James Blair Robertson was born in Dundee, Scotland in 1905. He was for many years a living legend among competing pipers and when he died, in London on October 2, 1988, one of the last remaining links with the leading pipers of the 1920s and 1930s was gone.
Competitively, his record was superb. At the Argyllshire Gathering between 1929 and 1950 he won the Former Winners’ MSR nine times. At Braemar he won the Royal Highland Society Championship outright and the Gold Medal at Portree on six separate occasions. In the days when travel was not easy, he travelled widely around the Highland Games circuit each summer. In 1937, for example, he attended 17 highland games with the following result: 29 firsts, 13 seconds and three thirds.
J. B. was destined to join the Scots Guards. His father, Alexander, was in the regiment and was killed in action in 1914. It was while being educated at the Queen Victoria School, Dunblane – which remains a boarding school predominantly for children of those who served in Scotland’s armed forces – that he received his first piping lessons. These were from Pipe Major Wilson of the Highland Light Infantry. J. B. joined the 1st Battalion, The Scots Guards in 1922 and was instructed by its Pipe Major, Alex Ross. Subsequently, he received piobaireachd instruction from John MacDonald of Inverness along with Bob Brown and Bob Nicol. He later came under the guidance of Archibald Campbell of Kilberry.
J. B. – or Robbie as he was known – was awarded the Gold Medal at Oban in 1932 and at Inverness in 1937. He is one of the few who have succeeded in achieving ‘the Double’, winning the Open and Clasp contests at Oban and Inverness in the same year. He, along with John Wilson, Bob Brown, Robert Reid, David Ross and Bob Nicol dominated the competitive field in those pre-War years. Many of J.B.s tunes can be found in the Scots Guards collection.
In 1945, whilst Regimental Sergeant Major, he was awarded the MBE for his service in Egypt between 1935-45. He retired from the army in 1950 and formed a pipe band in London, the Robertson Pipe Band. In later years, J. B. was a leading light – and committee member – in the Scottish Piping Society of London. He was also a staunch support of the Boys’ Brigade piping in the area.
In 1958 he made an album of highland dancing tunes.
John Shone [pictured, right] was a pupil of J. B. for many years. In the April 2008 edition of the Piping Times he recorded his memories of him:
“J. B. on occasions, could be a cantankerous and difficult man, but then can’t we all! However, of those he taught, almost without, exception hold to his memory with great affection and respect. He was a man of immense generosity, and yes, when you got to know him, kindliness. The various pieces in the Piping Times over the years since his death have covered the broad details of his life and competition record. What I want to do here is to examine the teaching methods of this intelligent and gifted man.
“For my first lessons I visited his flat in Warwick Square near Chelsea, in London, on a regular basis twice a month. But then as I progressed on the pipes and also my business life became more onerous, monthly. For the last years of his life he moved to Southwick in Sussex marrying May MacFarlane. May was a delightful person and a perfect host and I continued the monthly visits (now the very much longer trek for me from London) to Southwick.
“During my visit she would prepare a lovely tea, substantial in quantity and of the highest quality. There seemed to be a constant stream of pipers paying homage to the great man and it seems they were all treated to this wonderful tea.
“May and Robbie lived in a delightful large detached bungalow, and the routine established for my visit was to tune up on arrival and launch into my latest piobaireachd. At the time I played for the Gold Medal each year at Oban, and on some occasions for the Open Piobaireachd also. Six or so set tunes each year had to be ‘got off” and J. B. would take me through each as the winter months past. He never influenced my choice of tunes from the set list. But I run ahead of myself.
“When I first went to Robbie I told him that I could play the pipes. However it was not long before I was persuaded otherwise! As I said in my last piece, I had been taught in the 5th Croydon Boy’s Brigade Company by their then Pipe Major Harold Smith. An ex-Gordon Highlander, he had attended Willie Ross’s course at the Castle sometime immediately before or at the beginning of WW2. Harold, always short of pipers for the band, had as consequence to hurry learners through the first lessons and cut out many of the gracings in the tunes. In this way he maintained a pretty strong band numerically over the years, but of course did not turn out ‘fully fledged’ pipers. It was with this, as a background, that I approached the JB for lessons.
