With a whine and a wail and a moan and a drone, the Angus Scott Pipe Band will lead the St. Patrick’s Day Parade on Saturday.
But its performance doesn’t begin or end there.
The band will make 45 appearances in four days, a lung-busting, lip-buzzing marathon of bagpipes and drums at Irish celebrations through Monday, the real St. Patrick’s Day.
“It’s like scheduling the D-Day invasion,” said Kenyon Fields, scribbling in the band’s date book. “If you throw a beer bottle, you’ll be able to find us.”
In red and green Scot tartan and feather bonnets, the 14 pipers and 11 drummers will march throughout Spokane, a kilted March custom that inevitably mists the eyes, tightens the throat and begs the question:
“What part of Canada are you from?”
The wee bit by Shadle Park. The Angus Scott band may have been named for a Kimberly, British Columbia, piper 43 years ago, but it always has been a Washington group.
At the right front, pipe major Bill Thomas, 65. Thomas has taught more than 70 pipers in Spokane to play an instrument as changeable as the humidity. Just walking from inside to outside can knock it out of tune. Playing takes incredible dexterity - and breath. Pipers don’t seem to pick up the pipes as much as wed them.
“The first time I heard the bagpipes, I couldn’t get the smile off my face,” Thomas said. “It burned into my soul, I knew I had to learn to play.”
Clyde Carpenter was a cop in Lewiston when he heard the pipes outdoors and drove around until he found the player. Five years later, he walked into the Angus Scott practice in Spokane - with that player - and joined the group.
“The hair was standing up on the back of my neck. It was a spiritual moment, not just a musical moment,” said Carpenter, now the Spokane County safety officer.
Sharon Lucky and her son Scott were watching the Spokane St. Patrick’s Day Parade five years ago when they first felt the chill, turned to each other and said, “You too?”
They joined the next week. Sharon drives 100 miles round-trip from Davenport for Monday night practices at Millwood Presbyterian Church.
At practices, players stand alone in corners, straining to hear their own instrument while drummers circle with snare and bass drums.
On the sidelines is Thomas, keeping time, calling out tunes, and repairing reeds while the band plays.
“This band exists because of Bill,” said Fields.
The retired sixth-grade teacher has five bagpipes in his house, and 400 tunes in his head. Soft-spoken with a brush of white hair, he formed and ran the Shadle Park High School Pipe Band for nearly 20 years, retired and then came back to resuscitate it. He trained the student players, the current instructor and now marches alongside both.
He’s been a member of Angus Scott for much of the last 40 years, a legend among Northwest pipers.
“You can’t be aware of Bill and share his love of piping and his knowledge and not be humbled by the experience,” Carpenter said. “He is the soul of the band.”
Historically, the earliest known player was the Roman Emperor Nero in the first century. Although versions of the pipes appear in numerous countries, the Scottish Highland pipes are the best known. The instrument consists of a melodic chanter, the piper fingers and three “drones” that play single accompanying notes.
“It’s a very precise, unforgiving instrument,” Thomas said. “There’s not a lot of fundamentals to learn, but they have to be perfectly done.”
Pipers have to be in good physical shape just to play, much less to play and march.
But don’t buy the band a Guinness this weekend. More than half the members are under 21. Jeff McMurtery, 19, remembers Thomas performing at his grade school, appearing in his bonnet at least 8 feet tall. Today, the award-winning drummer accompanies Thomas. His sister is also an Angus Scott piper.
The band has fostered at least two marriages and is about to produce its first baby: Fields, a drummer, met and married his wife, Carrie, a piper, through Angus Scott. She’s taking a breather during her pregnancy, concentrating on the band’s uniforms.
The black-jacketed pipers have led the St. Patrick’s Day Parade for as long as anyone can remember. Members also play at an annual Scottish dinner honoring Robert Burns; graduation ceremonies at St. George’s High School and at piping competitions, including Spokane’s own Highland Games. The band serenades brides, opens restaurants and buries more friends than anyone cares to think about.
Highland airs and mournful marches make it a bittersweet background at funerals. Pipers played when John F. Kennedy died, and “Amazing Grace” on pipes remains a funeral heavyweight.
You won’t hear that this weekend.
“Alcohol is enough of a depressant, and we don’t want to finish anybody off,” said McMurtery.
Instead, you’ll hear the call of regiments to arms and of Americans to their Celtic forefathers. For centuries, the pipes have been the symbolic sound of tradition, decency and holding fast. In Scotland - and Spokane.
“The pipes will always be in vogue for those who really love them,” Carpenter said.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: WHERE AND WHEN? The St. Patrick’s Day Parade begins at noon Saturday downtown. The Angus Scott Pipe Band will appear frequently through Monday at C.I. Shenanigan’s, O’Doherty’s, The Onion downtown, the Ridpath and Red Robin. Call 448-8871 or 536-7279.