LAURINBURG — In 1976, Bill Caudill was just a youngster who, like so many others his age, was just beginning to form interests and pathways to his future. And it was then that his parents took him to witness two touring military groups from the United Kingdom — the Royal Marines and the Pipes and Drums of The Black Watch — as part of the United States’ bicentennial celebration.
He was hooked.
“This was my first real exposure to bagpipes or a pipe band,” Caudill said. “I had an immediate interest and wanted to learn how to play the bagpipes.”
The rest, as they say, is history.
Since their ancestry, at least on his maternal grandmother’s side, is primarily Highland Scottish, Caudill’s parents were more than willing to fuel his interest in bagpipes. They were able to purchase a “practice chanter,” a beginner instrument for the pipes, and found a tutorial book for their son to “play around with.”
“I played around with it regularly for several months until my parents were able to find a teacher and get me started on serious lessons,” Caudill said.
But finding a teacher wasn’t an easy task.
“At that time there were far fewer pipers in the USA than today — much less the Carolinas — so fortunately I grew up in the Charlotte area and there was a band there and a player who was willing to take me on as a student,” he explained.
Those early days
There were a number of Scots emigrants who came to the region in the 18th and early 19th centuries who were pipers, but that tradition died out within the emigrant generation for the most part. Around 1947 marked the start of the first pipe band south of the Mason-Dixon line, here in North Carolina.
Caudill’s first instructor, the late Dick Campbell of Charlotte, was a major influence on getting him started — as well as fueling his interest in the bagpipes.
“Though he was perhaps not a great player, he was a good and patient teacher for a youngster and got me off to a very good start before passing me on to someone else,” Caudill said.
Since that time, Caudill has had the opportunity to study with some of the best players in the USA and Canada, as well as in Scotland — players like Pipe Major Sandy Jones (of the U.S. Air Force Pipe Band, who led the band at John F. Kennedy’s funeral); the late Pipe Major Hamilton Workman (formerly personal piper to the late Lord Louis Mountbatten); Colin MacLellan (son of Pipe Major John MacLellan, who ran the British Army School of Piping at Edinburgh Castle for years and one of the world’s top prize winners in the 1980s and ’90s); Ed Neigh of Ontario, Canada, who was a pioneering North American prize winner in Scotland; as well as several others.
Caudill says learning to bagpipe wasn’t much different than learning any other woodwind instrument.
“But it is in some ways slightly complicated to the uninitiated and may take a little more physical coordination than some instruments,” he said. “Most good students will be prepared on the ‘practice chanter’ and ready to play a full bagpipe within a year if they apply themselves, have a good teacher and are willing to practice and have patience.”
Making it a career
“I never truly had any idea of it becoming a career,” Caudill said. “However, I guess I found myself in the right place at the right time.”
He was recruited to St. Andrews University in 1985 because of his experience and success in piping. He earned an additional scholarship to attend … in exchange for playing at all the official college events.
“I came, performed for events, and majored in history here at St. Andrews — focusing some of my studies on the history of the Scottish-American community of this region,” Caudill said. “In 1989 I was asked to remain at St. Andrews after graduating to work to promote the college’s Scottish roots and identity, to help access and display some of the historical and genealogical resources which were part of the college’s Scottish and Rare Book Collection, and to start a pipe band here.”
That request came with a short leash, because there was no guarantee Caudill’s efforts would be successful.
But they were.
“I have been blessed,” said Caudill, now in his 30th year at St. Andrews. “I continued my own learning and growth with my piping through the years — rising to the Professional Class of competition in 1988, and later became a judge on the Eastern United States Pipe Band Association Judges’ Panel, which takes me to judge competitions throughout the U.S. at least eight to 10 weekends per year.”
He also performs and teaches privately, in addition to his work at St. Andrews.
“Thirty years ago I would never have thought it possible to be making a living doing what I love,” Caudill said. “Now I am proud to say that I have several St. Andrews alumni who are also making their living through teaching and performance.”
And students keep coming — some from as far away as two hours or more to learn from him.
Looking back at piping
Caudill says the art of bagpiping in the 1970s wasn’t something most youngsters could easily get started learning.
“Despite the large percentage of Scottish and Scots-Irish population in the Carolinas, there has not been a modern piping tradition here in the Carolinas until roughly the mid-20th century,” he said. “My first teacher in Charlotte was taught through the efforts of the founder of the first pipe band in the Carolinas, which dated from 1947 — so the modern day tradition of piping is not that old.”
