Published: November 26, 2019

Ian McLellan or Richard Parkes? Which pipe-major is the Greatest of All Time?

Ian McLellan? Richard Parkes?

Richard Parkes? Ian McLellan?

Just who is the greatest pipe-major of all time?

Pipe-Major Ian McLellan, Strathclyde Police

We couldn’t decide on our own, so we set out to try to come to a decision.

In the competition piping and drumming world, the only piece of data that we truly have are competition wins. All the rest is pretty much subjective.

When it comes to competition wins – that is, BIG competition wins – there are two pipe-majors in history who are head and shoulders – feather bonnets, even – above all others.

Ian McLellan was pipe-major of the Glasgow/Strathclyde Police from 1972 to 1992 – 20 years. Under his leadership, the band won 12 World Championships, 44 RSPBA major championship titles and 13 RSPBA Grade 1 Champion of Champions awards. Along the way he took his band to six straight World titles and an incredible nine World’s wins out of a possible 10 in the 1980s.

These last two accomplishments are unparalleled and, given the times, might never be equalled.

Pipe-Major Richard Parkes, Field Marshal Montgomery

Richard Parkes has been pipe-major of Field Marshal Montgomery since 1981 – 39 years and counting. The band was promoted to Grade 1 after the 1985 season, so he has been in the top tier for 34 years. Under his leadership, the band has won 12 World Championships, 67 RSPBA major championship titles and 14 RSPBA Grade 1 Champion of Champions awards.

For total RSPBA championships, no one matches Parkes.

Both men are giants among greats. Both pipe-majors created or at least equalled benchmarks in several ways.

Both have been recognized and honoured by Queen Elizabeth II for their entire body of work, for services to piping, McLellan with a British Empire Medal, Parkes with being made a Member of the British Empire.

Amazingly, each has overcome physical challenges to continue their pipe band career apace: Parkes recovering from a stroke attributed to deep vein thrombosis because of a trans-Atlantic flight; McLellan working through the loss of hearing in one ear.

We fully recognize that “greatness” can be measured in terms of other subjective topics, but, because the piping and drumming world tends to measure “success” by competition success, these two pipe-majors are by far the most competition-winning pipe band leaders of all time.

So, who is the greatest of all time?

But, wait. Before we start, we want to stress that opinions will vary. Your opinions might be different. We understand as well as any that there are other pipe-majors who were great, and some might even be considered by you as the greatest.

Donald Shaw-Ramsay. Any of the three McAllisters. Bob Hardie. Bill Livingstone. Bob Shepherd. Iain McLeod. Terry Lee. Robert Mathieson. John Weatherston. To be sure, all of these are and should be in the Pipe Band Pantheon.

But while each won their share of events, none came close to the wins that McLellan and Parkes racked up – and, in Parkes’s case, is still racking up.

So . . . we put together a panel of pipers and drummers who have been around long enough to have heard both the Glasgow/Strathclyde Police and Field Marshal Montgomery in their prime (and, yes, we recognize that FMM might well be in their prime or be heading to a new “prime”). We asked them to complete a simple survey consisting of six simple questions.

We promised not to divulge who was on the panel, and their comments will not be attributed.

So, let’s get started.

Question 1: Which pipe-major made the greatest contribution to elevating the standard of tuning and tone?

If there is a hallmark of both the Glasgow/Strathclyde Police and Field Marshal Montgomery, it’s probably the sound of the pipe section. Both bands achieved tuning and tone that others aspired to achieve.

Who did our panel choose?

It was a tie. Both McLellan and Parkes had exactly the same number of votes. It was a toss-up.

Question 2: Which pipe-major made the greatest contribution to elevating the standard of pipe band ensemble?

Perhaps more than tone, ensemble could be seen as the more important quality. In fact, there’s a reason why ensemble is the first tie-breaker: it’s the band as a whole. Pipe-majors who consistently produce a band with an accent on ensemble are generally pipe majors who will win.

Who won this vote?

A slight nod to Parkes, with 56% of the selection, but in reality, another statistical tie.

Question 3: Which pipe-major was the better manager of band members?

Interesting query here. A pipe-major generally survives and excels by working well with others. It’s a balancing act. You have to gain and maintain respect, but you also need to offer respect to your players.

Here, Richard Parkes took 63% of the vote. Why? The reasons will be many, but possibly the fact that Ian McLellan’s charges were full-time police offers. It was their job to play with the band. Or perhaps the large bands of today make it difficult to maintain continuity with personnel.

It is certain, though, that each man was a supreme manager of people. Each worked and works with the major egos that come with major talent.

Question 4: Which pipe-major got the most from his drum section?

Ah, don’t forget the drummers. It’s remarkable that both bands were never known for their drumming. That is, their drum sections were and are very good, but they aren’t the first thing most people think of when the band’s name is mentioned. This is no slight to Polis lead-drummers Alex Connell and John Kirkwood, or FMM L-Ds Gordon Parkes and Keith Orr. All of these leaders are pipe band hall of famers.

What we’re at here is the knack that McLellan and Parkes clearly had/have for getting exactly what their band needed and needs from the back end.

Here, it was clear to our panel. A full 75% thought McLellan deserved the vote.

Question 5: Which pipe-major produced the most pipe band leaders?

A mark of a manager, whether in work or in pipe bands, is how well he or she prepares others to lead. True, they might have the talent presented to them, but the actual management ability does not often come naturally. It comes from watching and learning from what works.

Several Glasgow/Strathclyde Police members under McLellan went on to lead bands. Harry McAlear would become P-M of the band after McLellan. James Wark and Iain Plunkett would also rise to the band’s top job. John Wilson would go on to be a leader in the RSPBA and his influence in solo piping is strong.

