December 01, 2012


No one but the most cold-hearted competitors among us like to see the collapse of a pipe band. When it’s a band with such a storied, long history as the Edinburgh City Police, which by all accounts decided on November 29, 2012, that 130 years is enough, it’s a punch to the guts.

Disbanding happens fairly often, and every year it seems to happen more frequently.

The reasons for a band calling it quits are many, and to generalize such a complex matter is risky. But the most frequent and significant factor I think is this: the lack of a succession plan – that is, when the pipe-major decides to retire or resign, or even when he or she is forcibly removed from office, there is not a well-prepared and identified successor for the job.

And often it is the most successful bands that are hit the hardest when the pipe-major leaves. More often than not there is not a clearly defined, recognized and, most importantly, groomed person to take over. Time and time again we see very well established bands in a lurch when their leader of 10, 15, even 25 years departs. They scramble for a solution. They usually put out the call for “interested parties” to apply, then they go through a laborious review of candidates, ultimately settling on an untested outsider, who needs years to settle in. Though it’s logical to assume it would be the case, the pipe-sergeant is often not the slam-dunk heir.

In fact, the leadership handover should be exactly that: a handover. The new leader should be a familiar and obvious choice who has been with the band for years, who has worked side-by-side with the pipe-major, who brings continuity and consistency to the inner-traditions and culture that has made the group successful.

The last 40 years are littered with top-tier Grade 1 pipe bands that lost their pipe-major and quickly fell to and stayed in the lower-tier. Many of them eventually collapsed altogether. Here are a few: David Urquhart Travel, Vale of Atholl, Muirhead & Sons, Red Hackle, Dysart & Dundonald, Clan MacFarlane, Black Bottle, Clan Gregor, Woolmet & Danderhall, Bilston Glen, Polkemmet and now, of course, Lothian & Borders Police.

Exceptions are few: a near-dead Shotts & Dykehead was rescued in the late-1980s by Robert Mathieson and Jim Kilpatrick to rise to five World’s wins. ScottishPower made a smooth transition from Roddy MacLeod to Chris Armstrong. Strathclyde Police have clawed back to the top-tier under Duncan Nicholson and Eric Ward. And, certainly, the Vale and Dysart might reach the top-tier again.

But in general bands founder after their established and successful leader leaves. They languish in the lower-half of the grade, often go from leader to leader and, sadly, too frequently decide to dissolve the band rather than muddle through the process of continually rebuilding in a pipe band environment where pipers and drummers are impatient for success, and the talented will go elsewhere if the results don’t come fast.

No matter how successful or committed the pipe-major or leading-drummer, that person’s first order of business should be to prepare his or her successor, make clear to all who that successor is, and work with that heir-apparent to impart the leadership skills required for the job. Yes, that designated successor might get fed up waiting for the chance to lead and move on but, when that happens, a new successor should be selected and groomed – and everyone in the band should know about the choice.

Pipe bands are not much different from businesses. An organization’s style and culture are defined by the leader who gets to pick who’s on the team, who fits the style and culture, who brings the strengths to the group. That leader also needs to have the confidence and integrity to know that change is inevitable, and looking after the group as a whole, even when he or she is no longer part of it, is central to the job.

Regardless of how prize-winning or secure your band is today, ask yourself who the next pipe-major or leading-drummer is. If you’re not sure, perhaps it’s time to resolve that problem before it creates a catastrophe.

It starts with a succession plan.


  1. A succession plan saves a band….the military still uses this. The Military succession planning process can sometimes take years and in most cases it is the Pipe Sgt that carries the torch to the next generation. Some times it can lead to the Pipe Major in waiting syndrom which can be detrimental to the band.
    Done properly the system works well…The Military can develop the leader but sadly a lot of Military individuals lack the musical abilities that are needed for the job, but those that love their craft can surface to the top and seek musical developement through private lessons when sadly in some cases the military lacks.

  2. Andrew, this article is spot on.

    I think the main problem is that natural-born leaders (with requisite musical ability) are as rare as hen’s teeth in this caper.

    The days of the village band are long gone and people are more fickle than ever, especially in the top grade. They want instant results and always think there’s room for one more on a roster of 30 pipers. People forget that some PM’s operate under the “if I have them, the opposition don’t….” strategy.

    I’m constantly being asked by young and untried pipers to ‘put in a good word’ with my contacts in Gr1 bands. These people just want to get to the top via referral, into the band of their choosing. There’s no loyalty to the band, just to oneself. One might refer to them as ‘trophy hunters’.

    In this day and age, I would wager that the really successful bands have a very different idea of what ‘loyalty’ is versus bands that do not enjoy success as often. Winners are grinners,. All smiles and ‘mates to the end’ when the silverware gets passed around on the bus. But the real loyalty test comes when the chips are down. We see it all the time, and will in the next few years as leadership changes at the very top start to take place. I am tipping one almighty fall from grace at the very top, where it seems clear one man is followed and is the sole reason the players stay there. That’s loyalty to one man and the success he brings, not to the band in question. Maybe its a sign of the times, but there seems to be an emerging ‘what’s in it for me?’ attitude. Maybe we should all draw on JFK’s famous quote: “Ask not what your country can do for you….” But, sadly, I think this day and age is about anything but that.

  3. Having been involved in a few bands that have ”hung it up” it has been my experience that leadership is the key with loyalty running a close second in determining a bands ability to do the heavy lifting when things get rough. Most regular band members are content to move on as they do not have the investment that leadership brings to the table. Include in this the countless hours of teaching and pipe maintenance prior to a younger player hitting the line.
    While trophy hunting may be an objective of some – most just want to avoid the extra effort it takes to get things moving again. In lower grades the perception of ‘only a gr3 or gr4 band’ – why bother – has led to whole areas of Ontario becoming void of any bands never mind a bonified top 10 gr1 of the calibre once seen in several Ontario locations.
    The annual fall migration of band members seems a reflection of these times – all ‘git-up’ and no go. There are many that like the thought of playing in the big show with no clue as to what it takes to get there or how to stay there once you achieve success. Just take a look around our part of the world and see the numbers of players in uniform doing water and tuner duty – their efforts may be better directed to play at a lower grade where their talents can assist.
    Just a few thought on what is a fact of life these days.
    Peter MacKenzie

  4. Able leaders are a rarity. Many bands don’t have any and few bands have more than one. A succession plan can only work if the membership is interested in following, enabling and assisting the newly-minted leader. We reap what we sow. If we’re more interested in winning than in building and maintaining an organization, we shouldn’t be surprised if our most able players move on rather than sticking around to rebuild when a major transition takes place.



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