Rebuilding a musical tradition

John Brannen
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Heatherbells Pipes and Drums celebrating 50 years with Summer Sounds, Nov. 9 concerts

PICTOU – It was almost a decade after returning from war in Europe that veteran musician Harold Sutherland decided to begin teaching young girls in Pictou how to play the bagpipes.

The Heatherbells Pipes and Drums Band plays at the 2011 Festival of the Tartans as Piper Robbie Macinnis, left, looks on. The band will be celebrating 50 years of making music with performances on the deCoste Centre deck before Summer Sounds concerts on Thursday and a special tribute concert on Nov. 9. 

Almost 50 years later, the sound of the pipes and drums from both boys and girls can still be heard loud and clear.

The Heatherbells Pipes and Drums Band is celebrating nearly half a century of a Pictou County music tradition. According to one of the bands instructors, the group has been through five decades of ups and downs.

“They had their heyday and low period and now we’re on the upswing again,” said Robbie MacInnis, pipe major of Na Gaisgich Pipes and Drums Band.

The band has been growing in numbers in recent years. While it used to be an all-girls band, boys now play and make up half of the 20-member band.

As part of the Summer Sounds series at the deCoste Centre, pipe bands in the county have taken to the centre’s deck before each of the shows. The Pictou County Pipes and Drums play on Tuesdays, Clan Thompson Pipe Band on Wednesdays and Na Gaisgish shares the stage with the Heatherbells on Thursdays.

The Heatherbells have had a busy year so far and there’s the playing season isn’t over yet. It started off with Pipes of War Concert, the Westville Canada Day Parade, The Lobster Carnival and other events throughout the province. While they have a few other parades later this summer, the band isn’t quite back to the level of fame it enjoyed under the direction of Sutherland.

“In the 60s and 70s, the band travelled extensively,” said MacInnis. “They went to Mexico, New Jersey, New York City and the Calgary Stampede to name a few.”  

He said the rich history of youth pipe band will be celebrated at a concert on Nov. 9 at the deCoste Centre, now under the instruction of Suzanne MacKenzie and Nathan Smith. It will also pay tribute to the veterans who, over the years, have shown leadership in keeping the band going.

“Even today, the legion still sponsors the Heatherbells every year,” said MacInnis. “These guys played a lot during the war and when they came back to Pictou County, they still wanted to play.”

Recently, the band was front and centre during the Royal Tour of Prince Charles and Camilla. The concert on Nov. 9 also serves as a fundraiser for to replace drums, kilts and pipes as some of the band’s gear reaches back to the 1960s. For MacInnis it’s more about just playing.

“That’s where you perpetuate culture pass on tradition at a younger age,” he said. “It’s the discipline of music, tuning up and everything else involved. When they’re walking down with the uniform, they take pride in their appearance.”

john.brannen@ngnews.ca

On Twitter: @NGNewsJohn

Organizations: Pictou County Pipes, Calgary Stampede, Royal Tour of Prince Charles

Geographic location: Pictou County, Mexico, New Jersey New York City

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