Published: June 30, 2001

Boghall & Bathgate Caledonia Pipe Band

Boghall & Bathgate Caledonia Pipe Band

Although Boghall & Bathgate’s Grade One band has never won the World’s, every other championship has been theirs, most several times over, and the band has been second at the World’s three times.

Most extraordinary about the band is that, in 17 years in Grade One, competing in a total of 86 championship events, Boghall & Bathgate’s Grade One band has failed to make the prize list only about a dozen times, a staggering and unprecedented feat of consistency. No other band in history has had such a long run of regular prizewinning success.

The village of Bathgate lies about halfway between Glasgow and Edinburgh, in the heart of West Lothian, the formerly flourishing coal mining area of Scotland. For the last 80 years, the area has been a hotbed of pipe band prowess. Within a few miles of Bathgate are the villages of Whitburn and Shotts, towns that are the bases, respectively, of the Polkemmet and Shotts & Dykehead bands. The usually friendly cross-region rivalries between these bands are renowned.

The Boghall & Bathgate Pipe Band was founded in 1972 by a group of enthusiasts for the young people in the local area (Boghall is a small neighbourhood in Bathgate). Since then, Boghall & Bathgate has been a model of dedication and consistency that many pipe bands have tried to emulate. The origins of the band as something closer to a community club than a competitive group are maintained to this day.

Robert Martin, then a piper with the nearby Torphichen & Bathgate Pipe Band, was asked to lead Boghall in 1973, and became the band’s first Pipe Major. In September of that year the band made its competitive debut at Peebles in Grade Four, which it won, starting a tradition of competition success.

Because of its fledgling status (and not to mention a lack of funds—also unfortunately to become a Boghall tradition), the band competed in civilian clothes. No worries. In 1974 the band became Champion of Champions in Grade Four, and was upgraded to Grade Three.

In 1976, Tom Brown, a member of Alex Duthart’s illustrious Shotts & Dykehead drum corps, was asked if he could develop a drum corps on par with the impressive pipe section Bob Martin had assembled. Brown introduced four youngsters to accompany lead stroke David Steadman, and a long tradition of Boghall drumming excellence began.

With the overall success of Boghall’s teaching program, a Novice Juvenile band was formed in the winter of 1976-’77. The 1977 season was very successful for both bands, with each winning Champion of Champions titles in their respective grades. Upgrades to Grade Two and Juvenile followed. It’s interesting to note that the average age in the “senior” band at that time, with the exception of four players, was 13.

In Grade Two Tom Brown took on the Drum Sergeant role, and in 1978 and ’79 Boghall became Champion of Champions. In 1980, less than seven years after the band started, Boghall was promoted to Grade One.

The band immediately started to make its mark in Grade One, finishing second at the European Championships, fourth at both the Scottish and World’s, and fifth at Cowal.

After seven successful years as Pipe Major in Grade One, Bob Martin in 1986 passed the reins to Craig Walker, one of the band’s original members, who had honed his leadership skills as Pipe Sergeant under Harry McNulty in the very successful British Caledonian Airways band. Craig led Boghall for the next nine years, taking the band from strength to strength.

In 1990, Boghall further extended its training system by forming a Grade Three band from its Juvenile unit. Predictably, the Grade Three band dominated, and went to Grade Two the following year. Because of the success of the Grade Two band, Boghall has come very close to fielding two Grade One bands, a prospect still within the realm of possibilities.

Tom Brown stepped down as Lead Drummer in 1991, and his son, Gordon, took on the corps. This role was not completely new to Gordon at that time, as he had been heavily involved in teaching the Novice and Juvenile bands for several years.

Similarly, after the 1995 season, Craig Walker’s career took him to England, so the leadership role was given to his younger brother, Ross, who continues as Pipe Major today.

Asked about the band’s consistency, Ross Walker responds, “I don’t think there’s any great secret to the success of the band. A combination of factors have kept us ‘up there,’ most important is the fact that we work hard to be good at what we do. But ask the pipe major of any of the top bands and I suspect you’d get the same answer.”

Walker is quick to credit the tradition of dedication created by Robert Martin: “He was the kind of guy for

whom second best was never good enough. He managed to instill this enthusiasm and drive into everyone in the band, and that commitment exists within the bands today.”

The teaching program and feeder band system also help stability and consistency, says Walker: “Some of the guys have played with Boghall for over 20 years, and new players joining the Grade One band are able to draw on the vast experience of these players and quickly appreciate what it takes to perform the ‘Boghall way.'”

When asked how the band’s being second at the World’s three times without winning the big one affects morale, Walker points out it’s actually a driving force. “It’s significant that we have come close to winning the World Championship, but have yet to take home the big prize, a fact that keeps many of us going from year to year in the hope of finally winning it one day.”

Boghall is perhaps seen as a band that stresses fundamentals, and with few exceptions hits attacks, blows tone, and makes breaks with pinpoint control. It doesn’t come easy. Hard work at practices over the winter is “an investment for the summer months,” according to Ross Walker.

“We also put a lot of effort into improving our technique both individually and as a band,” he adds. “The pipers and drummers for a few months go back to going through basic exercises and rudiments on practice chanters and drumming pads. It’s not unknown for even the most experienced players to go home with sore hands after a winter practice.”

To avoid monotony, four pipers are occasionally picked to go through a competition set on the pipes in front of the rest of the guys, to keep members on their toes. “Maybe this winter I’ll get each of the pipers to give a wee solo instead—that will be a nice surprise for everyone!” Walker says.

Although Boghall seemingly has the undying support and pride of the village of Bathgate, the band is left to raise most of its money on its own.

“We don’t have a major commercial sponsor,” says Walker. “It takes a substantial amount of money to provide four bands with uniforms, instruments and reeds, not to mention the cost of transporting bands to competitions. The main sources of income come from fund raising, small donations, prize money and grants from the local authority. The fact that the bands are able to compete year after year is due, in no small measure, to the hard working committee we have labouring in the background.”

Boghall has at least some fun raising money, and sometimes it might seem like nothing is below the band’s pride. “Some of the more eccentric fund raising activities we’ve tried include sponsored ‘blaws’– going around the local housing estates with collecting cans and bag packing in a local supermarket. As you might imagine, these aren’t too popular with the guys!”

It’s a wonder why a Scottish business would not want to underwrite completely the expenses of and align itself with such a beneficial servant of the community as Boghall & Bathgate.

With four bands, practice nights in Bathgate are an example of organizational machinery. All bands practice on the same nights, and Walker characterizes it as a “conveyor belt of pipe bands.” The Novice Juvenile and Juvenile bands begin at 6:30 and 7:00 p.m., respectively. When they wrap up around 8:00 the Grade Two and One bands begin, finishing around 10:00.

“This can be quite demanding on the piping and drumming instructors of the ‘juves,’ as they are also playing members of the Grade One and Two bands and practice nights for them are long,” says Walker.

To accommodate the over 70 pipers, drummers and committee members who comprise the Boghall organization, the bands are allowed to use the local schools, which are large enough for the four bands.

The astonishing consistency and dedication of the Boghall & Bathgate organization over the last 25 years make the band a truly extraordinary example of many of the best facets a pipe band can posses. There’s little doubt that one day the World Championship will be theirs. In the meantime, the well-oiled machine that is Boghall & Bathgate will run smoothly forward.

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