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Murray Journal

Murray firefighter’s passion for piping

Mar 08, 2023 01:53PM ● By Shaun Delliskave

Murray firefighter and bagpiper Stephen Olson reflects after playing for fallen colleague Andy Walkingshaw. (Photo by Eric Betts; used by permission Mindy Walkingshaw)

Throughout time bagpipes have been used to mark solemn occasions, such as escorting family and friends to a departed one’s final resting place. For celebrations, bagpipes guide triumphant graduates or parade marches through cheering crowds. In both instances, Murray firefighter and bagpiper Stephen Olson leads the way. 

Olson, a battalion fire chief, who oversees operations and shift personnel, manages training programs, and works with 911 dispatch programs in Murray City, has been with the fire service since 2002. He started as a volunteer firefighter and has been a full-time firefighter since 2005. Throughout his career, he has held various positions, including paramedic, engineer and station captain.

Aside from his firefighting duties, Olson is also an accomplished bagpiper. He has played the instrument since he was 13 years old and has been affiliated with various performing groups, including the Payson High School Pipe Band and the Utah Firefighter’s Emerald Society Pipe Band. But, according to Olson, bagpiping is more than just a musical instrument; it’s a way of life for those passionate about Scotland’s history, lore and legacy.

“We have a pretty good network of pipers and generally love to jam and practice together. Bagpipes were one of the original publicly performed instruments because they required no amplification. They were loud enough on their own! I have had many other mentors and teachers who have passed on their knowledge down; I strive to do the same,” Olson said.

Playing the bagpipes is a family affair, as Olson’s brother plays the pipes and practices with him. However, Olson’s family lineage is Swedish. 

According to Olson, “Most bagpipe tunes are just history about Scottish people, leaders, events, clans, wars, tragedy, love, culture, defeats, retreats, etc. You simultaneously learn about Scotland as you learn tunes; it goes hand in hand. You begin on a small practice chanter which resembles a recorder.  

“Bagpipes go back very far in date, being mentioned in Babylonian/Persian history, the Bible, and the Crusades of Europe. Most theories support that the instrument originally came from the Middle East, then was brought back to Scotland by Crusaders. Bagpipes pre-date written sheet music, so it’s possible to learn them without having any prior musical score training. The original way of learning was to learn to ‘sing’ the tunes and movements by learning a piper language called Canntaireachd.”

Olson has played the bagpipes at various occasions, including funerals, parades, graduation ceremonies, weddings and birthday parties. He says that each type of event calls for different genres of tunes, ranging from slow-airs for funerals and memorials to fast jigs and reels for parties and dances. He also mentions that playing the bagpipes is physically demanding and takes an average of a year to learn how to play your first song on a complete set of pipes.

Olson notes that marches are the most common and usually are rooted in military history. These are sometimes in the form of marching into battle eager and anxious. Other marches are retreating away in defeat, sorrowful, humbled and injured. He has led processions at the Utah State Capitol and Utah Valley University.

“I play at UVU graduation every year, and that’s fun. I have played solo so much lately for smaller events, and that’s the most common. Honestly, my favorite is to play for my family and have my kids enjoy and dance with my playing. They don’t always appreciate it, though, especially indoors. It gets to be overwhelming for them sometimes because it’s loud, and once I start playing, it’s hard to get me to stop,” Olson said.

Of all the events he has played at, Olson says that the funerals of Murray FD’s Captains Kelly Farrington, Glenae Turley and Andy Walkingshaw were the most memorable. He also mentions that playing for Draper City FD Matt Burchett, who died in the line of duty in 2018, was an emotional and powerful event. 

Burchett led the Utah firefighting task force, which Olson was part of, to help fight the Mendocino, California wildfires.

“It was memorable because I was there when he was killed, and we fought the same fire on the same hill together. I remember the event clear as day. Then having him return home to Utah and pay tribute with our group, the Utah Firefighter’s Emerald Society Pipe Band, at the beginning and end of the services. That was emotional and powerful for all in attendance. Bagpipes have a way of resonating deeply into the soul and carrying memories and messages in a way that words simply cannot. So in times of intense sorrow, celebration, memorial or joy—turn to the bagpipes to make it a memory that lasts,” Olson said.

After piping at a firefighter funeral, Olson likes to leave a memento of a more personal nature; he will leave a kilt pin or hat pin with the casket.  

“I do this when the person is especially close. The pin is usually a balmoral pin of a clan crest. I usually wear one of the clan crests of Clan MacKenzie, Clan Murray or Clan Graham,” Olson said.

Most Murray residents will likely see Olson marching in Murray City’s Independence Day parade, leading Murray FD’s trucks and crews along State Street. But Olson mentions that such an event provides its own workplace hazard while playing the bagpipes.

“Marching in a parade wearing a kilt is always exciting if the wind blows strong. Bagpipes are temperamental, which most people don’t realize. Pipes don’t work too well if it’s really cold or really hot. The tuning drifts in every direction when the weather is extreme,” Olson said. “So, if you request a piper in the dead of winter at a graveside, just know that the tuning is completely out of their control.”