March 27, 2008

Huge loss

Big Ronnie, Glasgow Police, 1968.
It’s hard to accept that Ronnie Lawrie is no longer around. But I can take comfort in knowing that he had a long, eventful and gracious life. I wish that I could get to the funeral on Friday or, even better, any memorial party for the man. It’s a good thing that it’s starting on a Friday, because the funny stories about Ronnie could undoubtedly go on all day and night all weekend. I hope they do.

Through unusual circumstances, I had the good fortune to play under Ronnie in the Polkemmet band in 1986-’87. The departure of Rab Mathieson and Jim Kilpatrick for Shotts left the band searching for a pipe-major, even though a few natural leaders (Brian Lamond and Gordon Stafford, to name two) were right there, but not quite ready or willing to take on the job.

The band’s committee was left to search for a leader, and I vividly remember the practice when the band manager announced that Ronnie would be taking over the band. The idea apparently came from the legendary Iain McLeod, who was also approached by the committee about becoming pipe-major. Ronnie would have been about 60 then, and hadn’t competed in the last 15 years. Having been doing the solo rounds over there, I knew Ronnie maybe more than most in the band, but always thought of him first as a big-time judge and master of piobaireachd, and maybe second as the former P-M of the Glasgow Police.

Ronnie didn’t have a car, it turned out, so he would generally take the train (!!) on the incredibly beautiful but slooow West Highland Line to Glasgow Queen Street, where he would get a lift in to Whitburn with someone in the band. He somehow made it work.

If you have a sense of how much has changed musically today in pipe bands since 1988, the same kinds of profound changes had occurred between 1986 and 1970. Ronnie hadn’t really been much of a band guy since he left the Glasgow Police, and he was quickly a bit overwhelmed by the task at hand. But he made that work, too, keeping everyone entertained and positive at a time when the he knew the whole band could have crumbled, leaving the most of the music and much of the tuning to others. It was leadership that the band needed, and Ronnie provided it.

Polkemmet inevitably declined a bit in quality compared with the previous year, but under Ronnie managed a few prizes and were just shy of getting in at the ’87 World’s. When we would play well, Ronnie was ecstatic and would occupy a good quarter of the bus regaling people with stories and jokes. Everyone loved him. He knew he was just holding the band down for a year or so until someone else could come in, and that happened of course in the form of Davey Barnes, who led Polkemmet to major championships.

The interview that I did with him in 1997 was one of the first that I conducted by phone. Ronnie by then wore a hearing aid, and the conversation was frequently interrupted by feedback from the phone, the TV and goodness knows what. The interuptions were a bit comical. I have it all on tape and will share it again sometime soon.

I remember also that, despite the intention of the interview to be all about Ronnie, he was very reluctant to talk about himself. He kept moving to other topics, and was continually self-effacing. He really seemed to enjoy the success and happiness of others more than he took pleasure in his own.

The last time I had a conversation with him was in 2000 when he came over to judge at Maxville. He was the same Huge Ronnie, larger than life, by that time clearly slowing down. But he had lovely stories and humour to share, and seemed, as always, to go with the flow, completely at ease, enjoying the good music he reluctantly agreed to judge. He was the kind of guy who always wanted to give everyone a prize, not to be a nice guy, but to see everyone have a nice time.

Big Ronnie: one of a kind. The definition of the Highland gentleman. Thanks for the good memories.




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