December 14, 2008

Competitive instinct

Competition wins . . .The interview I did with Donald Shaw Ramsay nearly 20 years ago is one of the most memorable – perhaps for the wrong reasons.

 The legendary former Pipe-Major of Invergordon Distillery and Edinburgh City Police pipe bands just happened to be on an August, 1989, flight from Glasgow to Toronto, and I was returning from the World’s on the same plane.

I didn’t know Ramsay, and only had seen photos of when he was a much younger man, but someone recognized him and pointed him out to me. I boldly introduced myself to the great Ramsay in the departure lounge, told that I put together a piping magazine and asked if he would be interested in passing the travel-time with an impromptu interview. I had heard that his favourite subject was DSR; thankfully, he was all for talking about himself for a few hours.

I can’t remember why I had a tape recorder with me, but I did, so we agreed to meet on the plane. He had an aisle seat in economy. A nice lady agreed to change places with me, so I sat across the aisle from him, and, in between passings of bladder-bursting passengers and trolley-pushing attendants, we chatted on tape. It was an exciting interview, and I was thrilled to get the chance to speak candidly with the famous man.

A few weeks later, once the interview was transcribed, I was in for a shock. I sent (back then, by post) the proposed final text to him, only to get back a marked-up version of which entire sections, and maybe even whole pages, were deleted. It was as if he couldn’t even remember doing the interview, and, sure enough, a year or so later I was told by someone who knew him that he claimed he didn’t realize the conversation was being recorded and that he claimed he never agreed to an interview. Bizarre.

But, back to the editing process . . . When I received his edited version I called him up to discuss it, since deleting major chunks of a lengthy article inflicts havoc on the planning of a printed magazine. Among the passages he wanted excised were hundreds of words of insightful and helpful advice to up-and-coming players and pipe-majors.

Totally confused, I asked him why he would want to remove that material. He replied with, something to the effect of, “I had to learn the hard way, so why should I make it any easier for others?”

I couldn’t believe it then, and the comment remains one of the most amazing things I’ve heard. I’ve spent almost 20 years trying to understand why, at age 65, he would not want to help others by passing on some of his knowledge.

Perhaps there were other reasons for such a strange decision, but I tend to think that it was because Ramsay, like so many pipers and drummers, was so competitive that he just couldn’t see past the feeling of possessing some insight that he wanted to keep from the competition.

I was reminded recently that the ultra competitive piping and drumming world remains just so today. I often ask the leaders of today’s top bands to share their knowledge. Thankfully, the large majority are more than pleased to do so. But still very occasionally I get a DSR-like response from those who just can’t overcome their competitive instinct, and would rather take their knowledge to the grave than share it with “the competition.”


  1. Going by this article, DSR sounds like a conceited tosser, who was indeed on very good terms with himself. Great CV and impressive compositions though, so perhaps this ‘self-belief’ (by the bucket load) is not too surprising.

    BTW – could a combination of practice, sacrifice and dedication be the all-important “secret” he was going to take to his grave….?

    No secrets there, surely?

  2. Interesting. Although I was brought up in Edinburgh, I only met Ramsay once, in California. I was judging the Open MSR at the old Santa Rosa games, and in between players, a smallish older gentleman hovered around the table where I was finishing the scoresheets. To be honest, I wasn’t feeling great, and I just couldn’t be bothered talking with anyone, and when the shadow loomed over me I buried myself even deeper in the writing hoping that the gent would just go away. After a few players had come and gone however it became obvious that the man was not going to be deterred, and I looked up and the gentleman proferred his hand and said quietly, “hello, I am Donald Shaw Ramsay”. Well, I shot up out of my chair and had a very interesting chat and I must say that I will never again be so conceited as to try to ignore someone again! I was glad that I met him as he was such a great figure and of course a God when it came to piping in Edinburgh and more so the police band.

