Grant MacLeod, the ‘Munro Bagpiper’, is bringing music and heritage to the mountains by playing the pipes atop every single Munro.
We often wax lyrical about mountains, claiming there’s music in these hills as we gaze into the distance hearing only the sounds of nature. But, when it comes to the outdoor exploits of Grant MacLeod, the Munro Bagpiper, these romantic ruminations resound rather more literally. He set out to play his pipes atop every Munro the day before his nana – his greatest musical champion, who bought Grant the kilt he still wears to this day on his summits (“Yes, it still fits!”) – passed away.
Main image credit: Grant MacLeod
Grant has since summited 136 Munros. Here, The Great Outdoors catches up with him to hear about his progress and motivations.
Can you recall your first experiences of the outdoors growing up in the Highlands?
I grew up in Glenelg and Arnisdale, at the foot of Beinn Sgritheall, which gave me a dream upbringing surrounded by Scotland’s finest landscapes. I didn’t realise it at the time, as it was just life, but I was so lucky to have the childhood I had, playing in the hills, shore and constantly on adventures. Naturally, Beinn Sgritheall was my first Munro.
Having used it as a playground my whole childhood, it was very special to finally be on the summit. I distinctly remember standing, looking over to Knoydart, thinking I wish I had my pipes with me!
Can you tell us a little bit more about the tradition of playing the pipes and its meaning for you, personally and culturally?
My Nana and Papa would look after me in Arnisdale when my parents were working, and her father was a piper. When I started the chanter, she was so excited I was following in his footsteps. She bought me my kilt and eventually my first set of pipes, and actually my current kilt when I was 18 (yes it still fits!). My whole family was always so encouraging to me and to my brother as well, who is a fantastic musician. It was, sadly, the day before my Nana passed away, that I came up with the idea of climbing the Munros with my pipes. It saddens me that she didn’t see the journey.
What is it about the way pipe music moves around the mountains that you find so special?
One memory was playing on Sgurr Alasdair, the highest of the Skye Cuilin. I remember ending my tune and hearing the echo off every surrounding hill. I have never had chills before, and that really got me! It was then that applause followed from each summit that was occupied that day. A special memory.
Logistically, what are the challenges of taking your pipes up Munros?
I always ensure I have the best possible weather. You can never fully predict it, but I never go out when there is a risky forecast. The pipes aren’t heavy, but they take up a lot of space, so it is important to limit the need for emergency kit. There is always a little risk, of course, but it’s calculated.
Musically, I am not usually winning any prizes on the chilly, windy summits, as the pipes are very temperamental to weather conditions, and spending too much time setting up isn’t always an option. I have, on a couple of occasions, almost been caught out with conditions, and that is enough to ensure I am always careful. It’s a different world up high.
Has your Munro challenge brought you closer to your homeland?
Yes, absolutely. It is a hot topic in Scotland talking about a subject like this, but the more I get into it, the more interest I have in our past. Where we came from and what we went through. It has been a massive learning curve, hearing about things that fill you with pride, but also the other sides too. Scotland has a fascinating history and is always hotly debated. I have been fortunate to be able to travel to see how our culture is celebrated the world over.
Can you recall your favourite Munro moments?
Beinn Sgritheall will always be special due to my attachment to it, and the sheer beauty of it, but days in the Cuillin are also hard to beat!
What can we expect from the Munro Bagpiper in 2023?
I had a busy 2022 musically thanks to the reach of Munro Bagpiper, and with the birth of my daughter, the Munros took a back seat. I only climbed Ben Nevis in 2022! In 2023, I aim to get back into my natural habitat in the hills, developing musically as a piper, pushing my band Clann an Drumma to the next level, and exploring more of Scotland’s stunning sites.