The Philippines is known for many things: its tropical climate, exotic fruits, beautiful beaches and friendly people.
Until recently, bagpipes were not something generally associated with the island country in the Pacific.
But on his recent month-long holiday in the Philippines, Vernon’s Don MacLeod found himself the guest of honour at the “First Annual Bagpipe Workshop” at a high school in Davao City.
Pipe major with the North Okanagan Pipes & Drums, MacLeod makes regular trips to the Philippines with his wife, Grace, who was born and raised there.
MacLeod said the first time he brought his bagpipes with him was in 2004. Going through customs at Davao City International Airport, he was stopped and asked about the unusual looking case he was carrying.
“When I told the customs officer they were bagpipes, he was so excited, he gave me his card and asked me to call him,” said MacLeod.
It turns out the officer owned a restaurant on the beach and he wanted MacLeod to play the pipes there.
“He told me his brother-in-law was dying of cancer but it was his birthday and he wanted me to play for him. He didn’t tell anyone I was coming, but I put on my kilt and showed up, and it was quite the reaction from people when they saw me arrive: a big white guy with a skirt on.”
This summer, MacLeod and his wife spent the month of August in the Philippines, where he ended up leading a bagpipe workshop at Grace’s alma mater, Davao City High School.
MacLeod arrived half an hour early to set up and discovered that the room was already full of about 50 music students.
The biggest surprise was the banner that had been specially made in his honour announcing “The First Annual Bagpipe Workshop.”
“I had no idea and was surprised by the welcome,” said MacLeod. “I took the pipe out, showed them the reeds, talked about the bag, the decoration, and showed them my sporran and my practice chanter (a small pipe that looks similar to a recorder).
“And then I put on my MacLeod tartan kilt over my shorts and played the Philippine national anthem for them. I had some of the kids try and play the pipes and they discovered how tricky they are to play.”
MacLeod’s workshop was so successful that the principal has asked him to return next year to help the school start its own bagpipe program.
“We can’t afford to go every year, but she said they would sponsor flights for me, Grace and a snare drum instructor.”
The father of three comes from a long family tradition of playing the pipes. His grandfather played back in Scotland, where he lived on the Isle of Eigg.
“My grandfather emigrated in 1919 and played in the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders in Winnipeg, and he taught my dad, who was North American champion piper, Fred MacLeod.”
Eventually, Fred was lured to the B.C. coast to play for the Powell River Company Band, formed by employees of the pulp mill that eventually became MacMillan Bloedel.
“When I started learning to play the pipes, I did not love it at first, but then a kid in Grade 5 said ‘oh, you play the pipes, you should join the Youth Pipe Band,’ so I joined in 1965 in Powell River.
“I played into the early ‘70s and then as a teen I lost interest and moved away.”
But his interest eventually returned 10-fold and now MacLeod’s pipes can often be heard drifting from the windows of his downtown Vernon apartment.
“I love to play. When I’m stressed out about something, there are so many things to think about when you play so you can’t think about anything else. I can lose myself in the playing, especially when I’m playing a piobaireachd (the classical music of the bagpipe).”
Two years ago, MacLeod formed the North Okanagan Pipes & Drums, whose 21 members — ranging in age from 15 to 81 — have been kept busy playing a variety of events, including Creative Chaos, the Kelowna Salmon Festival and the Parkinson SuperWalk.
When he’s not marching with his band — which includes Grace on tenor drum — MacLeod works as a strength training instructor/personal trainer at the Vernon Recreation Centre and teaches the pipes to students at his home studio.
“I love all pipe music and yes, as a piper for hire I have played Amazing Grace and Scotland the Brave a lot. I will have some people request Amazing Grace, telling me it was Granny’s favourite tune, whereas I will have others say ‘whatever you do, don’t play Amazing Grace, it’s too sad.’”
The band always welcomes new members. Practices are held Wednesdays at 7 p.m at NOCLS, 2400-46th Ave. For more information, call MacLeod at 250-260-1001, see www.pipesndrums.ca or just drop in to the weekly practice.