November 10, 2009

A list

By the right, check, mark.So pipes|drums readers feel that the greatest pipe-major of all time – at least for competition-oriented bands – is Richard Parkes of Field Marshal Montgomery, followed closely by Iain MacLellan, Glasgow/Strathclyde Police and, also close, SFU’s Terry Lee. All great choices, and the entire list is a who’s-who of legendary names, each making a great mark on our history.

Of course, if military pipe-majors were included, then one would have to consider the likes of Willie Ross, G.S., Donald MacLeod, John MacDonald (Inverness), Angus MacDonald, John A. MacLellan, Jock McLellan (Dunoon), Willie Lawrie . . . and on and on.

But sticking to those who focused on the competition racket, the poll I think captured all of those who had won a World’s, and the hope was that readers would consider other merits.

As anyone who reads this blog knows, I’m a proponent of constructive change for the better. So, a pipe-major’s impact and legacy beyond winning a bunch of prizes would play a heavy role in my choices. Here are my personal picks for the top five competition-oriented pipe-majors of all time:

1. Tom McAllister Sr. – this may surprise readers, but to me Tom Sr. is the George Washington, John A. MacDonald or Sir Robert Walpole of the modern pipe band world. I mean, McAllister Sr. was the one who came up with the two-three-paced-rolls-and-an-E introduction, revolutionizing the way pipe bands played together. He is the founding father of the pipe band as it is defined today.

2. Donald Shaw Ramsay – DSR was the man with the vision to expand the pipe band repertoire. Before he came along, it was stuff played over and over, and Ramsay was the first to suggest that pipe bands could actually do more than march along the street or compete with an MSR – bands could actually put on a show for non-pipers / drummers, complete with things in – gasp! – compound time.

3. Bill Livingstone – while Ramsay prompted a change to adopt a soloist’s expanded repertoire, Bill Livingstone in the 1970s and ’80s sent pipe bands into completely uncharted waters. “Deadrock” pushed musical boundaries and buttons, adapting content from Ireland, England and Hebridean Scotland, while expanding the notion that top bands should introduce completely original content. A great leader also looks to the greatness of those around him, and Livingstone’s ability to embrace the ideas within his bands is a leadership quality that is often overlooked. Add to that the first non-Scottish band to win, and the virtual invention of the pipe band concert format that bands imitate today, and he makes my top-three.

4. Iain MacLellan – of course there are the 13 World Championship wins, likely never to be equaled, but to me Iain MacLellan was the Donald MacPherson of the pipe band world. He elevated the idea of tone to a completely new level with his Glasgow/Strathclyde Police bands with a clarity unrivaled for more than a decade. He was the first to make precision tuning a science, literally blowing bands off the park. MacLellan not only set the new standard for sound, he raised it to a level that wouldn’t be matched until, arguably, the Victoria Police in 1998.

5. Iain McLeod – I was surprised that McLeod garnered only 2 per cent of votes, leaving him near the bottom in the results. McLeod’s Edinburgh City Police was the first true superstar pipe band, touring the world throughout the 1960s and ’70s, with the first pipe section comprising all elite players. McLeod picked up Ramsay’s trend towards expanded repertoire, and set the stage for the modern pipe band concert format. Five World titles are nothing to sneeze at, either.

So, those are my top-five pipe-majors. It was difficult to choose, and by no means should the accomplishments of the rest be minimized. I might change my mind in a year, or tomorrow and would have no trouble respecting anyone else’s preferences and reasoning. They’re all great pipe-majors, and may well make your list, which you are of course encouraged to submit.


  1. I don’t know about others, but I know my vote was infuenced greatly by those whose bands I’ve heard and/or seen, if only on CD, LP or tape. That goes back half a century now, UGH!!, but still leaves a lot of great names with which I have no direct familiarity/experience. For example, how does one leave Willie Ross out of the top three? I did and I feel rather guilty about it.

  2. I don’t want to take anything away from this post, but this is really the only spot I feel I can comment on the current poll. Why isn’t Drew Duthart’s name on the poll, I think he is definitely just as deserving as any of the other drummers on the list for the title.

  3. You are right, Bandmember. Inadvertently leaving Drew Duthart, Andrew Scullion and Eric Ward off of the list was an oversight. So deleted the original and started fresh with a new one that includes those choices. Apologies to those concerned.

  4. Seems to me only a small percentage of pipes|drums readers who voted in the pipe major poll and now the drum one would be really qualified to make the call. And maybe the fact that your own top five are quite different shows that. For instance I am in no way qualified whatsoever to make a call on it, yet I still voted. There are obviously people here who DO know what they’re talking about, so its a shame if those of us who don’t invalidate the results, yet its fun to vote and have a go, and throw one’s tuppenceworth into the ring.

