Bob McFie: a life of piping and teaching

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Bob McFie, June 2019, with some of the 'Vets'.
Bob McFie, June 2019 at The National Piping Centre Otago Street with some of the 'Vets'.
Bob McFie, June 2019, with some of the 'Vets'.
Bob McFie, June 2019 at The National Piping Centre Otago Street with some of the ‘Vets’.

Peter MacLeod Snr

Asked about his early days in piping, Bob McFie leans back in his chair in a teaching room in The National Piping Centre Otago Street and raises his eyes to the sky. “I was six when my father gave me my first practice chanter and about nine or ten when I went to Peter McLeod Snr. for lessons. Old Peter [pictured, right] was my main teacher.”

Bob has been the main teacher at the Saturday morning class stretching back many years to when it was, of course, the College of Piping. He brings a wealth of experience in addition to appropriate qualifications. Bob has a Further Education teaching qualification from Jordanhill College, and has an RSPBA Tutor’s Certificate, College of Piping Tutor’s Certificate and a Post Graduate Diploma in Teaching from Glasgow University. In addition, he has a Teaching Certificate from the British Association of Ski Instructors.

Bob was co-author (with Jim Wark and John McAllister Jnr.) of the piping element of the RSPBA’s three-volume, Structured Learning for Pipers and Drummers manual. Bob’s own tune book, Music for the Highland Bagpipe, contains many excellent tunes, composed mainly by him.

Bob continued: “We lived in Partick but much later we emigrated to Linthouse. Members of the McLeod family were friends of ours. They lived in a ground floor flat in Exeter Drive. We lived further along Dumbarton Road, nearer Partick Cross. I remember clearly my first lesson from Old Peter. As I said, I was nine or ten and it was pelting with rain that day so I had been given money to take the tram to near Exeter Drive. On arriving I knocked nervously on the door. It was opened by Mrs McLeod. She said, ‘You’re soaked!’ in that beautiful Hebridean accent of hers. ‘Come away in’. She then sat me on the kitchen dresser then towelled my hair dry.

“My jacket was then hung on the pulley to dry. Old Peter came in and said it was time for my lesson to which Mrs McLeod replied, ‘He’ll get his lesson when I’m finished with him’. She told me to sit at the table and a bowl of soup was placed before me and a small jug of cream was emptied into it. It was delicious. From then on, before every lesson, summer or winter, I had a bowl of soup, laced with cream. This lovely lady was like a second mother.”

Cowal 1934. L-R: Robert Reid, Roddy MacDonald, Donald MacLean and Peter MacLeod Jnr.
Cowal 1934. L-R: Robert Reid, Roddy MacDonald, Donald MacLean and Peter MacLeod Jnr.

Peter’s pupils received their lessons from him in the front room but my lessons were held in the kitchen. We sat at either side of the kitchen fire. Old Peter would sit and smoke his pipe and, not being a person who lavished praise, he would simply say, ‘Aye now. That was a wee bit better’. He could be a bit ‘crusty’, to say the least and when mistakes were made or when I made a mess of a taorluath, for instance, he would whack my leg, always the right leg, with his blackthorn stick! I remember arriving home on a number of occasions and my father looking at the bruises on my leg (boys wore short trousers in those days), saying, ‘Old Peter hit you his stick? You must have deserved it.’

“Young Peter, like most other males at that time, was unemployed, so I got extra lessons from him, at No 13, sometimes in the early hours of the morning. I remember clearly him teaching me at about midnight the first two parts of the tune, Peter’s Hornpipe.”

This was a halcyon period in Glasgow for piping. Bob became a Junior Member of the ‘Piper’s Club’, as many people then referred to the Scottish Pipers’ Association. At its Saturday night meetings in Elmbank Street the room would be filled to overflowing. The President, a Mr McMurchie, would invite members to provide a selection of tunes. People like John McDonald, Archie McNab, John Johnstone and lots of other top players of the day played.

Bob presenting a trophy at the 2018 Pass Out Parade, at the Army School of Highland Bagpipe & Drumming in Edinburgh.
Bob presenting Private MacAskill (3 SCOTS) with the Best Piper trophy at the 2018 Pass Out Parade, at the Army School of Highland Bagpipe & Drumming in Edinburgh.

