Lady bagpipers celebrate Celtic heritage

Lady bagpipers celebrate Celtic heritage

By Lisa Palmeno, Staff Writer

Celtic music swept the nation, and the world, a few years ago with Riverdance, Lord of the Dance and every other kind of tribute to Irish heritage flourishing in an unlikely era. Celtic fests abound in the United States in the information age, and a few surprises have been added; lady bagpipers, Jackie Stephenson and several other Rockford women, fill slots traditionally held by men.

Often heard piping away in scorching heat (115 degrees in the shade at Rockford’s last Celtic Fest), Stephenson never misses an opportunity to don her wools and pay tribute to her own Scottish roots.

Stephenson started bagpiping lessons in 1998 with Bob Gough, the “pipe major” responsible for founding City of Rockford Pipe Band. The Pipe Band now boasts a total of five lady bagpipers—Stephenson; Hannah Gough (Bob Gough’s daughter); Cydney Oakes; Laura Rey; and Jessica Young—all taught by Gough himself. Gough says he would like to hope that he inspired them all to play, but he’s not really sure. Jackie was the first female student to take private lessons with him. Laura Rey and Jessica Young met him through music classes at Rock Valley College before signing up for lessons. Cydney Oakes and Hannah Gough were in the band school.

Hannah Gough, a 15-year-old freshman at Boylan, is also a competitive highland dancer and teacher. Young is an elementary education major at the University of Arizona. Oakes, a student at NIU, is an ROTC member planning a career in the military. Rey works as a mental health nurse at Singer Mental Health Center.

Stephenson’s job is part-time shipping clerk at Magnuson Industries, where she works for Gough. Gough says Jackie is “really the senior member of the group,” and “she is quite accomplished.” He added that she does a lot of teaching and solo performing.

The Scottish lass says she chose to learn to play the bagpipes “because they are just such stirring, emotional instruments.” How many kinds of bagpipes are there? Stephenson lists several kinds: Great Highland bagpipes; Scottish pipes; Uillean; Irish pipes (these are the pipes generally heard on move soundtracks such as Braveheart and Titanic); small pipes; Fireside pipes; Shuttle pipes; and Irish war pipes. However, she adds that the list is “endless.” Stephenson’s instrument is of the Great Highland type.

Stephenson performs with the band at functions including First Night; On The Waterfront; memorial services for 9-11 and fire departments; parades; and Father Murphy’s St. Patrick’s Day fund-raiser. She says they play almost monthly for community events. City of Rockford Pipe Band also won a RAMI last year for the World Music category.

Not limited to Rockford events, City of Rockford Pipe Band is also gearing up for competition season when they will be up against other Midwestern pipe bands from Chicago, Indiana, Wisconsin and others in Springfield, Ill. Bands often have anywhere from five to 10, or even 12, bagpipers performing in one band at a time. Stephenson plans to compete in the solo competition as well. Their annual winter fund-raiser, Ceilidh (pronounced “kaylee”), was Feb. 7 at Ramada Suites and Conference Center on Bell School Road.

Fourth grade teacher at Marsh Elementary Nancy Layng has been playing the bagpipes for 17 years, performing with Clan MacAlpin Pipes and Drums. She says she always loved the instrument and received free lessons from a member of the band, Dr. Hayes.

Have the ladies received any flak for bagpiping? For the most part, they say their reception has been good, very good, in fact. Stephenson also performs at weddings and funerals and says that some of the brides actually prefer a lady bagpiper.

Bagpiper Julie Marek (also a former student of Gough’s but not affiliated with the Band), who performs at mainly private events and has taught bagpiping at Rock Valley College, shares: “Bagpipers in general are popular right now. It doesn’t matter male or female, but female bagpipers have difficulty with air capacity and blowing, generally speaking, because we are smaller than the big, burly guys with big chests. Bagpipes have four reeds; you have to blow enough to keep the bag full and keep air going through four reeds.”

When asked about his thoughts on lady bagpipers, Gough said, “They’re just as good as the guys are, and they’re better looking.”

To contact Jackie for lessons, or for more information on City of Rockford Pipe Band, visit Be sure to direct all correspondence to her attention.

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