John Mulhearn: Let piping flourish


Place is important in music, and understanding the place that one is from, bides in, or looks to for inspiration, is a central part of traditional music in particular. It is with this in mind that I am going to ask for your help. But first, bear with me while I tell you about a little place I know …

I belong to Glasgow and Glasgow belongs to me. I’m not from here originally – not far away, as the crow flies – but that doesn’t matter. In fact, that’s part of the story and what’s important about this place.

Few could dispute that Glasgow is the centre of gravity for the global piping diaspora. Some will argue that Edinburgh, Scotland’s illustrious capital, a mere 47 miles away, is the real centre of the piping world, but, well, naw … they’d be wrong! It is to the dear green place that the piping fraternity, from all corners of the piping world, descends each year – sadly, this current year excepted, due, of course, to the ongoing Covid-19 crisis.

Yes, it is Glasgow in which the serious business takes place. Leave the pageantry to our picturesque capital. Each August, the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo draws vast audiences, the like of which no other event featuring as many sets of pipes is ever likely to match. However, it is to Glasgow that students and disciples of our music are drawn. True aficionados will make other pilgrimages – to Skye, Raasay, or South Uist – but their journeys will, more often than not, start and end in Glasgow.

Why is this the case? Well, it’s obvious that the World Pipe Band Championships – and now Piping Live! – is part of the story. The pull of Glasgow Green is undoubtedly a factor, but one might also consider the significant role that the city’s organisations, businesses, and dedicated players and teachers have played in nurturing the fertile ground that has allowed piping to flourish here and made Glasgow the rightful venue for the annual blood-letting in the city’s oldest public park. Let us take a brief, and by no means exhaustive, look at some of the key developments that laid the groundwork in securing Glasgow as the global centre of our art.

We could start earlier but it seems appropriate to start with the Glasgow Police Pipe Band. This band has been a mainstay of the pipe band landscape since the late 19th century. Founded originally as the Burgh of Govan Police Pipe Band in 1883, the band was one of the first to be formed outside of the British Army. When the ancient burgh of Govan was incorporated into the rapidly expanding City of Glasgow in 1912 the band became the City of Glasgow Police Pipe Band. Providing a home to many pipers from the Highlands and Islands since its inception, up to the present day, the Glasgow/Strathclyde Police has often set a benchmark to which bands from around the world aspire. In addition, countless individual members of ‘The Polis’ have left an indelible mark on piping as performers, teachers, and composers.

On the same year as the foundation of the Govan Police Pipe Band, 1883, a few miles north of Govan, at Kelvinbridge in the west wnd, the Boys’ Brigade (BB) was established by William Alexander Smith. Religion and discipline were at the core of the BB, with activities heavily inspired by the Volunteer Regiments (Territorial Army). As such, military style bands became an integral part of the organisation, starting with flute bands, then bugle, brass, and pipe bands. In 1887 the BB had four pipe bands. This would grow exponentially at an astonishing rate, so that by 1913 there were 132 pipe bands. The influence that members of these bands would go on to have can’t be overstated. William Fergusson, composer of such tunes as Kintara to El Arish and The Australian Ladies, would go on to become Pipe Major of the City of Glasgow Pipe Band, which would evolve into the famous Clan MacRae Pipe Band – the popular 2/4 march named for which, he also composed. Seumas MacNeill and Tommy Pearston, who started their piping careers in the 139th Company BB, based in the now non-existent Parliamentary Road, established the College of Piping (more of which shortly) in 1944. Ian MacLellan, of Strathclyde Police fame, as well as a number of other significant figures in 20th century piping, came through the noted 214th Company BB. And, that’s just scratching the surface. Piping today, would be very different without its adoption by the Boys’ Brigade.

The 214th BB pictured in 1960. Back: A. Rae, R. Turner, G. Lowe, D. Law, J. Millar, A. Longwell, E. Thomson. Middle: Pipe Major Alex McIver, Hector Russell, Douglas Elmslie, W. Law, T. Grinley, S. Hunter, C. Grinley, Alex Ibell. Front: G Ferguson, A. McGregor, T. Callaghan, Malcolm McKenzie, J. Marshall, J. McDougall.

