January 19, 2016

The Pipe-Sergeant

I’m a Dodge Sparkle, you’re a Lamborghini.
You’re The Great One, I’m Marty McSorley.
You’re the Concord, I’m economy.
I make the dough, but you get the glory.
– Kathleen Edwards, “I Make the Dough, You Get the Glory”

Consider the pipe-sergeant.

In my experience and observations, it is perhaps more often than not that, within the band itself, the pipe-sergeant is just as or even more respected than the pipe-major.

But of course it’s the pipe-major who gets all the notoriety and accolades, not to mention – at least at the top-tier of Grade 1 – the judging and teaching gigs around the world.

I was playing the lovely 6/8 march “Pipe-Sergeant John Barclay” the other day when I daydreamed mid-part about the topic. John Barclay was the long-time pipe-sergeant of the famous Shotts & Dykehead Caledonia of the 1970s. To a person, those who I have talked to who were in that band with Barclay say that he was instrumental to the entire operation.

But Barclay was second-fiddle to the legendary Pipe-Major Tom McAllister Jr. To be sure, McAllister was the main man and deserved the recognition. But by all accounts it was Barclay who was just as responsible for that band’s success. Thank goodness for his bandmate Ian Duncan’s march or Barclay’s name might soon be altogether forgotten or unknown with future generations.

And for every championship-winning pipe band there is almost always a pipe-sergeant who is, from the outside of the band, relatively unknown, but on the inside is often a hero.

In my own experience a few folks come to mind: Ian Roddick was a terrific presence within the band when I played with Polkemmet in the 1980s. Full credit is due to Robert Mathieson as pipe-major, but Ian was a tremendous, positive influence and loved by every member. With the players themselves, Ian was the captain and the inspiration at least in equal measure with Rab.

And, though a much different band, the same unsung leadership was felt when the great Gordon Stafford stepped in as Ronnie Lawrie’s right-hand-man when he took over from Rab for a year.

In the 78th Frasers, John Walsh and Bruce Gandy’s role as pipe-sergeant (at different times) were indescribably important to the group’s success, inspiring with their music and their knack for great rhythm and tone. Certainly, the band wouldn’t have existed as it was then without Bill Livingstone, and he deservedly reaped whatever accolades came, but Walsh and Gandy were the ones who, at least in equal measure, made the whole musical cocktail work.

I’m pretty sure that Rab and Bill would agree with these statements.

I’d imagine the same is generally true of the role of “flank” drummers in relation to the lead-tip. The leader’s name goes on the program and the album cover, and the right-hand-person is either unlisted or lumped in with the rest, but does a lot of the behind-the-scenes work, whether with the instruments, the music, the mediation, the morale . . . or all of that and more.

Whatever band it is you have played or currently play with, I’d venture that you might well agree that “leadership” is just as often not only from those at the top.

So, here’s to the seconds-in-command. To the Jock Percevals and John Finlays, the Angus J. MacLellans and Brian Nivens.

Straws that stir the drink.



  1. Hi Andrew,
    Just a wee not to say firstly that I enjoyed the article very much.
    Many thanks for the mention, it was very humbling.

    Hope for a catch up when you come over.

    Awe ra’ best

    1. You bet. Worth mentioning that, except for Bruce, each one of those folks went on to be P-Ms of Grade 1 bands — Gordon with Torphichen, Ian with Caledonian Airways, and John with the Halifax Police. And, as Bruce says in his intereview, he’s had many offers along the way and simply decided it wasn’t a good fit for him but we all know he’d have made (or could still) a fine P-M in the top grade.

  2. I was alerted to the fact that I left out Michael Grey in the blog, which I remind readers is about personal recollections and opinions and in no way should be considered reporting journalism. It was my recollection that there was a period in the 78th Fraser Highlanders after John Walsh left that there was no pipe-sergeant formally appointed by Bill. I believe that there was an implicit understanding in the band, at least among the pipers, that Bruce and Mike were co-pipe-sergeants, and they certainly filled that role. At any rate, let the record show that Michael Grey was also instrumental to the success of that band. I also want to stress that Michael himself never contacted me about the omission of his name, which is in line with his often self-effacing personality.

  3. Andrew, i’m not great on the PC , but was advised re. your article on the pipe sergeants and how it could be of interest to me , even though it was published at the start of the year.

    Firstly, John Barclay played in Shotts at the same time as me and a lot of my drone reed mani timespulation talents were passed from him , he was an all rounder in the maintenance of our instrument , tying in bags , and drone ( cane ) reeds

    Robert Mathieson, as Pipe Major with me as Pipe Sergeant worked well because Rab as a student had occasionally missed practices with little notification, first 2-3 times was a perfect remedy for constipation , but I had to develop my skills to fall in with what Rab wanted and be seen by the band as confident enough to fulfil the p/m role at the practice.
    So it’s mainly thanks to Rab Mathieson that my piping career developed , both in playing and reeds manufacture.
    I have to acknowledge Robert Mathieson was the main influence throughout my 55 years as an RSPBA member .
    I wonder how many members are still with us , who’s Elementary Certificates were signed by Willie Sloan .
    Thanks for the kind words.



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