By Scott Williams

Robyn Whitty is one of Nova Scotia’s most prominent pipers, competitors, composers, and adjudicators. Born in the old Infirmary in Halifax on September 20th, 1958, she grew up in New Glasgow. Her mother, Joy (Smith) Sutherland was from Verdun, Montreal, and was a classical pianist. Both sets of grandparents were from Scotland. Her family included a younger brother, Shane, but Robyn, however, was the one destined to become the piper in the family.

As a child, Robyn was an excellent prize-winning Highland dancer and later took the Associate Teacher’s tests. She graduated from New Glasgow High School and went on to study for two years at St. Francis Xavier University, receiving her diploma from St. Martha’s School of Nursing. Up until very recently, she was employed as a nurse at the QE II Health Sciences Centre in Halifax, where she had worked for twenty-one years. During that time, she married Donald Whitty and they had two children, Liam and Erin. "Both children play a variety of instruments," says Robyn, proudly, "and recently Erin, who played as a tenor drummer with the Gaelic College Pipe Band, has begun to show an interest in learning to play the pipes." The Whittys made their home for many years in Cow Bay, just outside of the city of Dartmouth, but recently moved to Mabou, in Cape Breton.

"My first bagpipe teacher was Pat MacLeod, then pipe major of the Ceilidh Girls’ Pipe Band in New Glasgow, under the direction of Pipe Major Fraser Holmes. I was sent to St. Ann’s Gaelic College in Cape Breton for the first time on a dancing scholarship and it was there that I discovered that piping was my real love." Barry Ewen, recently emigrated from Glasgow, Scotland, was her principal teacher and her natural talent was greatly enhanced by his excellent ability to teach at a very high level.

In the early 1970s, Robyn spent a year in Scotland. "I lived in Glasgow," says Robyn, "and took lessons in light music from the late Duncan Johnstone. I had started studying piobaireachd with Finlay MacNeill back at the Gaelic College, so I arranged to continue my studies in Scotland with the late Pipe Major Donald MacLeod. Since then, I have continued to study piobaireachd whenever and wherever I could. The workshops with many of the world’s finest teachers sponsored by the Piobaireachd Society of Antigonish since 1997 have been wonderful. I also studied with Andrew Wright, President of the Piobaireachd Society (Scotland) when I was teaching with him at several Coeur d’Alene summer schools in Idaho."

Robyn played with a number of pipe bands over the years. "My first band, of course, was the Ceilidh Girls’ Pipe Band in New Glasgow, but after attending summer schools at St. Ann’s, I decided to join the Gaelic College band. I later became its pipe major for a year. My instructor, Barry Ewen, took over the Antigonish Legion Pipe Band in 1974 and he asked me to come along so I played with Antigonish for a while. At that time, the band was playing Grade 1 in the Maritimes and Grade 2 internationally. It was one of the best bands ever to come out of the Maritimes until very recently. From there, I went to the Scotia Legion Pipe Band, Atlantic Canada’s first real Grade 1 pipe band, and was also teaching and serving as pipe major to the Nova Scotia Highland Village Pipe Band based in Iona, Cape Breton. When I moved to the Metro area, I joined the Halifax Police Grade 1 Pipe Band and for a time served as the pipe major of the Grade 4 band which moved up to Grade 3 while I was with it. One of my most memorable moments in the years I spent with pipe bands has to be leading my band onto the field at the World Championships in Scotland! But, you know, I think my greatest thrill was winning the competition at the Festival of the Tartans in New Glasgow for the first time as Pipe Major of the Iona band. We won the Fraser Holmes Trophy, and my old teacher was there to present it to us. Since moving to Mabou, I’ve been playing with the Antigonish Highland Society Pipe Band, which is moving up to Grade 3 this year. I’ve accepted the position of pipe sergeant."

For all of her time in piping, Robyn has been an active solo competitor. "I enjoy the thrill of competing," she says. "I was lucky enough to have a lot of success, especially in my earlier, formative years, and that carried over to some degree into my years as an Open level player. I started out in the 14 and Under category – no grade levels in those days. I was so proud when I won the Allan B. Beaton Memorial Trophy as Senior Amateur Piper of the Day at the Antigonish Highland Games. Allan, of course, had been the young pipe major of the Antigonish Legion Junior Pipe Band. A gifted performer and budding composer, he died in 1971 at the age of sixteen. The trophy presented in his memory is the most coveted amateur piping award in all of Atlantic Canada."

"I was also one of the early winners of the NSPPBA’s Silver Medal Piobaireachd Challenge held annually in Antigonish since 1990. During the first years, that competition was open to players from all levels but, as the number of piobaireachd competitors increased, it grew to include two levels, then four, and last year saw five separate levels of competition offered. That certainly speaks well for the development of piobaireachd playing in Atlantic Canada.

"One of my most memorable solo experiences, however, was when I was in Scotland and had the opportunity to compete on the Isle of Skye. I was the only non-Scot, and the only female. I had to play a Piobaireachd, a March/Strathspey/Reel set, and a Hornpipe/Jig set. To the utter shock of everyone, especially the other competitors, the judge, Iain MacFadyen, awarded me the top place!"

Robyn was named to the Judges’ Panel of the Nova Scotia Pipers and Pipe Band Association (now the ACPBA) and has adjudicated at many events in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, as well as several contests in Ontario. Her work schedule, unfortunately, does not allow her to take many private students but she does get a chance to teach at summer schools such as St. Ann’s Gaelic College and Coeur d’Alene. She is a member of the Atlantic Canada Pipe Band Association, the Eastern United States Pipe Band Association, the Musicians’ Union, and The Piobaireachd Society of Antigonish.

"I enjoy composing, and have a lot of tunes in my head," she says, "but few have been written down. I have had tunes published in Ann Gray’s book and Allan Mackenzie’s book. Composing is a real art and something you definitely get better at the more your do it. The reason I haven’t gotten many of my tunes written out is that my notational skills are practically non-existent! Perhaps soon I’ll see about getting more of them down on paper."

And if solo and band playing is not enough for this gifted native Nova Scotian piper, Robyn also plays with two folk groups. "I’ve played Highland pipes, small pipes, whistle and bodhran with a group called Lochaber. I also play with Rune, but we’re still basically jamming, though we are looking at gigging and recording in the near future."


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