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From Boise

The Boise Highlanders

Published about 1 month ago • 9 min read

Hello friends. This weekend is St Paddy's Day! Tis the time to eat some corned beef, drink some Guinness, and catch a performance by our beloved local bagpipe band, the Boise Highlanders. Today's story is all about the Boise Highlanders and gives you a glimpse into how this volunteer band operates. This story was written by Julie Sarasqueta. You can listen to me read it on today's podcast. Enjoy! 🍀


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The Boise Highlanders

by Julie Sarasqueta

Judy Pittman remembers the moment she first heard bagpipes. It was her grandparents’ 50th anniversary party, and their neighbor’s son serenaded them to celebrate — and Pittman was awestruck by the instrument’s big, plaintive sound.

“I thought I had died right there on the spot!” Pittman says. She was seven years old.

Decades later, Pittman’s love for the traditional Scottish instrument has only grown. Luckily, she found a community of fellow fanatics years ago. Pittman is part of the Boise Highlanders, a stalwart group of players and dancers who have been bringing Scottish culture to the Treasure Valley since 1961. The Highlanders boast the largest bagpipe band in Idaho and are one of the longest-serving such bands in the Northwest.

For many Boiseans, they transform St. Patrick’s Day from an excuse to drink beer to an actual cultural event. The Highlanders have a punishing St. Patrick’s schedule that sees musicians, in full costume, fanning out to locations all over the valley over the course of three days.

It’s a tradition that dates back to at least the early 1990s, though Pittman and Pipe Major Bill Earley remember playing gigs and passing the hat in the ’80s. It took a man with an unlikely last name to organize the St. Patrick’s Day performances we know now: Ron Lopez.

Lopez (his mother was of Scottish heritage, and his father was of Spanish) was a member of the Highlanders from the early ’70s until he died on January 16. He was the band’s manager, taught people how to play the bagpipes, served as pipe major, and served as a mentor for generations of students — including Pittman, who learned how to play from Lopez.

“I think we all knew Ron was doing a big job,” Pittman says. “But I don’t think any of us realized how big of a job it was. He had a lot of help at home from his wife and daughter and grandsons and so forth, but it’s an enormous job.”

A St. Patrick’s Day tradition

Michael White, the Highlanders’ band manager and snare drummer, stepped in to organize this year’s St. Patrick’s Day shows. “This was to be the pass-down St. Patrick’s Day,” White says of Lopez. “He and I were going to work on it together and he was going to show me the ropes. So I’m learning on the fly a little bit.”

Lopez’s daughter, Sara, and his wife, Joyce, have helped White organize. Businesses start calling as early as January to ensure the Highlanders play their venues, and on St. Patrick’s Day weekend, four teams of players will spread out from Eagle to Downtown Boise so everyone gets a chance to hear the pipes. In fact, the money they make from the restaurants who pay to have the Highlanders on hand supports the organization for the rest of the year.

“We have a blast doing it,” Pittman says. “We don’t make bazillions of dollars or anything, but we certainly make enough money.”

But you won’t just find the Highlanders in the Treasure Valley during one weekend in March. They’re a part of the annual Robbie Burns Night hosted by the Boise Scottish Caledonian Society. The organization’s dancers, drummers, and pipers are also a key part of the Trailing of the Sheep Festival in Ketchum, where they help celebrate the many ethnic groups that built and maintained the sheep industry in the area.

This year’s performance schedule also includes a performance at the America’s Global Village Festival in Ontario, Oregon; the Emmett Cherry Festival; the Athena Caledonian Games in Athena, Oregon; and the Bitterroot Celtic Games in Hamilton, Montana. But the group would love to do even more — there are similar bands that travel to competitions regularly, including events like the World Pipe Band Championships in Scotland.

It’s not a cheap proposition, though. Highlanders are responsible for buying their own pipes, which can range anywhere from a couple hundred bucks for a used instrument to well into the thousands. The Highlanders buy drums for their drummers and shoes for their dancers, but everything else is the responsibility of individual members.

“And a single kilt’s, like, $1,000,” White says.

But for people who love to play music and dance, obstacles are not a deterrent. The Highlanders practice frequently at a church in Meridian; on a recent night, drummers sat facing each other and rapped out beats on the table in front of them while the sound of bagpipes floated in the distance and the dancers practiced their routines in an adjacent room.

Anyone can join the Highlanders — you don’t have to be of Scottish ancestry — so it has become a group where former marching band members can keep practicing well into their retirement years.

“I’d like to see us continue to grow our numbers and see us perhaps become a competitive band,” White says. “Because we have the talent.”

A wee history of Scots in Idaho

Scots have been part of Idaho’s history for hundreds of years. Not surprising, really, considering how many Scots have immigrated here over the course of the country’s history. Just to give you an idea of why you instantly know the sound of bagpipes and can picture a kilt-clad Scottish Highlander: There are an estimated 20 million people of Scottish ancestry living in the United States. Thirty-four of our 46 presidents have had Scottish forebears.

And Idaho’s Scots certainly made their mark. In the late 1800s, a Scottish man named Andy Little immigrated to Caldwell and bought sheep. By 1929, his sheep were producing a million pounds of wool a year. When he died in 1941, he was remembered as the “Sheep King of Idaho” — a fact his grandson, Gov. Brad Little, still references in interviews.

In other words, Scottish culture is part of Idaho’s culture: Just look at the Caledonian Society’s Robbie Burns Night, which celebrated its 119th year in 2024. Longtime residents might even remember a tiny shop, Wee Bit o’ Scotland, where homesick Boiseans and Scottish enthusiasts could buy Irn-Bru soda and tins of haggis.

But nothing is more viscerally Scottish than bagpipes. Which begs the question: Why do we hear them on St. Patrick’s Day? Well, turns out the Irish had their own version of the instrument. In fact, Earley says, bagpipes were around “well before Jesus Christ.”


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On to the next gig

Why have the Highlanders been around so long when many small cultural groups fizz out after a few years? Pittman, White, and Earley thank Hollywood, in part, for their current roster of members. Popular culture has helped, too — “Braveheart,” “Rob Roy,” and, more recently, “Outlander” have done wonders for traditional Celtic music, dance, and even competitive sports. So has Boise’s growing population.

“I think, over the years, we’ve gotten a reputation for being a really cool community band,” Earley says. “Especially over the last few years.”

After this year’s St. Pat’s, the Highlanders will begin practicing for the next gig. This year, Pittman and White say, they feel especially responsible for keeping a beloved Boise tradition going. Ron Lopez ran the Highlanders like a business, they say, and they want to make sure the group stays successful.

“He had an envelope that was always full of money that he collected from his own piping gigs that he rarely spent on himself,” Pittman says, instead quietly buying new costumes or equipment for members of the group.

“I always quote Pete Rose: I would have walked through hell in a gasoline suit for Ron,” she says. “He loved us all.”

If you’d like to get involved with the Boise Highlanders, visit BoiseHighlanders.com. The group isn’t offering bagpipe lessons at the moment (they hope to in the near future) but will be happy to hook you up with information on where to take them.

And, of course, you can see them at many locations on St. Patrick’s Day.

2024 Boise Highlanders St. Patrick's Day Schedule:

Friday, March 15

  • 4:45pm: Hooligan’s Pub, 10704 West Overland Road, Boise
  • 5:45pm: Stone Crossing, 9600 West Brookside Lane, Boise
  • 7pm: Quinn’s Restaurant and Lounge, 1005 South Vista Ave, Boise
  • 8:15pm: Stone Crossing, 9600 West Brookside Lane, Boise
  • TBD: Gil’s K-9 Bar, 2506 West Main Street, Boise

Saturday, March 16

  • 11:30am: High Desert Harley Davidson, 2310 East Cinema Drive, Meridian
  • 3pm: The James Kitchen & Bar, 1030 South Broadway Avenue, Boise
  • 3:30pm: Hyde Park Pub & Grill, 1501 North 13th St
  • 4pm: Payette Brewing Company, 733 South Pioneer Street, Boise
  • 4pm: Old Chicago Pizza & Taproom, 350 North Milwaukee Street, Suite #1017
  • 4:30pm: The Stagecoach Inn, 3132 West Chinden Boulevard, Garden City
  • 4:30pm: Lindy’s Steak House, 12249 W Chinden Blvd, Boise
  • 5pm: Hooligan’s Pub, 10704 West Overland Road, Boise
  • 6pm: 10 Barrel Brewing, 826 W Bannock St, Boise
  • 6pm: The Curb Bar and Grill, 1760 South Meridian Road, Suite #100, Meridian
  • 6:30pm: Sacred Heart Church, 811 South Latah Street, Boise
  • 7pm: Quinn’s Restaurant and Lounge, 1005 South Vista Ave, Boise
  • 7:15pm: Owyhee Tavern, 1109 W Main Street, Boise
  • 9pm: Humpin’ Hannah’s, 621 West Main Street, Boise
  • 9pm: Lindy’s Steak House, 12249 W Chinden Blvd, Boise
  • 9:30pm: Tom Grainey’s, 109 South 6th Street, Boise
  • 10pm: Jim’s Alibi, 2710 South Broadway Avenue, Boise
  • TBD: Gil’s K-9 Bar, 2506 West Main Street, Boise

Sunday, March 17

  • 1pm: Owyhee Tavern, 1109 West Main Street, Boise
  • 1pm: Sockeye Brewing, 12542 West Fairview Ave, Boise
  • 1:30pm: Hyde Park Pub & Grill, 1501 North 13th Street
  • 2:15pm: Rudy’s Pub & Grill (Overland), 2310 East Overland Road, Suite #150, Meridian
  • 2:30pm: Beers Pizza & Sports Pub, 9140 West Emerald Street, Suite 103
  • 3pm: The James, 1030 South Broadway Avenue, Boise
  • 3pm: Tavern at Eagle Island, 6500 North Linder Road, Suite #100, Meridian
  • 3pm: Rudy’s Pub & Grill (McMillan), 3035 West McMillan Road, Meridian
  • 3:30pm: Payette Brewing Company, 733 South Pioneer Street, Boise
  • 3:30pm: The Refuge Restaurant & Lounge, 404 East Parkcenter Boulevard, Suite #300, Boise
  • 4pm: The Curb Bar & Grill, 1760 South Meridian Road, Suite #100, Meridian
  • 4pm: The Harp, 1435 North Eagle Road, Meridian
  • 4pm: Tavern at Bown Crossing, 3111 South Bown Way, Boise
  • 5pm: Hooligan’s Pub, 10704 West Overland Road, Boise
  • 5pm: The Ram Restaurant & Brewery (Boise), 709 East Park Boulevard, Boise
  • 5pm: The Ram Restaurant & Brewery (Meridian), 3272 East Pine Avenue, Meridian,
  • 5:30pm: Barbacoa Grill, 276 Bobwhite Court, Boise
  • 5:45pm: Stone Crossing, 9600 West Brookside Lane, Boise
  • 6pm: Coa de Jima, 615 West Main Street, Boise
  • 6pm: Bardenay Restaurant & Distillery (Boise), 610 West Grove Street, Boise
  • 6:30pm: Rudy’s Pub & Grill (Overland), 2310 East Overland Road, Suite #150, Meridian
  • 6:30pm: Rudy’s Pub & Grill (McMillan), 3035 West McMillan Road, Meridian
  • 7pm: 13th Street Pub & Grill, 1520 North 13th Street, Boise
  • 7pm: Parilla Grill & Cantina (Downtown), 503 West Idaho Street, Boise
  • 7pm: Quinn’s Restaurant and Lounge, 1005 South Vista Ave, Boise
  • 7:30pm: Hyde Park Pub & Grill, 1501 North 13th St
  • 8pm: Parilla Grill (Hyde Park), 1512 North 13th Street, Boise
  • 8:15pm: Stone Crossing, 9600 West Brookside Lane, Boise
  • TBD: Gil’s K-9 Bar, 2506 West Main Street, Boise

Thanks for reading!

With love from Boise,

Marissa

This story was written by Julie Sarasqueta, a writer and tarot reader who lives in Boise.

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by Marissa Lovell

A weekly newsletter & podcast about what's going on in Boise, Idaho. Every week we share stories about people, places, history, and happenings in Boise.

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