Music, might and gratitude

Bagpiper Jim Roberts reflects on over 25 years of the Virginia International Tattoo.

I’ve played the bagpipes for more than 30 years. My piping has taken me all over the United States and to Canada and Scotland. My band, Tidewater Pipes & Drums, has opened for Rod Stewart—twice—and we’ve played on stage with the Chieftains, the Piano Guys and the Virginia Symphony Orchestra. In spite of all these experiences, I can honestly say there is no feeling in the world like performing in the Virginia International Tattoo.   When I think about the Tattoo, I think of the nervous excitement I feel 10 to 15 minutes into the show—when the pipers and drummers are hiding under the elevated stage in Scope Arena, waiting in the pitch black for our dramatic entrance.

Bagpiping journey

Jim Roberts (left) in 2001.

Once our eyes adjust to the darkness, there are silent glances between musicians, fist bumps and whispered words of encouragement—maybe even an inside joke or two. Then the curtains open, we strike in the pipes and play onto the floor and into a flood of light, music and might.  It’s a thrill—whether it’s the Wednesday night dress rehearsal, an educational performance on Thursday or Friday morning, or one of the four shows for paying customers. And when it’s over on Sunday afternoon, we can’t wait to do it all over again the next year.

The Tattoo also makes me think about more lasting things—like the tremendous sense of patriotism that’s now synonymous with the Virginia International Tattoo brand, the strong bonds that develop between the performers every year, and the friendships I’ve formed with the Virginia Arts Festival staff and volunteers over the last 20 years.  My bagpiping journey started when I was 8 or 9 years old. My recollection is that I wanted to play the drums, but my mother’s father was from Scotland, and my guess is that he made the decision for me. His brother, my great uncle, played the bagpipes, and I had the good fortune to inherit his instrument, which I still play.  While I’ve also had stints with MacMillan Pipe Band, Greater Richmond Pipes & Drums and the Cameron Highlanders of San Diego, Tidewater Pipes & Drums has always been my home band. We played in the Virginia International Tattoo for the first time in 1999, and we’ve been in nearly every show since. Over the years, we’ve forged a strong partnership with the Virginia Arts Festival. We now have the honor of wearing the Virginia International Tattoo Hixon tartan and helping to promote the show throughout the year.

The overwhelming thrill of playing

The incredible Virginia International Tattoo.

Even in the years when I’m not performing in the show, “Tattoo Week” is special to me. I spend as much time as possible backstage with my bandmates and with old and new friends from around the world. On Saturday morning, I watch the Norfolk NATO Festival Parade of Nations with my kids, and that afternoon, I volunteer at the Virginia International Tattoo American Pipe Band Championship, a world-class competition that takes place on the Scope Plaza. It is free and open to the public.  I have a tradition of taking my kids to the Tattoo’s final performance on Sunday afternoon, and we always arrive early to experience the “Hullaballoo” activities on the Scope Plaza.

Tattoo Lone Piper, Jim Roberts, in 2011.

My kids love the Tattoo. In fact, my son, who is now realizing my dream of playing drums, isn’t quite ready to perform in the Tattoo, but he will be in the next few years. I know he will love the nervous excitement of waiting under the stage and then the overwhelming thrill of playing for thousands of people. And when he’s older and wiser, I hope he will feel the gratitude I feel now—for the many doors music has unlocked for me over the course of my life.  My Tattoo experience isn’t unique. Hundreds of musicians from all over the world converge in Norfolk every spring to put on this incredible show, and they all have their own stories to share. Thanks to the Virginia Arts Festival and the Virginia International Tattoo for bringing all of us together—and all of our stories to life.

The Virginia International Tattoo will take place at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, April 18, Friday, April 19, and Saturday, April 20 and at 2:30 p.m. on Sunday, April 21 at Norfolk Scope. Ticket prices start at $20; discounts are available for children (under 18), students (under 25), military and seniors (over 60). For tickets or more information, visit

Leave a comment

Select your currency