The growth of pipe making as a profession is certainly not exclusive to Glasgow. Edinburgh can lay claim to some of the earliest innovators in this. Nevertheless, the capital’s pawky, younger sibling had its fair share of early innovators too – Gunn, MacPhee, and MacPhedran spring to mind. With the growing industrialisation of Glasgow in the 19th and early 20th century, the city provided a skilful workforce and busy streets in which to conduct commerce. Henderson, R. G. Lawrie, and Hardie are just three of the many makers that have operated in the city over the past 200 years. Today, vintage Henderson or Lawrie pipes are the most sought after of all instruments. In addition, the individuals that worked in and managed these businesses were, and continue to be, part of the fabric of piping in Glasgow and beyond. Take, for instance, John MacDougall-Gillies, who is considered to be one of the most important figures in the lineage of piobaireachd transmission. A native of Glendaruel, MacDougall-Gillies was manager of Peter Henderson Bagpipes between 1903 and 1925. During his time with the company, the Hendersons’ shop on Renfrew Street became a hub for pipers. Indeed, it is thought to be where the seeds were sown for Scottish Piper’s Association. He would also teach a generation of pipers in the shop who would themselves go on to greatness; look no further than Robert Reid or Willie Gray. Interestingly, MacDougall-Gillies lived at Kelvinbridge on Great Western Road, only a 30 second walk from both where the Boys’ Brigade was founded on North Woodside Road, and Otago Street, site of the former College of Piping (now the National Piping Centre).

Seumas MacNeill and Tommy Pearston.

The College of Piping was established in 1944 by Seumas MacNeill and Thomas Pearston. Over the course of the second of half of the 20th century, the College and its staff would be responsible for the education of innumerable pipers, over a number of generations. Indeed, the College tutor book – the ‘green’ book – could, with some justification, be described as the most influential piping publication of all time. With its ground-breaking approach to structured learning it would reset historical methods of tuition.

Furthermore, the College’s activities overseas in establishing summer-schools would enable its influence to reach far beyond the greater-Glasgow area. Alongside its work teaching, the monthly Piping Times reached all corners of the piping world.

The ‘green’ tutor book, formerly the College of Piping Tutor 1 (2019 edition).

At a time when distances seemed so much larger than they are today, before social media and easy, inexpensive phone calls, the Piping Times helped foster and educate an international community of pipers.

Today, the National Piping Centre, in the historic Cowcaddens area of the city, continues this good work, with ever new ways of inspiring tomorrow’s pipers. The National Youth Pipe Band of Scotland, CLASP (Competition League for Amateur Solo Pipers), and BMus/MA/MMus degrees in piping – run in partnership with the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland – are just some of the pioneering projects carried out in the centre of Scotland’s largest city, ensuring Glasgow’s position as the centre of the piping world for future generations.

These are just a few of the reasons Glasgow can reasonably be considered the most influential place in bringing piping to where it is today. A great deal more could be said of each, and all of this is without mention of the Royal Scottish Pipe Band Association (based on Washington Street), the Scottish Pipers’ Association (with its template setting competitions and important pipers’ Club Nights), the military (the Highland Light Infantry were formed in 1881 as the city regiment), the pipe bands (too many to mention), the folk music scene (both the revival of the 1960s and 70s, through to today’s thriving scene), and the endless number of teachers doing their part in passing on the tradition.

The story of piping in Glasgow is bound up in the development of the city. The waves of migration from across Scotland and Ireland that fuelled growth also enriched the cultural landscape. Perhaps the most significant legacy for the pipes, and traditional music more broadly, is that left by the early generations of highlanders and islanders who endured immense hardship on their arrival in Glasgow in the 18th and 19th centuries. There are important lessons for us today in recognising that these migrants – who were poor and didn’t speak the local language, who were looked down upon and mocked, and faced discrimination at every turn – are the people that helped sow the seeds that let piping flourish.

This all brings us to where I need your assistance …

Over the past year I have been undertaking the RCS/NPC-run Master’s Degree in Scottish Music. As a performance degree, my focus has been on building and learning a ‘Glasgow canon’. I’ve not done too badly – I’ve compiled around 200 tunes, through which it is possible to get some sense of the history of both the city and piping’s development here. I’m interested in tunes named for people, places, organisations and events that have a bearing on this history. Tunes are an incredibly special thing in that they can give their subject immortality. People or places that might otherwise be forgotten to history are able to live on in music. If you have any tunes that you have composed, or have been passed on to you, that you think have something to contribute to the story of piping in Glasgow, please send them on to me – my email address is

I’m just as interested in tunes named for today’s people and events as I am of historical tunes. In addition, if you have any photographs that may be of interest and which would help bring the collection to life, I would very gratefully welcome these too. The resulting collection will resonate all the more for your contribution. 

* John Mulhearn is a full-time teacher at the National Piping Centre and is studying for a Masters degree. He released his third solo album, The Pipe Factory in May. It is avaialble on Bandcamp.

• The views expressed in blogs that appear on Bagpipe.News are not necessarily the views of the National Piping Centre.