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By Angie Wieck, Published March 11 2012

It's My Job: Scottish instrument a lifelong passion for Kindred man

KINDRED, N.D. – The bagpipes have been a companion to Dan Aird throughout his life from his teen years in Montana, to college in Bottineau, N.D., to his service in the military, a teaching stint in Scotland, a career in archeology and eventually to Kindred, his current home.

Aird spends his days substitute teaching for Fargo Public Schools and his evenings as bagpipe instructor and director for Fargo-Moorhead bagpipe band Heather & Thistle.

He recently sat down to talk about the band and his own interest in learning the bagpipes.

How and when did you become interested in playing the bagpipes?

When I was a kid I heard bagpipes and I really liked the sound. If I could have learned 10 years earlier I would’ve, but I didn’t have any idea how to do that. I eventually found a kid that was my age (at college in Bottineau) who knew how to play the pipe and he taught me. And then he introduced me to his teacher, Baden Hathaway.

What is the history of the Heather & Thistle band?

It began with the St. Andrew’s Society, a local group of people of Scottish descent who would gather for Burns Night, an annual celebration of the Scottish national poet Robert Burns. In 1992, society members Nelson Stone and George Pratt decided that they should start a bagpipe band. They found a man named Steve Orr and asked him if he would teach people to play. Orr often traveled for work and eventually moved away, so I took over as pipe major because I was the only one who knew how to play the pipe.

You were the only one in the band who knew how to play?

Yes, they were just learners. I had taught beginners at the College of Piping in Glasgow, Scotland, before that. I had experience teaching beginners.

How did you get the opportunity to teach in Scotland?

I was stationed in the Air Force in England when my term of service ended. There was a provision in the law where your ticket back would be good for a year after your time was up. I had taught and played with a band in Washington called the Angus Scott Memorial Pipe Band, and one of the kids from that band was in Scotland at the time. I went to visit her, and I also contacted Seumas MacNeill, someone whom I had attended intensive bagpipe training with one summer in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. He was the principal of the College of Piping in Glasgow, Scotland, and he asked if I would come up and teach beginners.

Besides your many St. Patrick’s Day performances, what other occasions does the Heather & Thistle band perform at?

Every year we perform at the St. Andrews Dinner on the first Saturday in November as well as at First Presbyterian Church in Fargo the following day. Individuals often play at funerals because the tradition is for a lone bagpiper, but the whole band has played at a few. We play each year at the Police Memorial Day observance in Lindenwood Park (in Fargo). We’ve played the CROP Walk in Pelican Rapids, Minn., several times. We often play at parades in surrounding towns.

How many members are in Heather & Thistle?

We have 12 pipers in the regular band. We have four intermediate ones who are learning on the pipe, and we have eight chanter students who are just starting. (The practice chanter is an instrument that looks similar to a recorder that is often used to teach beginners.) We also have three drummers, and we’d love to have more. If we could have one drummer for every bagpiper, we’d be happy. We’d love to have more bagpipers, too.

Is there anyone in the band not of Scottish descent?

Oh yeah, we’ve had every nationality. … In Europe, probably before 1700, there were pipers in every country. ... In some countries, they still play their traditional pipes.

How many songs do you prepare?

It depends. If we play for a half-hour concert, we pick tunes that will fill that time. Many members know as many as 50 tunes that they have memorized, and we’re learning new ones all the time.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Angie Wieck at (701) 241-5501