What’s Going On

It’s been a while since I’ve written anything, so I thought I’d just jot down a bit of an update on what I’m doing with the old pipes.

What I Did On My Summer Vacation

Part of the reason I haven’t posted anything is that I’ve been practicing a lot. It all started when I went to bagpipe camp last summer. I’d wanted to go to the Coeur d’Alene Summer School of Piping and Drumming since I heard about it in the first month I started on the practice chanter, back in 2007. Things finally worked out to do it in 2011, and it was incredible. I think this school has been going on for over 40 years, and its location in Coeur d’Alene makes it a spectacular place to be. It was total immersion in piping for a week, culminating in competition at the Spokane Highland Games. In addition to the lengthy daily classes, most evenings feature recitals from the awesome instructors, lectures, and films on piping.

I like to be challenged, and somehow I got placed into the advanced class, taught by the impressive Ann Gray. She gave us a lot of music and pushed us hard, including a big MSR of Southall/Tulloch Castle/Mrs. MacPherson of Inveran. We also did lots of piobaireachd work, with instruction by the legendary Andrew Wright, on Gathering of the MacNabs, MacCrimmon’s Sweetheart, Sound of the Sea, and (my favorite of the bunch) Proud to Play a Pipe (Dastirum gu seinnim piob). Click Andrew’s photo below to hear a  bit of his piobaireachd instruction in our class.

Andrew Wright

Andrew Wright

On the last day of the school, I performed a complete piobaireachd for the first time, as part of the Macrae Cup Amateur Piobaireachd Competition. I couldn’t have been more nervous, as the judge was Andrew Wright, and the room was filled with other instructors and excellent pipers, many equipped with the Kilberry or Piobaireachd Society collections of tunes so they could follow along (or notice errors!). We had to submit two tunes we knew, and we were told 15 minutes before which one we’d play. I submitted Lament for the Son of King Aro and Lachlan MacNeill Campbell of Kintarberts Fancy, and Andrew selected the first. Here’s that performance:


I played it too slowly and made lots of note errors, but got through it and placed third. It was a good experience, but one I’m glad is behind me!

Jig/Hornpipe competiion at CSSPD 2011

Jig/Hornpipe competiion at CSSPD 2011

Later that evening, I really enjoyed the annual Hornpipe/Jig Competition at the local tavern, where the top players played some fantastic tunes for the ever busy Andrew Wright. It was great to relax with a pint and listen to some excellent performances.

The next day I drove to Spokane to compete in the Grade 4 piping events. I completely butchered “Mrs John MacColl” (2/4 march) in front of judge Ann Gray and got 5th; I played “The Highlander” (6/8 march) in front of judge Alan Walters and got first; I played Bruce Gandy’s “Mairi Matheson of Carloway” and “The Rejected Suitor” in the strathspey/reel for judge Andrew Wright and got first in that, which gave me enough points to win the aggregate. I was quite surprised because I felt I could have played better. It was a great way to end the week of intense bagpiping. I can’t wait for next year’s camp.

Lessons, finally!

Bruce Gandy

Bruce Gandy

The most exciting thing for me now is that I’ve finally begun taking lessons on the pipes. After years of working on stuff myself, and feeling like I’d reached a wall I couldn’t get over, I started taking lessons via Skype from Bruce Gandy (who lives in Nova Scotia). I’d been to a clinic he did in Portland a few years ago and really liked his teaching style, and have admired his piping since day one. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but the remote format and the first lesson were excellent and very motivating. I’ll post more about how the lessons are going after I’ve been doing them for a month, but if you’ve been considering Skype as an instructional medium, I found it much better than expected.

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9-year Plan for Bagpiping Profit

After my last post, I began thinking about numbers. I’ve put a lot of energy lately into my bagpipe “business,” and figured I should do some basic calculations and see just exactly how successful – in a purely economic sense – I am. I also wondered if I am charging too much (I don’t think so), largely because I get a lot of inquiries from my website (mcmichaelpiping.com) which, after I quote a fee, vanish into the ether.

So here it is; as you can tell, if you have the patience to sort through this mess, I am no financial wizard. But the rough costs below and the conclusion I reached (that it will take nine years to begin making a profit) were kind of surprising. Therefore, being a professional bagpiper is truly a labor of love.

