School Spirit Meets Scottish Tradition

by Gabrielle Balzell
Photos Courtesy of Monmouth College

Great Scot! Ever wonder what all that commotion at Monmouth College is about?

It’s an unmistakable sound. That soothing, drawling harmony—or awful, screeching noise… depending on how you hear it—is unique to the Scottish bagpipes. Their haunting melodies salute fallen heroes, evoke feelings of joy at celebrations, and resonate through the air during marching parades. And in rural Monmouth, Illinois, their distinctive drone is a surefire way to rouse up some school spirit.

Highlander History
Situated an hour west of Peoria in Warren County, Monmouth College is home to about 1,300 undergraduate students, known as “the fighting Scots.” Since its 1853 establishment by Scotch-Irish Presbyterian pioneers, the small liberal arts school has honored the heritage of its founders in many ways, perhaps most visibly—and audibly—through its award-winning Monmouth College Pipe Band.

“It differentiates us from a lot of schools,” says Jeff Rankin, Monmouth’s director of college communications. “The fact that we have a band that not only sounds different, but sort of embodies our tradition is what’s interesting about it.”

The droning of bagpipes has been heard on the college’s campus for more than six decades, ever since former marching band leader Hal Loya learned to play the nine-note instrument in the late 1940s and started teaching students how to do the same. Over time, as the number of pipers grew, so did Loya’s desire to form an official college pipe band, and in 1957, the school was able to outfit six bagpipers to organize the Monmouth Highland Pipe Band. By the early ‘60s, the band had grown to include additional pipers, as well as a troupe of traditional Scottish Highland dancers and drummers, who revved up the crowds and honored Monmouth’s Scottish roots at school events.

Over the years, interest in bagpiping waxed and waned as students came and went, and at times, recruiting new players was nearly as difficult as learning to play the bagpipes themselves. At its low point in the early 1990s, membership dropped to just a single piper, and the once-great Highlanders seemed destined to fade into a distant memory.

Breathing New Life into Old Traditions
In 1994, new Monmouth College President Sue Huseman embarked on a campaign to revive some of the school’s traditions, including the Monmouth College Pipe Band. Besides procuring an official college tartan—a Scottish, plaid textile designating a particular clan—to be used for new uniforms, Huseman enlisted the help of some former band members to teach free bagpipe lessons in hopes of building up interest and membership once again.

While some students jumped at the opportunity, the numbers still weren’t enough. That’s when Huseman and other Pipe Band enthusiasts established a scholarship program, and the school began offering two full-ride awards. This effort succeeded in revitalizing the group, and made Monmouth not only one of the very few colleges to have its own pipe band, but one of even fewer to offer bagpiping scholarships.

In 2002, the band got another boost when Dr. Tim Tibbetts, a biology professor, stepped in as director. Somehow, Dr. Tibbetts managed to convince the administration to award 10 full-ride scholarships, which ended the school’s Pipe Band enrollment problems for good. Today, the band boasts 15 members, and the promise of tuition assistance has drawn players from all across the U.S. and even Canada. Currently, all student members are on a full or partial scholarship for bagpiping or Highland drumming.

Sound of the School
With the band back in full swing, Monmouth College has become well-known for its bagpipes and the nostalgia they often evoke. “By and large, the students and everyone at Monmouth really identify the bagpipes with the school,” Dr. Tibbetts remarks. “And if they don’t like the bagpipes… they either learn to like them or learn to avoid them!”

In fact, the school’s Pipe Band has practically gained iconic status, playing at athletic events, parades, building dedications, holiday festivities… and the list goes on. “There’s a lot of fun associated with it, but also this really solemn tradition,” Rankin says. “People say they still get chills when they hear the music.” Songs like “Scotland the Brave” and “The Green Hills of Tyrol” are popular tunes that crowds have come to know and love, while many students have bittersweet memories of another Pipe Band tradition. Every April, in the wee hours of the morning on Founders Day, the band parades through the dorms, rousing students out of their slumber with their raucous sounds.

“Monmouth alumni have this really deep affection for bagpipe music,” Rankin continues. “It’s something they grow to love. When they come back for homecoming or whatever, that sound… it just brings back their college days. It’s something they never forget.”

“The students are very proud to have the bagpipes as a kind of mascot,” affirms Andrew Macphail, the band’s pipe major. Hailing from Hamilton, Ontario, Macphail is of Scottish descent and comes from a long line of pipers and Highland dancers. Having played the bagpipes since the age of 10, he jumped at the chance to receive a college education in exchange for his piping talent. For the past three years, he’s enjoyed the team atmosphere the Pipe Band brings to Monmouth, as well as the chance to bond with his peers. “Playing the bagpipes has given me lots of opportunities,” he explains. “Not just for education, travel and friends, but to expand myself as a person. It’s really a great art.”

Though a spirited and comical group, Macphail asserts that the band is about more than just fun and games. Its members are fierce competitors, participating in individual contests in the off-season and as a group at national tournaments during the school year. Among its recent successes, the band took first place in the grade-three division at the 2011 Arkansas Scottish Festival and the Scottish Highland Games in 2010.

A New Identity
While Dr. Tibbetts tries to take the band to a national competition every spring, he notes that members are in demand year-round. “We’re really the visible aspect of the college in many ways,” he explains. “Students, when they graduate, want to have a bagpiper at their wedding. If they’re an alum and they’ve passed on, they may want a bagpiper at the funeral service… Even the sad occasions, people really appreciate having a bagpiper there.”

And that appreciation has drawn a lot of attention to the college, not just locally, but across the country. Rankin says it has given the college a national identity and helped put it on the international map, in addition to bringing the sweet sound of bagpipes to central Illinois.

Looking to the future, there are high hopes for the continued success of a group that’s opened new doors of opportunity and revived the college’s Scotch-Irish tradition. Whether leading the football team onto the field or marching in Monmouth’s annual Prime Beef Festival Parade, the Monmouth College Pipe Band is sure to turn heads and inspire Scottish pride. As Dr. Tibbetts concludes, “Monmouth really wouldn’t be Monmouth without the bagpipe band.” a&s