Robert Procter has been a regular at Bradford Cathedral practicing the bagpipes in the Parish Room. We caught up with him at the end of 2019 as he prepared for a very special occasion: being one of four bagpipers marking VE Day 75 by playing a specially commissioned piece of music on top of the four highest mountains across the UK.
Since this interview was conducted Robert received confirmation that, due to lockdown, the piping won’t be happening in the locations mentioned, but he’ll be doing it from his home instead. Pipers have also been asked to move their times up to 1455 to lead into announcements on the radio.
How are you involved with the VE Day celebrations?
I’m actually helping the organizer Bruno Peek, who’s the pageant master. I’m helping him co-ordinate and pull in bagpipers from around the world! I’m contacting bands, contacting pipers, and pointing Bruno in the direction of them. He engages with groups like the Ministry of Defence, but I help point him in the direction of people like the Royal Scottish Pipe Band Association, but I also find contacts for people like the New Zealand version, or from Florida, Chile or Montevideo in Uruguay. I hook in with those guys using social made and engage them, making sure they’re aware of the event. I tell them about the particularly tune that has been composed, which is a unique tune by a pipe major from the City of Norwich pipe bands, specifically composed for the event.
What is happening at 3pm on Friday 8th May, and how are you involved with that?
The original plan was to at 2:50pm a bugler will play the Last Post and then at 3 o’clock on the dot there will be two tunes played on the pipes, and that’s where I’m participating. I’m playing them on top of Scafell Pike. There will also be a piper on Snowdon, Ben Nevis and Slieve Donard. There are pipers from the army, navy, RAF and me, as a civilian!
With things developing as part of the coronavirus pandemic, the pipers are now expected to play an even more significant part. Pipers will still be playing at 3pm, but from their own homes. You will hopefully be able to hear the pipes across the community as people stay safe but mark the event.
How does it feel to have the honour of being one of the four to take part?
It’s quite crazy! When I participated in the event in 2018 for the end of World War I it was just amazing to be part of. I piped on that particular day at Temple Newsam, and it was one of the highlights of my life. To be one of four is intimidating in itself. The piper on Ben Nevis is an ex-Sovereign piper.
How has it been to learn the piece?
It’s a nice piece. It’s a little longer than I like. It’s made of four parts. At 3 o’clock we’ll all be playing the tune, and it’s all in local time, so if there’s a piper in Fiji they’ll be playing it at 3pm. It’s not all 3pm GMT. It’ll roll around the world played on the hour every hour until Hawaii end the day, I think we have almost every timezone covered.
3pm GMT was when Winston Churchill announced to Parliament and the British public that the war in Europe had ended. VJ Day was obviously sometime to come later in August. To be one of the four profile pipes – there will be many others playing across the country and world too – it’s a real honour privilege. I’m not musical. I don’t come from a musical family, and neither am I Scottish! I learnt the instrument to meet people and do something different, and to join a band. To come from that and moving forward to participate in an international event and helping organise it, is such an honour.
Have you been to the top of Scafell Pike before?
Yes. I’m from Cumbria. I moved over to Yorkshire for work and didn’t know anyone, so learning the bagpipes was a way of meeting new people in a foreign county!!
How will it be getting the pipes up there?
It’s not the pipes I’m worried about, it’s the uniform! I haven’t decided whether I’ll walk up in it or get changed; it all depends on the weather. It’s a heavy uniform, made of wool, a full number one. It’s what you’d expect a piper to wear: the feather bonnet, the full plate, the kilt, the tunic… like the Black Watch or the Royal Scottish Dragoon Guards. It’s a very similar uniform to that. I hope I will have a couple of people helping me carry up there and I expect to get changed at the top.
Why were the bagpipes picked as the instrument to play?
I think it’s because there are famous stories of pipers being involved in both World War I and II. On D-Day there was the famous story of Bill Millin who came off the landing boats in Normandy at Sword with only bagpipes; as Lord Lovats personal piper he didn’t have a gun. The Germans didn’t shoot him because they thought it was crazy! But he actually ended up storming up the beaches. There’s a statue they set up from him in the last few years. There are also other stories of, whilst people were cowering down, pipers standing up and playing tunes to help drive people forward. There are moments where pipers were a big part of the war.
It’s also such a powerful instrument, like the bugle. It can make a moment. Something like a piano or guitar wouldn’t have the impact. The organiser had the image, before it was announced as bank holiday, that pipers would leave work, and walk out into a car park or school grounds or to a cathedral, to play where they were, and it would all pop up across the country. But now we’re making it so it all pops up across the world. All over towns, cities and villages you’ll hear them – the instrument can be heard at range.
Bruno also organised the Jubilee beacons that were on the mountains, and he’s seeing the pipers as musical beacons. Now with possible restrictions on movement, pipers will be those beacons throughout the community.
Could you tell us more about the pieces you are playing?
The tunes we are playing at 3pm are ‘Battle’s O’er’ and ‘VE Day 75 Years’, which is the specially commissioned tune. You can hear the songs on the website. The playing also happens at the same time as the nation’s toast. As I’m playing ‘Battles Over’ there will be a Toast to the Nation, which is being given by a lady with me.
Why is it important for something like this to happen?
VE Day 75 will be one of the last times we’ll have an anniversary where there’ll be actual veterans from the moment being marked. It’s a significant event in history, just on the edge of our living memory. By doing something on this scale it gets people talking about it. Having an event, and moving the bank holiday, will hopefully make it really big. It’s important to keep these things alive and join communities together. Even just getting the piping community talking about it has been valuable. The conversations it will spark are great. Hopefully this will be a poignant moment in what is a happy weekend of celebration.
And finally, how can you become a piper?
There are more local bands around than you’d probably expect; they tend to be everywhere. There are ones in Bradford (City of Bradford Piper Band), Leeds (City of Leeds Pipe Band), , York (City of York Piper Band), Accrington (Accrington Pipe Band) and Thirsk (North Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Pipes and Drums), so even if this area there are many of them. Just a simple Google search will bring up many. Most pipe bands will do tuition for free or very cheap and you can get one-to-one tuition very easily by Skype, who may charge, and will give you focus.
You should make sure you buy a practice chanter from a reputable source (such as the National Piping Centre), which is the first thing you start on. Don’t buy pipes until you’ve spoken to a band; a lot of people will buy cheap pipes online and regret it. It’s then a case of practicing. The next mistake people make is buying the pipes too quickly. It took me 2-3 years on the practice chanter before I was able to play the pipes. If you can read music that journey might be quicker for you, as it’s then just the physical element and learning the nuances of the pipe chanter. It’s a longer journey than you might expect it to be: you probably won’t be playing ‘Auld Lang Syne’ by next New Years’ Eve!! You should start on the chanter and then progress onto the pipes.
Piping also presents a lot of opportunities. You might start by thinking that you just want to play ‘Amazing Grace’ but I’ve been involved with so many amazing things on the back of it: I’ve been an extra in a film, I’ve played at Windsor Castle, and at Balmoral. I did a sponsored walk, piping with different bands, and I’ve travelled across to Europe for battlefield tours. I was involved in 2019 in marking the anniversary of Operation Market Garden. We’ve visited schools, and you can participate in fetes and carnivals, so it opens up a lot of doors and I’ve made friends up and down the country.
The plans to mark VE Day 75 have been moved to the weekend of VJ Day 75 (15th – 16th August). Find out more at https://www.veday75.org/