Bagpipe gig (average)

Fee: + $150
Fuel: – $12
Net: + $138

1. Dress: 15 minutes
2. Drive to gig: 30 minutes
3. Performance site: 1 hour
4. Drive home: 30 minutes
5. Undress: 15 minutes

Total time: 2.5 hours (@ $138 net for a gig, this works out to $55/hour)

Kilts (skirts for men)
Horsehair sporrans
Balmoral bonnet

Required equipment:

Bagpipes $2,000
Kilt & flash $1,000 (two kilts required)
Ghillie Brogues (shoes) $ 150
Kilt hose (socks) $ 100 (minimum 3 pairs required)
Sgian dubh (knife in hose) $ 75
Kilt belt & buckle $ 150
Sporrans $ 450 (two required: dress and day)
Prince Charlie jacket & vest $ 300
Argyll jacket $ 300
Jacobite shirt $ 50
• Dress shirts & ties $ 300 (three each required)
Glengarry (military hat) $ 85
Balmoral (casual hat) $ 85
Clan crest badges (for hats) $ 50
Kilt crest pins $ 50
Music books $ 500 (bagpipe music books are very expensive)

Total: $5,645

David Naill DN5 Bagpipes
What I want for Christmas

At $138 net per gig, I would need 41 full-paying gigs to pay off the required equipment. In the first six months of 2011 I’ve had 8 paying gigs. Assuming I average 16 gigs per year, it would take over 2.5 years to pay off the required equipment. Factoring in interest rates and miscellaneous expenses let’s say a 3-year loss of $2000 per year should cover the “one-time” equipment costs. Other annual costs (below) add to the ramp-up schedule and time-to-profit.

Other annual costs ($1,500 per year):

The annual costs and equipment amortization for the first 3 years would result in accumulated debt of $3,876 assuming income remains the same. After equipment costs are paid, it would take about 5 more years to amortize the accumulated debt.


Year 1: Income ($2,208) – Expenses ($2000 + $1500 = $3,500) = -$1,292
Year 2: Income ($2,208) – Expenses ($2000 + $1500 = $3,500) = -$1,292
Year 3: Income ($2,208) – Expenses ($2000 + $1500 = $3,500) = -$1,292
Years 4-8: Income ($11,040) – Expenses ($7,500) – Y1-3 debt ($3,876) = -$336
Year 9: Income ($2,208) – Expenses ($1500) – $336 from Y8 = $372


Nine years ain’t bad. I won’t even be 60 yet, and might be able to blow another ten to fifteen years after that. With any luck, too, I might get more gigs and collect more income. But the equipment doesn’t last forever, either, and I’ll need another set of pipes soon, and probably another kilt. The bottom line, obviously, is that – even charging what some apparently consider exorbitant fees – I’m not in it for the money. Few, if any, pipers are.

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Beginnings, Endings, Good Things

Bob McMichael on the bagpipes at a Boise wedding

Piping in the bride

In the last couple of weeks I’ve been fortunate to be a part of some special moments of strangers. I played for a small wedding at a lovely home in the Boise foothills. Surrounded by a small group of family and friends, the young bride and groom held hands and never severed their beatific eye contact during the ceremony. Their love for each other was palpable and moving to witness. After returning from her honeymoon, the bride emailed me the photo to the left with the following note:


Thank YOU more like!! It was just so memorable…It was everything I wanted it to be. It truly was the best day of my life and it would not have felt the same without your amazing talent. :)

Thank you a million times over…

Idaho Veterans Cemetery, Boise

Idaho Veterans Cemetery, Boise

On Friday I played for a military funeral at the Veteran’s Cemetery in Boise. The deceased was an 83-year-old woman, a veteran, probably of WWII. While I feel privileged to play a small part in ceremonies, rarely is my curiosity about those involved satisfied. And I don’t feel it’s appropriate for me to inquire. Sometimes the funeral director will offer information about the departed or their family. In this case, the attendees numbered only 12, the smallest funeral I’ve played for or attended. But the visible grief I saw – especially from the woman who received the flag; perhaps the daughter? – moved me to tears as I played “Amazing Grace” while watching them dab at their eyes and cheeks with white handkerchiefs. I usually just play and leave, but after having listened to what might have been the brother deliver a short eulogy in fits and starts of sobbing, and watching the family attend to each other, I wanted to express my condolences. They thanked me profusely. I won’t forget this one.