“Looking back I can see how ill equipped I was, and it only took a matter of minutes during my first session for Robbie to insist I start back at the beginning again and learn to play correctly the G, D and E gracenote scales.
“However, it was not long before I was allowed to progress to my first 2/4 tune, The Siege of Delhi. I chose this tune because it was the one I had heard him play when I had met him for the first time. Before I started forth on the tune he took my Scots Guards music book and altered the gracing. In my edition of the book (book 1, tune no. 244) he quickly made the following alterations, grumbling all the time about the use ‘nowadays’ of far too many gracenotes:
a.) In bar 1 the G grace note on the E was struck out – “Quite superfluous” was the comment!
b.) He would not allow the double F in bar 2 and 6 to stand, replacing it with a single G grace note.
c.) The strike on B in bar 4 was replaced by double B, and likewise throughout.
d.) 2nd part bars 1 and 3, the G grace note on E was removed, and also where this bar re-occurred in the last part.
Just try this gracing for yourself when next you play this tune you will be surprised the improvement such a small change can make to your playing.
“See Example 1 (above), the first four bars, with his gracing in place to help you visualise the changes more easily. I soon learned that he would do this to all the tunes he taught me, grumbling all the time he wielded the pencil, “these d gracenotes. They put so many in, and some off the beat, that they become a musical interruption!”
“In The 74ths Farewell to Edinburgh (Scots Guards collection, Book. 2, tune no. 628) he insisted bar 2 (and where it is repeated) should be changed. He said a G gracenote should fall on the low A, requiring the removal of the G gracenote on C and replacing the D grace with a G grace note. In part three, his red-pencil removed the D gracenote on B of the entrance notes (and where it occurred on B subsequently) and bar 2, the double E completely, leaving it plain. Again, try it, and you will be surprised the improvement it makes to the tune. See Example 2 (above) for the first four bars written according to his gracing as a guide.
“As he made these changes I didn’t argue, after all I was being taught by reputedly one of the best march players of the 20th century. The routine of the lesson was always the same. I was sat down at the kitchen table (if the instruction was taking place in the Warwick Sq. flat or, if in Southwick, the very comfortable sitting room) with the score in front of me and asked to play it through on my chanter. He would sometimes beat on the table with his fist to slow or speed up my playing or he would stop me and after singing a phrase in his own distinctive canntaireachd would play it again on his chanter. He would then make me repeat the four or five bars in question until I had them off. If after three or four tries I failed, he would sometimes get exasperated, and get me to move on, telling me in no uncertain terms to ‘get them off for next time or else!’
“Sometimes I would try to gain some respite from his constant pressure by asking some rather stupid question in the hope that an interlude of anecdotes would follow. ’When did you last play this in contest Robbie?’ Sometimes he would fall for it and then I would listen with delight to reminiscences of say, ‘old’ Pipe Major Robert Meldrum whom he heard (when J. B. was a boy) win a march contest at a games not far from Dundee. ‘He had a very strong finger I remember.’ Or a story of the time he competed against the great ‘G. S.’ and on many occasions against his friend, Robert Reid. He told me that Reid had pipes that always sounded rough and out of tune when he first blew up, but that when he came back after 30 minutes or so tuning the pipe was in perfect tune and ‘hummed’ in unison. He said that in the 1930s, Reid played a set of high quality MacDougall drones.
“On other occasions I had no such luck and he would keep me at it. If I was finding difficulty with a particular bar then sometimes he would lean forward and get hold of my fingers and play the bar by raising and lowering my fingers to show the way he wanted it to go. What always surprised me when he did this was the light and relaxed touch he applied. When he played his fingers rested on his own pipe chanter in the same way, quite relaxed.
“What never failed to impress me down the years was his vast repertoire of light music. In all the years I went to him there was only one occasion when I caught him out by playing a tune he did not know, and that was because it was one that had been composed by Harold Smith of the Boys’ Brigade. He could, at ‘the drop of a hat’, play all the heavy marches, strathspeys and reels. There never was one occasion when I saw him ‘stumped’ either on the practice chanter or pipe to play any tune I named. He revelled in the really big tunes such as Abercairney Highlanders, The Lochaber Gathering, John McKechnie, Miss Proud, Mrs. MacPherson of Inveran, The Shepherds Crook, The Little Cascade and The Cameronian Rant to mention but a few.
