West Virginia Highlanders welcomes younger crowd

For generations, the unique sound of bagpipe music has resonated at nearly every parade and milestone celebration in Randolph County, including the Mountain State Forest Festival.

The West Virginia Highlanders of Davis & Elkins College – a pipe and drum band made up of adult community members – also has represented the region and its Scottish Highlands heritage throughout the nation.

Now, area youth are stepping in, enjoying the music and providing a new generation to carry on the band’s longstanding traditions.

Three sixth-graders, two eighth-graders and a junior from Elkins High School are joining the ranks of the tartan-clad band generally made up of members often three times their age. They are the largest group of young players the band has seen in its 65-year history, said Bruce Dillon, pipe major.

“The band has never been closed to youth. It’s just that there’s not been this many interested at one time,” says Dillon, who’s been in the band for 20 years. “It’s the most I’ve ever seen.”

The younger players include pipers Jacob Earle, Evan Morici, Ethan Mallow and Katy Ross, and drummers Hunter Mouse and Brennan Weese. Some are beginners who study privately with Dillon, while Ross is already a “veteran,” having performed with the band since her freshman year. Dillon suggested that Ross may have started the trend, inspiring other young musicians.

“I guess kids saw her and thought maybe they could do it, too,” Dillon said.

Ross agreed with the notion wholeheartedly, explaining that most teens “didn’t realize young people could join. I’ve always liked the Highlanders – it’s my favorite part of the Forest Festival. So I just really wanted to join.”

The age gap doesn’t present a barrier, Ross said, explaining that playing music together forms a bond.

“I like to pipe with other people. It’s really fun and it’s something we all have in common. Plus, they have really great stories to tell of the band from 30 years ago,” she said of members she described as “all like my uncles.”

For Morici, who is a student in middle school, being in a band “with people who are older is an honor.” He said the band and its members are community figures he’s looked up to since he was “a little kid,” watching them perform in parades and other events.

“They can really teach us and help us out,” Morici said.

Both Ross and Morici learned their piping skills from Dillon, who has been teaching others the art for 20 years.

“It takes a lot of diligence,” Dillon said. “You can’t be halfway. You have to be willing to put in the time to practice. Once you get a couple tunes down, it comes more rapidly.”

Ross said the only difficulty she experienced in learning to play the bagpipe was because she didn’t know how to read music.

“Once I learned (to read music), it was a lot easier. I still have to practice quite a bit,” she said.

Dillon noted that with one hour of practice every day, a student “should be able to go from zero to marching within a year.”

According to the official Highlanders website, “the great highland bagpipe as used by the Scots and by the members of the West Virginia Highlanders consists of a leather bag covered with the tartan, which holds the air; two tenor and one bass drone which furnish the accompaniment; a valved blowpipe by which the player introduces the air; and a chanter on which the melody is played. The chanter has eight holes, which provide for the nine-note range of the pipes.” The band also features three styles of drums – tenor, snare, and bass.

Formed in October 1947 as the official band of the H.W. Daniels Post 29 American Legion, the Highlanders group has continued many of its long-held traditions of music and dress with roots in Scottish heritage. Since the band’s founding, members have sported kilts made of the black, yellow and scarlet MacLeod of Lewis Scottish plaid, which they wear by special permission.

In 1990, the Highlanders members began carrying a banner with their new affiliation and name – the West Virginia Highlanders of Davis & Elkins College. The band now represents the community and the college at various public events, and performs at multiple college functions, including commencement, Founder’s Day and other special events. In 2011, the Highlanders Pub opened in the college’s historic Graceland Inn. The decor features vintage items from the band including photos, uniforms, plaques and a banner.

The band continues to perform some its traditional tunes, such as “Highland Laddie” and “The Bluebells of Scotland,” while adding new ones to the mix. One of the latest is “Davis & Elkins,” penned by Bruce Liberati of Pittsburgh, who has conducted a few workshops for the band. Dillon said the tune was performed most recently at a D&E Senators basketball game.

Now with 48 tunes in its repertoire, the Highlanders group practices weekly on the college campus.

“Some bands take the winter off, but with this many tunes you have to keep practicing,” Dillon said.

For anyone interested in joining the Highlanders, Dillon said now is the best time. The band practices every Wednesday at 7 p.m. in Jennings Randolph Hall on the D&E campus, and potential members are welcome to attend. For further information, call Dillon at 304-940-1282. To learn more about the West Virginia Highlanders of Davis & Elkins College, anyone interested can visit www.wvhighlanders.org.