Choosing between knitting and bagpipes to fulfill a fine-arts requirement your junior year of high school is not, perhaps, a decision faced by most people. But for Michael Whinery this situation seemed fated. He has now been playing the bagpipes for 14 years and teaching others to play them for eight.
Whinery’s big personality is obvious, and augmented by the fact that he’s 6’4”. Toss in a kilt and bagpipes and he is nothing less than traffic stopping. The intimidation factor is softened by his smile, and his quick wit and saucy attitude were a welcome reprieve from the stuffy stereotype I had anticipated.
The interview began with some fine Scottish weather, but was quickly unclouded by Whinery’s rockin’ tunes. (If you have never heard Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It” played on bagpipes, you are missing out.) Whinery wasted no time in setting up and began serenading passersby with bagpipe standards such as “Amazing Grace” and other songs that I recognized from movies like Braveheart.
Naturally, I began by asking, “What’s under the kilt?” I could tell by the long pause that he was searching for an appropriate answer. Settling on “shoes and socks”, he resumed playing. I persisted. “Boxers, briefs or commando?” He ignored my taunts and jumped back on the pipes, playing the theme from Star Wars. Yes, I said Star Wars.
Whinery grew up in Huntington Beach, Calif. and moved to Tucson in 1989. He chose the bagpipes over knitting his junior year of high school and after diligently practicing and hammering away at the pipes for only one year, he took over the class his senior year and picked up where his former mentor had left off. His performance repertoire is extensive—he’s played in the St. Andrews College Pipe Band in North Carolina, Seven Pipers Society in Tucson and the Duncan McCall Pipe Band in Pensacola, Fla., to name a few. He now plays in the Chattanooga Pipe Band, which placed third out of 16 bands at the Stone Mountain Highland games in Georgia this October.
After landing in Chattanooga two years ago, Whinery admits, “I had never been to Chattanooga and it was not at all on my radar, but as soon as I had a chance to visit downtown and see the sights, I was hooked. I pulled anchor and made the move and am glad I did.” He is currently talking with McCallie School about creating a bagpipe program and hopes to offer it with next semester’s curriculum. Aside from instruction, Whinery performs at weddings, funerals, private parties and pretty much anything else. One of the most interesting events he’s played was a Greek Orthodox wedding in which the bride was Greek and the groom was Scottish. He says, “I was the only Scottish element in an otherwise traditional Greek wedding.”
I probe with one final question, “Do you regret not signing up for knitting?” He smiles and placing his hand on his chest, proclaims, “I have the heart of a knitter.”
Professional Bagpiper Grade 2
Favorite whiskey: “I will have to go with the Dalmore 12-year Single-Malt, a surprisingly full-flavored peaty little number, not for the faint of heart.”
Favorite tune to play: “‘The Big Burl.’ It is fast, fun, and I have managed to take the speed limit of it.”