It’s your birthday, your anniversary or a special event and you want a request, the choices are:
Send flowers, cards, maybe a lucky readout on the radio or….how about a tune played on the bagpipes complete with a personal message….from 3,000 ft up a mountain?
Grant MacLeod is on a personal quest to climb each and every Munro mountain in the Scottish Highlands, play his bagpipes and say a big hello from the top of each and every one of them. I ask Grant how this unique offer started.
“It all started when I was asked to play bagpipes at a wedding which is all part of my services as a piper, but this time it was in Greece and just wasn’t financially possible. So I suggested that instead, I’d send them a video from the top of a mountain of me playing my pipes which they could play at the reception. They loved the idea. I always had an ambition to climb the hills of Scotland, and further afield, so this was the start of a personal challenge to scale all the Scottish Munros with my bagpipes and play from each summit.
Word soon got out and I’ve been busy ever since, climbing the Munros, playing many requests for people all over the world. It’s a really unique and personal gift to have and to share with friends.”
For those of us who aren’t aware of the finer details of the Munro Tops, they are a range of Scottish mountains all with summits over 3,000 ft (914.4metres), some 282 in total, of which Grant has so far scaled a ‘calf and thigh’ clenching 106!
“Only 176 to go”, laughs Grant, “I’ve always had a fascination for these high peaks jutting skyward often surrounded by mist and clouds, and hike up there at every opportunity. It’s a fascination I still have and enjoy. I’m so lucky to be able to put this into perspective as The Munro Bagpiper and to showcase Scotland the best way I can. I play at famous locations including the Munro range of mountains and at historic events.
I was born in Glasgow but we moved up to Glenelg in the Scottish Highlands when I was just seven years old. I don’t really remember much about city life at all, as most weekends and holidays were spent staying with my Grandparents who lived within the mountain area.”
When did you actually start to play the bagpipes?
“I started when I was about 8 years old, we had a very good teacher who came once a week to our school. At first, I just played the chanter, to build up breathing exercises before launching into a full set of pipes. I absolutely loved it and it soon became an obsessive hobby that I enjoyed so much that I started to compete in competitions.”
Can you hike up a Munro, perform, and climb back down again all in one day?
“So far I’ve been able to complete most in one day, as they were fairly close to home, but as I’m ticking them off, I have to travel further each time therefore looking at the finer details. My van is kitted out as a camper, which is my accommodation as well as transport. Some of the climbs take many hours, so I’m always thinking ahead about the last strides to the summit and that feeling when I look back down and also what songs to play, especially if it’s a beautiful sunny day, it’s quite emotional.
I’m often asked which has been my favourite mountain to climb so far, I can’t answer that, everyone is an incredible experience for me. The likes of Beinn Dorain by the Bridge of Orchy, which reaches up 3530 ft (1,076m) is just another example of the imposing nature of these mountains, which can often be covered in snow from a low level and can hamper both the ascent and descent. I often have to call on my mountain goat genes”, he laughs.
“I always stop and take in and photograph the views which are spectacular in every direction, mile upon mile of stunning undeveloped Scottish wilderness. It’s not always crisp and sunny up there; it can be really cold, wet and windy which can all slow me down. I sometimes get a bit nervous, wondering if my hands and lips will thaw enough to play after a long cold climb. It’s just myself and a camera on a rock to record the event, so I have to concentrate.”
There’s obviously less oxygen the higher you climb, does this have an effect on your breathing when playing the pipes or on the pipes themselves?
“Well, yes, the air is thinner up there of course, although I can’t scientifically prove if it has an effect on my performance as a piper, it’s more to do with the fact that I’m knackered after such a tough climb. Adverse weather conditions can have a dramatic effect on the performance of the pipes, although I have one of the cool Fusion Bagpipe gig bags, so at least they’re snug and dry inside and well protected if I take a tumble, heaven forbid, and the padded backpack straps come into their own too. Plenty of space as well, I can carry all the things I need, including pipe accessories and tools, camera equipment and full survival kit, like face cream and lip balm”…he laughs.
