WHEN Faye Henderson tells her university friends she's heading back home to her pipe and slippers, they could be forgiven for thinking the 18-year-old needs to loosen up a little, get a life.
But the second year law and economics student isn't ready for the tartan blanket and zimmer frame just yet. For Henderson is one of Scotland's most accomplished female pipers. And on Saturday she will be competing in the prestigious Glenfiddich Piping Championship at Blair Castle – the first female in more than 20 years to be invited to do so, and the youngest in the competition's history.
"The Glenfiddich is the championship everyone in the piping community looks up to," she says. "There is no more prestigious event. With that comes the knowledge that it is also the toughest championship so is not going to be easy. I was excited to be invited and quite nervous. But mainly excited."
Having won the Highland Society of London gold medal at the Argyllshire Gathering in August, Henderson automatically qualified. "It's a great honour but I don't think I was so bothered about being the first woman in so long; I was more really excited to be playing. The oldest person ever to be invited is also playing this year and he is 58."
So does age have any bearing on the quality of your playing? "If you're older you obviously have more experience and some of the players have played there many times," she says. "But I'm just looking forward to standing up with them."
Henderson was almost born with a chanter in her mouth – she started playing at home in Kirriemuir at the tender age of four, moving on to competitions by the time she was nine. "Both my mum and dad played so I think it was pretty impossible for me not to get into it, to be honest. I just picked up the chanter and took it from there." Her sister Fiona is also a keen musician, and will be taking part in the Glenfiddich Fiddle Championships the same weekend, making the event a real family affair. But competing at a high level takes time and commitment. "Leading up to a competition I'll practice every day," she says. "Currently I'm doing two hours to fit in with my uni work but over the summer I'll do quite a bit more – maybe three hours a day.
"It's not all the time, though, only when I'm preparing for a competition," she adds, keen to point out that she does manage to squeeze a social life in between studying in Aberdeen and piping all over the world. "But sacrifices sometimes have to be made and I'm prepared to do that to compete. I get a lot of enjoyment out of it so I don't see it as giving up something to get something else. It's more a case of organising my priorities." Besides, playing brings its own benefits. "There's definitely a good social life. We're not just going there to compete, we go there to see one another and catch up and have a bit of a laugh. It's not a case of 'I'm competing today so I must focus', you go there to see your friends as well."
The two main competitions in the year are held at Oban and Inverness, but she has also been invited to play in New York and has been to Canada in the past. "There's a real camaraderie among the pipers," she says. "Everyone's cheering everyone else on and we all want each other to do well. Of course, we would all love to win and have a prize, but you know the person who's won and you're really happy for them."
And it's far from a dying art, performed by an ageing group of traditionalists, while the younger generation listen to Lady Gaga and David Guetta instead. "Piping is as vibrant as ever," says Henderson. "There are more and more youngsters coming through, which is a really good thing. You don't have to choose between one type of music or the other; you can enjoy them all and I think that's what people are doing."
But when she's not listening to The Libertines or The Smiths, she's focusing on reels and marches for what will be an intense couple of weeks. "There are two competitions for the Glenfiddich Championships. The first is the pibroch, which is like the classical side of piping. You have to submit six tunes and you get told the night before which one you'll be playing. Then in the afternoon is the march, strathspey, reel competition. Again, you submit six marches, six strathspeys, six reels and the night before they give you one of each, which you have to play twice through."
She'll be judged by fellow pipers, now retired from competition level."Playing for the first time in a competition is always scary but once you get on stage and focus on what you're doing, you get a bit lost in it."
The following week she has another competition, this time in London. Does she ever feel it's time to hang up her chanter? "I'd like to think I'll be doing this for a while yet," Henderson says. "Perhaps not for ever, but as long as I enjoy it I'll keep doing it."