40 years of playing pipes pays off for Bill Herridge

When Bill Herridge took up learning to play the highland bagpipe nearly 40 years ago, he had no idea that the effort would lead to the trip of a lifetime and a special request for his musical service to the head of the largest and oldest of the Scottish clans.

“My mother was a Robertson,” Herridge explained. “The clan’s name, in Scots Gaelic, is Clan Donnachaidh (pronounced Don-ah-key), which takes its name from Stout Duncan, a friend and protector of King Robert I, also known as Robert the Bruce. Stout Duncan saved the king’s life by spoiling an assassination plot in 1306, and was rewarded with a huge parcel of land in the Highlands near Dunkeld and Pitlochry.”

He added that the land came with a royal title as Chieftain of his Clan. By royal decree, he and his successors as chieftain would be known as Struan Robertson. Today’s chieftain, a direct descendant of Stout Duncan, is Alexander Gilbert Haldane Robertson of Struan, 23rd Chieftain of Clan Donnachaidh. Although Struan Robertson is a business executive living near London, he took his father’s place as Chieftain after the elder Robertson passed away.

“The clan holds a gathering every year in Pitlochry, Perthshire, in the Highlands of Scotland,” Herridge said. “I had planned on trying to attend this year’s event, and in talking with the Clan Secretary, I told her that I had been playing bagpipes for many years. I added that we had visited Scotland three times since 1983, and that my wife, Diane, and I were looking forward to a return visit.”

With travel plans made, the Herridge’s waited for the date of departure. About a week before they were scheduled to fl y out of Waco for connections in Dallas/Fort Worth and London, a call was made from the Clan Secretary.

“She told me that the offi cial Piper to the Chief had taken ill with respiratory problems,” Herridge explained, “and she asked if there was any way I could bring my pipes and take his place for the formal events of this year’s gathering. Now, for a piper to serve as the Piper to the Chief at any clan function is a huge honor—a big, big deal. As such, I jumped at the chance and added an extra piece of luggage for my kilt and pipes.”

The Herridge’s were introduced to Struan Robertson shortly before the clan’s Annual General Meeting began in the meeting hall of the Church of Scotland in Pitlochry. In attendance were clan members from as far away as New Zealand and California. The Herridges were joined by two other couples from Texas.

“Struan was very appreciative of my willingness to fi ll in as his offi cial piper,” Herridge said. “I suppose I was a bit nervous, but he put me right at ease, and asked me what I wished to play as he was led into the meeting hall.

“I told him I thought ‘Scotland the Brave’ would make a great entry tune. He agreed with my selection and I led the way into the meeting hall with the Chieftain following behind me.”

The second event which required formal piping, Herridge, said, was the formal annual banquet held this year at the Atholl Palace, an early Victorian castle now rebranded as a five-star hotel.

“The banquet was a very formal affair, all the men in tuxedos or formal Highland dress, and the women in either ball gowns or business attire. The Atholl Palace is a beautiful old grand hotel now, and we began to know what it was once like to be in the company of royalty.”

Herridge piped the Chieftain and his extended family into the great hall to the strains of Robert Burns’ memorable tune, “Will Ye No Come Back Again.” The more than 200 clan members in attendance rose to their feet and began clapping in time with the music.

“After the formal dinner, the tables were pushed back toward the walls and a Scottish folk band came in to play for Scottish Country Dancing,” Herridge said. “As part of the evening’s festivities, the folk band offered an open microphone to anyone with specifi c musical talent to entertain the Chieftain and his family.

“I had brought along my lowland smallpipes in addition to the big set, and I played a couple of Scottish waltzes dedicated to the ladies of the Chieftain’s family. I also accompanied four American women, one of whom had appeared in musical shows on Broadway, as they sang ‘Amazing Grace.’ There wasn’t a dry eye in the palace.”

The following Saturday evening, the members of the clan were invited to join the Chieftain as he led them onto the Esplanade of Edinburgh Castle to open the world-famous Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo show. The show, featuring military pipe bands, brass bands and other entertainment acts from around the world, is traditionally opened with the Commanding General of the Black Watch Regiment of the British Army sharing a dram of Highland single malt whiskey with an invited VIP—this year being the Clan Chieftain of Clan Donnachaidh.

“Struan arranged for his fellow clansmen and women to join him on the Esplanade of the castle to open this year’s Tattoo,” Herridge said. “That in itself was a virtually unheard of honor for those of us Robertson kin who attended the event. The pipe bands of the Black Watch, the Royal Regiment of Scotland, the Kings Own Scottish Borderers, and military pipe bands from Australia, Canada and New Zealand appeared on the fi eld during the show, plus the Band of the Royal Marines, the band of Japanese Central Forces, the Band of the Indian Navy and a large group of fi ddlers from Iceland.

“For me, the highlight of the two-hour show came when the Band of the US Navy European Command came marching out of the castle and onto the Esplanade playing ‘Anchors Aweigh.’ Made Diane and me extremely proud to be Americans.”

The final formal event of the gathering came the following Sunday morning. A special church service was held at the Old Kirk in the village of Struan. The burial ground surrounding the kirk, Herridge said, includes the resting places of 12 previous clan chieftains, including the third and fourth Chieftains who died during the time of English King Henry VIII. During the service, presided over by a Presbyterian (Church of Scotland) minister from Perth, the current Chieftain led the congregation out into the burial ground where the minister led a short period of remembrance.

“During that time I played an old, old Scottish lament, called ‘Struan Robertson’s Salute,’ Herridge said. “The tune was written in the 1500s to honor the sixth Struan who fell dead during the Battle of Dunkeld during the Scottish Wars of Independence. The old kirk, or church, was built in 1825 over the foundation of the original church, built in the 1200s. Hearing my pipes, playing that old sad lament, echoing off the walls of the valley, was a moving experience I’ll never forget.

“Our visit to Scotland was almost like going back to the time when the Highlands of Scotland were ruled over by feudal lords and chieftains. Ancient buildings were in abundance, and the reverence that Scots hold for their history was evident everywhere we went.

“I do recall a conversation with one of our new Scottish friends,” Herridge said. “He was complaining about the rule of the Royal Family over Scotland, and what he saw was a great inequity in taxation to support the Royals down in London. I smiled and told him that we in America solved that problem for ourselves in 1776.”

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