Under Richard Parkes, several pipers have gone on to lead Grade 1 bands: Ryan Canning took Shotts & Dykehead to a World Championship in 2015. Alisdair McLaren is now the P-M of, yes, the Glasgow Police. Emmett Conway is the current Shotts pipe-major and Graham Drummond is his pipe-sergeant. Alex Gandy is pipe-major of the Grade 1 78th Highlanders (Halifax Citadel).

By the slimmest of margins, 56% of our panel went with Parkes – another statistical tie.

Final question: All things considered, who is the greatest pipe-major?

Ultimately, it came down to the last question. Make a decision. Who is the GOAT?

Maybe it was the sheer number of wins, or the longevity, or the fact that there’s more to come, but a solid 75% chose Richard Parkes.

Verbatim comments from our panel:

“It’s been incredibly difficult to choose between them. I’ve mulled it over for a few days to decide what criteria to use to split them and in that time I’ve changed my mind a number of times. In the end I’ve decided that, as his success has been achieved while managing a career outside of piping, and his pipe band have not had the luxury of working and practicing together every day, to vote for Richard Parkes.”

“Very hard to compare, because the circumstances were so different. However, Ian McLellan set the patterns for much that was done by Richard Parkes, Terry Lee, Robert Mathieson, Terry Tully . . .”

“This is extremely difficult. The two greatest of ALL time. Richard took pipe bands to an orchestral level. Other bands caught up with Strathclyde Police and eventually surpassed their standard. No one has done that to FMM.”

“Both are major contributors to the pipe band world and it is very difficult to pick between them and sometimes not helpful as an exercise to do this. By the narrowest of margins if pushed I would say that it was Richard as he had to pull up the band from the lowest grades and construct the band from all civilian players. Ian had the advantage of having employees in the band. However, that said, Ian had the biggest influence on bringing the standard of pipe sound to where it is today. There are other P-Ms of course who would be in the running and some of these would be D.S. Ramsay, Ian Macleod, Terry Lee, Robert Mathieson, Tom McAllister Jnr. All huge contributors . . .”

“It is extremely hard to choose between these two pipe-majors. The fact that Richard is still producing the band that he is makes him top man for me.”

“Richard Parkes has been pipe-major at a time when the standard of Grade 1 is the best ever. He constantly produces incredible performances at the highest level.”

“Ian McLellan was really the first P-M to achieve the refined sound in my opinion. That gave the likes of Richard Parkes and other pipe majors to try and match or, in Richard’s case, surpass the quality of the sound of Strathclyde police during the Ian McLellan years. So Ian definitely made the biggest contribution to improving the quality of sound.”

“In an era when pipe bands are better than they ever have been, Richard Parkes has maintained a remarkably high standard of playing and competitiveness for a longer period of time and against a stronger field.”

“It’s a very difficult question as while there is cross over they represent different eras. It’s a bit like comparing Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods. Who is the greatest?”

“Both have an abundance of strengths, and few, if any, weaknesses. Both had tremendous advantages over other great pipe-majors, McLellan by having a tranche of full-time police officers as a separate unit of the Strathclyde Police, and Parkes, in a civilian setting, of having any young piper of note in Northern Ireland and behind having the ambition to join FMM only. Parkes shades it for me because he did it all in terms of man-management in an organization, which was essentially run by him, and him alone, and he also produced which are, for me, by far the greatest pipe band performances in history.”

“It’s somewhat difficult to compare the two. [McLellan’s] was also an era where fly-in players were not as rampant, and a P-M had to make do with what s/he had available to him or her, and as such I feel that, undoubtedly, P-M McLellan would have had to be the better manager of members. Further, he would have had to get the most from his drum section, since he didn’t have the option of finding a new one from a pool of international players.”

But what do each of these great pipe-majors have to say about one another?

They of course were not on our panel, so, we did what you do when you want to know something: we asked them.

“Regarding my thoughts on Richard Parkes,” Ian McLellan said. “Richard is one of those quiet unassuming guys who gets on with the job at hand of making the Field Marshal Montgomery one of the greatest, if not the greatest, pipe band ever. His record speaks for itself, he has made the FMM, the most successful competing pipe band of all time by winning more major championships than any other pipe band, and also equalling the record of Strathclyde Police, by winning the Worlds Pipe Band Championship, twelve times. No mean feat by any standard.

“When you think of it, Richard has led his band up through the grades from a very early age and made it what it is today, which is a great feat in itself. So he deserves all the credit he gets.

“About the man himself, I don’t know where he gets all the energy and continued motivation from after all these years as pipe-major, because I know that after 20 years as pipe-major of Strathclyde Police Pipe Band, I was burned out.

“Anyway, each to their own and I wish him all the best for the future.”

For Richard Parkes’s part, he said about Ian McLellan:

“Ian McLellan was my idol as a young pipe-major, the amount of success he achieved in a relatively short time is incredible. His record of six World championships in a row is fantastic and it is a record that will probably never be broken.

“Strathclyde Police pipe band under his leadership were totally dominant in the 1980s, winning nine out of 10 World Championships in that decade, which is remarkable.

“Ian McLellan set the bar for pipe band sound. The sound he produced stood out from the rest, it was robust, well-pitched and perfectly in tune, a sound that everyone else tried to emulate.”

Anyone who knows these gentlemen will not be surprised at the level of respect and magnanimity each has for the other. Simply put, they are good guys.

The majority of our panel ultimately chose Richard Parkes as the Greatest Pipe-Major of All Time.

The discussion doesn’t end there.

What do you think?

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Dr. Richard Parkes, as Queen’s bestows honourary PhD on legendary pipe-major
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2011 marks 30 years of Richard Parkes at the helm of FMM
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Richard Parkes awarded MBE
June 30, 2004

 


Richard Parkes recovering from stroke
March 31, 2004

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