Of Bagpipes and Scottish Independence

August 15, 2013  •  1 Comment

There are two things, in my experience, that indicate a journalist is floundering. One is quoting a taxi driver. This is a sign that the only person the reporter bothered to interview, or could find to interview, was the hack who drove him in from the airport. The other sign is quoting anyone in a bar. This is like quoting taxi drivers, except that the reporter was probably intoxicated when he wrote his dispatch. So be forewarned. This piece is going to rely on the opinions of a taxicab driver and a woman I met in a bar.

My wife and I were in Glasgow at the end of a Hebridean holiday, a time devoted mostly to  links golf, single-malt whisky and her ancestral history. After we checked into our room at the Blythswood Square Hotel, we had an evening to spend in the city before catching an early flight toward home the following morning. We walked down a hill to Buchanan Street, a pedestrian mall. We noticed a lot of "To Let" signs in the windows of five- and six-story office Victorian-era buildings. Unlike London, Glasgow doesn't have tall, flashy glass towers. Maybe the Scots don't want them. More likely, I think, the city hasn't made money the way London has in the post-industrial era.

Our attention was arrested by the appearance of a band of dark-haired musicians--drummers and bagpipe players--walking up the street, dressed in proper kilts, knee socks, and campaign hats with little red pom-poms on the top. I made a picture. We talked. They were members of the Battalion de San Patricio, a pipe-and-drum corps from, improbably, Mexico City. They were in town for an international piping festival.

We looked down the street and saw a big white tent just below St. Enoch Square. We went in and caught the end of a great performance by a group called Barluath. Their lead singer, Ainsley Hamill, has a high, pure, haunting voice that floated in and around the melodies woven by the fiddler and the piper.

When their performance was over, we wanted to hear more. We grabbed a brochure and learned that there would be an open mic night for pipers at a bar called Cooper's on Great Western Road. So we hailed a cab.

The driver was an entirely charming, white-haired gentleman who had once worked in television. He had some definite opinions. We talked a little bit about golf. He'd once had a five handicap, though it was presently higher. He'd played all over Scotland, and his favorite links was Crail, in Fife, one of those Scottish courses that you hear about but never see on television because it's a bit too short for modern pros. To him, golf was intended to be played in the rain and the wind, "not at some place like Augusta."

Against the backdrop of bagpipes and "To Let" signs, it seemed appropriate to ask about Scottish independence, which will be the subject of a referendum in 2014. We had been asking people about it, and no one we'd spoken to was for it. But that might have been because the golfers we'd been talking to tend to be a conservative lot.

Our driver was a definite pro-independence vote. He said he would die happy if he knew he had lived in a free Scotland.He had some good arguments. He believed Scotland had done well handling its own health care, education and other functions that London has handed over to the U.K.'s constituent nations in an effort to appease separatists.He ticked off a list of great Scottish inventors from Alexander Graham Bell (telephone) to Arthur Fleming (penicillin) to J.L McAdam (macadam). "We're ready to give the world more," he said as he dropped us off at Cooper's.

We had a few pints and listened as pipers and drummers, individually and in groups, came in. The barmaids muted the sound of the telecast of the Ashes cricket test between England and Australia, though the cricket announcers would have had to shout and scream to be heard over the sound of the pipes. I took some pictures of the performers, which was when Kerry Brown (above left) introduced herself. She said she liked the images, which was kind of her. The lighting inside the bar was what you'd expect in a bar, and my pictures showed it..

Kerry is a flight attendant from Kirkcaldie, and her partner, John, is a member of the Inveraray & District Pipe Band, one of the heavyweights in the festival competition. The band was still out somewhere rehearsing, and Kerry was waiting for them to appear and blow the crowd at Cooper's out into Great Western Road. The pipes, she said, were John's life. He made his living creating bagpipe reeds for players around he world. He played the pipes himself.

Kerry herself was devoted to pipe music. It often brought tears to her eyes to hear it, she said. It reminded her of her grandfather, now old and frail, whose great pleasure in life had been playing the pipes. It reminded her of John. It reminded her of her beloved Scotland.

I expected that someone so immersed in Scottish culture would be equally devoted to Scottish independence, but Kerry surprised me. Her reasoning was personal. She had English friends whom she liked, though she thought the English as a whole did tend to be arrogant. She hated the way the London press and the BBC referred to tennis player Andy Murray as a Scot when he lost and "Britain's Andy Murray" when he won. Yet she rooted passionately for Team GB at the 2012 Olympics.

She thought that Alex Salmond, leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party and the pro-independence First Minister of Scotland, had dreams of glory and grandeur, fancying himself not just a regional politician, but a head of state. And that seemed decisive to Kerry. She would probably, she said, vote no.

And so, I thought, would Scotland. If Alex Salmond doesn't have the support of a woman who tears up at the sound of bagpipes, what chance does he have?




Frank Van Riper(non-registered)
Ciao Bob: Sweet piece, even if you do quote a cabbie and--a barfly?--hardly, judging from the lovely portrait you made of her.
Your observation about quoting cabbies struck a little close to home--I admit, I have done it, but on my way INTO town, where I also interviewed lots of other locals about whatever story had sent me there.
Having a little dram of Scots blood on my father's side (though Dutch-surnamed he was proudest, I think, of being even a little bit Scot) I inherited his love of the pipes and would have loved to be in that pub with you.
Nice ending, too.
Single-malts forever, and looking forward to Umbria,
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