For some time now I have been taking photos of the local pipe and drum band the Montana Highlanders. Last year they gave me a list of all their events for this year and almost immediately I zeroed in on one that I really wanted to photograph — sunrise ceremony.
Beautiful light will make a good photograph great. It reveals the real power of a subject, adds drama and magic to even the most ordinary items. And the light is seldom more beautiful than at sunrise or sunset. I love this time of day and will go out of my way for a chance to photograph in it. So when I saw sunrise on the list of events I knew this was one I did not want to miss. I knew it could be magical and I knew it would be worth the loss of sleep.
It gets better. The location is a private club with a replica of Stonehenge built on site. Bagpipes. Stonehenge. Celebrating the solstice. And I didn’t have to fly to England to get the shots. It was hard to keep a lid on my enthusiasm and early on I had no assurances that I would be allowed to attend, let alone document the event.
But as the weeks went by the band convinced the owner to let me show up. The photos could be used by the band, for the band, but not for the newspaper. The owner values privacy and I can certainly understand that. Still, I would get to go, and there is always value in the experience, even if the photos are ones I never get to publish.
I met up with Rob, who plays the big bass drum, at 5:15 in the morning in Whitefish. Normally I would have been completely obsessive about my alarm clocks being set frequently and loudly, but on this morning my solution was to simply stay up all night. Friday night is my night for swing dancing. Then some of the girls decided to go see the midnight showing of Brave. After the film I saw a fire truck and decided to follow it out to a full engulfed structure fire in West Valley (very happy with those photos) and so by the time I got home it was around 3:30. To be in Whitefish at 5:15 I have to leave at 4:45. No reason to sleep at all.
Rob took me up toward Eureka and the day started with watching the band prep and practice before marching up the hill to their start location. Bagpipes fascinate me. Sometimes I think they sound terrible. There is a low hum that reminds me of some sort of death rattle. The drone of it can be obnoxious to my ears. But as soon as the pipes kick in, any negative opinion I may have evaporates. They are simply beautiful. Unique and haunting. Maybe the pipes mean more to me because of my Irish roots, but when I hear them I can’t help but get mentally swept away. I love the sound. And I love the music that goes with them.
The sun was set to rise at 7:04 on Saturday morning June 23. They do this every year on the saturday closest to the solstice. The band marched up to a tree over the crest of a hill and as the sun crested over the mountain they marched their way down the hill into the full-size replica of Stonehenge.
How do I describe the replica? I’ve been to Stonehenge. And I’ve seen so many pictures of it. When I was told of the event I had certain preconceived ideas in my mind of what kind of structure I’d find. At first I thought the replica was simply wrong. The stones are the wrong color for one thing. But as the light hit the structure the whole scene came to life I found it absolutely beautiful. The replica is not a recreation of how it looks today, worn down, thousands of years old and fading. The owner used stones the size they would have been when the monument was first created. He did make one deliberate alteration to his replica. We are not at the exact same latitude as the ancient druids. So, to make the sunrise hit the center of the structure at the correct angle the owner altered the arrangement of the stones by 18 degrees.
So, if there were such concerns about publication why am I blogging about this? Well, at the end of the event, I met the owner. I wanted to thank him for letting me attend. As we fell into conversation he told me he had changed his mind. Originally I was not allowed to use any of the photos that had the replica in them. Bagpipers, yes. Stonehenge, no. He also told me I could publish them for the bagpipers as well as for the newspaper if I wanted. That was a dramatic change from what I had been told going into the event. We didn’t have room in the paper, but I am going to hold onto them for maybe a story on the pipers later. But I can publish them here so I wanted to share.
At some point I’m going to try to take the sound recording I got from this day and put it in with a slideshow of these pictures. The Highlanders wrapped up their performance with Scotland the Brave. It was phenomenal. And happy as I am with the photos, without the music, it just doesn’t convey everything I wish I could share.