Leslie Thomson has been playing the great Highland bagpipe for more than 50 years. / SUR

Lifelong passion for a traditional Highland custom

The Argentinian of Scottish descent has recently celebrated his 50th anniversary playing the great Highland bagpipe

Tony Bryant

Bagpipes might seem to be a little out of place in Andalucía, unlike in Galicia and Asturias, where they are part of the musical backcloth. However, over the past few years, this traditional Scottish instrument has become more popular in the south, especially on the Costa del Sol. This is partly due to the efforts of Leslie Thomson, an Argentinian of Scottish descent who has lived in Benalmádena for more than 30 years.

The passionate piper has recently celebrated his 50th anniversary playing the great Highland bagpipe, an instrument he first became acquainted with in Buenos Aires at the age of eight.

Leslie's grandparents, who were instrumental in introducing Aberdeen Angus beef to Argentina, emigrated to South America from Scotland at the beginning of the 20th century. They eventually settled in Argentina, which is where Leslie's parents were born.

Leslie first experienced the bagpipes at a Gathering of the Clans event in Buenos Aires, although it would be some years before he took the instrument seriously.

"I was fascinated by the bagpipes at that age, although it was not something I dedicated much time to at first. I'm not sure what actually attracted me. I think it was because it seemed more like a magical instrument than a musical one," Leslie tells SUR in English.

Although he is not from a family of pipers, Leslie grew up among a large Scottish community who held celebrations to mark traditional Scottish events, and this is when he began to become more passionate about bagpipes and marching bands.

"No one else in my family played the bagpipes, which is not a bad thing. If they did, I should be a better bagpipe player than I am," the modest piper says, bursting into laughter.

Since then, Leslie has played with pipe bands during the 1978 World Cup, shared the stage on numerous occasions with world-renowned Spanish multi-instrumentalist, Carlos Núñez, along with numerous others.

It was during a trip to visit his former pipe band in Argentina in 2013 that Leslie first met Carlos Núñez, and the musician invited him to perform at his concerts in Malaga and Cordoba later the same year.

Since setting up home in Spain, the former funeral director has promoted and taught the bagpipes here on the Costa del Sol and he has become a renowned figure within the world of pipe music in Andalucía.

He has performed at innumerable traditional Scottish events in the province: one of these is the Douglas Days Festival, which Leslie declares is "a pleasure hard to describe". He has been performing at the event as a solo piper, as well as with the Gibraltar Pipe Band, for more than 15 years.

"What has probably best fed the passion for bagpipes on the Costa del Sol has been the history of Teba and its incredible link to Scotland. The Douglas Days event has inspired many to take a deeper interest in Scottish traditions," Leslie explains.

Challenging achievement

However, he believes that one of his biggest, and most challenging, achievements was founding the Sur Pipes Band in 2019, the coast's first Spanish bagpipe band.

The band is made up of several of Leslie's students and has become one of the biggest attractions at events like the Mijas Celtic Festival and the International Feria de los Pueblos in Fuengirola.

They have recently caught the attention of Benalmádena town hall, which is currently in the process of making the Sur Pipes Band an official municipal band.

"I belonged to a bagpipe social media group and met a few people who were interested in starting a band. Most members are my students, so it took a few years before the band started taking shape, but I am extremely proud of what they have achieved," Leslie concludes.

January sees an important date on the calendar for Leslie as he is usually called on to "pipe in the haggis" at Burns Night celebrations along the Costa del Sol. This year, however, Covid has forced some of the events planned to mark the poet Robert Burns' birthday on 25 January to be cancelled.