If some crisp fall afternoon you happen to be walking along the Kentucky River and the faint sound of bagpipes wafts from the cemetery bluff, it could be Daniel Boone’s ghost calling you home.
Or, Frankfort could be under siege from a band of displaced Scotsmen.
But if either of those possibilities make you nervous, don’t worry it’s probably just Keith Goins.
By day, he’s an insurance man — making a living with Liberty Mutual in the claims department. But when he picks up his pipes, the lifelong Frankfort resident is as much Scottish as he is man.
“It just calls you home, you know, when you hear the sound,” he said.
For nine years, Goins has been playing the bagpipe in and around the Capitol and as a part of the Kentucky United Pipes and Drums band.
Formed in 2003, the band is the only one of its kind in Kentucky and plays for special events and in competitions across the nation with perhaps the pinnacle coming at the Highland Games.
A Scottish and Celtic competition held worldwide, the games include athletic events — like throwing bundles of straw or really big logs — as well as events in dancing, drumming and piping.
He loves being one of only a couple of people in Frankfort to have the skill, but how exactly does a Kentucky born-and-bred boy start playing an old European instrument of war? Were there no banjos around?
“A friend through church knew a bagpiper in Lexington who was offering free lessons,” he said.
Goins tried it out and hasn’t stopped since, something he thinks isn’t all that out of the ordinary.
“I’m not really surprised I got into piping because of the history of the area,” he said. “The Frankfort region is very much like Scotland and Ireland, so when those people immigrated over here they found it very welcoming. There’s a lot of history here.”
Goins plays the Great Highland Bagpipe, the most popular of the dozens of types of pipes. He also associates with a clan related to his family history, like most in his band do and — yes — he wears a kilt.
It’s an article of clothing we might consider closely related to a skirt, but was originally used for moving quickly in battle, wading rivers and climbing hills.
The official name for the uniform he wears is Highland Dress, and the kilt is Kentucky specific, with each color honoring a different piece of state history and culture.
That means the blue is for the waters of rivers, lakes and streams; gray for Civil War presidents and soldiers; green and blue-green for Kentucky’s famous grass; white for the purity and valor of Scottish Kentuckians; red for the state bird, the cardinal, and the blood shed by Kentuckians in war; yellow for the goldenrod, the state flower, and black for the commonwealth’s coal and oil resources.
Before men scoff at the idea of wearing a historically rich plaid tartan and bow tie around town though, they should take note that Highland dress includes a Sgian Dubh — literally a “hidden knife” in the sock.
Goins and his band have never had to break out the Sgian Dubh’s in competition, but when they play, he said they’re actually making music with official instruments of war.
“It would be similar to a bugle here,” he said. “Bagpipes were literally banned in England and Scotland for a time because the townspeople would get so riled up every time they heard them.”
Goins used to practice downtown on Broadway, but considering the power a chorus of bagpipes has in Europe, it’s probably a good thing for the surrounding counties that he now practices in the Frankfort Cemetery where there’s less chance of an uprising.
“The cemetery just seemed like an appropriate place to practice,” he said. “It’s not really a neighbor-friendly instrument or a living room-friendly instrument. My wife enjoys it, she does, just not in the house.
“It’s a lot of fun playing for me too, and musically it’s interesting to see what you can do with only eight notes.”
Others seem to enjoy it, too. In fact, watching people’s faces as he plays is Goins’ favorite part of making music.
“I love seeing people’s reactions,” he said. “They either really like it or really hate it. But no matter which one it is, the sound draws people in.”
He’s taking a couple of months off right now, but Goins says he plans to return to the band soon.
“It’s really an honor to play in a lot of places,” he said. “It’s a special thing.”
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