5 things that surprised me about bagpipe playing in Germany
When I arrived in Germany I had a vague idea through friends that there was a certain fascination with the bagpipes here, but I’ve still been taken aback by the dedication so many people show to the Dudelsack.
Here are five things I’ve noticed.
1. You hear pipes way more often than expected
I was only in Berlin for a few months when I first heard a set of bagpipes. Busily at work in my office in the city centre, I heard the unmistakable sound of the Highland pipes wafting through the window on a cold and dark December afternoon. I looked out to find a piper, in full dress, escorting a group of school kids down the street. What they were doing, I never found out.
A few weeks later I was walking through Alexanderplatz - the city’s central square - when I heard a piper busking a few hundred metres away. I spoke to him when he finished his set - he insisted he was from Glasgow - but his eastern European accent told me otherwise - it’s good to have an alter ego to keep the tourists happy though!
More recently I found a lonely busker playing in front of Berlin Cathedral in the middle of lockdown - with no tourists around! And I’ve cycled past an entire band practising in the Tempelhofer Feld. The band I play with - the Berlin Thistles - practise twice a week right in front of the presidential palace - Schloss Bellevue.
2. There are loads of bands here...
As far as I can make out Scottish Dudelsackmusik first came to German sometime in the 1980s.
There are German forms of the instrument played in the Swabian Alb - but that seems to be dying out. The Scottish form of the instrument is very much on the up though. There are dozens of bands - every major city has at least one. In Berlin alone there are three or four (depending on who you ask).
I attended the Highland Games in the small town of Peine last year - the piping competition attracted bands from across the country as well as from Belgium, the Netherlands and Denmark. They are all kitted out to perfection - (cheap joke alert) this being Germany every band is in the running for dress and turnout awards.
3. … and plenty of competitions
In the north of the country alone there are three majors meets: one in Bremen in January that focuses on solo playing; the main one in Peine in May that runs over two days and involves band and solo competitions; lastly there is one near Leipzig in the autumn that also offers bands the chance to compete against one another.
There are also a couple of major meets in the North Rhine-Westphalia and one in Baden-Württemberg. There seems to be a concentration of events in the areas where the British army was based during the Cold War. But the fact that there is one event in the former communist East shows that the pipes now have a much wider appeal.
4. The standard is pretty good
A lot of the pipers I’ve met here do it primarily for fun - and because they started learning as adults they might not have the smoothest fingers. But that doesn’t mean pipers here don’t care about achieving a good sound.
I’ve met Dudelsackspieler who can give you a half hour presentation on the differences between plastic and cane reeds - and most have a more complex water trap system in their bag than I’ve ever had.
At Peine last year I spent a couple of hours listening to Grade 2 MSR and saw pipers who clearly dedicate themselves to their playing. It was an enjoyable experience. Many seem to have first learned the pipes through summer schools put on by leading Scottish pipers such as Bruce Hitchens - which would explain why the standard is so solid.
5. The bagpipes seem to be part of a larger fascination with Scottish culture
The bagpipe competitions often seem to go hand in hand with a bigger celebration of Scottish-ness. At Peine there is caber tossing and all the rest of it, plus the bizarre spectacle of people dressed up like clan chieftains blathering away in German. Apparently there are Germans who have whole wardrobes full of Scottish tartans.
I have the feeling some of the fascination is held by slightly weird far-right types who see a macho-ness in bagpipes and Highland culture that they can't live out in their own culture. But for the most part people seem to genuinely love the sound of the instrument. I suppose, being the country that invented techno, we shouldn’t be surprised that they don’t have a problem with noise.