Willie Gray (1883-1962) was one of the major figures of early 20th century piping. Most pipers today know his name through the well-known and ever popular 2/4 march, Pipe Major Willie Gray’s Farewell To The Glasgow Police. Composed by Pipe Major John MacDonald – Seonaidh Roidein – of South Uist on his succeeding his teacher as Pipe Major of the famous band, it features regularly in the MSR repertoires of pipe bands and soloists.
Born in Glasgow, Willie Gray had one brother, Robert, and a sister, Lily. In later years, both Robert and Lily lived on Mull. Willie retired to Islay.
Colin Thomson taught Willie Gray initially then Alexander Hutcheon, Pipe Major of the Glasgow Police Pipe Band or, as it was known at that time, the Govan Burgh Police band. Gray joined the band in 1903. He later went to John MacDougall Gillies for instruction in ceòl mòr and began to make a name for himself. At the Argyllshire Gathering in 1908 he won the Confined Piobaireachd and at the 1909 Gathering he won the Gold Medal and was second in the March. In 1913 he won the Open Piobaireachd.
In 1916 Willie joined with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and was appointed Pipe Major of the 2nd Battalion. He demobbed early in 1919 and returned to the Glasgow Police. In June he was appointed Pipe Major of the band on Alexander Hutcheon’s retirement. The solo competitions had started again and Willie began where he left off: he won the Gold Medal at the Northern Meeting that year as well as the Open Piobaireachd and the March at the Argyllshire Gathering. In 1921, he won the Open Piobaireachd for the third time at the Argyllshire Gathering.
Under Willie’s leadership, the Glasgow Police band was outstanding for the time. He introduced a concept that has not been replicated elsewhere in that he insisted the band should practice from 2.00pm to 5.00pm on five afternoons every week.
At Cowal in 1920 the Glasgow Police won the World Championship in what was the band’s first outing there. It returned to Cowal in 1921 and was placed third but a disagreement with the Cowal committee, added to Willie’s lack of interest in band competition, meant the band didn’t return to Cowal until 1933. In the meantime, Willie concentrated on teaching the individual members of the band for solo competition. His band had some excellent players, including John MacDonald, Roderick MacDonald, John Johnston, Philip Melville and many others all of whom benefited greatly from Willie’s instruction.
In 1922, in collaboration with Drum Major John Seton of the band (another ex-Argyll), Willie produced a tutor and collection of pipe music. A second collection came in 1925.
Willie Gray was one of the founder members of the Scottish Pipers’ Association (founded in 1920) and was an active member throughout his life.
Willie lived in Cardross, near Dumbarton, and by the end of 1928, he was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant [Chief Inspector]. He had been involved with the pipe-making firm of Duncan MacRae and, later, Grainger and Campbell. In later years, Donald MacPherson recalled Willie’s regular visits to the MacPherson home in Clydebank: “My father was an expert with the pipes and chanters. Willie Gray used to come out to our house with all sort of instruments to check his chanter to find out where he was getting his sound.”
On his retirement in 1933 Willie moved to Port Ellen on Islay where he had a holiday home. He was 78 years old when he died suddenly in February 1962.
Willie claimed descent, on his mother’s side, from the MacArthur pipers of Skye. He wrote an account of the MacArthurs and it was found among his papers on his death and published in the 1973 edition of the Piping Times. He wrote:
“Two of Charles MacArthur’s nephews, who were in Edinburgh, then settled in Ulva, Mull, and were pipers to Boisdale and Staffa. These two MacArthurs held small farms in Ulva where they kept a school of instruction in piping. Both are buried in Salen, Mull. The last descendant of these MacArthurs residing in Mull is an elderly maiden lady to whom I am related and upon whom I called when last in Mull.”
Historian, Keith Sanger, later pointed out that Willie seemed to have compressed a generation and that it was in fact two sons of Charles MacArthur’s nephew, ‘professor’ John MacArthur who moved to Mull. The two MacArthurs buried in Salen, therefore, are sons of his. It has yet been proved definitively but there is a possibility that Willie was related to Simon Fraser, Charles MacArthur’s great grandson, and a friend of Alexander Bruce who in turn was a pupil of lain Dùbh MacCrimmon’s brother, Donald Ruadh. Fraser later settled in Australia.
Willie’s maternal grandmother lived at Uisken in the Ross of Mull. Seemingly, he was returning from holiday in Tobermory one summer and when the boat landed at Uisken he got off on impulse and stayed with his grandparents for over a year, during which time he became fluent in Gaelic.
• Listen to Pipe Major Angus MacDonald MBE play The Conundrum and Pipe Major Willie Gray’s Farewell to the Glasgow Police: