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"You Either Love the Sound or You Hate It . . . There's No Middle of the Road' : The House of Scotland Band Proves Pipe Music Is Its Bag

March 16, 1987|WENDY HASKETT

SAN DIEGO — Prince Charles and Campbell Naismith were both still bachelors when the British naval vessel Jupiter sailed into San Diego.

Naismith, 35, a mathematics teacher at Chula Vista High School and pipe major of the House of Scotland Bagpipe Band, remembers going on board with the band. His fiancee, Margo (now his wife), also went along as a highland dancer.

"After our performance, we got invited into the ward room," he said. "Prince Charles was cheerfully serving behind the bar. I remember thinking, 'If I hadn't become a piper, I never would have got to do this.' "

The same thought has crossed his mind many times since.

When marching in parades and dressed in full regalia--the ostrich-feather bonnets, swinging kilts, horsehair sporrans and white leg gaiters--the House of Scotland Bagpipe Band looks spectacular. And they'll be putting their reputation as one of the top-rated bands in the United States on the line Saturday in an all-day competition in Balboa Park.

The San Diego band members range in age from 10 to 70. In their "other" lives they are students, engineers, physicians. One of the three female members teaches belly dancing.

A few of them were, like drum sergeant Robert Rez, born in Scotland. Or, like Naismith, they have Scottish parents.

"But you don't need to be Scottish to join the band," Naismith stressed during a recent practice in Balboa Park. "Eagerness counts more."

Drummer Bill Goff, a librarian at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, has a wife with a Scottish mother, but he still wears a faint look of surprise when asked how he became a drummer in a bagpipe band.

He got "swept in," he recalled, about two years ago when he was driving his bagpipe-playing son, John, 16, to practice.

"It changes your whole life," he said. "I never thought I'd be playing at the reception for Dennis Conner when he brought the Cup back from Australia. I never thought I'd find myself marching up and down a hill in Thousand Oaks playing background music for Rod Stewart's video "Every Beat of My Heart."

In February, although he assured the Channel 8 TV news crew that he was still a novice--"I mean, I'm not like Campbell, who's been playing since he was 8"--Goff played drum accompaniment while his son, John, gave newscaster Hal Clement a five-minute bagpipe lesson on the Channel 8 news. ("One of the harder instruments," was Clement's closing comment.)

The bagpipes are not easy to master. They are not even easy to hold. Three long pipes (drones) rest across the piper's left shoulder. The bag is clasped under his left arm. His lips are around a blowpipe. All of his fingers are controlling the melody with the chanter.

"People are always coming up and saying, 'How does that thing work?' " said Naismith, who plays a set of pipes that are almost 100 years old--although the elk-hide bag tends to mildew and has to be replaced every few years. "It's an even more popular question than, 'What do you wear under your kilt?' "

By tradition, he explained, the Scots prefer to remain mysterious about the under-the-kilt question, but there's no mystery about the pipes. It is the reeds inside the drones and the chanter that produce the unique sound.

"You either love the sound or you hate it," drummer Ian Millar, who played with the Black Watch while he was a student at Edinburgh University, commented as the band formed a circle to begin practicing. "With bagpipes, there's no middle of the road."

Fortunately, the people in Balboa Park who stopped to listen as the band launched into its first set--a march, strathspey and reel--apparently loved the sound.

"I come here every Sunday. I listen to the music, then I go over and have a cup of tea at the Scottish Cottage," said Robert Johnson, 37, who spends his weekdays working with the Vietnam Veterans of America. "When I was a kid, my father was stationed in Britain. Tunes like 'Scotland the Brave', or 'The Skye Boat Song' . . . they bring back memories."

Naismith, who graduated from the College of Piping in his father's hometown of Glasgow, Scotland, prefers that the band play modern Scottish music. It's more complex to play; more of a challenge.

Most of the requests they get in Balboa Park, however, are for traditional tunes. "Highland Laddie." "Bonnie Dundee." "Will Ye No Come Back Again." ("We call it 'De dum' music," he said. "Because people say 'Play the one that goes dum de dum dum de de dum de de dum.' ")

"When I was a child, I used to go to sleep listening to the sound of the pipes drifting across the valley," said Rita McCarron, a visitor from New York who was strolling through the park with her husband, Ed.

That was in Ireland back in the 1930s. "But hearing this today brings a lump to my throat. It brings back memories," she said, unknowingly echoing Johnson.

Douglas Swan, a travel writer from Canada, happened to overhear McCarron's comments. Forty years ago, he told her, he played with one of Canada's largest bagpipe bands, the 48th Highlanders.

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