Early Civilian Pipe Bands

The RSPBA’s Historical Research Group has been undertaking some research to find out which civilian Pipe Band still in existence can claim to be the oldest in the UK. When the Association published its own history in December 2007 in the booklet “How it all began; and the first 75 years”, it was stated that the first two Pipe Bands outwith the regular Army were formed in 1885 – the Burgh of Govan Pipe Band (which became Glasgow Police Pipe Band and now Strathclyde Police Pipe Band) and the 9th Battalion HLI Pipe Band (The Glasgow Highlanders). It can be argued, however, that the first of these Pipe Bands, being sponsored by a Police Force, and the second, being Territorial Army, cannot accurately be claimed to be civilian Pipe Bands.

The Historical Research Group’s research has revealed 3 potential contenders. Can anyone tell us different?

Colinton and Currie Pipe Band (near Edinburgh)

Colinton and Currie Pipe Band was formed in 1887. The founder members met for the first time at a wooden bench seat at the corner of Wester Hailes (now Gillespie Crossroads on the A70 near Colinton). The first Band Committee was formed at Bennet’s Pub, Curriemuirend, Juniper Green (now known as Tanners). The first item on the agenda was how to raise funds. The Band only had one practice chanter between them but most members who joined could play tin whistles and soon mastered the fingering of the chanter, and then of course the bagpipes. They taught themselves how to care for their bagpipes. The Bruce family, who owned the local Brown Paper Mill at Kinleith, and numerous other prominent local people, supported the Band with generous donations to purchase instruments and equipment.

Practices were held in an old hut behind the Kinleith Arms, Juniper Green, shared with the village Brass Band. The Public House was then owned by John Hill, an ex Hearts footballer. The first uniforms were purchased from army surplus. The kilts were Black Watch, and later were changed to the Seaforth (McKenzie) tartan and then to the modern McKenzie. The cap badge, which incorporated the officer’s badge of the Seaforth Highlanders, with C&CPB along the bottom, still survives.

Most of the early Pipers and drummers learned in the Army. Some were in the 4th Royal Scots and quite a few were in the Colinton Company of Volunteers. Rope tension drums were used and the Bass Drum (now in the drum display at RSPBA Headquarters) was carried all over France in the 1914-1918 war by James Ferguson, who was in the Royal Scots. James played in the Colinton and Currie Pipe Band for many years before becoming Secretary and eventually retiring from the Band around 1952. The first Pipe Major was William Thomson and his brother Andrew was Bass Drummer.

The Band played in the Edinburgh Parade to commemorate the Silver Jubilee of George V and Queen Mary. Activities were suspended during the 1914-1918 war but the Band was fully re-activated by 1921. Pipe Major Thomson, who had arrived in the district to work in the paper mill at Kinleith from Torphichen near Bathgate, retired from the Band in 1958 due to failing eyesight, although he continued to tutor young members. The Band’s activities were again curtailed between 1939 and 1946 during the Second World War, as most of the members had joined up.

From 1958 the Band was led by Pipe Major Alexander Campbell who had joined in 1946 from the 4th Boys Brigade. In the early 1950s the Band found it extremely difficult to encourage young lads to join and learn the Pipes and Drums and, for the first time in the history of the Band, girls were recruited. Until then the Band had not featured prominently in the competition field, although under Pipe Sergeant John Neill Jnr, it had entered the Scottish Pipe Band Championships at Meadowbank in 1948 and given a good account. The Band started to compete again in 1959 under Pipe Major Campbell,. The first competition was the World Championships at Starks Park in Kirkcaldy, where the Band took 2nd place in the Grade 3 section. In July the same year the Band went to Gourock Highland Games and came home proud winner of the ‘DARROCH JUG’ for 1st prize in Grade 3; and in August the Band won 2nd prize in Grade 3 and 1st in Drumming at Cowal Games.

