A surprise and welcome visitor to last month’s European Pipe Band Championships in Inverness was the US Attorney General, the Honourable William Barr. During a lull in the contest, Mr Barr, a piper for most of his life, kindly agreed to give the Editor Robert Wallace an interview. They are pictured above. After his security detail had swept an office portakabin generously provided by the RSPBA, Mr Wallace switched on the recorder. Mr Barr began by talking about his early piping career…
I grew up in New York City and in 1957 when I was seven years old my father bought a Scots Guards Pipes and Drums record and the sound of it was just amazing for me. It was all I wanted to listen to, constantly. When I was eight years old my parents said it was time to learn an instrument, ‘Billy, what do you want to learn? Piano, violin?’
‘I said BAGPIPES!’ My father loved the pipes too so he supported this idea and we tried to find a teacher in New York City – this is in 1958. We called music schools and they didn’t know what we were talking about, great schools like the Juilliard School of Music. It might be different today but back then they didn’t have anything.
So we finally called a place called ‘Scottish Products’ in New York, an imports store, and they had a list of bagpipers. One was named John C. MacKenzie, Highland Light Infantry (retired). My dad thought that that sounded sort of official so I went to him.
It turned out he had been the pipe major of the 6th Battalion HLI in World War 1 and people who know the history of that unit will know that they fought at Gallipoli and lost a lot of pipers. They then formed the Lowland Division pipe band and they had six pipe majors and Willie Ferguson, who was pipe major of Clan MacRae after the war, was one of them – along with John. John was actually an American citizen because he had been born in the US when his father was on tour here and John emigrated in the early ’30s.
So I started learning and he put me in the band that he was teaching. The band was called Thistle Guildry and it had a few Scottish immigrants and some US players who were just learning. In those days it was what was called a Grade B band.
John MacKenzie had been the pipe major of the dominant band in the north east US called the Lovat Cameron Pipe Band. In those days there weren’t as many pipers there as there are today; a few dozen young players on the east coast and only a few bands.
Some of the other centres of piping were Washington DC which had the Air Force band, and Delaware with its City of Wilmington band. And then there was a band called the Kenmure Pipe Band under P/M George Bell [who was taught by P/M RG Hardie in the original Kenmure Pipe Band in Bishopbriggs].
Another bagpipe figure in New York in those was a fellow called Joe Brady who taught a lot of the police bands. His son Joe Brady Jnr. is still active.
We used to go up and down the east coast playing at different contests and then one year I played with the Fairley Dickinson Pipe Band under P/M Jock Nesbit another figure from Scotland who was prominent in the New Jersey pipe band world.
When John MacKenzie died in 1967 I sort of slowed down, maybe played a couple more years and then I was off to college trying to decide what to do with my life so I didn’t play for a long time. I just tried to keep it up as best I could but I didn’t play with any bands.
Later when I was working in the Reagan White House in 1982 I decided, for some reason, that I had to get back into it and I knew the band Denny & Dunipace, not the Scottish one. They had grown out of the Air Force band and there were people there like Charlie and Paula Glendinning so I contacted them and I played with them for about ten years. That band became City of Washington.
But then when I became AG [Attorney General] the first time in 1991 in the President George HW Bush administration I just couldn’t keep it going. I was 41 years of age at that point. I suppose I was a young man to achieve that distinction but I was in the right place at the right time.
I haven’t played with a band since then but I like to play when I can and we’ve sometimes gotten a little group together and I’ve played on and off but not in competition. I like to help the band so I’ve contributed a bit of money to them and helped buy drums. There’s a new band in that area which is doing very well called MacMillan and they’ve been over to the Worlds to play.
With my name I suppose people think I should have Scots blood but actually my father emigrated here from London and my mother is Irish. From going over regularly for decades, I’ve grown to love Scotland and come as much as I can.
Some people think I am related to the makers of Scotland’s other national drink Barr’s Ian Bru but that’s not the case, though I have met Chief Executive Robin Barr and he calls me ‘Cousin Barr!’ I have a daughter who spent a year at St Andrews University and people would always ask her if she was related to Barr of Irn Bru fame!
I haven’t played the pipes in the White House. When President HW Bush swore me in over at the Justice Department my band marched down into the hall and surprised everybody and surprised him. They were a Grade 1 level band at that time.
I haven’t played yet for President Trump but the other day I was making a speech in the great hall at the Justice Department to all the head prosecutors from around the country .
They had decided to have a little secret fun and had invited the New York Emerald Society Police Band down as a surprise to me to play during the opening ceremony. But I found out about this and I decided to do a counter surprise.
I placed my pipes at the back behind the curtain. I found out who the pipe major was and I called him up and said when you finish your first little medley and are about to march off I’ll grab my pipes and play something like Scotland the Brave along with you. When they finished playing the first set I got up to go get my pipes and everyone was wondering what was going on, was I sick?
Anyway I put up the pipes and played with them and then they marched out. Then I walked to to the mic and said ‘How’s that for an ice breaker!’ It was all filmed and someone put it on the internet and it’s gone viral.
People were totally surprised. Most did not know. President Trump was flying to Japan and I got a message from him saying ‘Everyone’s talking about the bagpipes. It was fantastic and you’re right, Scotland is great.’
So he liked it and of course his mother is from Stornoway. Incidentally when I was in the Outer Hebrides I checked out where she was from.
I had been talking to him about how I was coming up to Scotland after my business in London telling him my wife and I were going to take a little time off and travel north and we were talking about how great Scotland is so when he saw the video he just thought that was great too. As you know he has properties here.
RW: ‘President Trump in a kilt? MacLeod tartan of course – and you could pipe for him.’
WB: ‘We’ll figure out a way to do something.’
- To be continued.