Bagpiper Municipal Park Boise

Bagpiping in Municipal Park, Boise

The day after the funeral I was hired to play at a one-year-old’s birthday. I’ve played for other birthday parties, but never for someone this young, and didn’t know what to expect. On a gorgeous summer evening, at the Municipal Park in Boise, right along the river, under a canopy of massive silver maples, a group of over 100 people gathered for what turned out to be a rather elaborate luau in honor of this child. It was the most diverse group of people I’ve seen since moving to Boise 11 years ago. The host (grandfather) was Samoan, and was doing a sound check on his PA system with his koa guitar and ukelele as I arrived. I asked him why a bagpiper at a luau, and he explained that they wanted to celebrate all the backgrounds of his grandson: the Polynesian music (he lamented that his relatives in Salt Lake were unable to make it; they were planning to do a Samoan knife dance), some other European influences, and the Scottish side. I played for half an hour as people arrived and the food began appearing (a mouth-watering spread!), and then finished by leading the whole group in “Happy Birthday” while the birthday boy beamed in his beautiful mother’s arms.

Afterward, while walking back to my truck, hearing the Samoan grandfather singing (an excellent musician), someone behind me called out, “Hey piper!” It was one of the child’s grandfathers, the Scottish side. He asked what my tartan clan was (it’s Stewart of Appin), and we chatted a bit. He thanked me for playing. I felt, for the third time in the past couple weeks, while wearing my kilt, very fortunate to witness and contribute to such positive events. You might think that a funeral shouldn’t be included as a good thing, but it is. You can’t live forever. It is good people want to see you off. It’s not having a funeral that is a bad thing.

Meanwhile, I’m working on a better set of music for the boy’s second birthday. If his first was any measure, the second will be huge.

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Amazing Grace

I played a funeral yesterday. I took Angus out to the small town where he was born, Emmett, Idaho, and played “Amazing Grace” after the Navy officers concluded the flag-folding ceremony. The departed lived a decently long life, “packed  a lot into it,” as his son told me.

Funerals are an otherwise unemployed bagpiper’s best friend. They pay well for the amount of effort, despite the dressing up and down and getting to and from, and plenty of standing around and waiting. Modern humans are used to that, but doing this in a cemetery puts a different taste on it. Even the least introverted among us will find themselves contemplating their demise and, perhaps, the stuff that came before it.

The day was nearly the nicest we’ve had all year, but peppered with thunderstorms and big wind gusts. This cemetery sits just outside of the small town, perched on a rise above the river, giving a clear view down the valley to the west, where the weather comes from, and a sharp perspective of the cherry orchards – all now abloom – skirting the bluffs to the south. Big cumulus clouds periodically cast shadows across the flat graveyard, and blasts of the cold storm-wind knifed eastward. But then there would be calm, and sun, and time to change thoughts.

Angus in the driver's seat

Angus in the driver's seat

I’ve played a number of funerals now, and might have become a little jaded on the existential thinking that comes from hanging out among the memorialized. Since I could see Angus sitting in the driver’s seat of my truck I wondered what he was making of all this. He lost his sister six months ago. Was his proximity to buried souls eliciting memories of Glenna? He was born almost four years ago about a mile from the cemetery, where his mother and father probably still live. Was he sensing anything like “home”?

When playing a funeral, you get there early and tune your pipes, which takes a good ten minutes. Then you put the pipes in your car and wait for the people to arrive, which is the cue to take position not too close but not too far from the casket – you want people to hear you without making their ears bleed. Then you stand at attention and solemnly wait for the time to play. It could be just a couple minutes, or it could be half an hour. Depending on the weather, your pipes will definitely be out of tune. It’s just a matter of how badly. I guessed how much sharper (higher pitched) my chanter reed (the one that makes the melody) would be, and adjusted my three drones accordingly while I waited. Then, when I fired up the drones to play “Amazing Grace,” I took two seconds to see how well I’d guessed on the tuning and made a very quick minor adjustment of my outside tenor drone, and started the melody.

