Belfast Telegraph

Home Life Features

When Vladimir Putin wanted to celebrate the 10th birthday of his Moscow musical tattoo he turned to ... three Ulster-Scots pipe band players

The trio from the border counties received the invitation of a lifetime when they were asked to play in Red Square. Ahead of a BBC NI documentary on Monday, telling their incredible story, they talk to Lee Henry

In 2007, Russian President Vladimir Putin demanded his own military tattoo in Moscow - a celebration of marching and music to rival Edinburgh's famous annual celebrations - and the Spasskaya Tower Tattoo was born.

This year, to mark its 10th anniversary, 122 musicians from around the world performed in Red Square - including three musicians from Ulster's border counties.

Victoria Catterson (21), from Castlederg in Co Tyrone, and sisters Chloe (19) and Robyn Freen (21), from Raphoe in Co Donegal, are all members of Raphoe Pipe Band. But their mission to Moscow almost didn't get off the ground.

Says Victoria: "When it came to actually travelling to Russia, we almost didn't make it.

"Due to heavy rain in Londonderry back in September, when lots of places were flooded and some bridges collapsed, we couldn't get through the city.

"We did finally arrive at the airport, but we'd missed the flight. Thankfully, the airline got us onto another flight. It was a big relief to finally get going."

Ahead of a BBC Northern Ireland programme on Monday about their experiences, we speak to the trio about their love for pipe band music, celebrating their Ulster-Scots culture and 12 unforgettable days in Moscow.

We got to perform in front of Saint Basel’s Cathedral

Chloe Freen (19), from Raphoe, is studying to be a midwife. She plays the bass drum in Raphoe Pipe Band. She says:

The pipe bands are a family thing for us. My granda, Ali, was in the pipe band and so was my dad, Alex. Granda was a drummer and daddy was a piper, both for Raphoe Pipe Band, so I've been involved from an early age, piping and drumming. But over the last couple of years I've decided to stick with the bass drumming.

We all live very close together and I think that makes the members of the band so close personally. It is like a family affair. All of our families come from the Raphoe area, or nearby, and lots went to the same schools together. In the winter months, there really isn't much else to do in Raphoe, so the pipe band is more than a hobby for us.

It's great that we all get to travel around with each other, competing in various shows. We've been all around Ireland, but visiting Moscow was something I never thought I would do. It was so unlike anywhere else that we've been to.

In the run-up to Moscow, we had two band practices a week and sometimes three. That was just with our own band - sometimes, if you're meeting up with other bands from all over Ireland in a massed band situation, you don't get to practice so much, but there are so many parts to get right.

I went to Moscow in 2015 and again this year, which was when they filmed our progress. People have their stereotypes about Russians, that they're angry people, and that Russia itself is cold and miserable.

But when we went over there, the weather was lovely - it was actually really, really warm - and there were bright colours everywhere. The people were lovely.

Personally, I hate flying, so I wasn't looking forward to going over again. We flew into London first and then had a four or five-hour flight into Moscow, so I wasn't feeling the best by the time we landed, but it was lovely to have my sister Robyn there, and all of our friends from the band.

We were there for 12 days and played as part of the tattoo for seven nights in a row. All of the shows were outdoors in Red Square and we performed in front of Saint Basel's Cathedral, with its colourful spires.

It was so beautiful but when the tattoo began, unfortunately we didn't really get to see much. We were all concentrating on our tunes. We even missed the fireworks, which went off behind us.

Back in 2015, President Putin was watching in the audience from a special box. We didn't get to meet him, but we did meet General Valery (Khalilov). Unfortunately, he died, along with lots of members of the Red Army Choir, when their plane crashed in December 2016, so obviously there was a different general there during the 2017 tattoo.

It felt amazing to play the bass drum during the tattoo. It's a big instrument, much larger than the other drums in the band. There is only one bass drummer in the band, though being part of a massed band in Moscow, there were about seven of us.

I really enjoyed it, though I'm so scared about seeing myself on the television. Maybe you won't be able to see me behind my big drum."

I’ve made so many friends from all around the world

Robyn Freen (21), from Raphoe, is studying for a degree in fashion design. She played the tenor drum in the Raphoe Pipe Band. She says:

The pipe bands are a long-running thing in our family and I really did want to be a piper. I had been learning the pipes since I was no age, back in primary school, Raphoe Central, right through into second year at the Royal and Prior Comprehensive, but I finally realised I just wasn't good at it. I couldn't take to it.

It's probably the hardest instrument to play in a band, the bagpipes. You have to worry about your breathing as well as your finger work. It just wasn't my thing. So, eventually I admitted defeat and became a drummer. Nowadays, I pity the pipers.

These days, I play the tenor drum. It's smaller than the bass drum, but it's not high-pitched like the snare. It's used for embellishing the tune with lower beats.

We use soft-headed sticks and we do flourishing as well.

