Robin Aggus: Traditional sounds brought to life

If you happen to be on the back roads near Damascus and hear the sounds of bagpipes, chances are that you’re listening to Robin Aggus.

But in talking with Robin Aggus sitting in a renovated 1870s log cabin, it seems a natural fit. In the early 1980s, he heard the group Rare Air, which played Celtic music with bagpipes and drums.

The Canadian band was founded in the late 1970s as a Celtic folk music band. It played both Scottish and Breton music, Aggus explained.

“I loved their music and it was then I decided that I wanted to play the bagpipes.”

Aggus had played saxophone previously in high school, and he was in jazz bands and involved in music. Plus, he’d wanted to play music once again after graduating from university.

“Bagpipes seemed to be the thing at the time.”

In order to learn, he joined the Fergus and Guelph pipe bands.

“I was a member of both bands for several years,” he said.

After a time, Aggus began to branch out. “I met Allan Jones at the Fergus Highland Games – Jones organized the pipers gathering at Lake Champlain, in Vermont.

At that time, “I found out about the other bagpipes – other than highland bagpipes.”

While Rare Air had played the Highland bagpipes and Breton bagpipes, they were the only ones really doing that. But at the pipers’ gathering there were Scottish small pipes, Scottish border pipes, English, French, Spanish, and Italian pipes.

He also performs music with his wife  and fellow musician and artist Eva McCauley. She runs the Riverside Celtic College in Guelph.

Aggus, now owns his own collection of about a dozen different bagpipes, each with a unique sound.

Some of those include: Highland bagpipe, Scottish Highland Bagpipe, Scottish Border Pipe, Scottish Small Pipe, English Great Pipes, The New Pastoral Pipe, Cornish double pipe, Durer pipe, the German Hummelchen, and the French Cornemuse.

He noted there are also several sets of pipes in each of those categories. “Each bagpipe has its own unique voice – that is why I have so many.”

Bagpipes are a class of musical instrument, aerophones, using enclosed reeds fed from a constant reservoir of air in the form of a bag.

Although the Scottish Great Highland Bagpipe and Irish uilleann pipes have the greatest international visibility, bagpipes of many different types come from different regions throughout Europe, Northern Africa, the Persian Gulf, and the Caucasus.

The term is equally correct in the singular or plural, although in the English language, pipers most commonly talk of “pipes.”

Possible ancient origins

Evidence of pre-medieval bagpipes is uncertain, but several textual and visual clues may possibly indicate ancient forms of bagpipes. The Oxford History of Music makes mention of the first documented bagpipe being found on a Hittite slab – at Eyuk – in the Middle East.

That sculptured bagpipe has been dated to 1000 BC. In the second century AD, Suetonius described the Roman Emperor, Nero, as a player of the tibia utricularis. Dio Chrysostom, who also flourished in the first century, wrote about a contemporary sovereign (possibly Nero) who could play a pipe (“aulein”) with his mouth as well as with his “armpit.” From that account, some believe that the tibia utricularis was a bagpipe.

In the early part of the second millennium, bagpipes began to appear with frequency in European art.

Actual examples of bagpipes from before the 18th century are extremely rare; however, a substantial number of paintings, carvings, engravings, manuscript illuminations, and so on survive today. They make it clear bagpipes varied hugely throughout Europe, and even in individual regions. Many examples of early folk bagpipes in Continental Europe can be found in the paintings of Brueghel, Teniers, Jordaens, and Durer.

Aggus plays traditional music on the pipes although he is not averse to increasing his repertoire.

“I discovered Scottish Lowland or Border music and I’m a member of Lowland and Border Piper’s Society. I play music from the borders area and I play English folk dance music, as well as some western European dance music.”

Aggus noted that for a time, “Bagpipes were the electric guitars of the middle ages and they were the dominant instrument for folk dancing until the 19th century, when other instruments started to replace them.”

That was the era when brass instruments came into vogue, he said.

Once Aggus started going to the gatherings, he was even more hooked. “I’d go to the piper’s gathering every year, do workshops there, and discover new bagpipes I needed to play.”

As he was gathering his collection of bagpipes, he met McCauley, and, he remembers, “We started to play music together.”

Eventually, the duo started a pub session at the former Dalby House, in Elora.

That happened over 10 years ago, in the winter of 2000.

“We invited other musicians to join in on the Celtic session. We had a regular Friday night session there, which later carried on to the Shepherd’s Pub. We played with other musicians regularly for the past 10 years.”

Then, requests started to come in for them to play at various festivals and special events.

“We formed a band called WhirlyGig.”

He noted that he and McCauley performed for about five years as the Milton Renaissance Faire.

