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The Highland Bagpipe by Simon McKerrell

Attend any pipe band competition or Highland games this year and you will no doubt see a lot of boys and men, but also a lot of female pipers, drummers and dancers. The growth of women in piping has been one of the biggest, and yet untold, stories in piping over the last 30 or so years. In order to understand this story, one has to recognize that up until the 1970s or perhaps 1980s, piping, both solo and in bands, was almost exclusively a male pursuit.

Pipe bands emerged first in the military in the mid-19th century and then as enlisted men left, they set about setting up civilian and services pipe bands in the 1880s onwards. Many of our finest bands have that lineage, such as Glasgow Police Pipe Band or Shotts and Dykehead. These early bands became effectively male spaces in their communities, where all ages of boys and men could interact and compete against other bands throughout the early 20th century. As competitions and Highland games in Scotland, as well as in North America, New Zealand and South Africa, grew in popularity, the same story was reflected around the English-speaking Scots diaspora. Service bands in Ontario, New York, San Francisco and Christchurch, among many others, replicated the military model, which was a male one and which also provided a legitimate space for men to socialize, largely away from female company.

The same was true of the solo piping world. The fantastic strength of intergenerational bonds was kept alive through piping competitions and teaching relationships, and this, as well as strong piping lineages, meant that solo piping, too, was largely a male-dominated space.

In common with other forms of music, piping has had a number of women who have remained largely unrecognized -- only appearing as footnotes in our history -- but, perhaps with time, we will come to know their stories more freely. Willie Ross, one of the greatest pipers of the 20th century, was reputedly taught much of his piping by his mother in the Black Isle of Scotland. The MacCrimmon pipers of Skye are mythologized as some of our greatest pipers and composers, yet, footnotes here and there in piping history suggest their sisters in the clan often were unacknowledged expert players themselves, stealing their pipes to go and play on the beaches below Boreraig in Skye in the 17th and 18th centuries.

The full text of this column is available in the Autumn 2018 issue of Scottish Life.

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