The Bagpipe Society

Piping against a Pipeline

Piping against a pipeline with First Nations song by Nathan Haywood

Visiting from Vancouver, Canada, and my first time at the Blowout, I was unwittingly coerced by Julian Goodacre to participate in the Friday evening competition. After some consideration I came up with an idea tenuously connected to the Extinct, Mythical and Hypothetical Animal Class. Being new to the Blowout, I was a little uncertain as to the reception I would receive to my tales of bagpiping activism. I was also concerned about presenting such an important melody and song outside of its living cultural context of the First Nations peoples of Turtle Island (a First Nations name for North America), something I had previously avoided out of respect. However, I hoped the presentation would be welcomed, raise awareness of complex environmental and cultural issues, and make my personal experience at the Blowout as memorable as possible.

As an earth scientist, for decades I have been aware of climate change and concerned for the environment. I’m deeply concerned about the unfolding mass extinction of animal and insect life. As a lifetime scout leader, I worry about the future that our youth will live through. The oil industry plans to build a pipeline from the oil (tar) sands of Northern Alberta to Vancouver. There are many unresolved issues including: the significant increase in greenhouse gas emissions through fossil fuel extraction and use; the rights of First Nations peoples who occupy the traditional and unceded territories that pipeline will transect (no treaties were ever signed between the Crown and the indigenous inhabitants of the lands. The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
(UNDRIP on-the-rights-of-indigenous-peoples.html) states that First Nations should have the right to “free, prior, and informed consent” to the use of their traditional territories); and the impacts to marine life from increased shipping and potential oil spills, including to the declining number of Orca, the mighty killer whales that have thrived for centuries on the west coast.

Impacted First Nations groups, including the local Tsleil-Waututh (sәl̓ilwәtaɁɬ; the people of the inlet;, and the Musqueam
(xʷmә θkʷәy̓әm;, have led many thousands-strong protests against the pipeline, supported by many non-native citizens. Wanting to support, I began to play my Great Highland bagpipes at the protests. Always conscious of the cultural history of the land on which I was walking, and with First Nation drummers and singers at the fore, I would bring up the rear of the processions. I was often joined by a Breton piper friend with whom I’d take turns playing Breton, Scottish and English tunes. My fiancée came up with a humorous slogan, and “Pipers Against Pipelines” was born. I designed and constructed an emblem to fly from my bass drone, and also made pin badges (which I offered to Blowout attendees).

The Great Highland bagpipes are in some respects a symbol of a historically oppressed people, perhaps with an analogy to the context of First Nation peoples in North America. Yet the Scottish bagpipes, including their more recent British military affiliation, are also a reflection of colonialism in North America. It is a difficult cultural and historical landscape to traverse, but wanting to support First Nations in their struggle, I learned to play the “Women’s Warrior Song”, a modern composition often sung in honour of the hundreds of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (; I first attempted to play this melody at a protest, but didn’t quite have it right. Face-to-face, a First Nations elder taught me to correctly sing the song, and holding both of my hands, gave me permission to play it. Feeling empowered and accepted, I learned other songs. In the following weeks, I asked another elder about the meaning of a beautiful song, heard at the protests, that I thought would sound powerful on the pipes. They said it was an Anishinaabe Water Song ( However, upon mentioning that I was a musician, I was met with a strong message of, “No don’t do that. You cannot take this song, and it is not my song to give you.” I conceded and said that was precisely why I was asking. I gave them a gift of tobacco, but left with a lump in my throat and my tail between my legs. Despite my uncertainty, at a later protest I played the Women’s Warrior Song, and several First Nations women came up to me and commented how wonderful it was. The elder with whom I’d discussed the Water Song said, “You nailed that”. I replied that I was mindful of what he’d previously communicated, and that I would not play these songs outside the context of the First Nations-led protests. Given the history of white settlers and First Nations peoples, an Englishman playing First Nations songs on the Great Highland bagpipes is culturally complex and sensitive, and not everyone is always as accepting. But, ultimately, I am there to support the First Nations and that is the message that I try to convey.

At the Blowout, I sang and played the Water Song for the first ever time outside of a First Nations context. I did not take this decision lightly, and balanced an opportunity to raise awareness against cultural respect. I was delighted at the positive and supportive response from the audience. This was to be my experience of the Blowout: a friendly, safe, supportive and non-judgemental environment in which to express a love of the diverse music of the pipes. I can’t think of a piping experience in my 20 years as a player that has left me with such fond memories and so many new friends. Just wonderful.

Dr. Nathan Hayward -