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Singular or plural, bagpipes are a hoot

The Baltimore Sun

We were at a Gilbert family reunion a few years ago, and someone evidently married someone who is Scottish, or has some Scottish in his family, or who likes Scotch, and bingo. Bagpipes appeared.

First of all, is it a bagpipe, or is it bagpipes?

I'm going to refer to it as a bagpipes because while it is clearly just one instrument, we must acknowledge that it certainly sounds like a whole lot more.

Anyway, at our final formal family reunion dinner, in sashayed one of the family members, playing a bagpipes.

My youngest child, about age 8 at the time, was thrilled. It was kind of like a predinner parade.

"Are we Scottish, too?" he asked excitedly.

"Sure," I said. And why wouldn't we be, at least for one night? It seemed much more fun to be 100 percent Scottish, rather than our usual motley selves; a mishmash of German and Irish, with a dash of Welsh and English and a smattering of Polish. Before that evening, our family's heritage instrument might have been the plastic recorder. And we all know how much we love to hear the recorder.

Still, the first toot of a bagpipes is always kind of a shocker to me. It's a piercing high note with an underpinning of a couple of low notes that are wandering around, desperately trying to get into sync with the high one. Sometimes they are briefly in harmony, but more often than not the sound that streams forth is like a plaintive musical wrestling match where one note emerges victorious for a round, and then is vigorously overtaken by another and so on.

You can replicate the effect on a small scale if you try whistling and humming at the same time. I developed this talent many years ago on the high school bus, and often wondered what would come of it. It takes a bit of practice to move the sound from the drone of a standard upright vacuum cleaner to a full, more-realistic bagpipes tone.

I'll bet you are trying it now. Good for you. Your family may be vaguely concerned, so take a moment to reassure them you are just reading an exciting new interactive column on bagpipes.

My point is, even a poor imitation of a bagpipes commands attention. No one ever dozes off during a bagpiping. The sound of a real bagpipes reverberates through your organs and sets you on edge somehow, making you feel like something big is going to happen. It could be a war. It could be love. Or, it could be "dinner is served," as we learned at the Gilbert family reunion. It is a happening sound in the sense that you just don't know what's going to happen. I don't even think the bagpiper knows for sure.

But one thing is certain: Whenever I hear a bagpipes - and I've been at weddings, funerals, and civic events where bagpipes are played - I get washed in a proud yet melancholy wistfulness. I feel nostalgic for standing on a rugged green hillside, wearing something plaid, facing into a damp breeze off a rugged, rocky coastline I've never seen before. I feel like taking a stand and liberating someone or something.

I'm sure there are many places in Maryland where bagpipes are routinely played. The hills of Glen Burnie. The cliffs of Aberdeen. The woods of Glenarden. And can't you just hear the bagpipes of Lonaconing?

Maybe you can't. Perhaps you prefer to stick to mainstream instruments such as the piano or the trumpet and avoid fringe ones such as the bagpipes and its associates, the mandolin, the accordion, the triangle, the ocarina and the second violin.

But I've grown to love the bagpipes, and you know what that means - I'll be in Scotland afore ye.

Contact Janet at janet@janetgilbertonline. com.

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