The story
of the piper


The story
of the piper

words MEL SIRI
PHOTOGRAPHY sam kroepsch
>> Alistair MacCallum

The first time Alistair MacCallum performed in the land of his heritage, it felt like coming home. A lifetime of sights and sounds swirled around him as he stood behind Edinburgh Castle gates, dressed in a kilt he’d put on for the first time that morning and flanked by musicians from around the world.

Suddenly, the excited banter dimmed, the chorus of drums and bagpipes took over the story and the bands marched as one over the drawbridge, through a dramatic replica cloud of ‘haar’ like mist, to the delight of onlookers waiting for the Edinburgh Military Tattoo.

Alistair was a drummer then, and in that moment of anticipation, as his feet started moving to the rhythm, he saw his late father’s dedication through an adult lens.

He suddenly understood what it had meant for Angus Robert Campbell MacCallum, a ‘Ten Pound Pom,’ to give him a chance to connect with the music of Scotland – uniting the misty, cold country of his birth with the harsh brown land he had proudly claimed as his own.

“It’s an amazing feeling to step out of there and it really brought me to tears the first time, just brought back my Dad,” Alistair says of that first Edinburgh performance in the early 2000s, “He was just so proud of me.

“So coming over the drawbridge that all came back to me, that he’d given me that opportunity to be able to do this.”

Having taken early drumming lessons and then joined the Army Reserves, Alistair was supposed to be in Scotland in an official capacity. But when the trip was cancelled due to security concerns, the unit quickly re-grouped as civilians.

“So we set up a whole new band that we called South Australian Pipes and Drums,” Alistair said of the pivot. “We had no instruments, no uniforms when we arrived in Edinburgh, we had them all made in Scotland, we had drums waiting for us to buy…”

“It’s beautiful, I’m addicted to it, I really am.”

>> Pipe Majors Edinburgh, Military Tattoo 2010. Supplied image.

“You could smell the Eucalyptus and although it felt like home in Scotland, it’s just nice to come home. Australia is an amazing place and where we live is amazing”

- Alistair MacCallum

A successful trip later, Alistair returned to Adelaide, and saw his birthplace with fresh eyes.

“…You could smell the Eucalyptus and although it felt like home in Scotland, it’s just nice to come home. Australia is an amazing place and where we live is amazing,” Alistair says.

His story is one of serendipity and a passion for music that has seen Alistair play the drums from Edinburgh to Switzerland and even Moscow’s Red Square, often watched by proud wife Denise.

He’s just as proud now, of his role as Pipe Major for Barossa & District Pipe Band.

Alistair insists that in winter, when the landscape transforms from brown to green, that the road from Angaston to his hometown of Sedan reminds him of Scotland.

From my perspective, as a relative newcomer to South Australia, who had been to Scotland but not to Sedan, it seemed like a challenge to take the 20-minute drive and witness the likeness first hand.

And as the crumbling dry stone walls line the curving road, the steep hills swell, and the steeple of Sedan’s church twinkles in the sunlight in the distance, it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine the hills bathed in green, and a swirl of wintry fog settling just above the panoramic valley below.

Home to Alistair, Denise, a German Shepherd pup and an elderly rescue cat, the MacCallum’s property enjoys farmland views out the back. There’s room to store a boat they launch on the River Murray, and it’s about an hour’s drive to visit Alistair’s 92-year-old mother Helen, and less to see the couple’s daughter and grandchildren.

Not surprisingly, the property has a dedicated music room, which accommodates six guitars, drums, an electric piano and of course – bagpipes.

The set Alistair most loves is crafted from the coveted Cocus Wood, and as he runs his fingers gently over the dark timber, he tells how they were made in Scotland, and once belonged to a woman piper in Victoria, who had sadly passed away.

How Alistair traded drums for bagpipes is also a story anchored in sadness, beginning with a workplace machinery accident and ending with painful nerve damage down his right arm, which the drum vibration exacerbates.

Heading to Scotland again in 2010, Alistair knew this drum performance would likely be his last.

Afterwards, wandering alone along the famous ‘Royal Mile’, Alistair heard a sound resemblant of his youth, where his extended family would hold a shindig and play Scottish songs over a warming dram or two.

Having followed his parents to Adelaide, Alistair’s family had become their own community and weekends were spent holding parties known as a ceilidh (pronounced Kay-lee). He heard one in full swing now and followed the source of the sound to a music shop.

You can imagine Alistair’s surprise, when the shop owner furnished him with a set of bagpipes despite the fact he’d already answered that he couldn’t really play.

“He got a set of pipes and set them up for me and put them in my arms and I started playing…and they all started playing with me…,” Alistair said, recalling his shock.

Whether it was something in his DNA or decades of immersion playing drums alongside pipers, Alistair had unearthed a dormant musical ability and he left the party with his first set of bagpipes. 

It was five years later, in 2015 that Alistair said he started playing the bagpipes “seriously,” and while he still has that first instrument, it’s his favourite Cocus Wood bagpipes he plays at solo engagements, like birthdays and funerals.

Also a music teacher, and a Pipe Major, retirement has certainly proven busy! 

Next on the Barossa band’s agenda is a June 17 event called Winter Flame – a parade at Tanunda, where bands and Highland Dancers perform, flanked by torch bearers.

Alistair says: “Part of our band logo is bringing Scotland to the Barossa, so that’s what we want to do, bring that little touch of Scotland into what is a primarily German community.”

As the band practises at Nuriootpa, Alistair uses the car trip home to make hands-free calls and organise bookings. The Royal Adelaide Show is another event on the 2023 band calendar.

When he arrives at Sedan, Alistair must be a strange sight in the tiny country town, where there’s a pub, a church and a supermarket. Neighbours are frequently treated to the haunting sound of bagpipes emanating from his music room, but Alistair says they are yet to complain.

Standing in that room now, with his favourite instrument, Alistair likens learning the bagpipes to, “wrestling an octopus.”

He had previously outlined its eccentricities, such as the frequent need for tuning – so clearly it’s not an instrument for the feint-heated.

“It’s a horrid instrument, it controls you,” he said in a half-mocking tone.

“…You’ve got to breathe the right amount; you’ve got to squeeze the right amount; you’ve got to play the right notes; you can’t put too much pressure on the bag; you can’t blow when you’re squeezing it…it’s a really really difficult instrument.

“But at the same time it’s one of the most immersive instruments, it’s so connected to you.

You don’t feel like you’re playing an instrument when you’re playing it, it becomes one with you…

“It’s beautiful, I’m addicted to it, I really am.”

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