“Those meetings were wonderful,” recalls Bob. “Young Peter was regularly invited to perform. Part way through his performance, and given permission by the President, Peter would position me in front of him and he played the top hand of the chanter and I the lower hand. The tunes played were nearly always eight parts of Cameronian Rant and Mrs McPherson. The young folks in the audience thought it was great, the establishment thought it mildly amusing. That was ‘kitchen piping’ in the 1930s!”

When still at primary school, Bob joined the Glasgow Junior Gaelic Choir. A friend’s father was the conductor. “That’s where I first met John MacFadyen. In 1939, we both joined the Glasgow Shepherds Juvenile Pipe Band. The talent in the band at that time was of a very high order indeed. Robert Leitch, Gus MacLeod, Donald MacPherson, Willie Waugh and others of equal ability.”

In the late 1930s the famous Empire Exhibition – an international exposition – was held in Glasgow. One of the exhibits was a model clachan [village] and in its Village Hall piping recitals featured occasionally. The performers at these were the top professionals of that era. On the programme one particular day was the Leading Amateur of the day, Robert Hardie as well as the Leading Juvenile – 13-year-old Bob. Many years later Bob played a number of times at the Glasgow Garden Festival and composed a tune for it, titled Strathclyde Heritage.

The war in Europe finished in May 1945. Bob’s Army documents stated that he was ‘in’ for the duration of hostilities and the people at the top of the Army chain seemed to find lots of places hostile enough to require his presence. Bob was released in late August 1948 … just in time for him to attend the Cowal Games.

Bob in Siberia some time in the 1980s with an interpreter and a major in the Russian army. Bob was there as part of a trade delegation.
Bob in Siberia some time in the 1980s with an interpreter and a major in the Russian army. Bob was there as part of a trade delegation. The major asked Bob to be an honorary member of his family!

Now a civilian, Bob finished his apprenticeship in Marine Engineering. Evening classes took up most of his time and qualifications in engineering, mathematics and other subjects were attained. Bob’s pipes, given to him by his father, were stolen in the 1950s so piping was put on the back burner for a while. Eventually, he joined the Veteran Pipers’ Association that met at the College of Piping in Otago Street in Glasgow’s west end. The ‘Vets’ still meet every Friday at these premises, now The National Piping Centre and Bob has for many years been the President. All pipers aged over 60 are most welcome to join.

Bob with George Takei (Mr Sulu) at a Star Trek convention in Glasgow sometime in the 1980s.
Bob with George Takei (Mr Sulu) at a Star Trek convention in Glasgow sometime in the 1980s.

Bob had been attending the ‘Vets’ for only a few weeks when Margaret Grey, Seumas MacNeill’s secretary, informed Bob that Seumas had asked her to invite him to join the College teaching staff. She also asked if he required payment for teaching. Bob agreed to teach but said, “I’ve never ever taken money for teaching.” Two weeks later, Bob was again invited into the office. Mrs Grey informed him that other teaching staff had discovered that he was not being paid and that, “they thought they would be expected to give their services free so, we’ll need to pay you.”

Bob McFie with Heidelberg & District Pipe Band.
Bob McFie (left) with Heidelberg & District Pipe Band.

Originally, Bob taught on two of the College’s evening classes but now is the Saturday morning class instructor. He says, “I enjoy the Saturdays. I have shared the Saturday class with Ian Sinclair, Jim Emslie and Caitlin McDonald. They have been excellent to work with, as have the many pupils, over the years.”

In addition to these classes, Bob has taught in other parts of the world, mostly in Europe. Indeed, several German pipes bands, and an Austrian one, have benefitted from his teaching experience. One of these bands, the Heidelberg and District Pipe Band, wears the MacFie tartan in his honour. The band’s original Pipe Major was Donald McPhee of Kilts & More.

• The National Piping Centre’s evening class and Saturday morning class are suitable for all levels. Students can opt to attend at McPhater Street or Otago Street. Click HERE to book. To join the Veteran Pipers’ Association telephone Gary on 0141 342 5252.