Sunday, 28 April 2013

The Amazing Race 22, Episode 9

Berlin (Germany) - Edinburgh, Scotland (U.K.)

This week The Amazing Race 22 went to Scotland, where the racers spent their time visiting castles, interacting with actors playing characters from Scotland’s past, and otherwise exploring Scotland’s history and tourist image rather than its oil-exporting present.

The most difficult challenge for one member of each two-person team of racers was to learn to sustain a single note on a set of bagpipes long enough to march one circuit around the mezzanine of the castle’s great hall with the other members of a pipe and drum band.

It was harder than they expected. “I played the trumpet for four years. I can totally do this,” Meghan thought — until she tried it.

It’s obvious that playing the bagpipes involves a particular skill, unique to this instrument, of manipulating the air bag. It’s less obvious how complex a set of bagpipes is in other ways.

My own exposure to how much is involved in learning to play the bagpipes came on a childhood visit with my family to the Gaelic College in St. Ann’s, Nova Scotia.

Nova Scotia means “New Scotland”. What is now the Canadian province was founded as a legally distinct Scottish, not English, colonial territory. Much of the population traces its ancestry to Scotland, and Nova Scotia remains a center of Scottish cultural traditions (including, as often happens in such diasporic communities with the passage of time, traditions that have been all but forgotten in the homeland as it has changed in different ways).

The Gaelic College is a bona fide educational institution that offers instruction in the Scottish Gaelic language (not to be confused with the closely related language or dialect sometimes called “Irish Gaelic” but more often referred to today simply as “Irish”) as well as in Celtic dance, drama, storytelling, weaving and other crafts, and sundry Celtic musical instruments and styles including bagpiping.

I haven’t been back in many years, although the Maritimes are high on my list of places I hope to revisit and further explore. A little Internet research, however, seems to confirm that the Gaelic College of Celtic Arts and Crafts is still operating in the same location with a similar curriculum, including classes in elementary, intermediate, and advanced bagpiping.

The Gaelic College is also something of a tourist attraction along the Cabot Trail, the scenic coastal highway that circles Cape Breton Island. (No longer actually an island, for what it’s worth, since the construction of the Canso Causeway.) The Gaelic College defrays some of its expenses through sales of handicrafts such as tartan fabric, instructional materials, and so forth at its gift and craft shop.

My family had planned only a brief visit to the Gaelic College, but ended up being delayed considerably by a flat tire in the parking lot. That made us a captive audience for a class of beginning bagpipers lined up in the same parking lot, droning, while an instructor went up and down the lines trying to show them how to tune their instruments.

Watching the process (and trying not to listen!) strongly impressed me with the complexity of the task, and disabused me of any foolish notions I might have had, if I had any musical ability (which I don’t), to dishonor the Scottish ancestors on on both sides of my family by trying to advance from playing a simpler wind instrument very badly to playing the bagpipes even worse.

If there’s a lesson here, it’s that activities or experiences that visitors think of as cultural “grace notes” or background elements in their experience of a place — like the sound of bagpipes in Scotland — may be, for local participants, something that has occupied a major portion of their lives in study, practice, and performance.

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 28 April 2013, 23:59 (11:59 PM)
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