Bob McMichael

Grave-side at my grandmother's funeral

When you play “Amazing Grace” on the bagpipes – it doesn’t really matter the occasion, but a funeral is ground zero for the effect – most people really listen. As a piper, you want to play it well, and that means, partly, playing in tune. This day, my tuning was as close as I’ve gotten it in a long time but while playing I could hear what sound scientists call “sympathetic vibrations” on certain notes. These register as physical and sonic vibrations which you can eliminate by adjusting the tuning of the drones. But you can’t do this while playing a tune, especially “Amazing Grace” at a funeral. It wasn’t bad, and I doubt anyone could tell. In fact as I played through both verses I began rather enjoying the slight whirring of those sympathetic vibrations on certain notes. It gave me something new to listen to in a song, perhaps my favorite song, that I’ve played thousands of times. And when I finished playing and stopped the sound, I saw several people, their eyeglasses in hand, wiping away tears.

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Almost Heaven

“A Lewis person will be homesick in heaven.” From Around the Peat Fire.

On the stunningly bright, crisp morning of August 21, 2004 Leslie and I walked into a black house at the Na Garrannan village on the Isle of Lewis in the outer Hebrides of Scotland. Competing with the enveloping smells of a smoldering peat fire, brewing tea, and hay from the byre next door, and the sights of a cramped but efficiently organized living space with a surprising amount of natural light was the sound of Gaelic psalms undulating out of the little CD player on a tiny table in the corner like the swells of sea water rushing unobstructed from the cold North Atlantic just meters away. This sound, a Presbyterian church full of Scots responding to the precentor’s lining out of Gaelic scripture praising the glory of God, enveloped me more profoundly than the peat smoke did.

It also sounded strangely familiar to a recording I’d gotten during grad school of a black congregation at Clear Creek, Mississippi, a recording made by an Irish ethnomusicologist named Therese Smith whom I studied with at Brown. The feeling I got hearing the Gaelic psalms in that black house transported me to the ecstatic moment I first heard the Clear Creek recording. If you’ve heard the Delta blues of Robert Johnson or Bukka White you’ve heard the sonic progeny of this sacred singing. “Free Heterophony” is what the musicologists would call it. And the irony of that description would not be lost on the Clear Creek folks or the Presbyterian Scots, many of whom fled Scotland during the Highland Clearances and ended up in the deep American South.

According to the notes on the Scottish recording, the primary musical influence for this singing style is piobaireachd. I have tended to come to many precious things backward. This is another example. I started my musical journey in life with the Beatles, a British group heavily influenced by the blues but intent on camouflaging and re-purposing that influence (unlike many of their subsequently famous countrymen like Clapton and Jagger). I heard Coltrane before Robert Johnson, and Jaco Pastorius before Jimi Hendrix. But I did hear Beethoven’s Opus 111 (his last piano sonata), which features a section that Scott Joplin absolutely must have known intimately, before ragtime, so that was maybe the chronological exception in my musical trajectory that proves the rule.

What I’m getting at is the joy of finding the precedent links between my sonic milestones. For reasons I still don’t understand and have learned not to care much about anymore, I became obsessed with African American music and its creators’ social, historical, and cultural “situations” when I was a teenager. I carried that interest through college and graduate school, wrote a book about white people who loved jazz and what black musicians thought of them, and then quit that business and moved to the very silly, right-wing state of Idaho (which I love despite its tragic flaws), and took up the bagpipes.

This was not a planned self-discovery mission, just chance with a little intention and a bushel of irony thrown in. But in learning the bagpipes, I have come to find I’m most interested in piobaireachd because – for me – its sound completely eliminates any sense of physical being, just as the psalms I heard on the recording in the black house and from the Clear Creek recording, and from Robert Johnson, Coltrane, Hendrix, and untold other existing and future sound artifacts to which I’m genetically (or not; who cares?) predisposed to respond with what Barthes refers to as “jouissance,” the blissful yet momentary destruction of self in response to sensual stimuli. Maybe this is a way to practice for a body-less afterlife… If that’s what heaven is then this stuff is heaven on earth.

