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The Highland Bagpipe by Gary West

The Highland bagpipe has long been associated with the military, with generations of players choosing army careers over a more peaceful civilian life as a means of earning their living from their music. Of course, they have always been considered soldiers first and musicians second, but that hasn't stood in the way of the development of their musical talents, and most of the great names of the piping past have been associated with one or another of the Highland regiments. Since the early years of the 20th century, the army has made formal provision for teaching soldiers to learn to play, or to improve the standards amongst those who were already playing before enlisting.

Today, this takes place at the Army School of Bagpipe Music and Highland Drumming, based at Inchdrewar House at Redford Barracks in Edinburgh. It is a lively, bustling place, where musicians from any one of the 17 regiments that support pipes and drums can be found going through their paces on one of several intensive courses held there at any given time. When I visited there recently, I found one class full of young men who had only just picked up drum sticks or a practice chanter for the first time, and who were expected to achieve a basic level of proficiency within a matter of weeks. Inspiration was not hard for them to find, however, for alongside them in neighbouring classrooms were some of the nation's finest military players attending the PipeMajor's course, which prepared them for leading roles within their regiments and confirmed them as top-class musicians worthy of following in the footsteps of some of the great names of the past.

As well as musical proficiency, all of the courses at the school ensure that a deep knowledge of the history and traditions of army piping and drumming is passed on to the new generations coming through. And it is a tradition that is peppered with heroes, for both pipers and drummers have earned themselves a reputation for almost reckless bravery over the centuries, inspiring their comrades to action through their music.

The full text of this article is available in the Summer 2013 issue of Scottish Life.

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