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Despite COVID, the World’s Largest Bagpiping Festival Goes On

By Mae Hamilton

Aug 3, 2021

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Piping Live! is the world’s largest bagpipe festival.

Courtesy of Piping Live! and Elaine Livingstone

Piping Live! is the world’s largest bagpipe festival.

In Glasgow, Scotland, Piping Live! 2021 adapts to the pandemic with hybrid online and in-person concerts this month, hoping to reach even more music lovers around the globe.

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Every summer in Glasgow, the city is filled with the sound of thunderous drums, the wail of hundreds of bagpipes, the smell of freshly poured ale and roasting meat, and people relishing traditional Scottish music for a week during the National Piping Centre’s annual Piping Live! festival. Then 2020 struck, and the streets fell silent—the 17-year-old fest was forced to move its events online because of the COVID pandemic. Although it was better than not having the event at all, the sensory magic had its limits. 

But there’s cause for celebration in 2021: With the announcement that Scotland has reopened sans quarantine to vaccinated travelers from the United States and EU, Piping Live! is determined to bring some merriment and mirth back to Glasgow with a hybrid in-person/online format. The event runs August 7–15 and will be packed with piping and traditional folk music sessions, competitions, recitals, book launches, and workshops. This year, anyone can join in on the festivities: Tickets for shows start at $7 and go up to $24, while festival passes are available for $89. 

“We’ll have live music, we’ll have traditional Scottish food, Scottish drink . . . and we’ll have parades through the center of the town on Buchanan Street. [It’s] what we call in Scotland ‘a bit of craic.’ Good fun, you know,” says Piping Live! artistic director Finlay MacDonald, who also serves as the director of Piping at the National Piping Centre, promoting the music and history of the Great Highlands bagpipe.

Piping Live! has been a champion of “good fun” and culture since 2004, when MacDonald says the festival came to be out of necessity. Visiting pipers come annually to Glasgow to compete in the World Pipe Band Championships—think of it as the Super Bowl of the piping world—and were looking for ways to connect with fellow musicians. Although bagpipes have an aggressive, powerful sound, they’re actually quite sensitive instruments, so international musicians often arrived for the competition a week in advance to let their pipes adjust to the new climate. What to do in that downtime? Make a warm-up festival: Thus, Piping Live! was born and has grown larger every year since, to become the world’s largest bagpiping festival. 

“It’s one of these ideas that when you think about it now you think, ‘Well, why had nobody thought of that before?’” says MacDonald. “You’ve got thousands of people that are into pipes and drums and into Scottish folk music and culture in one city at the same time. Of course it makes sense.”

Now in its 17th year, Piping Live! attracts bagpipe enthusiasts from all over the world to Glasgow.

Are bagpipes actually Scottish?

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Although bagpipes are inextricably linked with Scotland, they weren’t invented there. Their murky origins are hotly debated among experts. The first bagpipes are thought to have originated somewhere in the Mediterranean (likely in either Egypt, Greece, or Sumeria) in ancient times and spread throughout the European continent leading to modern iterations of the instrument like the Breton binioù and the southern Balkan gaida. The pipes were later brought to Scotland—perhaps by a colonizing Roman legion way back when Scotland was known as Caledonia—and were tinkered with and improved upon by the local population. Thus, the most popular form of the bagpipes were created—the Great Highland bagpipes. 

Characterized by its iconic three drones, the Great Highland bagpipes were adopted into the British army’s musical corps under the reign of Queen Victoria, and their distinctive sound spread throughout the whole of the British empire. Although it may be most closely associated with the army in popular culture, the Great Highland bagpipe’s history is firmly rooted in Scottish folk music. Pipes are often used in bands to accompany guitars, fiddles, accordions, and singers or simply played solo to the tunes of age-old melodies. Piping Live! seeks to celebrate that rich history but also create new moments that ought to go down in the books. 

Piping Live! features a diverse mix of recitals, competitions, and workshops in its lineup this year.

The event of the year

It can’t be overstated how important Piping Live! is to the piping community—it’s the event of the year. Dr. Andrew Bova, whose research concerns Scottish bagpipe competitions since 1947, caught the piping bug when he was just 12 years old. Although he was born in Pittsburgh and raised in Ohio, he now lives in Glasgow and works for the National Piping Centre. He traveled to Scotland for Piping Live! when he was still in high school and remembers being blown away by it. “It’s like Mecca,” says Bova. “It’s where it all happens. It’s the center of the piping world.”

Needless to say, the piping world has changed quite a bit since 1947—not just in terms of the number of attendees and participants, but also the demographics of the crowd. For example, the Sri Dasmesh Pipe Band, which hails from Malaysia, won in the lower levels of the competition in 2019. “​​One of the biggest things about [the World Pipe Championships] is that it’s grown—it’s massive now,” Bova says. “[In the] 1950s you might have 50, maybe 60 bands competing at the world championships. Now, you have over 200. The competition scene has grown exponentially and it’s grown internationally.”

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Whether it be its association with Scotland or its quirky, yet bold sound, bagpipes are arguably one of the most iconic instruments in the world. Their unmistakable drone is used to accompany Scottish weddings and funerals, parades or ceremonies to commemorate fallen policemen or firemen. 

For Mairearad Green, who’s a multi-instrumentalist and one half of the folk duo Mairearad & Anna—who will be performing this year at Piping Live!—the pipes are a part of her identity. “It’s a huge part of my sense of place,” says Green. “It’s so closely related to the land, the language and the music and the rhythms for dancing. I love that it travels. We’ve played all around the world. As soon as you get out the bagpipes, people instantly know you’re Scottish. I just love that that language becomes universal, and it really represents Scotland in a way that’s unique to us and I think that’s just a wonderful thing to have. The more people that play it, the better.”

For the uninitiated, it may be hard not to think of the world of bagpipes as an old boys’ club. But things have changed quite a bit since the days when bagpipes were relegated to only Scottish and British military pipe and drum corps. “There’s a pretty big movement in piping right now to increase the presence of women in piping,” Bova says. “We just need more of it.”

Green, who grew up playing the pipes in her home village of Achnahaird on the West Coast of Scotland, says there’s been a noticeable increase in women pipers in recent years, though she does like to make it clear: A good piper is simply a good piper, regardless of gender. “You would probably note that we are in the minority,” Greene says. “Growing up, I didn’t have many . . . to look up to. I can think of a handful now more than there was even, you know, 10 years before. So, it’s getting better incrementally.”

The Great Highland bagpipes are the most popular style of bagpipes in the world.

With its new partially online format, Piping Live! hopes to infect even more people with the piping bug, with aims to reach potential pipers across the world who might not have grown up in communities with access to bagpipes. “There was a period where it was like, ‘Ugh, if you’re not American, you’re not really a jazz player,’” Bova says. “But now jazz is hugely international. It doesn't matter where you’re from or what race you are or what gender you are. [Bagpipes] are just good music and I think everyone’s got a right to good music.”

He adds, “Bagpipes get a really bad rap. If you’ve only ever heard really awful or amateur violin players, you might not like the violin. But if you hear Itzhak Perlman playing, all of the sudden it’s a different beast. . . . Buy some tickets, listen to the music, listen to the world’s greatest players. . . . Hear the things that instrument can really do, because it is more versatile than people give it credit for.”

>>Next: England Has Reopened to Travelers—Here’s Everything You Need to Know

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