The Band was upgraded to Grade 2 in 1960, now under Pipe Major Angus Graham, an ex Edinburgh City Police guest Piper, when the Band won the Lothian and Borders contest at North Berwick. In 1962 Robert Peat, a local builder in Currie, took over as Pipe Major. The Leading Drummer was Ian Watt, who was then succeeded by Alistair Aitken, both of whom subsequently went on to play with the Edinburgh City Police/Lothian and Borders Police Pipe Band as guest players. The present Pipe Major, Ronnie Grady, was also a member of the Band at that time before joining the Grade 1 Bilston Glen Colliery Pipe Band and thereafter the 153 RCT (TA) Pipe Band under Pipe Major Peter Snaddon.

During the late 1960s the Band competed at Grade 4 level, winning Champion of Champions in Grade 4 in 1969 which resulted in upgrading to Grade 3 in 1970. Between 1970 and 1973 the Band competed successfully in Grade 3 and, in 1973 under another new Pipe Major, James Dawson, the Band won 1st prize in Grade 3 at the RSPBA Bellahouston mini-Band competition; 1st in Grade 3 and 2nd in Grade 2 at the Lothian & Borders Branch competition at Dalkeith; 3rd prize in Grade 3 at Lanimer Day in Lanark; and 3rd prize in Grade 3 and 2nd prize in Grade 2 at Bridge of Allan Highland Games. In 1973 the Band was also well placed at Major Championships, culminating in second place in Grade 3 at the World Championships at Ayr. The Drum Corps was also successful in winning drumming prizes in minor competitions and at Major Championships. Quite an impressive collection of trophies during that time.

Colinton & Currie Pipe Band in the late 1960s

1974 saw another change in Pipe Major, with John McKernan taking over from James Dawson. Shortly thereafter John McKernan handed over control to Pipe Major Gary Newton who was subsequently replaced as Pipe Major in 2000 by Stuart Baillie. In 1999 and 2000 the Band played at the Braemar Gathering and became the proud winners of the Braemar Society Championships Shield in 2000, presented to Pipe Major Gary Newton by Her Majesty The Queen. In early 2001 the Band played at the annual flower festival in San Remo, Italy; and the same year at the local festival for the Patron Saint of Guilianova in the town of Guilianova, Italy. The Band received two first prizes and one second prize for musical content, national costume and deportment, the first time the Band had managed to bring home a trophy from abroad.

The current Pipe Major, Ronnie Grady was appointed in 2005. The Band no longer competes and now concentrates on teaching piping and Pipe Band drumming to young and old from the local communities. as well as an annual programme of performances at gala days, public parades and charity events.

Colinton & Currie Pipe Band in 2011

Wallacestone and District Pipe Band (near Falkirk)

The Wallacestone and District Pipe Band was also founded in 1887 under the leadership of Pipe Major John Wilson. The Band comprised miners who paid 5 shillings per week to get the Band up and running, most of whom came from the village of Wallacestone, situated between Polmont and Falkirk. The village is associated with the Battle of Falkirk in 1298 and Scotland’s national hero, Sir William Wallace.

Band had a very successful period akin to the standing of the leading Grade 1 Pipe Bands of today. In the first Pipe Band contest held at Lanark Flower Show in 1900 the Band finished 2nd behind Stonehouse Pipe Band out of 7 entrants. In 1905 the Band won the British Championships held in the Waverley Market, Edinburgh. Success continued until 1914, when the First World War intervened and the Band suffered the passing of Pipe Major McLuckie. By 1923 his successor, Pipe Major John D Sharp had raised the standard again to win contests at Cowal Games and Bathgate, despite the Band being severely depleted during the War years. In 1926 the General Strike and the subsequent trade recession also affected the playing strength and the Band was unable to maintain its former prominence on the contest field. The Band did, however, have the honour of playing at the opening of the Empire Exhibition in Glasgow in 1938.

Wallacestone and District Pipe Band around 1900

The membership of the Band was again severely depleted during the Second World War but the survival spirit continued until the retiral of Pipe Major Sharp in 1952 after half a century with the Band, 38 years of them as Pipe Major. The leadership then passed to Pipe Major Alex Bryce, who was succeeded in 1953 by Pipe Major James Inglis, following which the Band enjoyed a period of success, winning many trophies between 1953 and 1957. During this period the Band’s Drum Major was Jim Anderson, who subsequently was Convener of Central Regional Council. Between 1952 and 1960 Drum Major Anderson won the Scottish Drum Major Championships in Edinburgh, the European Championships on 3 occasions, and runner-up at the World Championships in Belfast and Paisley. He was also later a Scottish Pipe Band Association Drum Major Adjudicator.