“Like I mentioned, I’m recording all the treks so the pipes have to be reasonably in tune which I have to think about, especially if the temperature is minus 5 and still dropping. It’s pretty much always windy which you can hear on my videos and I climb and play in my kilt which can grab the attention of other hikers below, if you know what I mean. Anyone who is familiar with kilts may recognise I’m wearing the ancient MacLeod of Harris tartan as my Grandfather is from Harris which is our family clan.”
Mountain weather can change in an instant, from clear blue sky to driving rain and snow, you must love all seasons, but which do you prefer?
“Autumn”, explains Grant, “Without doubt, winter can be spectacular, but autumn is quite magical for me. The mountains just change colour and looking back down on the trees far below as the leaves change colour is breathtaking, there’s nothing like it. There’s very often a heavy frost or a sprinkling of snow in the mornings that lingers into the late afternoon, and the sun rises and sets lower during the daylight hours. I always take photographs during the climb and from the top, many of which will be featured in a 2021 calendar.”
Have you got a favourite summit song, a personal one that is?
“This is probably one of the questions I get asked the most, and one I can never give a straight answer. It really depends on so many circumstances. I adore The Sleeping Tune by Gordon Duncan which is a beautiful song.
I ask Grant to put himself in the position of the hiker below who gets the hair raising chills and becomes teary-eyed as hears the pipes on the wind.
“Like I mentioned, I’ve now scaled 106 Munro maintains all of which are over 3,000ft and each one is a moving experience especially when I take that last breath on the pipes before heading back down. However, one of the finest moments, as The Munro Bagpiper, was playing on one of the summits along the Cuillin Ridge on the Island of Skye.
The sound carried and echoed around the valleys and when I finished my piece there came back a round of applause from other high points along the ridge. It was so emotional, even now when I think about it. The whole Cuillin Ridge seemed to stop and listen, I would have loved to have heard it randomly being amongst those walkers. The Cuillins are a memorable hike anyway, but to be on a summit and by chance hear the bagpipes, you can’t get much more Scottish than that!”
You obviously enjoy the solitude of the solo climber and indeed mountain piper, do you also perform with other musicians, pipers in particular?
“Apart from climbing the Munros, I’m busy playing at organised events, weddings, castles, battlegrounds, waterfalls and rivers all that sort of thing which I love, and with my own approach on things which is all part of my project to tour Scotland with the pipes. I’ll collaborate with other musicians and pipes now and again, and I’m currently in discussions about joining a pipe and drum band, but normally it’s just me.”
It’s a known fact that bagpipes are not the quietest of instruments and can reach in excess of 111 decibels, which is actually louder than a police siren, not good to practice indoors then?
“I can rehearse quietly with just the chanter, I’m not allowed to rehearse in the house with a full set of pipes. I get sent up a mountain to do that”, he laughs, “My main set of pipes are made by the David Naill Company which are actually crafted in Minehead in Somerset, England. They’re beautifully made and have an exceptionally good tone.”
I’m fascinated about the climb, Grant, it must be a feeling of elation when you reach the peaks, how do you celebrate…let me guess, with a wee dram of whiskey no doubt?
“No….it’s one of the disappointing facts about me, I’m a Scotsman through and through who plays the bagpipes, climbs mountains, but doesn’t drink whisky!” he remarks, “I’ve been rewarded for gigs with bottles of the best Scottish whisky, but I don’t drink it, I have quite a collection now.”
About the Author
With over 30 years in the music business, Lars Mullen does indeed wear many hats, as a writer, journalist, photographer, press person for his own company Music Media Announcements. As an extensive traveller, he's a familiar figure reporting from music trade shows around the world. Spending many years touring as a professional guitarist, Lars has also interviewed a host of top bands and artists, continues to write articles for magazines globally and still finds time to track down Fusion artists for our Artist Spotlight column.