IDYLLWILD — On most summer days this San Jacinto mountain resort is a quiet, cool getaway from the heat and smog. Here, a mile above the hot desert town of Banning, the sound you hear is that of the wind blowing gently through towering pines. But last week and this, there came an unusual wail.
Was it really the sound of bagpipes?
Indeed it was. Forty-four bagpipes, to be exact, because Idyllwild has become the August campsite for the Seumas MacNeill California Summer School for Pipers.
Started School 15 Years Ago
"I do more teaching on this side of the Atlantic than I do in Scotland," said MacNeill, a Glasgow-born Scot who started his California bagpipe school 15 years ago as an extension of Scotland's College of Piping, which he founded in 1945.
After previous summer stints in Pebble Beach, Sequoia National Park and Santa Cruz, MacNeill moved his piper camp to the Elliott-Pope Preparatory School, a private boarding school in Idyllwild, last year.
"There was a tennis summer school at the University of Santa Cruz at the same time, and the kids threw bread across the dining room," MacNeill said. "I wouldn't put up with that. There's a limit to what I'll do for piping."
What MacNeill has done for piping internationally is put it on the map.
MacNeill said that there are more than 2,000 pipe bands throughout the world. In the United States, there is at least one in each state. In California, there are about 30 pipe bands. In addition to his California school, MacNeill has conducted bagpipe schools in Dallas, New York, Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, and Anchorage, two in Canada and one in Tokyo. He has lectured at major universities throughout the United States and abroad and supervises nine bagpipe summer schools in Scotland. There is a College of Piping in both Glasgow and Edinburgh.
Four years ago, MacNeill interested British Caledonian Airways in sponsoring his California bagpipe camp. The airline has its own pipe band, based in London. Because of British Caledonian's support, MacNeill said he is able to keep the school tuition at $200 for the two-week period, plus room and board at $35 a day.
The airline also flew MacNeill and piper John MacAskill, another instructor, to California for the school. MacAskill, a player-composer-teacher who lists his address as "somewhere in the Western Highlands," has taught at MacNeill's California school for several years. He has a fan club here that calls itself the "I Survived MacAskill Society."
"Do you know until 10 years ago, kids in schools in Scotland could get a certificate of music for any kind of instrument, but not the bagpipe," MacNeill said, angered at the thought of such a thing. He and other pipers, he explained, talked the public school administrators into trying an experimental piping program in the Scottish schools.
"Now piping is taught as a school subject," he said proudly. "Thousands of kids are now learning it. We won the battle."
Students at the California summer school have come from all over the country and from Canada, western Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Brazil.
"This school inspired the school in Tokyo," MacNeill explained. "For two years, two or three pipers came from Tokyo and now there are enough of them to have their own school. We started it last year."
Not only have the Japanese taken a real interest in learning to pipe, MacNeill said, they have invented an electronic device to tune a bagpipe. It is called the Korg Bagpipe Tuner and sells for about $150. "Everyone in Scotland has one now," MacNeill said. "I have two at home."
MacNeill also has made several trips to Arab countries to give piping demonstrations and instruction. "The Arabs have about 20 pipe bands now," he said. There also are flourishing pipe bands in Pakistan, Africa and Asia.
'Play a Bit, Talk a Bit'
"I do about a dozen lecture-recitals a year," MacNeill added. "I play a bit and talk a bit. I like to go places where people don't know about piping. . . .
"I always like to begin saying, 'people meet a man wearing a kilt and they always want to know what is worn under it. I say nothing is worn under it. Everything under it is in perfect working order.' "
MacNeill also has composed many pipe tunes, judges piping competitions, cuts records, produces radio and TV shows on piping and edits the monthly magazine, Piping Times, which he started in 1948. He is a master piper and holds the gold medal for Piobaireachd (pronounced Pee brook), the classical music of bagpiping.
When Seumas (pronounced Shamus) MacNeill was 10, he began learning the bagpipe from his uncle, Archie MacNeill the Blind Piper, a famous Scottish piper.
"He was not born blind," MacNeill said of his uncle. "But he had detached retinas when he was 20. They didn't know how to fix them then. But he was a full-time piper all his life. He was a very good composer, as he was a player and teacher."