“He went on composing into old age using a ‘mechanical’ pipe donated by a well wisher. This he played in the garage so as not to disturb May. On it he composed the heavy 2/4 march, May MacFarlane’s Welcome. In the last 10 years or so of his life, lung and heart problems stopped him playing. The silver mounted Robertson drones fitted with a Hardie chanter, are now owned by his son Jim living in Devon. Apparently, according to the late James Campbell, J. B. played a higher pitched pipe in the 1930s than was then the fashion. On the occasions I heard him play in London he always struck a good pitch and tone.
“I well remember the advice he gave me on how to improve my playing: ‘Go and listen to as many good players as you can, and learn from their playing and take note of the tone they strike. That’s what I did when I was a young man; I went round the games and listened to them all.’ Years later, Capt. John MacLellan told me the same thing, namely, that he modelled his own march playing on that of J. B., and tried to listen to him when ever he played. Robbie was clearly impressed by the playing and impeccable tone of Donald MacPherson. ‘Go and listen to him John! Try to learn from what you hear, you will not listen to a better set pipe!’
“There is a good story told by Donald to me of the time at Cowal when J. B. approached him and asked if, he could play his pipe in the 6/8 contest. He said he was having trouble with his own pipe (this was well before the invention of plastic bags and reeds). Donald readily agreed (who couldn’t if ‘big Robbie’ asked you?) and J. B. proceeded to lift first prize! After the contest he thrust the pipe back into Donald’s arms and said, ‘Why, these d_. pipes play themselves!’
“He was as very open-minded teacher. For example, he had no hesitation in encouraging me to seek out further piobaireachd tuition from R. U. Brown, Bob Nicol and Donald MacPherson. ‘Bob Nicol is an excellent player of piobaireachd, but look out for the tone of his instrument. He always sets the top hand flat,’ was his comment. He was dead right in this, as I noted, when Bob played in the London contest at Buckingham Gate.
“If the set tunes were in Kilberry then he invariably used this book to take me through the tunes. He did not slavishly follow the ‘dots’ but would encourage me to pencil in alterations to the timing and other suggested settings. My copy of Kilberry is just covered in the copious changes he suggested. He always made it clear that his was not the only setting, and that having listened to other players I should make up my own mind. He was a great admirer of Archibald Campbell and John MacDonald of Inverness and held that it was Campbell who had saved piobaireachd from an uncertain future.
“He held to the view that Pipe Major Alex Ross was a better teacher than his brother, Willie. Alex was J. B.’s first Pipe Major in the Scots Guards.
“After retirement from the Scots Guards, J. B. founded the Robertson pipe band which was distinguished by the inclusion of six former Army Pipe Majors including Bob Hill, Jock Speedy, George Greenfield and Angus MacAulay. Jim Robertson (J. B.’s son), Harry Denyer and Les Cowell founder of Naill Bagpipes Ltd. among others, were also members.
“During his final years in Southwick he was not keen to take on pupils and could never be persuaded to judge in London or other contests. He did agree, however, to teach my son, lain, and also Roderick Livingstone whom under his guidance became a successful young competing pipers.
“All in all, Robbie was a man of integrity, talent and one the most successful competing pipers of the 20th century. It was a privilege to have studied with him over his last years I could count him as one my close friends. I am proud to own and play the silver mounted practice chanter presented to J. B. by the Scottish Piping Society of London in 1936. On his death he bequeathed the chanter to me.
“I well remember the last time I played to him. He was not well, but at his request I tuned up and played The Siege of Delhi as I finished he leaned forward in his armchair and said with a twinkle of the eye, ‘You still can’t play it properly John!’”
• John Shone’s A Boys’ Brigade Collection of Bagpipe Music is available from The Bagpipe Shop, priced £12.00 plus p&p.
* Listen to J. B. here: