Bagpipes originated as a weapon of war, the loud music clearly heard over the din of battle to signal an advance or motivate the fighting Scotsmen.
But for Augusta-Richmond County firefighter Lt. John Grant, bagpipes are an instrument of solace.
Grant first picked up the pipes in 1999, when his grandfather’s health began to decline. He was able to play the bagpipe standard Amazing Grace at the funeral.
Since then, Grant, 38, has performed at roughly 50 ceremonies -- mostly funerals and memorial services -- for firefighters and deputies who are killed in the line of duty or who died after retirement. It’s his contribution, he said, to honor a life of sacrifice.
“If people go away crying, I’ve touched them in my own way,” he said.
Of course, with bagpipes, there’s a chance to set some teeth on edge. Grant said bagpipes are finicky instruments that can quickly go out of tune with a temperature change of just a few degrees. The instruments themselves can last more than 100 years, but certain parts, such as the chanter reed, need to be replaced. If that reed is cracked or split, the sound will be atrocious.
“You’ll find out real quick,” Grant said.
Bagpipes can be heard up to six miles away, which is great for the barren Scottish Highlands, but not so much for urban Augusta. Grant practices sometimes at work at Station No. 8 on Highland Avenue, where he’s a ripe target for the wisecracks from his fellow firefighters. Even as he played last week for visitors, his co-workers gave him some good-natured teasing about his kilt and requested he play Sir Mix-A-Lot’s Baby Got Back. He didn’t acknowledge the request.
Grant also practices at his home in Grovetown.
“It’s a big enough neighborhood,” Grant said. “But I try to play during appropriate times.”
There are two other public service bagpipers in the area -- one in Martinez, the other in Aiken -- with whom Grant plays occasionally. But most of his gigs are solo affairs because it’s hard to tune bagpipes together, Grant explained.
While bagpipers have their share of reels and jigs to choose from, most of Grant’s tunes reflect the bagpipe’s reputation as an instrument of forlorn music. Playing in the fire department’s 125th anniversary parade was probably the last time he didn’t play at a funeral.
“That was my first really happy occasion,” he said.