I started playing the bagpipes with my school’s Pipe Band. It was, and still is, the only all-female band in NSW. It takes at least two years to even get onto the pipes. Playing for fifteen minutes sometimes feels like you have run a marathon, and it’s certainly not an instrument for those too attached to their sense of hearing.
Playing the bagpipes requires strength, co-ordination and pretty excellent lungs, and I was lucky enough to be in an environment that encouraged girls to pick up an instrument that is athletic and difficult-to-master. I soon came to realise, however, that outside my school, there were hardly any female pipers or drummers in pipe bands.
Every year, my band would whip out the pipes for ANZAC day. When we performed in the march and massed bands, we’d be lucky to see anything upwards of five other women.
The majority of the pipers on ANZAC day were old, white men who were often ex-pats from Scotland or Aussie blokes with proud Scottish ancestry.
With this demographic comes a culture of heavy drinking, yelling and spitting out sexual jokes. They would often make jokes about the “ladies’ band” or ask if my pipes were too heavy for me. We were always described as “well-dressed” and “pretty”, instead of being commended for our playing ability or how we sounded. Growing up, I accepted this behaviour as part of the piping community. For the male pipers, playing music in this environment is a total joy. It is a chance to let loose and celebrate their culture.
Then, I finished school and joined a professional, adult band. Now the blokey atmosphere I’d only experienced on ANZAC day became my weekly reality. This is not to say that the male pipers were all terrible people, I was just obviously different to them.
Piping and drinking go hand in hand, and badges of honour are earned through winning drinking games: the piper who can drink the most and still play their instrument is the victor. I didn’t participate. Hanging out with a pub-full of very drunk, very loud men who were mostly over 40 didn’t really appeal to me. After a year of sitting mostly by myself in rehearsals, of not being included in conversations, and being unwittingly condescended to, I decided to quit the band. Pipe Band was no longer enjoyable.
Nowadays, I play at pubs for ANZAC day, private parties, Scottish celebrations, or New Year’s Eve parties. These solo-piping gigs are a different kind of difficult. Drunk people at parties often yell or throw jokes at me, the “approachable female piper”. They think it’s funny to either a. Tell me a joke about kilts (and what may or may not be under them) or b. Straight up ask me what I’m wearing under it.
These people are also almost without fail older men. It’s not just female pipers who face uncomfortable comments from the public, but when directed towards women they are often of a sexualised nature.
So now, when I play my instrument, which is supposed to connect me to my Scottish ancestry and family, it’s almost always a negative experience.
I first started learning how to play the bagpipes when I was eight, after inheriting my late-grandfather’s instrument, and I wanted to continue the tradition of having a piper in the family.
The bagpipes are supposed to be synonymous with celebration, triumph and tradition, but this culture can be incredibly alienating and unpleasant when you aren’t the blokiest bloke who ever lived. Blowing the pipes up takes enough strength as it is, but coming up against the weight of entrenched sexism and hyper-masculinity is something the music cannot drown out.
Art: Brigitte Samaha