I'm out in Dun Laoghaire, down in Dublin, studying for a degree in costume design, but looking back on Moscow, from a fashion point of view, I just loved being out there and seeing up close how all the other musicians from around the world dressed.

Outside Red Square there was a marquee where all the bands congregated, and all of their uniforms were hung up before and after the performance. I couldn't stop taking pictures of them. They were just stunning. There were bands from Turkey, Uzbekistan, Armenia, China, dancers from Scotland and Canada. The Egyptian band stood out for me. We wore our kilts, so obviously we stood out for the other bands in our traditional dress, but the Egyptians were amazing. They wore gold headdresses with blue stripes and tunics, and the dancers from Mexico also wore really lovely traditional costume.

The Chinese band had their colourful robes and big flags and it was really interesting for us to try to pick out the nationality from the types of uniforms each band wore.

The Moscow Tattoo is such a diverse event and everyone played slightly different instruments, too.

There were a lot of brass bands, because the Russians love their brass, but we were the only pipe band. I had actually played with an Egyptian band before and they also play the pipes - the bagpipes originated in Egypt, so that makes sense - though they didn't play the pipes this time in Russia.

It was really great to be a part of it. Moscow is such a great city and, thankfully, this time around, I had a bit more time off, so I got to explore the more historical landmarks, like Gorky Park. And it was great to see old friends, who I first met in 2015. I'm friends on Facebook with so many musicians from all around the world. I got talking with the Austrian band this time and it was really interesting to hear about their lives. One boy told me he had just been drafted into the army.

I also met a couple of Russian girls in the park and we talked about our different cultures. It was strange how many similarities there were. We were both the same age and, while my grandparents would tell me about the Troubles, their grandparents would tell them about life during the Communist era.

I thoroughly enjoyed hearing about their lives and I'm glad they documented such a big event for television. Hopefully, the programme inspires others to join pipe bands where they're from."

True North: Raphoe to Red Square, BBC One Northern Ireland, Monday, November 20, 10.40pm

We almost didn’t make it due to heavy rain...

Victoria Catterson (21), from Castlederg, is a freelance journalist, country music promoter and former snare drum player with the Raphoe Pipe Band. She says:

I've been involved in pipe bands all my life, since I was five-years-old. Firstly, I was drum major in my local band and, when I was 11 or so, I started competing. I won a few titles and I just loved it. It has always been a very social thing for me, the pipe band culture, getting to meet new people from across Northern Ireland.

I decided then to start snare drumming and eventually turned to the dark side and became a piper. There's a big friendly rivalry in pipe bands between the pipers and the drummers, and there's even more rivalry between the pipers and the drum majors - even though we all work together, we like to compete against each other - so if anyone crosses over from the drums to the pipes, or vice versa, that's how we describe it, going over to the dark side.

I learned the pipes from Andy McGregor, a very talented and well-known pipe major, and I got to travel to France and elsewhere during that time. And it was through Andy that I met the Raphoe Pipe Band and joined up as a drummer.

It was eventually mentioned that we might go to Russia to perform in the big military tattoo there.

I didn't really have any plans to go because it was such a long trip. A fortnight away, more or less, and I had never been away from home for that long. I'm very much a home bird, so I was a bit apprehensive about it, but I'm really glad that I did sign up to go.

And when Bob O'Brien, director and producer with Doubleband Films, got in touch to ask if I would like to be part of a fly-on-the-wall documentary about the experience, I was even more apprehensive about that, but it was one of those opportunities that don't come along very often and I thought, 'If I don't do it now, I'll regret it.'

I haven't seen the programme. It airs on BBC One on Monday evening and I'm a little nervous, to be honest, but I'm sure I'll come across reasonably well.

It's all about us - myself, Chloe and Robyn - our personal lives and the trip to Russia as members of the Raphoe Pipe Band.

I've since left the band to pursue other things, but I'm still very good friends with all the members.

The band had been in Russia before, back in 2015, but I wasn't involved at the time, so it was my first visit to Moscow and it was amazing. Bob followed us in the lead-up to the tattoo, while we learned all the tunes and looking ahead, and it was a very exciting time for us.

When it came to actually travelling to Russia, however, we almost didn't make it. There was a bit of a mishap. Due to the heavy rain in Londonderry back in September, when lots of places were flooded and some bridges collapsed, we couldn't get through the city. We did finally arrive at the airport, but we'd missed the check-in and therefore also the flight.

So, there was a period of uncertainty, when we didn't know if we were going to make it to Russia at all. Thankfully, though, the airline got us onto another flight and it was a big relief for everyone to finally get going.

Mind you, we had to wait in Heathrow for about eight hours and when we did land in Moscow, in the early hours of the morning - we went straight to the hotel, got showered and changed, and headed downstairs for a 12-bar rehearsal with all the other bands. That was really tough going. I think I was awake for 52 hours. It was a stressful time but hopefully that will make for good viewing."

Belfast Telegraph

Daily News Headlines Newsletter

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox.


From Belfast Telegraph