Gentle Giants and Bagpipe Music by Alastair Leithead

Living off-grid in the Portuguese countryside lends itself to having that big dog you’ve always wanted, but never had the space to own.

We arrived two years ago in Alentejo with a little mutt of a terrier called Simon who’s a Hollywood dog we rescued while living in Los Angeles.

Simon prefers the urban smells of tarmac, diesel and dog pee to the spiky plants, annoying insects and wild boar smells of the country.

But Garfunkel (I mean we couldn’t call him anything else) is a pure-bred Rafeiro do Alentejo (Alentejo Mastiff) who is from this area, so is the exact opposite.

Garfie weighs 65kg (140lbs) and was also a rescue dog – from a tiny courtyard where he lived for most of the first three years of his life – but his cattle-protecting instincts are firmly fixed in his DNA and he shows them to us every day.

But recently something unusual emerged from his bloodline…something I really wasn’t expecting.

Garfunkel was quietly guarding his radiator in the lounge, as he does most days, when his ears suddenly pricked up, he hauled himself over to my desk wagging his tail, and gave my arm a huge shove with his giant nose.

This can sometimes happen when I’ve forgotten to give he and Simon breakfast, but this was animated, it was unusual and it was because I was playing…bagpipe music.


This wasn’t an instrument the original Simon & Garfunkel were known for, and other than the occasional folk music cover of their hits, the only connection is that some people prefer the Sound of Silence to the bagpipes.

So why on earth would a pedigree Portuguese Rafeiro like bagpipe music?

Welcome to my latest rabbit hole, and the discovery that a tradition of bagpipe playing in Portugal goes back to the 11th century…and possibly even further if you consider the Romans also had a doodlesack fetish.

Stone carvings show shepherds with the instrument, there’s obviously a strong Celtic connection, and from the 19th century it was popularly known as gaita across the north-western Iberian Peninsula.

The Portuguese name for bagpipe is Gaita-de-fole – the Spanish of Galicia call it Gaita galega – both were made from goatskin and wood.

Have a listen to how the Portuguese bagpipes sound.

The tradition is mainly from the north of the country, but the Portuguese Bagpipe Society say it was also played around parts of Alentejo, where Garfie’s ancestors were bred to protect the cattle as the farmers drove the herds up into the mountains in the summer and back to the plains in the winter.

In terms of the other history in Garfie’s instincts include always working nights and insisting to be off-leash, outside the house to protect us and the property from threats like wild boar and moonlight-hiking hippies.

Judging from the giant land mines he’s dumped literally right on the edge of our property he’s drawn a red line, daring any nest-making piggies to cross.

By day he’s more like Ferdinand the Bull sleeping by the non-functioning radiator or under the shade of the cork oaks smelling his favourite flowers.

But take him to the beach and he goes into full-on protection mode.

Simon goes straight for the shade of an umbrella – and onto a towel whether or not one is available – whereas Garfunkel makes a point of sitting five to ten metres away facing outwards.

He stares at every passer-by intently and suspiciously, takes the high-ground if it’s available and keeps watch over all the approach routes: it’s stressful work, he never drinks on the job, and he’s knackered by the time he gets home.

Garfie is our security guard, our close protection officer, and despite his calm demeanour, his warning barks could accurately be described as spine-chilling.

Even Simon, who only keeps his top dog status through age and Garfie’s good nature, prances with annoyingly more confidence knowing the big dog has his back.

So with these instincts already running through his blood it’s not surprising that he likes bagpipe music, even if he’s not terribly sure why.

One question you may have before I finish, is why on earth I was listening to bagpipe music in the first place?

It was a lone piper playing the lament Flower of the Forest in the memory of another close-protection, gentle-giant ex-military friend.

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