In 2010 Shotts and Dykehead Pipe Band marked its 100th anniversary. In the Piping Times of April that year, the band’s then Pipe Major, Robert Mathieson told the following story about one of the band’s great Pipe Majors, John K. McAllister.
By Robert Mathieson
It was Saturday, June 25, the year was 1955, the venue was Annfield Park, Stirling, and the coveted prize was the World Pipe Band Championship. As well as the prestigious Grade 1 trophy, a new banner depicting the coat of arms granted by the Lord Lyon dedicated to the Scottish Pipe Band Association (SPBA) was also being presented. This was pre-medley and the band playing requirements meant that three marches, strathspeys and reels were asked for in Grade 1. In those days the band tunes were numbered in the official programme and an SPBA official would manually place the numbers on a wooden notice board beside the competing arena. This allowed the audience to refer to the competition programme for verification of tunes to be played.
All the top Grade 1 bands turned up to fight for the world crown. The turn of Shotts and Dykehead came to play. The two three pace rolls crashed out, the band struck up and confidently played its march. Many listened intently, tapping their feet to the snap and swing of the 2/4. Half way through the tune several members of the crowd could be seen flicking through the pages of their programmes. Several heads came together whispering and nodding as they conferred. As is still the case today, there’s always an experienced and educated audience listening to Grade 1 and it became obvious that something was not right to those in the know. The three MSRs that Shotts normally played in those days were Balmoral Highlanders/Bogan Lochan and John MacKechnie, Inverness Gathering/Dornie Ferry and the Reel of Tulloch. The third set was to become the band’s hallmark, Donald Cameron/Cameronian Rant and Pretty Marion. The tunes that were being played did not correspond with the tune numbers listed on the board. Unfortunately, I don’t know the name of the set the band should have played nor the one they played in error.
Stalwart fans were quick to flag up the possibility of a printer’s error. Other supporters suggested it was probably the incompetent official putting up the wrong number. After all, this was Shotts we were talking about and there is no way John K. would play the wrong set. One competitor decided to seize the opportunity and enquire through the official route as to this anomaly and headed straight to the SPBA tent for clarification. It shows that the competitive spirit was alive and kicking in those days just as it is today. The SPBA representatives were obliged to listen to the informant and assess the situation in the ‘spirit of fairness’ as they say.
The buzz travelled around the park as fast as sugar off a shovel. The news set the competitors into different camps. Some thought it was downright cheating if it was true. Others thought, “So what, they played great anyway,” and it wouldn’t matter. The cruel ones laughed at the potential outcome. It was the ‘talk of the steamie*’. The SPBA on the other hand kept tight lipped about the whole thing and never cracked a light about any outcome adding to the mystery and intrigue.
An interesting fact was that this was J. K.’s first world championship as Pipe Major and a win would have made history in itself as a first of firsts for any Pipe Major in Grade 1. The judges on the day were Drum Major Forbes from Rosyth, H. MacLean from Glasgow and James Gray from Falkirk. They would simply pick the best performance — but the SPBA would decide if any band was in breach with the rules.
At massed bands everyone waited with great anticipation. It was the talk of the day that Shotts had played well enough to possibly win the championship but what about the tunes? Whatever the outcome it was going to be controversial for sure.
Silence broke out across the park as it came time for the Grade 1 results to be announced. The sound system cracked into life as the announcer said, “Grade 1 World Champions 1955 … but disqualified … Shotts and Dykehead Caledonia.”
Stunned faces and expressions were everywhere. The likes of this had never been heard of, far less announced officially from centre stage. Can you imagine hearing the news live in front of all your peers that you have won the title but have been disqualified? It’s a bit like the British television quiz show from the 1980s, Bullseye, where they’d sat to the losers, “Let’s have a look at what you would have won.”
For many listeners justice had been served, for others a crime had been committed as the best performance was not taking home the trophy. It was going to be the talking that night and probably for many nights to come. Strong arguments and opinions, would be going at full pelt in every band bus and homeward bound car, The band that was travelling home with the prize was the famous Muirhead and Sons led by Pipe Major Jackie Smith. This was Jack’s first world title as well as the Muirhead’s first World Championship, although they went on to win again in Belfast the following year to confidently silence any doubters.
John K. MacAlister was old school and took the result on the chin as he faced his corps of players. The mining village of Shotts produced tough men who endured a hard upbringing. But that day they looked like broken men, disappointed, some angry, some sad. J. K. immediately took control of his band and formed up. He gave the command to march forward and it soon became apparent that the band wasn’t heading for the band bus. In fact, it was heading for the car park exit gate. Surelyl he wasn’t going to make the band play down the street as part of the victory parade? Much to, the relief of the players he gave the command to halt as they reached the exit. He then proceeded to form the band in a circle to play the ‘winning, but disqualified’ performance of the march, strathspey and reel!
Loyal supporters listened again to a world class demonstration and watched the Shotts pipers and drummers with tears in their eyes play probably the most emotional performance of their lives, swiftly followed by two other marches, strathspeys and reels all of which were listed in the official programme. It was all much to the annoyance of the other bands. Not because they didn’t believe that Shotts couldn’t play three MSRs – but because no band buses could get out of the car park until they were finished!
From a Pipe Majors’ perspective, pure class! They don’t make them like that anymore. J. K. did ,of course, go on to win four World Championship titles as Pipe Major of the band.
* a public washhouse.