The one main event I miss most about being away from Scotland is Hogmanay, our often happy-abandoned way of seeing in the new year. (or maybe that should read seeing to the new year). In Italy the celebrations are a little muted in comparison (bar the traditional gunfire in the air), to the extent that in recent years we’ve chosen to stay in rather than search for an ad hoc party or two. If I was missing it before then I’m missing it more now. Regular readers will know that I sometimes meet a few unexpected characters along the way but none more so than today (30th December). Today I turned the corner at Lungomare and bumped into, you guessed it, The Mid South Highland Pipes and Drums. A warm-up gig for their annual trip to Sicily, I discovered from Pipe Major John MacDonald later, once he’d picked up his pipes and dusted them down. “We usually come and play in Sicily between Boxing Day and the 2nd of January.” He told me, surrounded by his band who it seems gather from all over the British Isles to make the trip, including a native Sicilian who’s apparently no mean piper himself. We swapped numbers. You never know when you’ll need a piper, especially down here where they don’t exactly stand around on street corners….except today.
“Why Italy?” I asked. “Oh we go all over the place, depending on where the agent in Sicily finds us to perform. Once we were here playing when an excited Italian came over and, via interpreter, expressed a desire to book the whole band for a week in Milan. Sure enough, eighteen months later we were being flown out to take part in a theatre event in Milan, all expenses paid.” Volunteered the drum major, whose only complaint about the annual trip was Alitalia’s treatment of his mace. “I don’t think it’s ever arrived in one piece.”
“Have you ever been to the Orange Throwing Festival in Ivrea?” John MacDonald asked me. “Can’t say I have, why?” “Oh that’s well worth going to. If you can imagine a huge crowd of people throwing hundreds of thousands of blood-oranges at horse-drawn carriages full of mad Italians, with the horses managing to evacuate-through-fear on the citrus pulp and sticky juice as they trot past….all to celebrate the 1194 Battle of Oranges. Well, you can imagine the condition our dress shoes get into when we have to march down the road after them! Still the food’s good and the wine’s great, so we can’t complain. The reception we get’s also well worth the visit, they can be an excitable lot down here, don’t you think?”
The snare ticked time with the pound of the bass drum as they began to march, solid and focussed, down the high street. The other drums picked up the beat before the skirl of the pipes shivered across my skin as they took up the tune and scattered all before them. My feet tapped, possessed, to ‘Mari’s Wedding’. My eyes moistened to ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’ filling the evening air, hanging for a moment before drifting away across the water. The sheer romance of the pipes. When I found out that the Pipe Major hails from the Sma’ Glen in Perthshire (where you’ll find the best little fire-warmed pub in Scotland and where I’ve spent many Christmases over the years) my homesickness was beginning to catch in my throat and sting my eyes. “So what’ll you all be doing on New Year’s Eve?” I asked innocently. “What do you think?” John grinned as the rest of the band laughed. “Another red wine please.” They cried in unison.
I just managed to resist the impulse to join them and follow them round the rest of their trip as they hopped on the tour coach and bade farewell. I watched them drive away “Happy New Year.” They called. “Mind how you go.” I replied quietly, waving as they headed off into the Calabrian night. “Mind how you go.” Now that would have been some new year to write home about, getting in the ‘spirit’ of Hogmanay with a pipe band, so far from home! I wandered back up into the town, the sound of distant pipes ringing in my ears as I wiped another tear. Well, if you can’t get sentimental at New Year, when can you?
If you ever get a chance to see this fine band, buy them a wee drink and say hello from me.