Highlands Tradition in the Red River Valley

The searing drone of the bagpipes echoes like nothing else. It mesmerized Dan Aird when, as a wee lad, he first heard it played by Manitobans marching in a Devils Lake parade. Years later, he’d get his chance to recreate that ancient skirl himself … and he’s been an evangelist for its complex, weirdly tuned melodies ever since.

“I fell in love with the bagpipes the moment I first heard them,” he reminisces. “It’s just a great, great sound. I knew I wanted to play … but there was nobody who could teach me.”

In the 60 years or so since then, the soft-spoken science teacher – now retired in Kindred – has made sure no other youthful bagpipe lover faces the same fate. After mastering the instrument in his teens, he has been perfecting his piping skills ever since, studying with the masters at far-flung workshops and even teaching it himself for several years at the College of Piping in Glasgow, Scotland.

For the past 25 years, Dan has led the Heather and Thistle Pipes and Drums. The unit is sponsored by the St. Andrew’s Society, the local group that celebrates Celtic heritage here in Fargo-Moorhead. As its head piper, he helps induct newcomers into the arcane art of bagpipery and shares his passion with the 18 pipers (plus four or five drummers) who play at a dozen or more events every year: the St. Patrick’s Day parade in downtown Fargo, summer festivals in lake country, the annual Celtic Festival and the Society’s own occasions. Individual pipers also play at funerals, especially military and police.

But as a child back in the 1950s, Dan’s love was long unrequited. True, his parents were proud of their Scottish and Irish ancestry, but the bagpipes were beyond them – rare in Medora, N.D., and in northwestern Montana, where they taught school. As a high schooler, Dan finally took matters into his own hands, mail-ordering an instruction book and a chanter – the basic, recorder-like pipe on which beginners master fingering and tunes.

He lucked out when he went on to the North Dakota School of Forestry in Bottineau. His Canadian roommate, it turned out, could play the pipes, though at the most basic level. Through him, Dan acquired his first fullset of bagpipes, handcrafted by an artisan in Pakistan, and connected with his teacher, Doug Bremner of Delaraine, Man., who became his mentor.

That was 1965. Dan still plays the same treasured instrument every day. The discipline is essential to maintain his skills, he says, even after all these years. The ancient-looking instrument features two tenor drones and one bass drone, with pipes of African blackwood and fittings of ivory and sterling silver. A double reed, similar to other woodwind instruments’, is embedded deep in the neck of each drone. The wind power is provided through a separate blowpipe that fills the bag of Goretex-lined leather. The piper’s left arm clamps down on it, maintaining a steady flow of air through the drones.

The fifth pipe is the chanter. That’s where the piper’s fingers fly to form the nine notes the bagpipe plays. “Beginners spend a year practicing fingering on the chanter and learning the six basic songs,” Dan explains. Its sound is softer than that the loud blare produced when connected to the drones – more of a peeping, compared to the lusty squawk of a cock pheasant. In their second year, novices are deemed ready to progress to their first sets of pipes, an investment that can set them back several thousand dollars.

Along with its unique construction, Dan explains, the bagpipes owe their distinctive sound to the way they’re tuned to a different pitch unfamiliar to our modern ears – 450 hz, rather than 440 hz. Called “mixolydian mode,” the distinctive tuning predates modern music by eons. Along with the pipes’ ear-splitting volume, it accounts for the memorable, plaintive whine that carried Englishmen and Scotsmen into battle from the 1400s right up to World War I, when British troops were buoyed on European battlefields by the unearthly sound.

Military service was the key, in a way, to Dan’s perfecting his art. He enlisted in the U.S. Air Force after college. While stationed in England, he found himself only a couple hours from Scotland. “I’d go to the College of Piping in Glasgow every chance I’d get,” he remembers. After completing his hitch in 1972, he stayed on to enroll there, paying his way by teaching beginners while studying with bagpipe virtuoso Seamus MacNeill.

When the St. Andrew Society formed its Heather and Thistle corps, Dan – who’d been part of the El Zagal Shrine crew in the 1960s — was the only one who could play the pipes. Since then, he’s taught dozens of area residents who’ve joined the group, many of them in turn teaching other beginners and intermediate pipers.

Heather and Thistle will march proudly in Pioneer Days parades at Bonanzaville Aug. 19 and 20, decked out in full Highland regalia, from kilts in Caledonia tartans to sporrans and ghillies. They’ll also highlight the St. Andrew’s Society Burns dinner Nov. 4 at the Doubletree by Hilton in West Fargo, as well as the traditional Kirking of the Tartan (a blessing ceremony) at First Presbyterian Church in Fargo the next morning.

The local bagpipe contingent includes some pipers and drummers who, like Dan, have Celtic blood flowing in their veins. But it’s not a requirement. “Bagpipes are all over the globe,” he observes. “They were part of just about every European culture, and you’ll still find them everywhere today in the footprint of the British Empire.”

The St. Andrew’s Society will be starting a new class of novices on the first Monday after Labor Day. Dan invites newcomers to join them at First Congregational United Church of Christ in Fargo, where the full group also practices every Tuesday night. Drummers are welcome, too.

“If you love the sound of bagpipes – or if you’re just curious — come and join us,” he urges. “We always have room for more.”

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