But over the past three decades, that’s changed.
“It has grown tremendously in the past 25 years or so in particular,” Caudill said. “Piping has grown tremendously and is much more mainstream now than it was when I started.”
He added there are a few places in the Carolinas where competent teachers of beginners can be found — but advanced and experienced players are still somewhat difficult to find, though those numbers are also growing.
For three decades now, Caudill has taken his knowledge, talent and love of piping and paid it forward to students who want to dabble with the bagpipes and continue to learn.
His instruction has become well-known on the campus of St. Andrews — as well as begun to overlap into the Laurinburg and Scotland County communities.
“Last year I started a class for beginner bagpipers, which was focused toward young people within our community —- with the hope of re-starting a presence of bagpipers within the Scotland High School Marching Band, which has been absent since 1992,” Caudill said. “A class of four beginners started last summer, and now are progressing well. One of the students won the prize for Best Beginner at the recent Grandfather Mountain Highland Games.”
Caudill’s community class for beginners is just getting underway on Mondays at 7 p.m. at the Scottish Heritage Center on the St. Andrews Campus.
But it’s not only word of Caudill’s instruction that has sparked the interest in piping. The Hollywood movie industry helped popularize Scottish culture to include piping through the release of major motion pictures such as “Rob Roy,” with Liam Neeson and Jessica Lange, as well as Mel Gibson in “Braveheart” and Disney’s “Brave.” Appearances of pipers and major events such as police and firefighter funerals and ceremonies also brings the music into the public eye — as well as important funerals such as those of Ronald Reagan and, more recently, Billy Graham regularly include piping.
“As people get in touch with their family roots, they often explore the other cultural trappings of those ethnic groups and that has also been an inspiration for those of Celtic roots,” Caudill said. “It is also not just something ‘Scottish,’ as I have had students of all races and ethnicities here at St. Andrews and see them regularly on my teaching and judging ventures.
“You don’t have to be ‘Scottish’ to be captivated by the sound of the instrument,” he added.
Caudill says the Highland Games coming to Laurinburg 10 years ago have also created an interest in all things Scottish in the community.
“We here in Scotland County have a true historical connection to this ‘theme and identity’ and I feel that it can not only offer our young people another great activity in which to participate and learn,” he said. “(And it) would be another source of pride for our community.”
Creating a legacy
Caudill has had a number of students who have gone on from their studies with him to play in some of the top pipe bands in the United States and Canada, as well as several who are excelling in their solo competition pursuits.
He also has former students who are now teaching themselves, in leadership positions in pipe bands, who perform regularly, and some who are gaining regional and national attention within the community for their playing abilities and successes.
“I’m proud to say that my own youngest son has now taken up the pipes and just recently won his first competition at Grandfather Mountain Highland Games,” Caudill said. “As I am getting older, and retired last year from my own competition career of 40 years, I’m now looking to pass on what I have learned over the years and see even more players — particularly in our own region — take up the instrument and continue that tradition in this area.”
Caudill is even trying to renew interest in piping at Scotland High.
“I first volunteered to help the pipers at Scotland High in 1992 when a group of beginners were asked to participate in the band’s trip to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade that year,” he said. “Unfortunately, the band dropped their pursuit of the instrument after that parade appearance.”
The turnover of band directors over the past years made continuity and interest difficult to maintain. But Caudill says Britton Goodwin has been supportive of the renewed efforts begun last year, and has seen the potential — which there is to add bagpipes back into the marching band program.
“My goal is to not only add quality playing of the instrument back into the band program — particularly with the obvious connections of our county’s heritage as well as the Scottish identity of the band,” Caudill said. “I am hoping to grow this as well as open up instruction for the greater community with the hope of not only bolstering the pipers for the high school band, but perhaps starting a Laurinburg and surrounding region band that could represent the community and offer a great musical learning experience for folks of all ages … but particularly for youth.”
The final note
The journey that began back in 1976 has taken Caudill to places he never could have dreamed about or foreseen as a youngster. Such is often the case.
And the path from a youthful interest in bagpipes to the cusp of retirement after accomplishments far too extensive to list will leave him with a career that is satisfying to look back on.
As he contemplates that retirement — whether it is months or years away — Caudill more than likely has hopes of being able to pass the reins to someone who will keep what he started going strong. He also looks back in wonderment on what bagpiping has meant to him.
“… it has been 42 years and it is hard to imagine what my life may have been like without piping,” Caudill said.
W. Curt Vincent can be reached at 910-506-3023 or [email protected]