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Iowa bagpipers to be honored at Fry Fest

BY ERIK PAPKE | JULY 08, 2011 7:20 AM

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Close your eyes and imagine the University of Iowa.

What image comes to mind?

Some might see the wrestling team hoisting another national championship trophy. Others may think about the hustle and bustle of campus during the fall and spring semesters or the exciting nightlife of downtown Iowa City.

But for a select group of Hawkeyes, the UI brings back fond memories of kilts, bagpipes, and drums.
Not too long ago, Iowa was well-known for its world-famous bagpipe band, the Iowa Scottish Highlanders. The group got its start in 1936, when the school was still known as the State University of Iowa, and it lasted almost 75 years before it was disbanded in 2008.

This fall, Highlander alumni will return to Iowa City and their old stomping grounds at the football stadium for the group’s 75th anniversary. The celebration will run Sept. 1-4 and will include an unveiling and dedication of a permanent Iowa Scottish Highlander exhibit at the UI’s Karro Athletics Hall of Fame.

Highlanders’ early history

The Highlanders’ rich past began as an idea from Col. George Dailey, who envisioned a bagpipe band that would accompany Iowa’s ROTC military corps. The colonel enlisted William L. Adamson, a Boston native and descendent of Scottish immigrants, to make his dream a reality.

Adamson was successful, and in the fall of 1937, the Scottish Highlanders made the first of many appearances at University Stadium when the group performed at halftime at an Iowa football game.

The band was originally composed of only male musicians, but that changed in 1943. As America increased its involvement in World War II, 71 of the 75 Highlanders were called up to serve in the military, and the band opened membership to female students.

The overwhelming number of female applicants gave Adamson the idea to change the Highlanders into an all-female band. The change was welcomed, and the Iowa Scottish Highlanders became more popular than ever, eventually becoming the world’s largest all-female bagpipe band.

Traveling Band

The Highlanders did more than just perform at halftime of Iowa football games; the musicians served as ambassadors of both the university and the United States. They aided many philanthropic efforts, including the 1953 war-bond effort in which the state of Iowa earned honors from the U.S. Treasury Department by raising $30 million.

The Highlanders also traveled to entertain people around the world, both live and on television. Notable performances included those on “The Tonight Show” and “The Ed Sullivan Show,” as well as appearances at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, the New York World’s Fair, Chicago’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade, and Disney theme parks.

The numerous travel opportunities made the band even more desirable for young women. The Highlanders toured Europe seven times from 1952 to 1976 and went to two Rose Bowls (1957 and ’59) to march in the Parade of Roses and perform at halftime.  

“[The highlight of my years as a Highlander] was the opportunity to travel,” said former member Bettina Hass, a native of Miles, Iowa, who performed with the group from 1971-75. “During the school year, we went to one [Big Ten] away football game and performed … and every four years, they planned a trip to Europe.”

Hass’ trip to Europe occurred during her sophomore year at Iowa, in the summer of 1972. The group spent two weeks in London and Scotland before traversing the continent for a month.

The former drum major recalled the interesting people she met and the problems she encountered while trying to fall asleep on her European excursion.

“Another Highlander [Susan Hayes Tabor] and I stayed in the home of a retired dentist, and he showed us how to mash our potatoes and peas against the back of our fork before spearing our meat to eat efficiently — the Scottish way,” Hass said with a smile. “[It was] fabulous; we had a blast.”

Few members were able to experience a trip to Europe more than once, but former member Heather Stockman — formerly Heather Adamson — was able to go three times.

“My first European trip with the Highlanders was when I was 10,” said Stockman, the daughter of original band director William Adamson. “You always think you grow up in a normal family, and everyone has the same type of experience that you do … so I just figured that everybody went to Europe every four years.”

Stockman went to Europe again when she was 14, and one final time when she was 18 — but this time, she attended as a Highlander herself.

“My trip to Europe in 1965 was my favorite memory of being a Highlander,” she said. “I was a performing Highlander myself and just had a great time.”

End of the Highlanders

The university withdrew its funding for the program in 1981 because of heavy budget cuts. The group survived, but it was responsible for seeking sponsors and donations without the help of the administration. The sheer size of the group made it difficult for the students to manage and maintain by themselves.

The decision to stop funding had a profound effect on the Highlanders. Members such as Hass said she felt “detached” from the group once the university stopped backing the band, and Stockman had similar feelings.

“After the university stopped funding the Highlanders in ’81, it became more of a social club,” she said. “Yes, they tried to maintain their Scottish authenticity, but … you just can’t maintain that without support.”

Facing dwindling participation and a lack of financial support from the university, alumni began to worry about the future of the Highlanders.

The final nail in the coffin was hammered in January 2008, when the university officially disbanded the band. With this move, one of the oldest and most recognizable traditions at the university was gone.

Rebirth of the Highlanders

But the group lives on among the alumni who spent their college years entertaining people at football games and around the world.

And soon, a whole new generation of Hawkeyes will be able to see firsthand what the Iowa Scottish Highlanders meant to the university. The group will be recognized at Fry Fest on Sept. 2 in Coralville, and the Highlander exhibit at the Hall of Fame will include such paraphernalia as the band’s drumheads autographed by former President Dwight Eisenhower and such entertainers as Bob Hope.

“[The Highlanders is] an important part of Iowa history,” Fry Fest organizer Kelly Hayworth told The Daily Iowan in April. “That’s what Fry Fest is all about — looking at all the great things about being a Hawkeye.”


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