Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Here comes the... piper

More and more couples -- even the non-Scottish ones -- seek the sound of bagpipes as they march down the aisle

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The great outdoors, like the Trappist Monastery Ruins in St. Norbert, are ideal places for bagpipers like Liam Speirs of the St. Andrews Pipe Band to practise.


The great outdoors, like the Trappist Monastery Ruins in St. Norbert, are ideal places for bagpipers like Liam Speirs of the St. Andrews Pipe Band to practise. Photo Store

Last July, Liam Speirs was commissioned to play the bagpipes at an outdoor wedding being held at Fort Gibraltar.

As people arrived for the ceremony, Speirs, sprucely dressed in a navy blue, Earl of St. Andrew tartan kilt, marched back and forth along a two-storey-high walkway that rings the inside of the 200-year-old fortress. Only instead of serenading guests with traditional tunes such as Hielan' Laddie or Scotland the Brave, Speirs served up a selection from the soundtrack of that great, Gaelic flick, Top Gun.


"No, not Danger Zone," Speirs says, disappointing a scribe who can never get enough Kenny Loggins. "It was the more melodious one (Theme from Top Gun) -- the one where the jets are taking off and the guitar's just wailing."

If you are of Scottish descent and are tying the knot this summer, there are a number of quaint rituals you can incorporate into your big day; traditions such as scrubbing the bride's feet the night before she gets hitched or stripping the groom down to his skivvies and covering him head-to-toe with soot and feathers. Or you can go with a custom more and more couples are following nowadays -- getting a bagpiper to walk them down the aisle.

Click on the wedding section of any classified advertising website and you'll see that in addition to multiple blurbs for photo booths and marriage commissioners, there are also scads of ads reading "Piper for hire."

Speirs isn't sure if bagpipes are trendy, necessarily, but he has noticed an increase in the number of people offering their services. Speirs, 27, took up the pipes when he was a wee lad of 10 years old. His parents used to play a lot of Celtic music around the house, he recalls, so when it came time to choose an instrument, he opted for the bagpipes over the more conventional piano or guitar.

Only problem: it's been said that bagpipes have two volumes -- earsplitting and off. So when Speirs was first getting acquainted with his device, his father, Free Press columnist Doug Speirs, would often "suggest" to Liam that he take advantage of the gorgeous weather and practise in the park across the street.

"I still practise at least every other day; I live in a condo in St. Boniface now and last month one of my neighbours was selling his place. I told him to make sure to tell me when the open houses were so I wouldn't be playing when people were coming over to look."

Speirs performed at his first nuptials when he was 15. These days, the St. Andrews Pipe Band member tries to fit in five or six weddings every summer around his university schedule -- or pipers' competitions like last month's Riverwalk Highland Gathering at The Forks.

"Sometimes (wedding parties) leave it up to me (what to play) but usually they'll have something specific in mind," he says, citing The Brown Haired Maiden as an oft-requested selection. "Unfortunately, most pop songs don't translate too well to the pipes, but every once in a while I can throw something like the Star Wars theme out there. Or another fun one I've done is Low Rider (by War). You can't really play the whole song on the bagpipes -- mostly just the intro -- but that's usually enough to put a smile on people's faces."

Robyn McCombe isn't surprised Winnipeg is home to a wealth of wedding pipers. After all, McCombe is responsible for teaching a fair number of the 250 or so serious bagpipers in the city how to play.

"We have a very strong piping community," he says. "Nowadays, I deal primarily with adults who've always wanted to play but, for whatever reason, never got around to it." (McCombe, who has performed for royalty numerous times, also teaches via Skype; during the course of a 30-minute interview, he has to excuse himself a pair of times to answer questions from students in Victoria, B.C. and South Dakota.)

"Bagpipes are definitely popular (at weddings) -- whether it's with people who have a connection to the instrument through their parents or grandparents, or with those who hear it played at a wedding and think it would be a nice touch to add to theirs, too," he says, mentioning in the event he is ever booked solid, he can always send one of his two sons to stand in for him.

McCombe, the pipe major of the Anavet 303 Pipe Band, says there are no specific rules come wedding day. Sometimes the bride wants to be piped in; sometimes the bride and groom both want to be piped out, he says. They might want him to play a standard like The Green Hills of Tyrol or something more contemporary like Mull of Kintyre." (McCombe, a retired teacher who now works as a substitute, often introduces students at school to the bagpipe by playing the solo from AC/DC's It's a Long Way to the Top (If You Want to Rock 'n' Roll). To date, however, he hasn't trotted that ditty out during a receiving line.)

George Morrison is the "George" behind the website

Morrison, 57, has been playing the bagpipes for over 50 years -- ever since his father came home from work one day, handed his son a chanter and said, "Here, George, you're learning the pipes."

Morrison was a longtime member of the Transcona & District Pipe Band. In the early 1970s, he travelled with that troupe to Pasadena, Calif., where he and 300 other Winnipeg pipers and drummers, including McCombe, led the Rose Bowl Parade.

But here's a surprise: Morrison says it's not just Scottish folk booking his services, as much as two years in advance.

"I've played at Polish weddings, Greek weddings, Ukrainian weddings... It's amazing how universal the bagpipes really are," he says.

Morrison says working as a wedding piper is like any other job in that some years are more profitable than others. If, for example, Hollywood comes out with a movie featuring the bagpipes in a starring role -- who can forget the scene in So I Married an Axe Murderer when Mike Myers performs Do Ya Think I'm Sexy backed by a piper -- Morrison's phone will be ringing off the hook for weeks on end, he says.

As for special moments, well, let's allow Morrison to explain.

"Probably my favourite wedding was one I did at Crescent Fort Rouge United Church, on Wardlaw. The couple getting married wanted me to play Highland Cathedral and I was lucky enough to be accompanied by this big, monstrous church organ.

"When we finished (playing) you could still hear the notes reverberating around the room for what seemed like a minute. I looked around and there wasn't a dry eye in the house. I thought to myself, 'Whether they are or they aren't, right now, everybody in this room is Scottish.'"

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 7, 2014 D11

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