Vale, Pipe Major William Robertson (1932-2020)

By Brett Tidswell

Pipe Major William Robertson died at 12:00pm last Thursday (24th) in Auckland, New Zealand, the country he made home since moving there in 1959, and where he made a huge contribution to piping and to pipe bands. A celebration of his life will be held at St Andrews Church, 11 Vincent Street, Howick at 11:00 on Tuesday, June. 30.

Like many young boys in Scotland of the 1930s, Bill joined the Life Boys and then the Boys’ Brigade, and it was there he started his piping. His Company was the 1st. St. Andrews in Fife. Later, aged 18, he was called up for compulsory National Service with The Royal Scots. After basic training at Dreghorn Barracks, Edinburgh, he was accepted for the Pipes and Drums of the 1st. Battalion under Pipe Major Willie Denholm (ex K.O.S.Bs); a fine piper, and composer of the 6/8 march, El Alamein (winner of the competition for such tune), and The Royal Scots Polka.

After National Service, Bill decided to continue service with the regiment and pursue piping. In 1953, when Willie Denholm retired, Hugh Fraser succeeded him. Hugh was a renowned piper and solo competitor and had transferred from the Cameron Highlanders. Bill always felt fortunate to have been taught and influenced by Hugh, who had so much to pass on with his experience in the ‘old school’ of Army piping pre-war and of the 40s and 50s. Hugh was also a composer of note. Two of his tunes appear in Book 1 of Seumas MacNeill’s collection, and another appears in The Gordon Highlanders’ book.

Some members of the Pipes & Drums of The Royal Scots on a beach in Korea in 1943. Bill ‘Robbie’ Robertson is centre, back.

At 23, Bill gained the Pipe Majors’ Certificate at Edinburgh Castle under the direction of Pipe Major Willie Ross MBE. Ross was the Director of the Army School of Piping in those days and the board of examiners was made up of reputable members of the Piobaireachd Society and Major David Murray, Cameron Highlanders. A year later, in 1956, Bill succeeded Hugh Fraser as Pipe Major of the 1st. Battalion. At this period, Bill received personal tuition in piobaireachd from Pipe Major Donald MacLeod MBE, the well known authority and prolific composer.

Members of the Pipes & Drums relaxing on a beach in Korea prior to a mini-tour of Japan. Robbie can be seen sitting, second from the right, drinking a mug of tea.

Late in 1958, Bill decided to resign from the British Army. Serving so much time abroad in Germany, the Middle East, and Far East, he had the desire to settle down in New Zealand where he lived since 1959. In New Zealand he started directing the Hamilton Caledonian Society’s Pipe Band. He brought them up from Grade 2 to Grade 1, reaching third in the National Championships. “Almost half the pipe corps was aged 16 or under then”, Bill reflected years later.

Bill worked for years in New Zealand’s Customs Service and at one point a work promotion necessitated a move to Auckland. Whilst there, he directed the Auckland & District Pipe Band (the band was later named Innes Tartan but is now back to Auckland & District). Bill took the band to a good number of Grade 1 New Zealand championships. He said: “We won many more Grade 1 music events, but devalued in the aggregate by having less drill points that counted towards championships back then.

“The same happened in Australia in 1967. We won the music, but too low in their different form of drill movements.” When the band changed its name through sponsorship to Pipes and Drums of Innes Tartan it won the open events in Vancouver, B.C., and Santa Rosa, California, in 1972. Prior to that, it gained seventh place in Scotland at the Scottish Grade 1 (Open) Championships. Bill retired from the band in the 1980s.

Auckland & District Pipe Band in the 1950s but prior to Bill joining.

Being more dedicated to the bands both in the Army and in New Zealand as a means of being more helpful in the standard of piping, Bill seldom competed in solo events. However, when he did he had some notable success: a first in the Highland Brigade piobaireachd event, winner of the Comunn na Piobaireachd New Zealand Gold Medal in 1962, and some other New Zealand regional open events. Bill also won the Australian Open March, Strathspey and Reel in 1967.

Bill’s piobaireachd composition, Lament for Pipe Major Hugh Fraser was placed third equal in the BBC competition for new piobaireachd in 1965 from 66 entries worldwide. It is published in the book Twentieth Century Piobaireachd. The tune also appears with Bill’s 6/8 march, Pipe Major Bill Boyle, New Zealand Scottish Regiment in The Royal Scots Pipe Music Book.

Always ahead of his time, Bill was one of the first pipers to offer online instruction. He wrote a Beginners Guide and Advanced Guide which were sold in electronic format, and his piobaireachd DVD-Rom – which features lessons for 115 tunes – is a monumental work. Many will remember his ‘Tune of the Month’ lessons that were circulated via email.

Bill was admitted to hospital recently and his condition deteriorated rapidly. Members of the Auckland & District Pipe Band visited him in hospital recently and played a few tunes … with his customary critique received warmly. He passed peacefully with his daughter, Rhona by his side. Bill also leaves behind his son, Greig and grandchildren, Kade and Lucy. Being an orphan himself, Bill had mentioned at his 80th birthday how happy he was to have such a loving family. He will now join his beloved wife, Elizabeth. The piping community will be all the poorer for his loss.

* Brett Tidswell is the National Principal (Piping) for Pipe Bands Australia. He also runs his own school of piping.