I wonder if the Lewis people who are homesick in heaven ever heard those psalms, or piobaireachd, or Beethoven or Robert Johnson?


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2010 Highland Games

Piping competition

Piping competition, 2010 Treasure Valley Highland Games

Our band, the City of Trees Pipes and Drums, made it through another Highland Games. The weather blessed us, unlike some years. The turnout seemed very high, and there were lots of good musical acts.

The piping competition featured more contestants than ever, especially in Grade 4, which had about 14 players. Despite many excellent performances by COTPAD members, we managed only two medals from judge Rob Barrick (Joel Munn, Slow Air, Grade 5, and Josh White, Grade 4 Piobaireachd). Perhaps we need to review the fundamentals. I came home and opened up the ol’ exercise book and went straight back to single grace notes.

There are lots of ways to approach competition. Some people just want to win. Others do it for the feedback from a judge in the effort to improve. Most do it for many different reasons. I competed in my first piobaireachd and was very pleased with my performance, so much so that when I didn’t medal I was very disappointed. It took a while to get over it, but I went back for more abuse in the medley, the march, and the trio. I did my best each time but – for the first time in the three years I’ve competed – ended up without a medal.

I have to say it was a humbling experience, but one I’m determined to use to my benefit. I realized afterward that – despite the serious practice I’ve put in with the pipes this year – I focused too much on learning tunes and not enough on their clean execution. So I’m going back to the basics. Listening to some of the younger players, it is impressive how clean their doublings and grips are. I think as an older player I have less patience and want to learn lots of tunes. I have less time left to play than those kids do, after all, but I need to realize that playing one tune cleanly and beautifully is better than a large repertoire of crushed tunes.

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Wedding by the River

Bride and groom waltzing to Irish Eyes

Bride and groom waltzing to "Irish Eyes"

Friday night Eddie and I performed at a wedding in Municipal Park in Boise. After a miserable Thursday (in weather and more), Friday evening, down by the river and under the huge cottonwood trees, was perfect: not too warm, not too cool, very gentle breeze. Lovely.

The bride and groom met with me about a week before the wedding to pick out music and discuss what they wanted and how the bagpipes would fit into their plans. I really enjoyed meeting and talking with them in the Piping Centre and getting to know them a little bit, which is much nicer than just showing up at a gig, playing, and going home.


Eddie and I discussing the tunes or something

They both looked beautiful and incredibly happy and peaceful. We marched the bride and her entourage in playing Lord Lovat’s Lament and Murdo’s Wedding. The ceremony was refreshingly brief, with the bride and groom reading vows they composed themselves. After the officiate announced their marriage, we played Highland Cathedral (I played the harmony part). Then we marched the entire contingent back to the celebration area, played “Irish Eyes” for the bride and groom to dance to, and then a few more tunes before leaving them to their guests and – I hope – a wonderful, long life together.

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Baker City Breakdown

City of Trees Pipes and Drums

Dennis McLaughlin, our new drum major

Our band, the City of Trees Pipes and Drums, traveled to Baker City, Oregon last weekend to participate in the Easter Oregon Highland Games. Oh my.

The weather could definitely have been worse. But it could have been way, way better. For a late August weekend, it was downright frigid: 50-something degrees, rainy, and windier than Rush Limbaugh the day after Halle Berry won an Oscar.

I felt badly for the organizers because the turnout was not what they expected. Most of the people who would have attended were huddled against the wood stove back at the cabin. But for those who did brave the elements – which include the vendors, the athletes, and the performers (especially the belly dancers) – it was a good show.

Aside from our fabulous group of nut-cases in kilts, there was a really good band from Emmett, Idaho featuring a couple of hot pipers, a fiddler, a drummer, and a crack bassist. The belly dancers boggled the mind (not least because nobody I asked could explain why you always see belly dancers at highland games) and some might have gone hypothermic. The athletes were fabulous, knee braces, pitchforks and all.

Irish wolfhounds

When was the last time you saw six Irish wolfhounds?