  3. As for the comment conceited tosser, he was anything but that. I met DSR in the early 80’s whilst playing with the Strathclyde Police Pipe band and he was one of the kindest, unassuming gentlemen I have ever met and the biggest tragedy was that he was never on the judges panel for the RSPBA. His knowledge of music was phenomenal and I found that he was only to happy to share it with others.

  4. Jim / Bill — Yes, indeedy. I’ve gone back and had my archive of early interview recordings re-transcribed. But the quality of the DSR one was so poor that the transcribers couldn’t make out a lot of it. I’ll have to go in myself and do it some . . . week. Time is the challenge. But stay tuned for other archive interviews from my collection, too.

    Neil — don’t get me wrong. DSR seemed a total gentleman and I’m sure he was a great guy. The big changes he made to the piece and his reasoning and the comments he purportedly made seemed totally incongruent with that, though. He did judge the RSPBA Jubilee Grade 1 contest in 1990, although I believe that he wasn’t officially ever on their panel. And that’s a whole nuther blog . . . or two.

  5. According to longstanding principles of common law, privacy is uniquely an individual right that expires at death (unless somehow disclosure invades the privacy of surviving family members). The only exception apparently is the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision that attorney-client confidentiality is enforceable beyond the death of the client.

    In a recent case involving pictures of a fire victim who removed her shirt during treatment at the scene and later died, the fire department was safe from prosecution for publishing the pictures of the shirtless woman because privacy rights ceased to be enforceable after she died. Much was also made of the need for the fire department to use the pictures in an educational way.

    Perhaps the same could be said for DSR’s interview? Does the educational benefit outweigh the potential to violate the privacy of surviving family? It seems so.

  6. I met DSR for the first time in the late 60’s on my way to Santa Rosa. My PM & I dropped into DSR’s shop in San Francisco. It was late, near closing time and we were just high school kids who were the PM & PS of a juvienile/high school band. DSR spent over 90 minutes with us talking about bands, leadership, musicianship and teaching. He also told us strories of the Edinburgh Police and Invergordon Distillery Bands. It remains one of my greatest experiences in piping. He struck me as a very proud and personable but a quite private man.


  7. This was an interview that DSR agreed to do. Of the 70-odd interviews that I’ve done, only a handful of folks have made substantial changes and usually it’s just cleaning up syntax and repetition. It’s important to note that, back in the old-fashioned days of expensive, wasteful and space-limiting paper, I was forced to leave out about a third of the content – content that was never part of the proposed final version.

  8. Ironicly, look at the tip of the day:
    “Grab all the opportunities you can where you can glean information and tips from respected sources. Barry Wilson, L-D ScottishPower”

    Funny…. hahaha!!

  9. There is no accounting for behavior. Many years ago as a beginner I was involved with a street band. The band had just purchased “new” drums moving from the old rope style for the first time (several years after everyone else made the move). Encountering the lead tip of an extremely successful competitive band during a parade, our DS asked for some tips. The response he got was, “Learn to play it.” and with that he walked away. That came from a man who’s reputation for sharing, teaching and kindness toward learners is legendary in the drumming community. I guess anyone can have a bad day.

  10. The Northern California piping community was very fortunate to have DSR living in the area in the early to mid 1990’s. He provided private instruction to all ages, Grade IV to professional and worked with numerous bands in the area. He was a very demanding, yet devoted teacher. He was a very loquacious person, but much of the information he shared was about the music or the composer. He rarely talked about himself unless specifically questioned. I have shoe boxes of the tapes I made at each lesson and folders of the letters that he wrote summarizing my progress (which he did for every student) and of correspondence I received from Scotland when he moved back in order to have affordable health care. He wrote tunes that he named for students, and I will always treasure the “Martha Yates Polka”. After his death his wife, Bessie, moved back to the US to live with their only daughter and son-in-law, but, unfortunately, Bessie suffered a debilitating stroke. Two or three years ago daughter, Morag, and son-in-law, Bob, each died unexpectedly months apart. Bessie moved back to Scotland. So Bessie, if she is still living, is the sole family member still surviving.



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