VINTON–The Virginia Highland Pipes and Drums is the oldest bagpipe band in southwestern Virginia, formed in the 1980’s. The bagpipe is generally considered to be the ultimate sound of Scottish folk music.
According to their business manager and piper Bob Copenhaver, they entertain for both “celebratory and solemn” occasions throughout the region, including performances in special ceremonies, concerts, weddings, funerals, at churches, and in parades—including the Vinton Dogwood Festival, the Roanoke St. Patrick’s Day parade and Dickens of a Christmas, and in Clifton Forge for Fourth of July. They also perform at charitable events, including Relay for Life.
They participate most years at a Kirkin’ o’ the Tartan ceremony at Thrasher Memorial United Methodist Church in Vinton.
On August 18 they were featured at the Glebe retirement community in Daleville where Copenhaver is a resident. The bagpipers performed in concert, but there was also Scottish dancing, and explanations of all things “bagpipe” from details on the instrument itself to proper Highland dress.
On August 27, they will be opening the Green Hill Highland Games in Salem, and performing throughout the day. The Highland Games event combines Scottish culture and sporting competitions including throwing weights for height and distance, the hammer throw, the ever popular Caber toss, and sheaf tossing, as well.
The band practices each week on Thursday night at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Salem, where they are based. Tom Rogers is the Pipe Major; Mike Elliston is the Drum Major; and Dave Kendrick is the Drum Sergeant..
At one recent practice there were 12 members present, starting off in small groups and then joining together for a full rehearsal and run-through of the Glebe concert.
The band welcomes new members and will even teach them to play. Copenhaver says there is a learning curve for the bagpipe. The bagpipe is not the first step—the process begins with learning to play a “chanter” before moving up to the actual bagpipe. Students advance at their own speed.
Currently they have student pipers, including Diane Rice, who is a teacher in her “day job.” She says that band members have been very helpful in helping her learning to play the bagpipe, along with the use of online tutorials, books, and CD/DVD’s. Rice has transitioned from chanter to the bagpipe over about an eight month process.
Some members of the band started out playing in high school bands; others such as Copenhaver took up the bagpipes at around age 60, when he bought an old set of bagpipes.
Some had always enjoyed listening to bagpipe music. Others had just always liked the idea of playing the pipes. Some have Scottish heritage or “just like Scottish things.”
Members come from all over the valley and the region (Roanoke, Vinton, Salem, Catawba, Buchanan, Dublin, and Grayson County), described on their Facebook page as including “a variety of ages, personalities and professions, all volunteers.”
At the Glebe, the band played a wide variety of tunes from the most requested “Amazing Grace” to a Calypso piece. Many tunes can be adapted for the bagpipe.
Bagpipers need to be able to read music although they do not play with sheet music in front of them, but from memory. Music stands would only get in the way.
The instrument itself is a combination of several instruments—“a bass drone harmonizing with two tenor drones, tuned to the pitch of a pipe chanter,” is one description.
There is the chanter melody pipe which has finger holes played with two hands, two tenor drones (pipes), and a bass drone, plus the airbag. It is considered to be a woodwind because it includes reeds like an oboe or bassoon. The player keeps the air bag inflated by blowing air into it through a blowpipe.
The bagpipe only has one volume—which the band jokingly described as “loud.” A piper can only play one note at a time on the bagpipe as well, so the band’s Andrew Meeks says they also use lots of embellishments to simulate sounds.
Strangely enough although bagpipes are so closely associated with Scotland, they originated in the Middle East and migrated across Europe. A sculpture of bagpipes has been found on a slab in the Middle East dated 1000 B.C. Some argue that the bagpipes were mentioned in the Bible in the book of Daniel.
There are many types of bagpipes which developed through the centuries, but all have the airbag, early on made of animal skin.
The bagpipe band also includes drums—tenor, snare, and bass.
The band brought along a Scottish dancer to the Glebe, Anne Sampson, who told the audience that there are different forms of Scottish dance—including the ladies’ dances of the Hebrides Islands and the traditional Highland Fling which is more athletic, with more waving of arms.
Oddly enough only men performed the dances until the 20th century. Originally Highland dancing was one of the ways men were tested for strength and endurance. Warriors came together to compete to determine the strongest warrior and most skilled dancer with a big party into the night, and the “last guy left standing” was declared the winner, according to Sampson.
Copenhaver described in detail the bagpiper’s Highland dress, including the basic vest, tie, shirt, and belt, with a feather bonnet, an embroidered doublet jacket, a long, over-the-shoulder plaid, the sporran (which resembles a purse), and the kilt. There is also a Glencarry cap, hose, brogues (decorated shoes with long laces), and a Skean Dhu (small dagger) tucked in the hose.
The band wears the tartan of the McFarlane clan to perform.
The Virginia Highlands Pipes and Drums supports local charities. Donations the band received for playing at the Glebe, they elected to donate to Feeding America Southwest Virginia.
The Green Hill Highland Games begin at 9 a.m. on Saturday, August 27, at Green Hill Park on Parkside Drive in Salem with the opening ceremony featuring the Virginia Highland Pipes and Drums at 10 a.m.
There is no charge for admission, but donations will be accepted for the Warrior 360 non-profit organization to benefit military service members and their families.