For me, the coolest thing there were the six enormous Irish wolfhounds (again – there seems to be a healthy lack of any shyness about the mixing of Irish, Scottish, gypsy, and whatever else you want to bring to the table at a “Scottish” Highland games). The couple who brought them have been breeding them for a dozen years or so, and they led the dogs (three each) around on leashes during the closing ceremony. Beautiful animals those.

It was a good time. However, unless I can get a guarantee from God next year that it will be warmer I can’t say if I’ll have another obligation that weekend.

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Burns Night Supper

We hosted our first Burns Night Supper on Saturday night, celebrating the birthday of Scottish poet Robert Burns (1759-1796). In doing so we joined a tradition that began over two centuries ago, and which has spread from Scotland throughout the world. Leslie and I served a five-course meal to eleven people (including ourselves), and a good time was had by all.

John McDade, a real Scot and the owner of Wee Bit o’ Scotland here in Boise, and the pipe major of the City of Trees Pipes and Drums, asked us to host it this year because his “wee pal Mairi” couldn’t do her annual supper for some reason. With John’s input and Leslie’s research we got it together.

The event progresses along a well-established program, interspersing words and music with the food and drink (click on the image of the program below).

Burns Night program, 2010

Burns Night program, 2010

After Leslie and I piped in the haggis, my good friend and bonafide ham Josh White gave the “Address to the Haggis” in a rich yet contested Scottish brogue, garnering plenty of belly laughs from the company.

John had provided the haggis – canned, but, alas,  from Scotland – which was delicious but did not have the same effect as a real one would have; there is a moment in the address in which the speaker bisects the piping hot haggis with a butcher knife, narrating the action with a delighted “warm, reekin, rich” as the steam and acrid aroma attacks the guests. In our case, we molded the contents of four cans of haggis into a dome, which was the best we could do. With more time and resources next year, I hope we can provide or make a real one. I wanted to import one from Scotland, but apparently the FDA won’t allow it because of the risk of Mad Cow or Hoof In Mouth or some such thing. I made haggis years ago from a Frugal Gourmet recipe, but the dogs wouldn’t even touch it. Perhaps it was a bit too frugal, or maybe not frugal enough. UPDATE: This just in -the US is apparently lifting the ban on imported haggis!

Each step of the program and each dish we ate was noteworthy. As I looked at the photos I took during the evening, one of the things that impressed me the most was that nearly everyone in every photo was smiling.

The thing that impressed me more than anything, though, was my wife’s “Response to the Toast to the Lassies.” To put it mildly, Leslie is not comfortable with public speaking, and she prefers never to be the center of attention. A look through her closet, dominated by black, brown, and gray clothes, will give you a sense of her desire to maintain a peripheral presence in a group situation. Leading up to the evening Leslie had not said  much about what she planned to do for her response to my “Toast.”

I knew she would work something out but also knew she was nervous about it. In fact, I was surprised she consented to do it in the first place, but was pleased she did. After my silly toast, in which I attempted to be faithful to the concept of Burns’ appreciation of women, Leslie took the podium.

She began by saying that she had made a few notes, and then held up several pieces of yellow and white paper covered on both sides with tiny handwriting, eliciting a big group laugh.

It would have taken an hour just to read the notes. Unlike me, she has a gift for understatement. She then framed her “Response” with comments about my father being a poet and how she knew very little about poetry and found it ironic to be talking about all this, but expressed her appreciation for the chance to learn more  about poetry in general and Burns in particular. She continued by telling us more about Burns and the women in his short life but productive life. Leslie noted that Burns had numerous children with numerous women, but balanced that aspect with Burns’ recognition of women as more than breeders and sex objects. She told us about his “The Rights of Woman” address, written in response to Thomas Paine’s “The Rights of Man,” and she read an excerpt from it. Leslie’s “Response” was the highlight of the night for me in many ways, but mostly in terms of the poise, confidence, and graceful intelligence with which she delivered it.

The formal event ends with the entire company singing Burns’ “Auld Lang Syne, which many of us had never done before. It is not a particularly difficult (or short) song, but it was an excellent way to conclude. I have always thought that singing is the most intimate of personal expressions in that it is the least mediated method of utterance. There is no instrument with keys to press, or canvas with which to hold paint, or paper on which to put words. To sing is to bare your voice to the world, and to do it in a group is to experience an exponential, synergistic form of energy. Maybe it’s ecstasy. In any case, it was a good evening and I am thankful we got to participate.

