It was winter 1991 when the 78th Fraser Highlanders Pipe Band was down to about seven members and I was one of them. The pipe-major was taking a sustained break. The L-D had gone for good and most of the drummers went with him. Five survivors met on a freezing February night at a library in Toronto that provided practice space, and we discussed whether the band should fold or somehow beat on.
Keep in mind that not even four years earlier the band had won the World Championship, recorded Live In Ireland and another album and was unbeaten on the Ontario circuit for probably eight years. How quickly things had changed.
Obviously, the decision was to carry on. Too much passion and effort and commitment – by the surviving seven, anyway – had gone into the band’s 12-year history. We accepted that there were lean times ahead, and that we might not be as good, but we would stick in and at least die trying.
I’m certain that the word “merger” was never spoken. Ever. The band was the band, and if other players were out there, we’d simply have to find them. Where once the band was a club of snobs, a more open-door policy was adopted. Bill Livingstone came around, talented pipers and drummers came out of the woodwork and were welcomed, we hung out a shingle, and no rival bands were ransacked.
The next season saw the band drop back in quality, but the music and the drive were still there, along with the will to maintain the band’s spirit, which of course continues 23 years later in a newly distinct personality.
Perhaps today it’s different. Pipers and drummers are prone to look for the instant fix. If there’s not a satisfactory local option, then simply “join” a band far away, and occasionally fly in to practices and contests, and do the hard work in between times at home.
There’s nothing wrong with that, and it’s proven to work to gain success in competition. But what other “success” is there? Is there true camaraderie? Is the band truly a part of a community? Is there more to a pipe band today than winning competitions? Has the definition of what a pipe band should be changed for good?
I’m afraid it has. The century-plus perseverance of community bands like Kirkintilloch or Wallacestone will be made ever more extraordinary as bands crumble and merge and speak of a 20-year history and a downturn in numbers as ample reasons to call it a day.
When a grim situation like that of the 1991 78th Frasers happens now, too many bands tend to fold like a cheap kilt. There must be more to the definition of a successful pipe band than a bunch of casual acquaintances winning prizes.