In 1972 Pipe Major Inglis was succeeded by Pipe Major Tom Anderson, who had previously played with Muirhead and Sons Pipe Band; and in 1979 he was joined as Leading Drummer by Peter Anderson, also from Muirhead and Sons Pipe Band. Success swiftly followed and the Band won Champion of Champions in Grade 2 in 1980.

Wallacestone and District Grade 2

In 1980 the Band also recorded its first album for a Breton record company. The Band was promoted to Grade 1 and then entered a period of slight decline in a grade where it was more difficult to achieve the same level of success as in Grade 2. A re-building job was undertaken by Pipe Major Anderson and the Band consolidated its position again in Grade 2. The Band then enhanced its international reputation, being twinned with the Breton Band Bagad Quimper. In 1984 the Band played at the Cannes Music Festival and there was also a visit to Galicia in Spain as well as the Lorient Festival in Brittany. Various events also took place to celebrate the Band’s Centenary in 1987.

Wallacestone and District Centenary

The Band still continues to compete in Grade 4A and, although in process of another period of re-building, continues to undertake the effective teaching of Piping and Pipe Band Drumming.

Accrington Pipe Band (Lancashire in England)

The main contender for the oldest civilian Pipe Band still in existence would appear to be the Accrington Pipe Band in Lancashire, England. The Accrington Pipe Band was founded in 1885 in the Ex-Servicemen’s Club, Abbey Street, Accrington. The first members of the Band were James MacBean (gamekeeper at Dunkenhalgh Hall and also Piper to the Accrington Borough Caledonian Society); Sam Dawson (ex-Piper in the Scottish Rifles); and the Shannon brothers (both Irish Pipers). Later recruits to the original Band were Pipe Major Bill Killeya (ex-Piper in the Royal Scots Fusiliers) and Drummer W Duckworth. During the 1890s the Band membership increased through teaching and appointing new recruits; and the Band was invited to become the St John Ambulance Brigade Band, with the title SJAB Accrington Corps Pipe Band. The Band played at all parade and functions of the Brigade and at local celebrations for Queen Victoria’s Golden and Diamond Jubilees, and the coronations of Edward and George V. Shortly after the South African War, Pipe Major Killeya left the Band and was succeeded by Pipe Major Harold Martin.

Band membership was depleted in 1914 due to the First World War but it survived and by 1920 was led by Pipe Major J D MacDonald. The same year Roger Colbridge Jnr became Drum Major. The unveiling of the Mercer Park War Memorial in Clayton-le-Moors was the Band’s first major parade at that time. During the late 1920s the Band was given billiard table cloth by E G Rileys (the famous billiard table manufacturers of Accrington) to make into doublets to improve the Band’s uniform.

Accrington Pipe Band 1932

In 1938 Pipe Major MacDonald went to live in Chatburn and was replaced as Pipe Major by Ian Colbridge. The Band’s activities were subsequently suspended for the duration of the Second World War and, on becoming active again, an annual grant was negotiated from the St John Ambulance Brigade to assist with the cost of uniforms and instruments.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s there was a complete change of the Drum Corps. In 1954 the Band was re-equipped with new uniforms and in 1960 acquired feather bonnets.

Accrington Pipe Band 1952

In February 1970 John Tinnion took over as Pipe Major following the death of Ian Colbridge. The early 1970s saw the start of a lean period for the Band as some of the players had to move elsewhere due to their jobs. In 1976 a new teaching programme was introduced, led by Alan Bleasdale (ex-Pipe Major of the Furthergate Pipe Band) and by 1978 the membership was back in a healthy state. Since that time the Band has continued to exist, playing at local events, galas, processions and St John Ambulance parades. New membership continues to be encouraged and there remains the commitment to continue to sustain the Band and claim to be the oldest civilian Pipe Band in the UK.

On the strength of the foregoing it would appear that the Accrington Pipe Band can claim to be the oldest civilian Pipe Band still in existence in the UK. Can anyone tell us different?

The Clan MacRae Society Pipe Band

The Clan MacRae Society Pipe Band was founded in January 1914 by the late Pipe Major Farquhar MacRae, who was for nearly 30 years previously Pipe Major of the 7th Battalion (Blythswood) Highland Light Infantry.  He resigned from the Territorials after the Annual Camp of 1913 and, along with the majority of his Band, he formed the City of Glasgow Pipe Band as it was then called.  Bearing in mind that the 7th HLI won the World Pipe Band Championship at the Cowal Gathering in Dunoon in 1913, it will be realised that the playing of the newly formed Clan MacRae Society Pipe Band would be of a very high standard, and so it proved as they gained 2nd prize at the Glasgow Corporation contest in the Spring of 1914.  Soon afterwards on the 4th of August the call to War came and was heard, so that the Band was dismembered until 1920, when it was re-united under Pipe Major William Fergusson (Pipe Major Farquhar MacRae having passed away in 1916).

Pipe Major Fergusson succeeded Pipe Major MacRae in the 7th HLI and served in Gallipoli, Palestine and France, and was also in charge of the 52nd Divisional Pipe Band in Egypt. Unassuming to a degree, his practical and theoretical knowledge of the elements essential to the success of a Pipe Band were second to none, and the superiority of his Band in the 1920s was greatly due to the fine spirit of emulation which he instilled into his Pipers and Drummers. A good player himself, he was a composer of outstanding merit and the beautiful melodies of his tunes are still unsurpassed.  The excellence of the Band at this stage is clearly established in reading the World Championship results from 1921 to 1927 – first on four occasions and second on three occasions. In addition they gained the Sir Harry Lauder Shield for Bands of not more than 12 players on five occasions – 4 first places and one second.

Following a very severe accident at his employment Pipe Major Fergusson was forced to give up active participation in the Band and he was succeeded by Hamish McColl MM, who had been a member of the Band since its inception and who had also been in the 7th HLI for a number of years previously. In the Army during the War, Hamish McColl had been appointed Pipe Major and for gallantry in the field had been awarded the Military Medal.  Pipe Major McColl continued the good work of Pipe Major Fergusson but resigned after about 18 months, being succeeded in turn by John Findlay Nicoll, who had joined the Band in 1920 and whose previous service had been with the 6th HLI. The Band had a very successful period, gaining the World Championship on 3 successive years (1932, 1933 and 1934) and the Championship of the Scottish Pipe Band Association in the years 1933, 1934 and 1935; but it was becoming increasingly clear that the high standard set by the Band was being emulated by other competing Bands and that much of the previous leeway had been made up so that it was much more difficult for one Band to lead conspicuously as in the 1920s.  Nevertheless the MacRaes continued to secure a good share of prizes right up to the time of the Second World War when for a second time the Band became disrupted through the absence of its members with the Forces.  On resuming in early 1946 after a suspended period of over 6 years, the advantage gained by Bands which had managed to keep going during the War years was difficult to overcome, but the MacRaes continued to get into the prize lists. In 1947 at Murrayfield, at the first World Pipe Band Championships promoted by the SPBA, the Band gained 2nd place. After 1946 the Band gained 24 first and 17 second prizes.

In 1950 Pipe Major Nicoll was forced to relinquish his post on account of ill-health and was again succeeded by a member of the Band in the person of Alexander Macleod, a pupil of Pipe Major Fergusson.  Pipe Major Macleod, of Ross-shire extraction, was like his predecessor in the Band unassuming and modest to an extraordinary degree.

In addition to the usual local contests the Band competed in contests at Aberdeen, Morecambe (2), Belfast (2) and Douglas, Isle of Man (7) – indeed wherever there were contests there were the MacRaes.  It is interesting to learn that Tenor Drummer Charles McIntosh had been a member of the Band since 1920 and like Johnny Walker was still going strong. He was the doyen and hero of all Tenor Drummers.  He served in the First World War in the 7th HLI and 52nd Divisional Pipe Band under Pipe Major Fergusson.

