When Bob Gillespie reached 50 years of age, he decided that he would learn to play a musical instrument. “I considered piano lessons,” he said, “but when I heard the robust sound of the great highland bagpipes, played at a Bethel Church Memorial Day service, I knew I wanted to play the pipes.”
That summer, Gillespie enrolled in the Milwaukee School of Pipes and Drums for a one week course. He purchased a set of pipes from Scotland and began, what has become for Bob, “a wonderful experience.”
The bagpipe, of which there are many varieties from all parts of the world, is a wind instrument with a chanter, or melody pipe, on which music is played. Fixed note drones accompany the melody.
The great highland bagpipes of Scotland are, perhaps, the most famous. These pipes date back to the fifteenth century. In the highland bagpipe, the air pressure comes from a bag of skin—today most often made of synthetic materials—inflated from the player’s mouth through a blowpipe.
Gillespie explained that the musical range of the chanter is limited to a nine note scale. “However,” he said, “character in the music is achieved by strict timing, distinctive rhythms and embellishments, known as grace notes.”
Jig and reels, hornpipes, laments, marches, and the strathspey—a Scottish dance resembling a reel, but with a slower tempo—are types of bagpipe music.
The bagpipe’s origins go back to about 2,500 BC when pipes with reeds, such as shawms and hornpipes, were played. Later, possibly in Roman times, bags were added to help maintain a constant flow of air.
Gillespie’s bagpipes were made in Scotland of African blackwood. The three drone pipes, one bass and two tenor, are adorned with engraved silver and a creamy-white synthetic material–made to look like ivory. Each pipe, fitted with a reed made of Spanish cane or, in modern times, a synthetic substance, must be precisely tuned. The air bag is covered with velvet, while beautiful, long silken tassels complete the instrument’s majestic appearance.
Gillespie, a semi-retired plumber, and his wife Becky, who teaches at the Island school, moved to the Island in 1982, with family connections. “My grandmother Loreene,” Bob said, “ was a Cornell, and is buried in the Island cemetery.”
The Gillespie’s son, Michael, age 24, is also a piper. He began to play when he was only eight years old. Father and son wear the Clan McPherson tartan.
For Bob, playing the pipes is a lifelong commitment. “It is a difficult instrument to play and requires disciplined, regular practice,” he said, “ but it has been rewarding. I’ve met a lot of nice pipers—young and old.”
by Patricia Hewitt
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