Napanee pipe band rebuilds tradition

Members of the Napanee & District Pipe Band held a practice at Village Green long-term care residence on Wednesday, Jun. 21, 2023. Photo by Michelle Dorey Forestell/Kingston.

“If you don’t have the kids in a pipe band such as ours…the band will just die… The younger members of the pipe band are the future.”

These are the last two lines of a news clipping from 1967, highlighting the formation of the Highland Pipe Band of Napanee.

Robin Lee of Napanee, who passed the clipping along, points out, “55 years later, the same applies.” Lee is seeking new members to join the Napanee & District Pipe Band.

Lee joined the pipe band at the age of six at the behest of his godmother, Ina Richmond, who hailed from Kilwinning, Scotland. “She marched me down to the band practice and said, ‘Make this boy a piper,’” he recalls. 

A teenage Lee towers over his wee godmother, Ina Richmond, who hailed from Scotland. Submitted photo.
The Napanee Highland Pipe Band at full force in 1969 at the Cobourg Highland Games. Submitted photo.

While he did learn the bagpipes, Lee says that drumming came more naturally. He jokes that after too many “Cheezies paw prints” developed on his little practice chanter (a double-reed woodwind instrument that serves as a practice instrument in place of a Great Highland Bagpipe), his instructor, Hugh Kerr, persuaded him to switch to drums, much to his delight — and he was good at it.  

Since then he has played with multiple award-winning pipe bands, both as a volunteer and as a professional, all over the world. Lee was a founding member of the Sir John A. Macdonald Pipe Band in Kingston in 1985, which became the Pipes and Drums of the Princess of Wales Own Regiment. And he still helped out in Napanee whenever he could.

After retiring from competitive drumming and from competition playing with Peel Police Pipe Band, Lee rejoined The Napanee and District Pipe Band after the 2019 season as drum major, a position he says he is honoured to hold.

However, Lee says, he found that his old bandmates had no drum corps, and the pipe section had been reduced to three older pipers, with most of the members having aged out. In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic was in full force. “So obviously they couldn’t do parades, and there was the prospect of folding the band. I had just retired… and the remaining players asked me to try and rebuild the drums and the band in general,” he shares.

“Napanee has always been a special place for me,” Lee says, explaining he was happy to try.

Just four years later, the band has eight pipers, three snare drummers, three tenor drummers, and a bass drummer, ranging in age from 20s to 70s. “Our Co-Pipe Majors are Dennis Kerr and Peter Smith, and the lead drummer is Christian Scourse, with me as Drum Major,” Lee says.

However, he would like to see the band that at one time had 25 members regain its former glory. “Anyone can join. You don’t have to be from Napanee; you don’t have to be of Scottish ancestry… Look at me: I’m half Chinese,” he says with a laugh.

The band is open to all ages and experience levels, says Lee, and they will teach you to play an instrument for free.

“A lot of young people like the drums or are interested in learning the bagpipes,” he says. “A lot of new music is doing some very cool and interesting things with pipes. So: free music lessons! What more could someone want?”

Lee and his bandmates are also interested in keeping small town tradition alive in Napanee. “I think it’s a great thing to be able to say we have this. It’s a recognized band at parades and events,” he expresses.  

Some of the members of the Napanee & District Pipe Band pose for a picture after performing at Village Green. Submitted photo.

The Drum Major even hopes to bring back the traditional tartan that the band originally wore: “Currently, they have changed to using the Scotland 2000 tartan (a tartan made to mark the millennium), but originally the band was dressed to honour one of the founders of Napanee, Allan Macpherson. So I would like to see us go back to that specific tartan: the Macpherson clan tartan.”

The pipe band meets at 6:30 p.m. every Wednesday at Trinity United Church Hall (in the church basement), at 25 Bridge Street East, Napanee. New members and the curious are welcome to stop by at practices, and there are free lessons for beginners. 

“I hope that anyone reading [this] article is inspired to be curious enough to come and join us at practice,” he says. “They have nothing to lose at all, and they might find a talent they didn’t know they had.”

The band plays local events often. You can see them perform on Canada Day in the Tamworth parade. For more information on the Napanee and District Pipe Band, visit their Facebook page or call Peter Smith at (613) 749-2107.

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