Category Archives: Scottish culture


John Graham, 1st Viscount of Dundee, died here in July 1689

Claver’s Stone

Just got back from Scotland, and am working on several projects related to the trip. But I wanted to post this photo that Leslie took of me playing “Lament for the Viscount of Dundee” at the spot he died after leading the first successful Jacobite uprising against the British at the Battle of Killicrankie in July 1689.

Don’t let the blue sky fool you: this was one of three days in more than two weeks that we saw sun.

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.

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.

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? 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?


Bob McMichael at the Athena, Oregon Highland Games, 2008

Bob at the Athena, Oregon Highland Games, 2008

I began learning to play the bagpipes about two and a half years ago. Until then I didn’t know anything about the music or the Great Highland Bagpipes except that the sound stopped me dead in my tracks whenever I heard it. Two memories of hearing solo pipers stand out for me. I heard them in the woods above campus about dusk once when I was in college. I followed the sound until I caught a glimpse of the player. I didn’t want to intrude but stood and listened as it got dark. The next time I heard them, years later, was at a friend’s wedding in New England. The guests sat in the pews of a small chapel. Suddenly from above and behind us, on the balcony, the bagpipes exploded in sound that resonated throughout the church and all appurtenances thereto, including my whole body. I can still feel the chills that ripped through my stomach and chest from the harmonic overtones of the drones and the high-pitched melody – almost a sidelight to the sound of the drones.

As a lifelong musician, I thought learning the pipes, when I finally decided to try at age 45, would be pretty simple. I could sight read fairly well, and once I learned that the scale contained only nine notes (from low G to high A), I began picturing myself as a sudden sensation. My wife got me a book and a practice chanter, which is what you learn the music on before you actually start messing with the ungainly creature itself. The practice chanter is similar to a recorder or straight flute or penny whistle but it has a plastic reed in it. Once I looked at the book and tried to follow it, though, I realized I could not do it myself. Although the melodies of the music are pretty simple, what’s hard are the embellishments between the melody notes. They involve precise and extremely rapid technical movements that require someone to physically show you how to make them. These embellishments have names like “throw on D,” “double E,” “grip,” “strike,” and a host of Gaelic-named ones like “toarluath” (too-ra-loo), “leumluath” (loom-a-loo), and “crunluath” (croon-a-loo). None of these is easy to play; the crunluath, for example, involves a series of seven notes played in the blink of an eye. After arguing with John McDade, the proprietor of Wee Bit of Scotland, who was a grumpy, bearded Glaswegian, and the only bagpipe instructor I knew of in town, I finally convinced him to give me lessons. Through the months of learning the rudiments in his small shop I started to get it, and ordered my pipes.

John McDade

John McDade, in the McDade "Shogun Dress" tartan

As I progressed on simple marches and slow airs in my lessons, I began reading about and listening to bagpipe music. I learned that of the two types of Great Highland Bagpipe music I preferred hearing the “classical” music, known as “ceol mor” (kyle more; big music) or “piobaireachd” (pee-brook-d). “Piob” is Gaelic for pipes, and “piobaireachd” is a sort of gerund meaning the act of piping and the music itself. The music I was learning was not piobaireachd. It was ceol beag, or “little music,” also known as light music. Dances, marches, ballads, most of which were written for performance on other instruments, like the fiddle or penny whistle, or simply for voice. This music was certainly challenging and I still struggle with the faster tunes like jigs, strathspeys, and reels. But I wanted to learn and play piobaireachd. I kept asking John when I could start learning it. He’d say, “I’ll tell you. Not now.”

One of the most important things I’ve learned about bagpiping is patience. Patience with yourself. Progress is slow and requires absolutely religious practice because any backsliding sends you quickly back down the hill. I learned that the hard way when I took up the guitar – another long-time dream of mine. I kind of went through the motions and stopped practicing the pipes every day (because I was practicing guitar), and finally got to the point where I sucked so badly that I almost shamed myself into getting back into it. I say almost because what really got me back into it was almost a fluke: I had a CD in my truck that I kept listening to one week when the local NPR station was doing its fund raising crap. It happened to be a recording of piobaireachd tunes by a piper named Andrew Wright, who is now the emeritus president of the Piobaireachd Society. The first tune on the CD stood out and I began listening only to it: Lament for the Son of King Aro. I finally got around to looking for the sheet music, but could not find it anywhere. Then it became an obsession. I ended up writing to Andrew Wright to see if he would send me the music so I could learn it. I just received word that he is in the process of getting it to me.

In the meantime, I have begun working in the Piobaireachd Tutor, the instruction book from the College of Piping. And because the tunes are quite long – sometimes twenty minutes or more – and feature notes held a long time, requiring very steady and strong blowing, I have started playing the pipes for an hour or more each day. Soon I hope to be back up to the level I was at over a year ago when I was practicing two or more hours each day.

For me, piobaireachd is the musical vessel that best carries the sound of the highland pipes, and they it. It is a synergy. The resonance of the drones and piobaireachd’s deliberate melodic phrases, unbound by regular rhythmic pulses, resemble intense human expression – crying, keening, pleading, persuasion. The fact that it was originally taught not by notated music but vocally, with words sung in a certain way representing the melody notes with accompanying embellishments, emphasizes the deep humanity of its origins. This instructional method is called canntaireachd, which means “chanting.”

Canntaireachd for Lost Only Son

Canntaireachd for Lost Only Son

Structurally, piobaireachd is a theme and variation type of composition, and fairly uninteresting at that as the variations follow a pretty set pattern of increasing complication, followed by a restatement of the theme (“urlar”). But for compositions involving only nine notes within a very strict structure, they are remarkably different from each other.

The earliest known piobaireachd composition is suspected to have originated about 1411 (Lament for Red Hector of the Battles), although there appears to be a great deal of controversy about the history of this music. Ultimately, the bagpipes became associated in the popular imagination as an instrument of war, with numerous films depicting them as a pre-nuclear form of “shock and awe,” which they indeed are when a massed band of pipers and drummers bursts on the scene. But this image and that sound, while definitely stirring, do not do it for me.

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