The Band was made up entirely of a cross section of working men and owing to this was seldom able to accept engagements except in the evening or Saturday afternoons.  They were the only private Band who had been able to maintain their high position over the period of 40 years against all comers.

The grand total of 87 first prizes and well over 50 second prizes had been gained by the Band. They were Champions of the World on eight occasions and winners of the Supreme Championship at Cowal (Argyll Shield) on nine occasions.

This article was written by Donald McIntosh (now deceased) of the Clan MacRae Society Pipe Band, and has been reproduced by the RSPBA Historical Research Group. Donald McIntosh was the first Secretary of the Scottish Pipe Band Association when it was formed in 1930.

The Empress Pipe Band

The Clyde Industrial Training Ship Association was formed in 1868 by a small number of influential Glasgow people. The purpose of the Association was to provide care for homeless young boys, petty offenders, truants and those thought to be at risk of involvement in crime. In 1869 the Association was given an old Royal Navy ship – HMS Cumberland – which was fitted out as a training ship and moored off Rhu, near Helensburgh. HMS Cumberland, built in 1842 at Chatham, was a 2,214-ton, 180 feet long, two-deck man of war with 70 guns, three masts and a crew of 620. In 1854 she operated in the Baltic Sea during the Crimean War and she was involved in the attack on Bomarsund, Finland in August that year.

When HMS Cumberland sailed into Rothesay Bay in 1869 she was reported as a wonderful and magnificent sight. In the first year 174 boys were placed on board, mostly from the Glasgow area. Within five years 300 boys were on board, all young offenders. The boys were dressed in smart naval uniforms and they spent all their time on board apart from shore duties and leave. On board ship they undertook school lessons and physical training, all designed to develop them into responsible adults. Unfortunately HMS Cumberland was completely destroyed by a fire in 1889, a spectacle which attracted huge numbers of onshore spectators. Some of the boys were suspected of starting the fire and five were tried for the crime, but nothing could be proved.

In the same year HMS Cumberland was replaced by another vessel, a 3,318 wooden battleship named “The Empress”. The ship had originally been known as “HMS Revenge” and her previous roles had included Flagship of the Channel Fleet in 1863, Second Flagship of the Mediterranean Fleet in 1865, and Flagship at Queenston in 1873, as well as coastguard duty at Pembroke and Devonport. The replacement ship remained moored off Rhu and by 1901 she was licensed to have 400 boys on board. She continued the role of her predecessor as a Clyde Training Ship before being sold in 1923. During that time efforts were made to change the image from a means of reforming young offenders to that of educating children of poor parentage. Nevertheless it remained a hard life for the boys and from all accounts discipline was very strict. They also came from a generation when the majority of them were small in stature, having been poorly fed during their early life. Life on the ships with better food and exercise helped improve their general health. Little seems to be known about what happened to them when they left the ship, but it is thought that over 60% joined the Merchant Navy and that some may have progressed to the Armed Forces during the War years. The Royal Navy, however, did not favour natural progression of the trainees to their ranks in normal circumstances as their background was not considered to be suitable.

Captain Deveran, who was Captain of both ships, lived on board The Empress with his family although he also had a residence on the mainland. He was reputed to be well liked by the boys and he corresponded with many of them after they left the ships. During his time on both ships there were no deaths apart from his own dog. When the officers in charge of The Empress came ashore they lived with their families in a row of houses in Rhu village named “Cumberland Terrace” after the original ship. Many of the boys on The Empress came to Helensburgh frequently to collect provisions, including supplies of bread and rolls from local baker, Lauchlan Maclachlan. The transporting of such supplies from shore to ship was carried out with military precision, a spectacle enjoyed by many summer visitors. On other occasions tourists gave the boys cigarettes and sweets when they circulated the ship on sight-seeing boat trips.

