If you happen to be shopping at the County Fair Mall in Summerside, P.E.I., on a Saturday afternoon and hear the faint sound of bagpipes off in the distance, your ears are not deceiving you.
Dr. Robert McKay, a general surgeon at Prince County Hospital, has played the instrument for the past couple of decades. And one of the better spots for him to practise is at the Summerside Medical Centre located inside the mall – on a Saturday when the clinic is closed, of course.
The clinic is well-suited for playing the bagpipes because of the open spaces of areas such as the waiting rooms. And, of course, the music seeps out of the clinic and into the corridor.
“You can hear me in the mall; it’s kind of funny,” he said.
McKay’s interest in bagpipes came relatively late in life, however. As a youth growing up in New Brunswick, his father was a member of The Black Watch Regiment of Canada, based at CFB Gagetown, so McKay was certainly aware of the bagpipes and its traditions.
“He wore a kilt,” McKay said. “A lot of his friends were pipers.”
Despite this, the young McKay never did pick up the pipes himself because, “everyone said it was so hard to play.” Years later, after he and his wife moved to Summerside, they were browsing through the gift shop at the College of Piping and Celtic Performing Arts of Canada. There, he spent $13 on a book detailing how to play the bagpipes, and he decided to take up the challenge.
“I said, this can’t be so hard to play,” McKay said. “Twenty years later, I’m still trying to learn how to play well.”
While McKay has a busy life as a surgeon, he is quite dedicated to the instrument and to the group he practises with at least once a week at the College of Piping. One typical practice, on a recent Saturday morning, involved members of the Grade 5, or entry-level pipe band, playing marches, reels and other melodies. Later, they were joined by the drum band, to play as a full ensemble and practise marching in time.
The instructor for the pipe band is director of education James MacHattie, and McKay praises his talent and style of teaching. “He’s a prince of a man. He’s so kind and gentle with everyone, even me. I’m a surgeon so I’m used to the rough and tumble.”
McKay’s dedication has given him the opportunity to take part in various Highland Games across the Maritimes and in Maxville, Ont., as well as at national and world competitions.
“I book off these weekends months in advance,” he said.
Besides McKay, other members are of all ages and from all walks of life. One is 13-year-old student Connall Gibson of Hunter River, who’s been in the pipe band for the past three years.
“My mom is from Scotland and my dad is from Ireland, so I knew a bit about piping and thought it was a cool instrument,” Gibson said. “This is my first real instrument I really played.”
Starting out, Gibson said, the bagpipes “take getting used to,” and involve a certain set of skills, as playing involves putting pressure on the bag and maintaining a continuous airflow.
“It gets tiring, especially after a long parade,” he said.
There’s a fairly long process when it comes to learning how to play. MacHattie says beginning students start with a practise chanter, a small woodwind instrument allowing the student to learn the foundations of the instrument, such as the fingering of the different notes. But there’s a noticeable change when someone makes the transition to the real instrument.
“It’s physically demanding,” MacHattie said. “You have to build strength and endurance. It’s like training for a marathon.”
MacHattie said having the college on P.E.I. has kept interest in bagpipes strong. And that interest only grows when one starts performing with other pipers.
“Once they really join a band, they get kind of hooked. It’s almost a family atmosphere in our band; there’s a sense of teamwork, a sense of inclusion.”
McKay agrees, adding that while he’s played with pipe bands from across North America, he cites the high quality of talent on P.E.I.
After all these years, McKay still enjoys playing the bagpipes and says it’s a great release from his daily routine in the operating room.
“You’ve had a hard day at work, and you could be exhausted, but by the time you’re finished (playing), you’re rejuvenated.”
The possible Egyptian origins of bagpiping
While the bagpipes are popularly associated with Scotland, some historians believe the instrument originated in ancient Egypt and was brought to Scotland by invading Roman legions.
In any case, the Egyptians were known to have the instrument as early as 400 BC; the bagpipes involve pipes made of dog skin with chanters of bone. And the Roman emperor Nero was reported to also be a champion of the instrument.
Bagpipes have existed in various forms in many places around the world – all with the same basic elements of an air supply, a bag with a chanter and one or more drones. But it was the people of the Scottish Highlands themselves that developed the bagpipes to its current form.
Highland pipers occupied a high and honoured position. By the 1700s, the piper had started to replace the harpist as the prime Celtic musician of choice. And on the battlefield, in the mid-1500s the pipes replaced the trumpet to help inspire Highlanders into battle. The pipes apparently could be heard for up to 10 miles in the din of battle.
For a time in the 1700s, the government of England, who often warred with the Scots, classified bagpipes as an instrument of war and, eventually, it was made an offence for someone to wear a kilt and carry bagpipes.