For forty plus years I have submitted myself to being assaulted by a screaming five-legged octopus wearing tartan underpants. To the lay person – I am a bagpiper. It is, under any circumstances, an instrument that, like a crying baby on an airline (or me), demands center stage. It is a sound that captured me even as a boy of seven years old.
I grew up in a tiny bungalow in Calgary, Alberta the adopted son of a brewery worker and his wife, my mother. As I, along with my younger brother and sister, continued to grow, it became abundantly apparent that our consistent brushing of shoulders would only lead to heartbreak. My father set about building me a bedroom in our not-quite-finished basement. For some fifteen years to follow it would be my sanctuary – my monastery – the place where I found music, booze, girls (keep that bit a secret, they only know about the first one), and years later, Jesus.
The spring before my eighth birthday I moved in. Kismet. Changing channels one afternoon I happened upon a presentation of the Edinburgh Military Tattoo, filmed live at Edinburgh Castle. It is an annual display of pomp, circumstance, bright lights, booming cannons and bagpipes – lots of bagpipes. I was hooked. I begged my parents to let me learn to do what I had just seen, but thought I had dreamed.
A love affair had begun.
All other parcels had been destroyed and gutted of their contents by panting, over-wrought children. My Mom turned to my Dad and asked, “is that everything then?” (Oddly, in recent years, we’ve found ourselves performing such non-Shakespearean works with our own children…sigh). They went into a bedroom and reached under the bed, pulling out one final, unopened, present. As kids do, I skinned it in seconds only to discover contents that set me reeling (no extra charge for the bad pun) for an hour afterwards.
I owned my first set of bagpipes.
Okotoks, Alberta, 1992
Those bagpipes became a close friend. Extensive traveling, piping for dignitaries and royalty, numerous television and radio appearances, and two piping albums later, and our lives found us church planting in the urban-cowboy sleeper-community of Okotoks, Alberta, south of Calgary. It was idyllic. Rae worked for a local travel agency. I worked as an industrial painter for my father-in-law’s painting company.
As the call to ministry grew too loud to ignore we found ourselves scrambling to get our affairs in order for a move to Vancouver, B.C. where I was enrolled at Regent College. Bills were paid, scores settled, ‘t’s crossed and ‘i’s dotted as we made preparations. In a move I thought noble at the time but which now seems utterly foolhardy I sold those pipes to help pave the way toward ministry and the next chapter of our lives.
I have regretted it ever since…and I never did attend Regent College.
I have taught for many years at Bagpiping Seminars, Celtic Performing Arts Schools and the like. A dear colleague and one of my best friends is a man named René Cusson. Not only is he one of the world’s great pipers but he is a collector of instruments. Knowing me to be bagpipeless, he selflessly loaned me a set he’d picked up from a garage sale for $75. A keen eye, some research, and a sacred serendipity revealed them to be a rather famous set of MacDougall of Aberfeldy bagpipes probably made in the late 1890s, ultimately finding themselves to a legendary bagpiper killed in WWII.
For 25 years, from 1992 until September of this year, I played those bagpipes.
René’s daughter, Ceitinn is a champion Highland Dancer. But, as is the case with many purveyors of Highland arts, one skill is never enough. She wanted to begin bagpipe lessons and follow in her father’s footsteps. This of course meant a message to me that, although not unexpected, stopped me in my tracks. He would need those pipes back for his daughter to have something upon which to learn.
The process began of disassembling and packaging them for transport to their home on Vancouver Island. In September 2015, at the Greyhound Bus Station in Nelson, B.C., I said farewell to a comfortable friend and began a life of bagpipelessness once again.
Thankfully, as a piping instructor, I’ve been blessed to borrow student’s bagpipes as required.
Christmas Eve, a Good Time for Miracles
Selling bagpipes my parents bought for me is only one of many regrets. But it’s a big one. In spite of having had a set to play all these years, that memory is not easily erased. And I may yet be a novice in this whole Christian enterprise but I know this much, God delights in reversing the irreversible; in repairing the seemingly irreparable damages of our past.
In Gospel terms, regret is a wasted emotion.
To my surprise, shock, and delight I was gifted with a brand new set of McCallum bagpipes at our Celtic Christmas Eve service this year. Completely unknown to me, pastor Duncan and ??? colluded in a series of conversations and scheming, phone calls and plotting, sideways glances and squishy secrets to research, obtain, prepare, and gift me – publicly no less – with this amazing thing.
Best of all, my Mom and her husband, Sam were visiting us from Alberta, and were present to see it. If anyone knew just how inconceivable it is to play a bagpipe “fresh out of the box” (bagpipes are frustratingly moody and don’t follow directions well), you would understand just how gratifying it was to pipe folks out of the sanctuary with this new instrument!
I’ve played them for hours since then in a mixture of awe, tears, and bewildering joy. To say I am grateful is a woeful understatement. To say thank you just feels so utterly lame.
But let me start there…