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Lament for the Son of King Aro

In my last post I mentioned a piobaireachd I have been learning called Lament for the Son of King Aro. As I was promised by the very helpful Mr. John Dow of the Piobaireachd Society, I received the “setting” of the tune, which Andrew Wright supplied to them (the link to Andrew Wright’s recording, above, is the only recording I’m aware of for that tune). Apparently it was published in only one collection (Simon Fraser), which is now next to impossible to find. Getting the setting for this tune is a tribute to the possibilities of the Internet, and people’s willingness to use it as a real form of communication and sharing information (as opposed to simply crass commercialism, which so much of the time it seems dominates the medium).

Lament for the Son of King Aro

Lament for the Son of King Aro

I’m definitely no expert on piobaireachd, but I have listened carefully to many of the hundreds available on recordings. This one strikes me as much different from any I have heard, primarily in that its urlar (theme, shown as “ground” on the setting) is unusually lyrical, rhythmic, and “catchy.” The tune is also very short compared to many, lasting only about six minutes.

But who was King Aro, and what happened to his son to warrant a lament? The tune is attributed, at least on the setting I have, to Gesto XIV, which I found to be one John MacLeod (pronounced “mac cloud”), born around 1722 and died sometime after 1782. Gesto was the name of the land his family inhabited on the Isle of Skye, in the northwest part of the island near a town called Waternish, close to Dunvegan, which is kind of like Ground Zero for piobaireachd as far as I can tell. I was hoping to find a quick and easy relationship between the composer and the subject of his tune that would explain who King Aro was. That didn’t happen.

Back to Wikipedia, which has a brief post on the Aro Confederacy, which existed in southeastern Nigeria from 1690 to 1902. Nigeria during that time was one of many portals for the Transatlantic slave trade, and the Aro Confederacy apparently became a prominent middle man in that endeavor. The end of the confederacy came in 1902 under “pressure” from the British colonial effort, but the Aro – a subgroup of the Igbo – still exist today and still have a king, known as Eze Aro. Was Gesto XIV privy to a story about a Scots-Aro relationship in which a lamentable tragedy befell the son of Eze Aro? If so, what could the connection be and how did this unlikely subject enter the piobaireachd realm?

Ancestry.com tells me that Aro is a surname common in Scandinavia and makes no mention of the Aro in Nigeria. There are clear links between Scottish history and Scandinavia, and there is a town on the northwest coast of Norway called Aro. On the surface this would appear a much likelier link than the one in Africa but a web search yields nothing about a king, or much else.

Finally, after looking more closely at the setting of the tune, I thought searching for the Gaelic “Righ Aro” (King Aro) might get me somewhere. Bingo. Thanks to Google’s library book digitization project I found one result for “righ aro” that referred to a note published on page 435 of the July 1883 issue of Celtic Magazine. It refers to the same tune but with a slightly different Gaelic title, and suggests that the tune laments the death of one of the first Mackintosh chiefs, “perhaps at the battle of Largs” which occurred in October 1263 between the armies of Norway and Scotland on the Firth of Clyde.

Excerpt from July 1883 issue of Celtic Magazine

Excerpt from July 1883 issue of Celtic Magazine

Despite this “find,” I still don’t know who King Aro or his son were. Many piobaireachd laments refer to battle vanquished figures in Scottish or Gaelic history. Perhaps this is simply another such story. Still, it would be interesting to know whether the lament was over a tragic death or if it was more tongue in cheek or ironic, as some piobaireachd titles are (such as “Too Long In This Condition,” which sounds like a Gaelic version of a typical blues song but actually – according to the authorities – referred to the fact that the tune’s composer couldn’t get a drink to save his life at a dinner party he was invited to).

Scots actually do have a sense of humor, even – or especially – in serious matters. Perhaps the Lament for the Son of King Aro refers to a misfortune the unnamed child experienced during potty training, or he soiled his kilt in the face of an approaching spear-yielding Norwegian. Is the mystery sealed by the evaporation of time, or am I just not using the right search terms?

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