BURNS Night was last Thursday. The scheme had seemed quite a good one. We’d come across a band of pipers – if not, formally, a pipe band – who every Monday morning do the skirl run to Winston village hall, between Darlington and Barnard Castle.

Second wind and then some, the youngest was 76 and the oldest 89. The drummer, the we’an, was merely 74.

So, a week back Monday, a visit was proposed and sandwiches sorted. A week back Sunday, Pipe Major Barry Waldron rang to say that the snow was so deep they couldn’t make it.

Chants would be a fine thing.

Barry, a former Nottinghamshire miner, is 79. Once he would accommodate half a dozen Burns Night appearances and one or two either side. Now the Sassenachs are so keen to dance to Scotia’s tune that Burns Night in Witton Park won’t be marked until February 10, the first time they could get a piper.

“It’s a bit hard to explain,” he muses. “I think it must be something to do with still wanting to let the hair down after Christmas and New Year. People still get goose bumps on their necks when they hear the pipes.”

Pipe Major Waldron now makes but one January 25 appearance; we shall come to that shortly.

BURNS Night had dawned, if a night may be said so to do, at the Water House in Durham, a Wetherspoons pub that once was home to the Weardale and Shildon Water Company. Noo’s the day and noo’s the hour, could breakfast be augmented with a bit of haggis?

“Like haggis?” said the barmaid, and sought her supervisor. “Can we do like haggis?”

Wetherspoons’ supervisors have masters degrees in touch-screen tills. After some digital experimentation it was confirmed that they could.

The haggis was limpid and lukewarm. Like, like? Like heckers-like.

BARRY WALDRON left the pit 35 years ago after his mate was killed on a coal cutter, moved north to become an HGV driver, helped form the Teesdale Pipes and Drums, later to become the Richmond and then the Rowan pipe bands.

He lives in a semi in Staindrop, still tries to practise daily. The lady in the other half of the house is a mite deaf. “But lucky that,” says Barry.

A pipes enthusiast since childhood, he was taught by a pipe major – younger than he was – who’d punish a wrong note with a rap over the knuckles with a heavy ruler.

“He was a bit old fashioned,” says Barry, perhaps unnecessarily.

In turn he taught his daughter and son – “the bugger sold his pipes when he had to pay his car insurance” – and has enthused many more. “It takes seven years to make a piper, though you might be able to teach a tune or two in six months. A lot is about stamina and co-ordination. You don’t squeeze and blow at the same time.”

Once he taught a Dutchman the basics in six weeks. “He was working at a vet’s in Barnard Castle. I think his practising drove them crackers.”

A diabetic, he’s also keen to stress the health benefits. “I taught someone who had asthma and it cured him completely. It’s also good for the heart. Every time I have my MoT they tell me I’m fit as a fiddle.”

It may also explain the response to the ageless question about what’s worn beneath the kilt. “I tell them nothing’s worn, it’s all in perfect working order,” says Barry. “That shuts them up.”

The usual Winston parade is Tom Waitman, 88, Frank Ash who’s 86, 80-year-old Jim Pearson, Barry, Dave Neal, 76 and Derek Bonnett, the drummer. They’d welcome other retired pipers and, particularly, a snare drummer. Mondays between 11am and 2pm.

LAST Thursday at the Charles Dickens Lodge sheltered housing complex in Barnard Castle he played, addressed the haggis (“Great chieftain o’ the pudding race”), even told the whisky-whiskery joke about the Burns Unit. You know…

Dickens, so far as may be ascertained, had nothing to say about the pipes. In The Merchant of Venice, however, Shakespeare writes of those who “when the bagpipes sing i’ the nose cannot contain their urine".

The reference is not thought to be affectionate.

It’s a delightful occasion, appreciated not least by Gladys Sparks, Butterknowle lass and oldest resident, who’ll be 100 in July.

“You look nothing like you do in the paper,” says Gladys.

“What, better or worse?”

“Worse,” says Gladys.

There, too, is a lively lady in a tartan skirt. “If I could get my legs to work I’d dance you a reel,” she says, as Pipe Major Waldron warms to his theme.

He wears Ancient Colquhoun tartan, one of seven kilts he owns, and full fig. Once when they were marching at a carnival, he says, he spotted a woman with a mirror on a stick trying to address the mystery alluded to – “but that was in Hartlepool”.

Tracey Chappell, the cook, has produced a wonderful Burns supper of cock-a-leekie soup (with prunes), haggis, neeps and much else, a pudding choice of cranachan or a mildly alcoholic trifle called tipsy laird.

Not much chance of further inebriation. The brown stuff in the toasty tumblers is apple juice.

Clad in tartan bonnet, haggis borne aloft, Tracy jigs in behind the piper. Barry also delivers a potted Burns biography: father of 15, by no means all in wedlock, bit of a laddie, died at 37 and perhaps the most quoted poet in history. He wrote Auld Lang Syne, after all.

Meal over, he plays standards such as Scotland the Brave and Minstrel Boy, sing-a-longs like Two Lovely Black Eyes and Long Way to Tipperary, even Chase Me Charlie (though it’s possible that the Scots may have a more respectful name for it.)

Is that Don’t Jump Off the Roof, Dad that he plays as well?

“We were the only band in the North-East which played in waltz time,” says Barry. “We did a terrific Sweet Rosie O’Grady.”

The festivities had begun at 3.30pm, still full swinging two hours later when the column heads for the bus, in search of a haggis hat trick.

SO finally, 7pm, to The Burns on Darlington’s northern skirts, the pub’s sign making old Rabbie appear almost an innocent abroad (which, manifestly, he wasn’t).

Nee haggis, nee neeps, nee piper. Not even a little drummer boy.

The lads reckon that the manager had left a few weeks back and that they have a relief, which isn’t really a relief at all.

For all his wanton ways, I’d quite taken to the old Scottish scoundrel. A man’s a man, for a’ that.