For most Americans, it would be an unusual treat to catch a highland pipe band. There’s nothing quite like the flurry of dancing feet, the humming bagpipes, and the fierce, precise drum patterns, all performed by players in full traditional uniforms.
But members of Seattle’s Keith Highlanders Pipe Band (KHPB) agree that there’s been an increase in pipe band and highland dance interest and activity in the past 20 years. Drum Sergeant Greg MacDonald, 52, says, “Kids love it. For them, it’s as cool to do this as it is to play soccer.”
But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. The culture behind it is vast, the commitment is great, and the music is challenging. Members of KHPB rehearse together once a week for two hours, but that’s only part of the time required. “You do have to practice,” says KHPB president and pipe major Lawrence Koch, 45, who is also a principal program manager for Microsoft. “You can’t just show up. There’s lots of new music we expect people to be able to play.”
In addition to group rehearsals and individual practicing, many pipers take private lessons. Then, the group performs up to 45 times a year, including major competitions in the US, as well as abroad.
But there are no complaints from Koch, MacDonald, or piper Michael Martin, a 61-year-old attorney who has been with the group since 1976. It’s an honor to be a part of the official Clan Keith pipe band, a rare designation outside of Scotland, and to be a part of the rich culture.
Highland Pipe Band History
Formed in 1952, KHPB became a nonprofit organization in 1963. Their mission statement explains that the group is dedicated to broadening the public’s interest in and appreciation for traditional Scottish piping, drumming, and dancing.
In keeping with the tradition of Scottish military bands, women were initially prohibited from joining. However, over the years, that policy has changed and now the 35-member band includes both males and females.
When the band was first established, they received permission from the 10th Earl of Kintore, Chief of the Clan Keith, to use the Keith tartan (their plaid pattern) and cap badge. The group remains one of just a few outside of Scotland to be considered an official clan pipe band.
A small contingent of the KHPB made their first trip to Scotland in 1980. At a ceremony, the Earl presented the members with a banner and proclaimed them the Clan Keith Pipe Band. The relationship with the clan remains strong. The band has had interactions with the chief both stateside and in Scotland over the years, including participation in the 1,000th anniversary celebration of the Clan Keith in Scotland in 2002.
During that two-week trip to the highland homeland, the band celebrated its own 50th anniversary and the 32 pipers, drummers, and dancers from KHPB performed in Aberdeen, Peterhead, Inverugie, Inverurie, Dunnottar, and the Aboyne Highland Games. They also made their first appearance at the World Pipe Band Championships where they placed 11th out of 40. Competing bands came from as far as Australia, Oman, South Africa, and Tokyo. KHPB has returned to Scotland three times since: in 2004, 2008, and 2012. Members hope to return again in 2014.
MacDonald, a senior project architect for DDG Architects, has been part of the group since 1981. He’s made all four trips to Scotland, and shared a stage with Ray Charles and The Chieftans.
“I love the music. It’s interesting and challenging,” he says. “But as much as I love the music, the organization is fun to be a part of. I’ve been able to perform in some very unique places.”
The group ended up on stage with Charles in the 1980s when they performed at a corporate party in Seattle. One of seven acts hired, they didn’t know who the headliner was until they were at the show. At the end of the performance, all the groups joined on stage for a performance of “We Are the World” with Charles in the middle.
“There are all kinds of people we’ve shared the stage with—the Seattle Symphony, the Queen,” MacDonald continues. “It gives us the chance to do something unique. It’s very rewarding. Even practice is fun.”
Martin agrees. “It’s fun playing and having a beer afterwards, and having gigs in the Washington area. It’s an escape from everything else.”
All Fun and (Scottish) Games
The members agree that KHPB is an enjoyable, though demanding, activity. Currently, members range in age from 12 years old to 60-something, but most of them are in their 30s or 40s, juggling families and full-time jobs. Koch estimates that one-third of the group are either Microsoft or Boeing employees.
Because the band is a nonprofit organization, they use any funds raised from paid performances to operate the band—an expensive task. Uniforms are provided to members. Kilts can range in price from $400 to $600. Entire uniforms can cost $1,000 or more, and full military dress can cost upwards of $2,500. The group also supplies some musical equipment to members, though pipes are bought individually. Luckily, the band is in high demand for private and corporate events.
The music they perform is surprisingly diverse. Koch explains that, because the bagpipe only has nine notes, there is more music written for the instrument than almost any other. The limited range requires specific arrangements of pieces, both traditional and modern. Many songs are marches in 2/4, 3/4, or 6/8, but the band also performs jigs, reels, slow airs, slow marches, and laments, along with piobaireachd (pronounced pea-brock), the classical music of bagpipes.
The musicians generally compete without the highland dancers. But for most other performances, the dancers enhance the musical aspect. KHPB works with the local Bentzen School of Highland Dance.
One annual event for the band is the Seattle Masters of Scottish Arts concert held by the Celtic Arts Foundation each February. It brings in some of the best pipers, drummers, and dancers from around the world. Weeklong classes provide performers the opportunity to learn from the best and see them in action.
How Pipe Dreams Begin
Despite how commonplace the activity seems to members who have been involved for years, for outsiders it’s hard to imagine how anyone would decide to pick up the bagpipes or start highland dancing. Koch believes everyone has a motive.
“People come across bagpipes or pipe bands. Some people have Scottish ancestry or have parents who played and taught them. Some folks want to explore an instrument connected to their roots.” Both MacDonald and Martin came across it accidentally.
“I didn’t go looking for it,” MacDonald says. “I’m Scottish by heritage and just started liking the music. There were great guys in the band and it was fun to learn. Mike [Martin] taught me how to play back in 1981. It’s kind of like golf—you’re never done learning.”
MacDonald was pipe major for three years in the ’80s, switched to drums when they were short drummers and ran the section for 10 years. He switched back to pipe in 2001, and now he’s back on the drums. “I’m the utility man,” he says. “I play what we need and it’s been great fun. ”
Martin’s pipe dreams began when a friend gave him a practice chanter, a simpler version of the bagpipe that beginners can learn on. “He dropped off a chanter and said, ‘Pay me back when you can.’ I said, ‘Damn, I just blew $30 I didn’t have.’” But once Martin saw KHPB, recognized members of the band, and decided to give it a full-fledged try, he never stopped. “I showed up with a chanter in the summer of ’75. I was taking lessons twice a week by January 1976.”
General interest is greater than ever. For anyone who thought being in a pipe band is just something they do across the pond—think again. Today, KHPB is proving it’s as cool as soccer.
For more on The Keith Highlanders Pipe Band, visit www.khpb.org
This article is from our September-October 2013 issue. Click here to order.