Stephanie, Dalton, and I arrived in Stirling by train from London, August 5, 1999. The weather was absolutely perfect. It was great to leave the pollution of the big city behind us.
My pipe band competed in two Highland Games before the Championships: "North Berwick" (pron. North Berick) on Saturday and "Bridge of Allan" on Sunday.
NORTH BERWICK GAMES:
N.B. is outside of Edinburgh. We hired a bus and took it from Stirling. It was a beautiful drive (approx. 1.5 hours) across the country and along parts of the east coast. The summer day in Scotland was overcast and cold for us, but it warmed up.
Results: We WON. Both pipes and drums took first place against 18 bands. Most were from Scotland, but some bands hailed from Canada, South Africa, and other spots in the U.S.A.
It felt great to win and all the bands had to pipe down the hill from the grounds and through the main street of the village. The crowds were so friendly and cheered us on. Their idea of a half mile felt more like 1.5 miles. It was probably a record parade distance for the band.
BRIDGE OF ALLAN GAMES:
These were held about 3 miles from where we stayed in Stirling. Both places were beautiful, but this place was particularly stunning. This is "Braveheart" country, if you happened to see the movie starring Mel Gibson. Above the horizon towered the William Wallace monument and high on the rocks across the valley stood Stirling Castle.
Results: We took THIRD. The good news is that we took 3rd after receiving the first draw. We had to play in the morning as the first band before 29 other bands played for the same judge (poor judge). The bad news is that our "rival" band: "High Desert" from Albuquerque, New Mexico beat us by 1/4 of a point. We had 60.75, they had 60.5. The winning band was Scottish, from Glasgow. It is an honor to place, although a winning streak is the most fun.
The weather was spectacular.
It was a thrill to compete as a pipe band, in Scotland.
Monday the first free day, we spent with my friend Paul in Stirling. He is a marvelous guitar player and plays some great rock music in addition to the Scottish tunes we've shared over the years. If you remember the movie "Rob Roy" you'll recall when the man himself jumps from the bridge while tied to the rope and makes his ultimate escape in the dead carcass of a Highland cow ("coo") when they were finally in sight of Stirling Castle. The reason for his particular desperation was made clear to me by Paul. Stirling Castle had no formal dungeons. In one of the courtyards, they had enormous stones that could be lifted with much difficulty, covering deep holes. If you fell out of the royal favor, they simply lifted a stone, threw you in, and sealed the hole again.
Paul is a decendant of Clan MacGregor "MacGregor Despite Them" and he drove us over that bridge and out to Balquiddar to see Rob Roy's grave, where he was interred with a Christian burial after a long life and many chapters that the movie cannot feasibly portray. It is a very special place and so peaceful. It is where I first heard about fairies in Scotland. In the churchyard is the grave of a Christian minister who wrote a book in the 17th c. about them.
We spent the Tue&Wed before the games, visiting friends in Ayrshire, Stewart & Colleen. They own a farm and live in Wellholme Cottage built in 1715. A couple of pastures away is the remains of an enormous medieval abbey, and just beyond, a ruined Keep. They share the cottage with their three Scottish Deer Hounds. These enormous beasts were gentle and friendly and Dalton had a great time with them.
I've known Stewart for 10 years and he is a tremendous Scottish smallpipes player. Scottish Smallpipes are bellows-blown and much quieter than the Great Highland Bagpipe. I have a set although they were away in Perthshire being repaired.He is an Inspector with the Strathclyde Police.
There was something magical about our stay at the place and this is probably because of the fairies that live behind the cottage. It is quite something to find places in Scotland that haven't been overrun with tourists and still retain something of ancient days. After living in Scotland and visiting a couple of times, I would say that I have been to three. I revisited one of them with my friend in Stirling, Paul, when he drove us out to Rob Roy's grave at Balquiddar. (the 'q' has a 'wha' sound) Stewart and Colleen are extremely down-to-earth, but you might find yourself believing if you had been there. Colleen's mother saw a Banshee in Ireland, who had come to a home in which there was a death that night, but that is another story.
