Ross Ainslie is a Scottish piper. No, not that kind of piper. More like this kind of piper. He plays “Thunderstruck” on the bagpipes! I’m sitting in a New York City bar with Ainslie and a couple of his friends in town for Scotland Week in early April, an annual event featuring whisky tastings, haggis tastings and a 10K followed by whisky and haggis tastings.
Ainslie is nursing a beer (“I’m taking it easy because of last night”) while I sip Glenfarclas 17 Year. I wanted to find out what it was like being one of the greatest living pipes players—and to be a living legend in the Scottish contemporary folk scene. And I wanted to get Ainslie to drink a dram with me!
Folk music is much cooler in Scotland it seems…
It’s getting there. When I was younger at school I was the only person who played at my school. Now it’s unbelievable. You’re right it wasn’t at one point. Everyone plays.
How did you get into playing the pipes?
I started off doing traditional pipes the proper way by joining a pipe band. Then I had a solo teacher—it’s not like guitar where you can pick it up yourself. You’ve got to learn it from a teacher. Then I met Gordon Duncan—which is what changed my life. He was the one that was pushing boundaries and trying to get pipes recognized as an instrument.
What Scottish bands were you into growing up?
I liked the singer-songwriters. I suppose there’s a lot of acoustic movement happening in Scotland and Britain in general. I would say. I’m a big John Martin fan. He’s originally from Glasgow.
Let’s talk about visiting Scotland. Why should Americans have it on their radars? It’s not necessarily on the tip of our tongues, like France, Italy and Spain. Why should we go?
The venison is unbelievable. And, obviously, the seafood’s amazing. Lobster, scallops, mussels. It’s all on the West Coast.
I can get behind some seafood! What about Glasgow? I liked my time there. The modern art museum is one of the best…
In Glasgow, there’s quite a lot of good venues for concerts. The Old Fruit Market is a great venue. There’s the Royal Concert Hall and the SECC, which is a massive venue. The Riverside Museum just opened in Glasgow.
One thing that I like to do the best is visit the islands, which are amazing. If someone was coming from New York or America, that’s what I’d say to go. There’s an island called Eigg with like 96 people living there. They have a huge party on the 12th of June. I’ve been going for the last eight years. It’s just a massive party and you just camp out.
What else do you do in the summer time?
Being a musician, that’s your busiest time with the festivals. Every island will have their own festival during the summer. Scotland is vibrant in the summertime.
Let’s talk about drinking your fine whisky. Do you have a favorite product?
I do like a whisky. Edradour is one of my favorites. Normally I’m a beer drinker. I quite like a whisky and ginger ale.
Before you play? You drink one of those?
Maybe a couple.
Do you ever drink Kentucky bourbon?
I have not. I’m not really into that stuff. Note: After drinking a few more beers, I convinced him to try a couple fingers of Elijah Craig. It was my patriotic duty, after all.