“Then, with WhirlyGig, we play for ceili’s. It’s a ceili band and we play for dancing. It’s like square dancing, but it’s Irish and Scottish.”

They also play for Scottish country dancing, which is very similar, as well as for Scottish Highland dancing – or dancers.

There are certain annual events, he said. “We’re popular around [Robbie] Burns Day.”

McCauley started Riverside Celtic College to teach instruments, the dance, and the Gaelic language. Its website is

“It’s been popular for several years now,” Aggus said.

The venue began at the Elora Arts Centre and has since moved to Norfolk Church, in Guelph. “We host concerts and dances.”

In addition there are events on the second floor of the Albion Hotel in Guelph.

“We promote the music and the musicians.”

It is a non-profit organization where Aggus serves on the board of directors while McCauley is the artistic director.

“The other thing I do is host an evening of Scottish music at McDougall Cottage Museum in Galt.

“I’ve been doing that for over five years.

On March 24, Aggus was officially chosen as McDougall Cottage’s first folk artist in residence. He will being doing that for a one year period, hosting various events.

“Within the last five or so years, I’ve been travelling over to Scotland, England, and Ireland in the winter. I take my bagpipes and I play and I meet other musicians and play in pubs.”

He has also worked with a pipemaker in Scotland for a few weeks, to learn more about the craft. “I visit pipemakers and musicians … to absorb the culture when I’m there.”

When asked if he imagined his music taking him to these locations, he said, “I’m not sure if it’s taking me there – I’m paying for the trips. I’m not making a living at this – it’s a hobby. I don’t know what I imagined – I just wanted to play the bagpipes as often as I can.”

He is constantly working to learn new tunes.

“I hear a tune while I’m driving my truck, I listen to CDs and I find one like and come home to learn to play it and add it to my repertoire. I’m constantly adding new tunes.”

While trained to read sheet music, he also plays by ear.

“I learned sheet music when I was young, but I learned to shake that habit and trained myself to learn by ear. Now, it’s fairly easy to do.”

Aggus also plays various whistles – such as the Low D, which sounds like a flute.

“This is something I’ve been doing for almost forever.”

He noted bagpipes are set up for different sounds.

Aggus also leads the parade at the Eden Mills Writer’s Festival each year.

“Sometimes Eva’s with me,” at the festival parade and during performances at the festival.

Lately, he has also taken part in Elora’s Monster Parade for Hallowe’en.

Two years ago, he played French music on a French bagpipe, and then last year, he played Scottish music on Scottish Highland pipes

“I dress up in a scarey costume and lead the charge.”

And if that does not keep him busy enough, through Riverside Celtic College, Aggus also teaches.

“Mainly I teach adults, because I have a different style of playing than the competition or the band style. I can do that –  but I have a different approach.”

Plus, Aggus added, “My way of teaching is easier for adults to pick up. I have one star student, Ross McKitrick, who started off five years ago, who now sits in with the sessions every Friday night playing right along with jigs and reels.

In addition, he offers courses for people who already know how to play highland bagpipes but wanted to learn to get more out of their small pipes.

“They want to expand their repertoire.”

Many of those students now have their own small pipe session and get together as a group and play in Fergus.

Aggus had originally lived in Fergus, but after he and McCauley married, “We looked for a couple years and found this place” in West Luther.

Aggus, a professional landscape contractor, wanted to start a tree nursery. The 30 acres seems ideal for that.

“I renovated the log house and built on the addition in 2000.”

The 1873 home is constructed of squared logs. Aggus has designed and built landscapes for 30 years in Wellington County.

His website, covers his landscape business and musical craft.

But Aggus enjoys taking part in the community as well.

Recently, he participated in an event at the Damascus community hall. “Everybody brought their own food and drink. It was a nice casual event with kids and adults.”

He hopes to be able to more of those types of events.

One of his latest ‘gadgets’ is a bellows for his pipes which allows him to play and sing at the same time.

Aggus noted that while there are a number of pipers who use the bellows, it’s been something he had resisted over the years.

“Most people assume I’m in a pipe band,” but Aggus said he considers himself a “community piper” more in line with the older tradition of piping.

He said the large pipe bands were created by the British military, but the original piping tradition was more that of a community player.

In the borders in Scotland, there were town pipers and in the Highlands, they were clan pipers, Aggus explained. Those pipers performed at community events, and generally they performed individually, or accompanied by musicians on other instruments, but generally drummers.

Aggus added that large pipe bands did not really exist before being introduced by the British army in the 19th century.

“Most people think of bagpipes as an instrument of war. I think of them as an instrument of peace.”

Aggus can be contacted at his website