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A Piper at the Gates of Yale

Ah, the enchanting sounds of the shoreline: seagulls, the soporific cadence of the waves, clanking halyards, the breathless melody of bagpipes. It’s all so familiar, so local, so…

Wait. Bagpipes?

That’s right. George Martin of Deep River, veteran piper of over 40 years, says he could easily put together at least 50 Connecticut bagpipers for a performance at the drop of a bonnet. “Just give me a couple of days. There are 23-24 pipe bands around here, each with maybe 20 to 50 members.”

There are definitely Scots among us keeping the pibroch alive, replete with kilts, waistcoats, silk hose, garters, and Highland headgear. And while the customary venue for bagpipes is the solemn funeral rite of police officers, firefighters and EMTs, Martin says the distinctive sound of bagpipes is increasingly sought for weddings, birthday parties, and bar mitzvahs.

In fact, Martin has provided the accompaniment for commencement exercises at Trumbull College at Yale for the last five years, and he is the chief bagpiper for Yale’s Berkley College, too.

Momentous events soaked in tradition ache for bagpipes, with all the pomp, circumstance, and costume that accompany them. But sometimes you just want to hear the sound. If so, head over to Clinton and Scottish Dave’s Pub by 5:30 on a Saturday night and get your ceòl mòr on with The Corby’s traditional Celtic band.

Dave Robertson, owner of Scottish Dave’s Pub, claims that his establishment is the only authentic Scottish pub in Connecticut, and certainly the only place between New York City and Boston where you can get a haggis supper. There’s a reason for that: Scottish immigrants, who came here for the same reasons most settlers did – to outrun political unrest, prison sentences, or poverty – settled south of the New England states, primarily in Pennsylvania – where Martin hails from. Now he (and haggis) are here.

The Scots quickly proved established themselves in the New World. Aaron Burr, Alexander Hamilton, and James Buchanan, among other notables, shared Scots ancestry. They imported a legendary flair for statesmanship, and music. Scottish fiddle playing (which evolved into bluegrass) seems to have stayed down south. When the Scots moved northward to establish communities in New York, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Connecticut, they brought along their bagpipes, and their history.

“The name Trumbull is a corruption of the name Turnbull, after a peasant who bravely turned a bull away from attacking his king in the 14th century,” says Debbie Rueb, senior administrative assistant in the master’s office of Trumbull College at Yale. “That Scottish thick brogue, with its heavily rolled R, accounts for the confusion.” Former Connecticut governor Jonathon Trumbull, after whom the college was named, was very likely from a family that started out as “Turnbull” generations before.

Which all helps explain why bagpipes are here today, seducing the Nutmeg State with their dreamlike nasal song. “I was hooked when Shirley Temple marched to bagpipes in Wee Willie Winkie,” says Ivoryton resident Tim Young, who is taking lessons from Martin. He doesn’t think he’s good enough to play for an audience yet, so he just marches to his own piping at present. “I just love the tunes,” he says.

Whether bagpipes drifted down with Scottish settlers in Nova Scotia (which means New Scotland, by the way) or were hauled up from Virginia, small towns along the Connecticut coast are lucky to be home to a real community of pipers. Here’s why: Have a listen.

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