“The thing about the bagpipes is that you either love them or you hate them,” said Bob Wallace. “Being Scots helps you to love them.”
Wallace would know. The Edinburgh, Scotland native has been playing them for decades.
But Wallace didn’t pick up the instrument until long after he left Scotland in 1965 at the age of 23. While living in Tacoma in the 1970s, he tried to master the ungainly instrument on his own.
“I got to the point where I needed to go a step further. I just happened to ask somebody at my church if they knew anybody who played the bagpipes and he pointed at Jack,” Wallace said.
“Jack” was Jack Montgomery, a founding member of the Clan Gordon, a Tacoma-based Scottish Highland bagpipe band.
“He said, ‘I’ll give you free lessons’ and being Scots, I couldn’t refuse that,” Wallace recalled.
“And that still goes today,” Montgomery said. “We teach people free of charge — providing you join the band.”
The Clan Gordon is putting on its annual Tartan Ball on Saturday at the State Fairgrounds in Puyallup. The evening of pipe bands and dancing dates to 1963 when it was held at the Winthrop Hotel in downtown Tacoma. The event usually draws about 500 people.
The band itself was started in 1955 by Montgomery’s father, Johnnie Montgomery, an immigrant from Glasgow, Scotland.
The band was sponsored by the Order of Scottish Clans, a fraternal organization of Scottish immigrants. Lodges, named after traditional Scottish clans, were once scattered throughout the United States. Tacoma’s was named the Clan Gordon.
The Order and lodge are long gone, but the band lives on. Following Scottish tradition, the band carries the honorific “Tacoma’s Own.”
“We’re playing all the same tunes we did back then,” Montgomery said.
“There’s a few new ones,” Wallace added.
Once open only to people of Scottish ancestry, the Clan Gordon has long welcomed anyone with an interest in bagpipes or drums. Today the clan has about 17 pipers, five snare drummers, four tenor drummers, and two bass drummers.
“It’s part of my roots,” Wallis said of the band. It’s been a social outlet for Wallace and his wife, another Edinburgh native. “We were blessed meeting up with the Clan Gordon,” he said.
Bagpipes aren’t unique to Scotland, but Scottish-style pipes are the most well known in the United States. Their presence at funerals and other ceremonies increased following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Bagpipes don’t look complicated, but playing them is a challenge.
“It’s a fairly physical instrument because not only do you have to blow really hard, but you have to coordinate your arm pressure, blowing pressure and play the melody,” said Brad Collins, the band’s pipe major, or band leader.
Unlike most musical instruments, bagpipes play a continuous tone when in use. Three pipes, or drones, protrude from the bag and hold reeds. One drone is bass and the other two are tenor. A fourth pipe, the chanter, has finger holes and it’s where the melody is played, much like a recorder. Players blow air in and simultaneously squeeze it out with their arm.
Bagpipes can cost a player $800 to $5,000. The traditional Scottish military uniform with kilt and accoutrements can add another $1,500.
Despite the costs, there are plenty of young faces in Clan Gordon. An entire Olympia family plays in the band. Barry Kirk is a piper, wife Renee-Michelle plays tenor drum, their 18-year-old son, Spencer, plays bass drum, and 15-year-old daughter, Heather-Lynn, sings, dances and plays snare drum.
Clan Gordon isn’t the only bagpipe band in Pierce County, but it’s the only civilian band. Tacoma Scots Pipe Band is associated with the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department and another, Puget Sound Firefighter’s Pipes and Drums, draws from fire departments.
In addition to the tartan ball on Saturday, the Clan Gordon plays in the Daffodil Parade and its associated events. But that’s just the beginning of the band’s busy season with Scottish Highland competitions, civic events and private functions.
“From March through December we probably (perform) three out of four weekends,” Montgomery said.
“We represent the city of Tacoma and South Sound really well around the state,” Wallace said. “It’s great when you get announced as ‘Tacoma’s Own’.”