One afternoon aboard the Clipper Odyssey the Taieri Pipe Band performed for us. The band, over a hundred years old, is made up of three drummers, four pipers, a keyboardist, an accordion player, a saxophone player, a conductor and an emcee. They wore the tartan of the Campbell clan and were dressed to perfection, right down to the wee black sporren. They played several tunes, including “O Flower of Scotland,” and “Sailing from Liverpool.”

“O Flower of Scotland” begins:

O flower of Scotland
When will we see your like again
That fought and died for
Your wee bits hill and glen
And stood against them
Proud Edwards army
And sent them home to think again.

The musicians were deadly serious. Not one of them cracked a smile. This wasn’t just music. It was sacred music. The memory of Scotland was as precious to the players and their audience as it was precarious. The pipers weren’t just players. They were curators.

The leader was an ancient reed of a man. His hands shook so violently from palsy that, when the Captain treated him to scotch on the rocks (what else?), someone had to hold the glass while he drank through a straw. He began each song by calling the musicians to attention; then to the ready. He marked the tempo. The bagpipes began their mournful drone. The others joined in.

The snare drummer was a hefty woman who worked as a social worker when she wasn’t playing. She twirled the drumsticks over her shoulders on lanyards and in between the gymnastics, touched the drumhead in time to the music. One of the great events of her life was to play in the tattoo at Edinburgh Castle in Scotland with hosts of other drummers and pipers.

When the music began, the Dunedin residents in the audience actually bowed their heads. Later, one of them told me the music made the hair on the back of his neck stand up.

It must be hard to maintain a vibrant connection when you are 10,000 miles from the mother country, the fatherland, the heartland. That was what the Taieri Pipe Band was doing for these generations of Scotsmen who were centuries away from their homeland, some of whom may never have even seen it.

I find this connection to the past hard to identify with. I can’t imagine a musical lifeline to the eastern Europe that my ancestors escaped from, my parents since their version of Carry Me Back to Old Odessa. Of course "escaped" is the operative word. Most Americans, except, of course, for the native Americans—the ones who were here first—have descended from people who couldn’t wait to get away from their mother country. Many of them escaped. Some of them were chased out, which is not the same thing. But a musical tradition nostalgic for the land of the pogram, the persecution, the poverty, the poorhouse, is unthinkable.

I listened to the Taieri Pipe Band with pleasure as well as astonishment, with everything appropriate, in fact, except empathy.

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