The Third Lung

Thomas plays quite well, but doesn’t play when Magnus is around, generously admitting, “He plays so much better than I do.”

Magnus Orr is one of the top pipers in the world. When Magnus plays you realize that if Eric Clapton played bagpipes, that’s pretty much what he’d sound like. Magnus is that good. Born in the small northern Scotland village of Thurso, Magnus is a friendly, outgoing man who loves a good laugh.

At nine or ten a teacher gave him the opportunity to learn bagpipes. He took it and trained in a competitive environment, the teacher pushing him hard. At sixteen he played before a crowd of 800 in Germany and loved it.

In Switzerland a street musician, wearing a tuxedo and playing the saxophone, caught his eye. Figuring the sax player made a lot of money, Magnus began playing the pipes in the street and the crowds loved him. Soon he was making six to eight times what the sax player made. It was then he understood the magic of the pipes.

Thomas Grotrian, Magnus’ business partner and longtime friend, was born in Edinburgh. “I’m from a family of pipers,” Thomas begins. Thomas reminds me of George Harrison with his quiet, shy demeanor, and a deliciously sharp wit. Thomas lived in London from age thirteen to eighteen. “The first record I had was the Royal Scots Dragoon Guard’s 1971 version of “Amazing Grace.”

“Why pipes?” I ask.

“To annoy English people,” he grins. “When you leave Scotland you become twice as Scottish. When I got older I learned piping got you free drinks and the girls.”

Magnus and Thomas met while “busking” in Edinburgh. A “busker” is what we call a street musician.

“You could work in a bar and earn 4 pounds a day, or you could earn 40 to 50 pounds an hour busking, far more sensible. There were four choice spots in Edinburgh for playing and about ten musicians, so we all took our turns and each made a good living,” Thomas adds.

The bagpipe is a difficult instrument to maintain and frustrating when it’s not working properly. Four reeds control the sound and can go bad at any time. Thomas once had one go out, stranding him in the middle of a funeral procession; when it happens the bag deflates and you’re out of business.

“Some good innovations have come along in the last ten years. The bags were made of sheepskin and you had to put an egg yolk inside to seal it. You can imagine the smell,” Magnus grins. Now the bags are synthetic with the same tight sealing zippers used by divers. Synthetic reeds are now more reliable and less sensitive to moisture than the cane reeds. Magnus demonstrates the technique, filling the bag with air, and with his left arm gradually squeezing air out and refilling it. “It’s like a third lung, out of sync,” he laughs.

Bagpipes have great power. Shortly after Germany reunited, Magnus, Thomas and several friends marched through Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate playing pipes; the crowds went wild. Thomas explains, “Pipes make you straighten up, are somber at a funeral, exciting at a party, stirring in battle. It’s raw emotion.”

“It’s an instrument that can make you laugh or cry and not many countries can boast a national instrument,” Magnus adds.

“The didgeridoo?” Thomas quietly offers.

“Yeah,” Magnus’ accent thickens in relation to the fun he’s having, “but if we all took out didgeridoo’s at Wunderbar or the Peint O Gwrw like we did the other night with the pipes, do you think it would have been the same?”

In 1995 Magnus and Thomas began organizing Pipe Fests. In 2001 they formulated plans for one the following spring in New York City. Then 9/11 happened and they considered cancellation. Within twenty-four hours the phone was ringing off the hook, more pipe bands signing up and New Yorkers pleading, “Please don’t cancel, we need this.” Sir Sean Connery even called asking to be involved.

Last April 8,500 pipers, representing thirty countries, marched up 6th Avenue in New York, Connery out front as the Grand Marshal. It was a glorious day. In February this year they marched in Paris, in Chicago on March 30th and this Saturday, April 5 the sounds of pipes will once again fill the streets of New York. And it’s all to support cancer charities.

Thomas & Magnus at Hudson Opera House
Courtesy of Leslie Magson

Thomas’ dream is to run the Edinburgh Military Tattoo and organize the Queen’s next Diamond Jubilee, “Originally I wanted to be a film director. This is like directing without camera and crew.”

Magnus wants to see a block of 20,000 pipers and 20,000 clansmen parade at the Dunedin Gathering, Edinburgh in 2005.

There is a Celtic saying, “Dance as if no one were watching, sing as if no one were listening and live every day as if it were your last.” That’s how Magnus and Thomas live, good people living their dreams. That’s why it’s so much fun when they’re around. We’ll talk next time From The Road.

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