  5. Andrew

    Love this article. I think it was a nice addition to the poll on
    I am sure that a more than a few of the young generation went with the PM’s from the past 10 years or so. There are some pretty big names on that list from years past as you pointed out. I might add to your list the contribution of Bob Hardie.

    I am hoping that you do the same for the drummer poll that is now up. A little history on Bobby Rae , Jimmy Catherwood , Patty Donovan, John Kirkwood would be greatly appricated.

    John gaudet

  6. OOH a hard one,
    Bob Hardie (or Mister Hardie as I called him) was my neighbour when I was in my early teens, so he has to be there for me along with Iain MacLellan and DSR, however i guess thats a generational thing (Childhood and adolecent heroes and all that).
    Current PM’s is easy for me … Bill Livingston has to be my top man. He doesn’t know me from adam but chatted away for a few minutes with me at the Glenfiddich as though we’d been pals for years … a great hero of mine.
    I suppose all the greats in their moments of inspiration “moved the bar” that wee bit higher, there were plenty of “good” PM’s who matched it … but the great PM’s took what went before as the new baseline
    The future too looks good with Stuart Liddell, having refined his art “Canadian style” … where will he take things in ten years … It whets the appetite.

  7. The one name which I feel was missing from the Pipe Major list was Ian Duncan. Every band that he has been attached to or in charge of has done extremely well and it will be interesting to see what he does with Lothian and Borders Police Pipe Band in the next few seasons. His success with the Vale of Atholl, Drambuie Kirkliston and latterly Tayside Police was incredible

    His record as a tutor is also enviable and in my opinion he is one of the best all round Pipe Majors of recent years having proved himself at various levels.

  8. Just to clarify, the list was also limited to P-Ms who had won a World Championship. Ian Duncan, Harry McNulty, Ken Eller, Jamie Troy, Roddy MacLeod, Terry Tully . . . there are many, many leaders who have accomplished / are accomplishing a great deal, but had to draw the line somewhere.

  9. I think the fact that Iain McLeod’s name was omitted was not intentional but given the time period that he was in charge at Edinburgh Police (you’ve stated throughout the 1960’s and 70’s), most of us are too young to remember that far back. For those that aren’t too young, he must have been lost in the alcohol induced mists of time.

  10. I would have to concur that Bob Hardie would be in my top 5. Five straight World Championships in the 1960s is quite a feat. I always felt he refined the concept of a pipe band playing like a solo player. The Muirheads band played the tunes as they were written, and didn’t habitually write out technique. The clarity and expression of their playing for that time was remarkable. I listened to Muirhead recordings more than those of any other band, and learned much from them. Many of the classic old 6/8 and 2/4 marches I still have in my repertoire were tunes I fell in lover with from listening to “Champion of Champions” (1966) or “Scotland the Brave” (1968). Bob also captured the vision of pipe band-as-soloist in his pipe chanter, which in the 1960s was the last pipe chanter to be played by top bands and as well as top soloists.

    Having said that, the greatness of a pipe major is somewhat defined by his era, and it is hard to pit them one against the other. John MacDougall Gillies was on top of the pipe band world in the early 1900s with his HLI band. Willie Fergusson has been called the “father of the modern pipe band” for the tunes and innovations he introduced to the idiom. These two were as influential in their day as anyone’s top 5, but comparing them is like apples and oranges. That’s to say nothing of figures like Willie Gray and John MacDonald of South Uist who were also significant in the development of the modern competition band.

    To see so many of people’s “top 5” being P/Ms of bands in the last 30 years, reflects this, or reflects the general piping population’s frail grasp of the history of pipe bands.

  11. Andrew, the down-side to polls is you often miss someone out, as has already happened. Of course I’m going to suggest one more name. If, as you’ve said, you’re limiting your lists to World Champions, you surely cannot forget Willie McErlean, D/Sgt of Triumph Street (the original one!) Willie and his corps won the Worlds drumming in 1979 and he was just honoured this past summer with a life membership in the B.C. Pipers’ for his contributions to drumming and pipe bands in the Vancouver area. He is, without question, one of the most musical drummers in the game, an excellent singer and a half decent outside right!

  12. A ggod idea for a book or series of articles would be “The Evolution of the Modern Pipe Band” highlighting the contributions of the various individuals from the early beginnings up to the modern day. It seems that there is a need for this ( I know I could learn a few things…)

  13. Jeanie Campbell (i’m sure did a book on the great pipe bands ) but in the event my memory is defective Bagpipeman is right … a great idea for a book.

    Ref the poll, great fun as it is Jim McGillivray is right, the poll reflects not only the general age of the readership but our lack of understanding beyond our own generations contribution.

    The articles in this mag helps to broaden the general knowledge base, but a year-long series of articles drawing the timeline and the great innovators would be a fantastic and interesting project …. Andrew over to you.



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