Walking behind the house, there is a hollowed-out place in the hill. They say that stones were quarried from there to build the cottage. Stewart and his nephews had left coins in a little secret place in the hollow for the fairies. We searched and searched for them, but the fairies must have taken them. Stewart said, "Wully, if you had found that pound coin, your band would have won the worlds." This portentous remark was made several days before the competition. We didn't actually see any of the fairies, but as I believe they say on the X-Files, the "truth is out there." I assure you, Dalton did not sleep easy at all at Wellholme Cottage, but for us it was a wonderful place of the most remarkable and restful and cozy example of Scottish hospitality.
Stewart and Colleen invited some music friends over for a special dinner. Maggie, a harp (clarsach) player and her husband, a doctor who plays guitar. Maggie toured with the Scottish folk group Ossian about a dozen years ago and is now making it on her own as a Gaelic singer and harper in Scotland, the U.S.A., Canada, and elsewhere. Her husband is a fine guitar player. Maggies' mother is Flora MacNeil, the living national treasure, who at age 70 is still singing Gaelic in many countries. It was a great evening. I fiddled and piped and we stayed up long into the wee hours.
Stewart and I ran the dogs over the hill under a bright canopy of stars. We carried a torch (flashlight) and there were no hares or foxes to be seen (just as well for them). There is almost nothing like watching these dogs run their courses. For what they are bred to do, they are beautiful and deadly.
The Worlds -- What Happened?
It was quite an experience to compete at the Worlds, really quite a privilege. The results are as follows:
We stepped up to the line, being rushed by the steward. We had done most of the necessary tuning. Neal our "Tone Czar", and a big part of the reason the band has done so well, did not have time to get his own drones tuned after helping everyone else in the final tuning.
As we stepped up to play it started to rain. On top of the usual pressure, we stood there trying to wipe the water off the chanters before the roll-off. The whole thing lasted just over three minutes.
I felt that I played my best and that's what I take with me. Maybe that is all the satisfaction you can really take with you. One band that did spectacularly well in Grade One, The 78th Fraser Highlanders from Canada, did not place. Strathclyde Police did not win in Gr. One--it was S.F.U. (Simon Fraser University).
The top bands in Grade IV were Irish. The top bands in Grade II were American.
You can only learn and grow by taking the chance. I'm glad we went and laid it on the line.
I got to see "the dear green place" (which is what the city name means in Gaelic) and some dear friends from years gone by. I got to stand and eat haggis and chips smothered in green curry sauce in the rain in Glasgow, and folks, there ain't much more to livin' in HIGH COTTON than that. Thoroughly baptizing the haggis in curry sauce is a particular perversion that I indulge in, and it drives my Scots friends crazy, but then, they are horrified to see peanut butter AND jelly on the same piece of bread."
Some Last Bits
Sunday, my depression over the World results were taken away by a car trip to Dunkeld, a beautiful village in Perthshire. My smallpipes were repaired and Colleen was kind enough to drive us about for the day.
Stewart was away "policing" in Glasgow. Dunkeld is the site of an ancient cathedral, now a parish church. This is where Niel Gow fiddled and seeing his gravestone again is a thrill for me. It is next to the village of Birnam, where the pipes were originally built and where I met Stewart and Colleen and some great music weekends, in 1990-1991. If you remember your Shakespeare, the prophecy was told that MacBeth would die the day that Birnam wood came to Dunsinane Castle. The forest is there including one particular tree, the Birnam Oak, that is over 1000 years old. We drove to Killacrankie and saw no fairies but did see the famous pass where a MacBean clansman jumped 18 feet to escape from Jacobites in pursuit. We looked, but didn't leap. I'm delighted to have the wee pipes again and they sound more beautiful than ever.
From Scotland, we returned to London...
Copyright © 1999, 2000 William Don Carlos. All rights