In the late 1890s a piper named John Wallace took up employment as an instructor on The Empress. John Wallace had previously been Pipe Major and piping instructor at Dr Guthrie’s Industrial School at Liberton in Edinburgh. Born in Edinburgh, he had served in the Argylls where he was tutored by Pipe Major Robert Meldrum. He was later a pupil of John MacDougall Gilles and became a successful competitive solo piper which included winning the Gold Medal Piobaireachd at the Argyllshire Gathering in 1901. Within the short space of six months from joining The Empress, John Wallace turned out an Empress Juvenile Pipe Band of good standard. The Pipe Band became available for local functions and could often be seen playing on the cast iron bandstand, the base for which still exists in Kidston Park in Helensburgh. The Band also played at Inveraray Highland Games. There is evidence that the Band continued to exist at least until 1914.

The Empress Pipe Band 1907

Duncan Fraser of Greenock made bagpipes for many customers in the area and it is likely that the company supplied bagpipes for the boys on the training ship. At that time a full set of bagpipes mounted with ivory cost around £4 per set. As the pictures show, however, it is likely that all the boys played half-size bagpipes.

The Empress Pipe Band 1914

John Wallace remained in employment on The Empress for only a few years and it was rumoured that he lost his job on account of frequent absences whilst competing at Highland Games. Nonetheless he left a legacy to the ship and the Pipe Band by composing a Hornpipe with the title “CTS Empress”. Other tunes attributed to John Wallace are “The Henderson March”, “The Heights of Dargai”, “The Circassian Circle” and “The Dancing of the Fingers”.

The Hornpipe CTS Empress

Another interesting link with The Empress was a legendary figure in Scottish piping, Archie McNeill, who was known as the Blind Piper. Archie was born in Govan. His father came from Ghia and Archie learned to play the bagpipes when his family moved to Rhu. When Archie was ten years old he has an accident which led him to become progressively blind, even more so after the age of 18. When living in Rhu he met John Wallace who became one of his first piping instructors during the time the latter was employed on The Empress. Archie himself subsequently became a piping instructor and some of his pupils went on to become some of the best known pipers in the country. His teaching led him to become a progenitor of the College of Piping and his system of tuition was to become the basis for the College’s Tutor 1. For much of his life he was employed as a brush maker with the Blind Asylum. He was also a prolific and highly regarded composer and his well-known tunes include “The Detroit Highlanders”, “David Ross of Rosehall”, “The Islay Ball”, “Verna Leith’s Wedding March” and “Gareloch”, but the most notable being “Donald MacLean’s Farewell to Oban”.

Archie McNeill was renowned as a strict instructor who, although blind, had perfect hearing. He was also very proficient in the playing of Piobaireachd. In 1917 he became Pipe Major of the 139th Glasgow Boy’s Brigade Pipe Band and continued to teach the 139th for 17 years thereafter. The Company was based at St Andrews United Free Church in Parliamentary Road, Glasgow but attracted boys from other parts of the city. Archie’s own sons, Donald and Alex, then aged 13 and 11 respectively, joined the Band when Archie assumed command, and his nephews David and Seumas MacNeill both joined later when they were old enough. In order to help the Band, Archie took boys from the age of ten so that they could play a few tunes by the time they were old enough to join the Company. He would also have the boys come to his house for extra tuition, as time was limited on practice nights due to the large numbers in the band.

Drum Instructors during Archie’s time were James Broadway and then Don Turrent. When the World Championship contest resumed at Cowal Games after the First World War, the 139th Glasgow BB under Pipe Major Archie MacNeill were World Juvenile Champions in 1919, 1920 and 1923. The 139th won many other Juvenile contests including the Battalion Championships and the Glasgow Contest held annually in the Winter Gardens on Glasgow Green. The prizes at the latter event were a number of paid engagements to play in the Glasgow Parks to enhance the Band funds.

After the Second World War Archie worked at the Henderson Bagpipes Workshop, where he tested the quality of drones and chanters. He also wrote for “The Piping Times”. In his later years he continued to teach and play, and he made several trips to Canada to visit his son Alex, who by that time was a leading piper of the day and who competed successfully against the great John Wilson of Edinburgh and Toronto when he was in his prime. Archie spent his final years in Helensburgh and died in 1962.

Prepared by the RSPBA Historical Research Group from information provided by Hector Russell and Jeannie Campbell

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