The International Bagpipe Collection in Spain

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I had never had any interest in, or appreciation of, bagpipe music until I joined the RAF as an Aircraft Apprentice at the age of 16, in 1958. I served a three-year full-time Apprenticeship at RAF Halton, near Aylesbury, and found that RAF Halton was the centre of bagpipe music training for the RAF, with there being three full-size pipe and drum bands, all manned by Apprentices. One of my first RAF memories is that of the “Hoovers” being tuned in the early morning Autumnal mists during my first term at Halton, with the sounds echoing back from the Buckinghamshire beeches which cover the Chiltern hills which surround half of the camp. Each of the three Wings of Apprentices, with a grand total of over 2000 Apprentices, would march to and from their morning and afternoon duties behind their own band, and for special occasions a massed band would be formed. Although the RAF Apprenticeship scheme disappeared in 1992, thanks to short-term defence cuts, thousands of ex-Apprentices return to Halton every three years for a grand Reunion, and an essential part of these Reunions is the playing of our own pipe and drum band, known as The Golden Oldies. I recently arranged for a small part of this wonderful band of volunteers to play at the 50th Anniversary Reunion of some of the Apprentices who joined the RAF with me on 16th September 1958, a group known as ‘The 90th Entry’, both for our entertainment and to accompany 127 of us as we marched between different parts of the camp.

Recently, I contacted another mate from my early RAF days, John McVey, and I was hugely impressed to find that, amongst his many other skills, he had been manufacturing various musical instruments, ancient and modern, and that he had become particularly interested in bagpipes whilst he had been living in Brittany. Noting this interest, and having to visit the seaside town of Gijón, in the Asturias region of Northern Spain, I visited the International Bagpipe Museum in that town. The search for it was not easy , as the collection of instruments and other material has been located in various sites over the years, with many of the web sites which mention the collection now being long out of date, but the collection has now found a permanent home within the Muséu del Pueblu d’Asturies (The Asturias Folk History Museum).

In the huge, park-like grounds of the Museum there is a collection of various houses built in the different styles of the region of Asturias over the millenia. One of these is a 17th Century Manor House, the Villa del González de la Vega, and the upper floor of this building now houses the Muséo Internacional de la Gaita (the International Museum of the Bagpipe), as well as other instruments, such as rattles, castanets, tambourines and mechanical piano players. Most of the examples of bagpipes, from many different countries, are located in a large room, suspended from the ceiling, within a huge, aquarium-like, glass case, and I photographed every instrumnent. There are, however, other exhibits, including the representation of a bagpipe workshop, various advertising posters which used pipers, and lots of photographs of bagpipes in use within the region over two centuries. The curator switches on a selection of international pipe music throughout the house for each visitor. Although not an specialist, I got to hear this selection through twice, as I went back on a second day for another visit. The staff for the Folk Museum as a whole were extremely friendly and helpful, and the other elements of the Museum were well worth a visit. Sadly, being the end of the season, there were no postcards, catalogues or CDs on sale, but stocks are due to be replenished during the Winter.

If you are in the area, this museum and many others in Gijón are well worth a visit, and there are some wonderful walks along the cliffs in either side of the town, with the surf being spectacular in the bay which forms the focal point of the town. The nearby countryside is truly stunning, consisting of a narrow strip of land between the sea and the Picos range of hills and mountains. I hope that this add an interesting item to the itinerary of any pipers who might be visiting the North coast of Spain.

Reference Information

Location: Muséu del Pueblu d’Asturies.

Address: Paseo del Doctor Fleming, 877; La Güelga; 33203; Gijôn, Spain (Tel 985-18- 29-60).

Web Site: http://www.vivirasturias.com/asturias/gijon/museo-internacional-de-la-gaita/ es (a rough English translation is available on the site).

Travel: There is an airport at Gijón, although you will almost certainly have to change flights in Madrid if travelling from the UK. The Brittany Ferries car ferry travels From Porstmouth to Santander, about 100 miles East of Gijón.

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