‘A magical experience’: Ottawa bagpipe troupe among last to perform for the Queen

By CityNews Staff

When Dave Inglis took up the bagpipes at age 40, he never imagined he would one day perform for royalty.

But last month, Inglis travelled to Scotland with 16 of his bandmates from Ottawa's Sons of Scotland pipe and drum troupe for a string of shows that ended with a performance at Balmoral Castle in front of the Queen. The royal performance included more than 40 pipers and drummers from across the globe, accompanied by almost as many Highland dancers.

They played and danced for the Queen in the castle courtyard for about 30 minutes, Inglis, now 61, said in an interview Monday from his home in suburban Montreal. Inglis said their performance was among the last public or private shows of any kind ⁠— let alone the bagpipes ⁠— to entertain Queen Elizabeth II before her death at Balmoral Thursday at age 96.

“It was a magical experience,” Inglis said, adding that it was clear the Queen enjoyed herself. “I think the saying is, 'You know the Queen is enjoying the show when she taps her foot to the music.'”

Bethany Bisaillion, the Sons of Scotland's pipe major, thinks corgis ⁠— the short-legged dogs so beloved by the Queen ⁠— may have had something to do with the group's invitation to play at Balmoral on Aug. 17 as part of Platinum Jubilee celebrations of the Queen's 70-year reign.

The band makes a trip to Scotland each year, and they had played for the Queen four times before, Bisaillion, 55, said in an interview Monday. Hoping they'd be able to entertain her again this year, Bisaillion wrote in February to ask but received no reply.

In May, after the band hosted a weekend of Platinum Jubilee celebrations in Ottawa that included a march of about 70 corgis, Bisaillion said she got a response after she sent a package to the Royal Household that included pictures of the little dogs strutting the streets. 

Sure enough, they were invited to play at Balmoral.

“I was so excited,” Bisaillion said. “Being around her was just such a warm and wonderful feeling. She was extraordinary and welcoming. She was just funny and nice and kind, and she is everything you'd hope she would be.”

The Queen was a passionate fan of bagpipe and drum music, Bisaillion added. She had her own piper to the sovereign — most recently Pipe Major Paul Burns of the Royal Regiment of Scotland — who is said to have woken her up with a tune each day at 9 a.m. It's a tradition that dates back to Queen Victoria, who appointed a piper in 1843, Bisaillion said.

When they arrived in Scotland, the Sons of Scotland band members travelled from show to show in a bus, “like bagpiping rock stars,” Inglis said.

Arriving at Balmoral Castle on the morning of Aug. 17, they met bagpipers, drummers and dancers who'd travelled in from countries including Australia, Ireland and Mexico. After a quick rehearsal in the parking lot, they all marched in to perform together, Inglis said. They played “the standards,” he said, including such pieces as “The Green Hills of Tyrol” and “The Skye Boat Song.”

Bisaillion was among those allowed to greet the Queen in person. “She said, 'Well, hello again,'” Bisaillion recalled, and even asked how the Ottawa band had done at a recent competition.

Bisaillion said she was devastated when she learned the Queen had died, just three weeks later.

“When we saw her, she looked just terrific — she looked happy and well,” she said. “It was really surreal to hear of her passing. When we left, the equerry said, 'Next time you come, we want you to march more.' And I thought, 'Good, maybe that'll keep the door open for another performance.'”

Inglis said he, too, was taken aback by the news of the Queen's death, noting that she seemed healthy and happy at the performance. He said he is grateful he jumped at the chance to join his bandmates in Scotland, and he's glad he decided to learn such an unconventional instrument.

“Picking up the bagpipe is one of the best, top-five things I've done with my life,” Inglis said. “It's a whole passport into this incredible world of piping culture, and it was the bagpipe that led me to meet and play for Her Majesty.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 13, 2022.

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