Many alumni, students, and others who spend time on the Erskine College website have seen there an image of alumna Grace Washam playing the bagpipes. Now a visiting instructor of history at Erskine, Grace was a freshman when the photograph was taken from the towers of the Erskine Building, “the highest off the ground that I’ve ever played,” as she said at the time.
She’s still playing those pipes.
In fact, Grace met her future husband a few years ago when she joined the Grandfather Mountain Highlanders, a competition-oriented band of pipers and drummers.
When the 2009 graduate returned to her alma mater in August 2015 to serve as an adjunct professor, she had just come back from Nova Scotia with her new husband, Brendan Abernethy.
“We moved to Due West the day after we returned to Asheville from our honeymoon, and the semester at Erskine started two days later,” Grace explains.
“This fall has been non-stop, to say the least!”
Brendan, who served in the military and delayed going to college, has been driving back and forth to Lenoir-Rhyne University to complete a bachelor’s degree in philosophy, while Grace has been teaching two sections of “World Civilizations since 1600” as well as an introductory historic preservation class.
“I think the classes went well,” she says. “The historic preservation class was small, which gave us the ability to do a lot of outside-the-classroom activities.”
The main project for the class was to research the ownership of some historic houses in Due West, Grace said, with each student assigned a house to research.
“The class spent several days at the Abbeville municipal building, learning how to do deed and probate research, and also paid a visit to Erskine’s wonderful special collections in Reid Hall, which are under the care of Edith Brawley.”
The students in Grace’s class also “did a conditions assessment of Philo Hall, cleaned some headstones in the Due West ARP Church’s cemetery, and made bricks from scratch,” she said.
Grace completed a master’s degree in historic preservation at Clemson University/College of Charleston in 2011. Next, she moved back to her hometown, Clinton, S.C., and began an internship at the Rose Hill Plantation State Historic Site in nearby Union. Rose Hill was the home of South Carolina’s secession governor, William Gist. In addition to her internship, she started a job teaching homebound students at Thornwell Home for Children.
“That was also the point when I started to do freelance research and restoration work,” Grace said. “I spent a summer doing inventory at a museum in Kentucky, worked on two paint restoration projects at Rose Hill, and did a little bit of contract research for a professor in Kentucky who was writing a book on early 20th-century leisure plantations in the South Carolina Low Country.”
Reflecting on the teaching, study, and hands-on preservation work she has done since graduation, Grace considers the opportunities Erskine provided for her.
“One of the perks of being at a small school is the opportunity for individual attention,” she says. “The classes I took during my junior and senior years at Erskine taught me to research and write well. Of course, graduate school hammered in those skills, but I think the foundations came from Erskine.”
She also recalls her time at St. Andrews University in Scotland during the spring semester of her junior year and describes her study abroad as “a formative experience.”
“Erskine also gave me some lasting friendships. Seven years after graduation, I still talk to two of my Erskine friends nearly every week and several others frequently.”
She chose the bagpipes when her mother insisted that she choose one instrument to play. She figured her mother would never be able to find an instructor for her, but a teacher was found, and Grace grew to love the pipes.
According to Grace, bagpiping “takes a lot of energy and it’s something you have to maintain on a regular basis, or you get really bad really quickly.”
So, although she is not doing much with the Grandfather Mountain Highlanders at the moment—competition season runs from April through October—she and her husband also play the solo circuit.
“In solos, there are five amateur grades and then a professional grade. You enter in the lowest amateur grades and work your way up, being re-graded by a committee that reviews your yearly performance,” she said.
All that practicing and performing has paid off for Grace and Brendan. Brendan plays in amateur grade 2, and Grace was notified recently that she has been moved into the professional grade.
Historical sites to preserve, classes to teach, and pipes to play: Grace Washam Abernethy wouldn’t have it any other way.