring hands and thirsty lips until it reaches Campbell Webster, who dumps the remaining drops into a keg cup. A few miles away from the U.S. border, real-world stress—deadlines and final exams, angry bosses and expectant wives—come flooding back to the band members, and they know there’s a whole season ahead to make up for today’s abominable fail. Tensions ease, camaraderie takes over, and the chant begins: “Char-ly. Char-ly. Char-ly.” Ω
[Brian Sweeney has been a staff writer at Boston magazine since March 2015. He received a BA (political science) from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and an MA (journalism) from Northwestern University.]
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