A list

By the right, check, mark.So pipes|drums readers feel that the greatest pipe-major of all time – at least for competition-oriented bands – is Richard Parkes of Field Marshal Montgomery, followed closely by Iain MacLellan, Glasgow/Strathclyde Police and, also close, SFU’s Terry Lee. All great choices, and the entire list is a who’s-who of legendary names, each making a great mark on our history.

Of course, if military pipe-majors were included, then one would have to consider the likes of Willie Ross, G.S., Donald MacLeod, John MacDonald (Inverness), Angus MacDonald, John A. MacLellan, Jock McLellan (Dunoon), Willie Lawrie . . . and on and on.

But sticking to those who focused on the competition racket, the poll I think captured all of those who had won a World’s, and the hope was that readers would consider other merits.

As anyone who reads this blog knows, I’m a proponent of constructive change for the better. So, a pipe-major’s impact and legacy beyond winning a bunch of prizes would play a heavy role in my choices. Here are my personal picks for the top five competition-oriented pipe-majors of all time:

1. Tom McAllister Sr. – this may surprise readers, but to me Tom Sr. is the George Washington, John A. MacDonald or Sir Robert Walpole of the modern pipe band world. I mean, McAllister Sr. was the one who came up with the two-three-paced-rolls-and-an-E introduction, revolutionizing the way pipe bands played together. He is the founding father of the pipe band as it is defined today.

2. Donald Shaw Ramsay – DSR was the man with the vision to expand the pipe band repertoire. Before he came along, it was stuff played over and over, and Ramsay was the first to suggest that pipe bands could actually do more than march along the street or compete with an MSR – bands could actually put on a show for non-pipers / drummers, complete with things in – gasp! – compound time.

3. Bill Livingstone – while Ramsay prompted a change to adopt a soloist’s expanded repertoire, Bill Livingstone in the 1970s and ’80s sent pipe bands into completely uncharted waters. “Deadrock” pushed musical boundaries and buttons, adapting content from Ireland, England and Hebridean Scotland, while expanding the notion that top bands should introduce completely original content. A great leader also looks to the greatness of those around him, and Livingstone’s ability to embrace the ideas within his bands is a leadership quality that is often overlooked. Add to that the first non-Scottish band to win, and the virtual invention of the pipe band concert format that bands imitate today, and he makes my top-three.

4. Iain MacLellan – of course there are the 13 World Championship wins, likely never to be equaled, but to me Iain MacLellan was the Donald MacPherson of the pipe band world. He elevated the idea of tone to a completely new level with his Glasgow/Strathclyde Police bands with a clarity unrivaled for more than a decade. He was the first to make precision tuning a science, literally blowing bands off the park. MacLellan not only set the new standard for sound, he raised it to a level that wouldn’t be matched until, arguably, the Victoria Police in 1998.

5. Iain McLeod – I was surprised that McLeod garnered only 2 per cent of votes, leaving him near the bottom in the results. McLeod’s Edinburgh City Police was the first true superstar pipe band, touring the world throughout the 1960s and ’70s, with the first pipe section comprising all elite players. McLeod picked up Ramsay’s trend towards expanded repertoire, and set the stage for the modern pipe band concert format. Five World titles are nothing to sneeze at, either.

So, those are my top-five pipe-majors. It was difficult to choose, and by no means should the accomplishments of the rest be minimized. I might change my mind in a year, or tomorrow and would have no trouble respecting anyone else’s preferences and reasoning. They’re all great pipe-majors, and may well make your list, which you are of course encouraged to submit.

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.”

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