Scotland. Home of the lush, mountainous highlands. The medieval Urquhart Castle overlooking mythical monster "Nessie" in Loch Ness. And, in Glasgow, the World Pipe Band Championships where 2013 Fort Calhoun High School graduate and long-time bagpiper Luke Ashton competed last month with the Maryland-based MacMillan Pipe Band.
The yearly competition, held Aug. 16-17, hosts around 200 bands and thousands of people from around the world.
"It's an insane amount of people," Ashton said. "We competed against teams from all over the U.S., Australia, Ireland, Scotland. There were bands from Spain ... A Malaysian Sikh band. They were all showy, bright white with the turbans on. It's really, really cool to see."
Bands, which consist of bagpipe players and drummers, compete in five different skill levels, grades 1 through 5. Grade 1 is the most skilled bands.
"Grade 1 is the biggest and best," Ashton said. "They are very, very good. Very well executed."
Ashton's band has some skill, too. He, along with nearly 20 other bagpipe players and around 14 drummers, competed in grade 2.
"We didn't make it to the finals," he said. "We didn't score as well with the piping judge ... our drummers score very well, but not enough to carry us through. We were kind of disappointed, but we felt like we played really, really well. We were very, very happy with how we played, but the competition is pretty tight."
Though the band didn't make it to the finals, it leaves room for improvement next year, and improving is what Ashton said he's continually striving for in his own playing. He said the difficulty in learning bagpipes is tied to how proficient someone wants to get.
"I'm not at the proficiency I want to get, but I am definitely getting better especially with all the competitions," he said. "I think that's what really attracted me with bagpiping is there's a very strong competitions and competitive culture within bagpiping."
That same competitive culture wasn't what Ashton saw in the trombone, which he played in eighth grade at Fort Calhoun.
"I was with Mr. Jones there playing trombone, and after that I sold my trombone and got a new set of bagpipes," he said. "I could do performances and such, but unless I really wanted to continue in music, I wouldn't be involved in the same way I wanted to with bagpiping."
But even bagpipes took a little prodding from his mother, Julie, to start playing when he was 8 years old.
"I know a couple years before that, she had tried to get me into it and it didn't take," he said. "But I got interested in my family's ancestry ... My grandfather, he had been over in Scotland, and he was telling me he was watching all these bagpiping competitions and gave me the background on my family history on my mother's side. Their maiden name was Giffin, which came from Scotland. I got really, really intrigued."
Eventually, through connecting with a bagpipe teacher who used to volunteer at Fort Atkinson, Ashton found himself learning and playing with the Omaha Pipes and Drums band.
"I was actually teaching myself at the time, so they found me," he said. "My bagpipe teacher used to volunteer (at the fort) years ago, and she had come back to visit some buddies, and they mentioned, 'We got a bagpipe player here.'"
Omaha Pipes and Drums led to Alma College in Michigan, a private college which emphasizes its Scottish heritage, where Ashton studied anthropology and political science.
Alma College is how Ashton was able to make his first trip to Scotland. As a freshman, he spent a month with a group of students studying abroad, asking Scottish citizens what they thought about the 2014 independence referendum, which concerned seceding from the United Kingdom.
"There was gossip around town like, 'There's 30 Americans that just showed up, and they're talking about the independence referendum,'" Ashton said. "Of course, after that, they all wanted to take us to the pub and buy us a pint and give their opinion."
The freshman year trip also proved musical, he said.
"We had several bagpipers that were there, so we were competing with our college choir a little bit on social media to see who had the better music in Scotland, the choir or the bagpipers," he said.
Alma College is also what led Ashton to the MacMillan Pipe Band.
"I was competing against someone else who was in the MacMillan Pipe Band and he just completely wiped the floor with me," he said. "He just completely kicked my butt. He was a really nice guy, we we're drinking a couple pints afterwards, kind of chatting. I told him I was getting a degree in political science. He said, 'If you ever make it to D.C. let us know, we'd love to have you.'"
After college, Ashton spent a year in New Delhi as a United Nations data analyst, keeping up his bagpipe lessons with a Scottish woman who worked in the British Embassy. Then, in 2018, when he found out he would be moving to Washington, D.C., to work as a data analyst with a political group, he decided to reach out to the MacMillan band.
"I said, 'Hey, I'm interested.' Kind of a luke-warm response," Ashton said. "I went out to a concert they were putting on and the pipe major was like, 'Hey, you're Luke from Alma, right?' I was like, 'Yeah.' He said, 'Oh, cool, cool. I'll see you at practice tomorrow.' That's how I joined, he literally just told me to show up to practice and I'm in."
Which was good for Ashton since, he said, competition and heritage are why he, like many others, choose to pick up their first set of bagpipes. He's even got some numbers to prove it.
"My anthropology senior thesis was on how much culture impacts playing bagpipes or vice-versa," Ashton said. "I did a survey of 300 pipers and drummers around North America and about 60 percent of them said they got involved because of their interest in their ancestry."