Piping societies in the modern era – Part 1, the Eagle Pipers’ Society

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Euan and Alan.

The 2017 College of Piping Lecture, held at the Birnam Hotel on the night before that year’s Piobaireachd Society conference, considered the role and relevance of piping organisations today. Two case studies – both based in Edinburgh, Scotland – were selected. Alan Forbes of the Royal Scottish Pipers’ Society spoke about that estimable ‘closed’ society while Euan Anderson represented the Eagle Pipers, which anyone can join should they wish. We begin with Part 1

By EUAN ANDERSON

There were only two piping societies in the east of Scotland in the early 1960s, the Royal Scottish Pipers’ Society and The Highland Pipers. The consensus of opinion was that there was room for another and so George Stoddart, Pat Sandeman, Capt. John A. MacLellan, and a few others formed the Eagle Pipers’ Society.

The Eagles originated in Pipe Major George Stoddart’s shop at 328 The Lawnmarket, Edinburgh. After a few tunes on a Wednesday evening, Stoddart and company would adjourn to the Eagle Bar (now called the Ensign Ewart) at the top of the High Street [known to tourists as the Royal Mile – Editor]. The then manager, Tommy Mowat, subsequently offered them a back room in the bar and the Eagles were up and running albeit on quite an informal basis.

The Ensign Ewart pub at the top of the High Street, Edinburgh. The esplanade of Edinburgh Castle lies roughly 100 yards to the left. (Photo: Stuart Letford).

The Society grew quickly and found a new home at the West End Hotel in Palmerston Place, which is fairly close to Haymarket railway station. The proprietor at that time was Gordon Asher, former Pipe Major of the Gordon Highlanders, famous from the war years as the Bearded Piper of El Alamein.

The West End afforded much larger space and the Eagles began to grow in numbers and ladies were encouraged to attend with their husbands. The Society went from strength to strength and was in full flight when Neil Robertson was the host at the West End Hotel, a premises that had built quite a Highland reputation and similar to the Bermuda triangle it was not always a safe place to go as you could easily disappear in there for days.

This is the period when Colin MacLellan and I encountered the Eagle Pipers and all its characters. We were young school lads but of an age where our fathers, despite their best attempts, could no longer keep us out the den of iniquity.

The Eagles’ eagle. A Welsh rugby team stole the original. The new eagle now hangs in the rooms of the Royal Scottish Pipers’ Society in Rose Street, Edinburgh.

Where did the Eagles get its name? Well, we don’t know for certain but the following might be a clue. Pat Sandeman was born in 1913, a member of the Sandeman Scotch Whisky family. He grew up in Edinburgh and attended George Watson’s College. In 1939, he was commissioned in the 57th Medium Regiment of the Royal Artillery regiment and served throughout the war, much of it in the front line. He was a keen piper and had lessons from Pipe Major Willie Ross. Pat was a noted ornithologist. As a young man he made a survey of golden eagles in Scotland and co-authored a journal paper on his work on the eagles. Pat introduced sea eagles from Norway to the west coast of Scotland more than 20 years before Scottish Natural Heritage did this in 1984. He retired in 1973 to Bridge of Allan and then to Killin where he passed away aged 93.

The Eagles thrived for many years but by the late 1970s things had changed. While the West End remained home for many years through the hands of Norman McLean and Donald Park and George Campbell, it was eventually sold. A new home was found, The Glenelg Hotel in Leamington Terrace, but after a couple of years numbers dwindled and the Society was forced into a hiatus. Interestingly, The Highland Pipers continued to run although their numbers were also declining.

It is worth mentioning that there was never any rivalry between the societies and many, if not all, were members of both. The Highland Pipers ran from the Sgian Dhu Hotel and when I was a young man Hugh MacPherson was the president, Duncan Cameron the secretary and Bob Kilgour the Pipe Major. I think Duncan took over from Hugh and David Aitken became the new Pipe Major. A great many great piping characters were in Edinburgh in the 1970 and 80s.

Membership booklet from 1974.

The hiatus remained until Tuesday, January 19, 2010. This was when Colin MacLellan and Iain Speirs, who were very keen to inject some impetus into the piping scene in Edinburgh, suggested resurrecting the Eagles. I was not so keen, truth to tell, due to what I mentioned earlier. However, gentle persuasion saw us launch the second session of the Society in the Scots Guards Association Club in Haymarket Terrace, running fortnightly meetings every second Tuesday.

This begs the question: is there a demand for a piping societies in the modern era? First of all, no organisation has a divine right to survive. You need only look at what happened with Muirhead & Sons and Lothian and Borders Police pipe bands and others. Also, we should bear in mind what is happening in other areas, not just in piping. For example, golf clubs in Scotland are in crisis due to factors such as plummeting membership numbers, courses reverting to farmland or property development, the new drink drive limits etc.

L-R: Ronnie Ackroyd, Callum McPhee, James Anderson, George Cheyne, Hugh MacPherson, Iain Cameron, D. R. MacLennan, Richard Cameron, Dougie McCaffer and Duncan Cameron.

Any organisation/society must look at current impactors such as members’ work and family commitments, drink drive legislation, age demographics, different and competing social options, peoples’ time, and so on. Consider also the rise of social media … you don’t need to go out to meet people.

Why run a piping society and to whom are you running it for? It’s certainly not for the professional piper.

An unnamed woman, Capt. John A MacLellan and Roddy Ross.

At the Eagles’ AGM in December 2016 we tabled a rethink. The options were:

  • close,
  • move to monthly meetings
  • remain with the status quo but revamp our evenings.

At that time we had fewer than 40 paying members in the UK and attendances were dwindling. Many people join for one year, get the tie and that is the last we see of them. Interestingly, we sit at 1,095 Facebook members. It was time for a small restructure.

We have now produced a booklet of tunes and we play as a band at the start of our meetings. The second half is still dedicated to solo playing with hopefully a bit of ceòl mòr to finish.

We also restructured the committee and devolved areas of responsibility. We are also looking to resurrect the ‘away days’ that were popular all those years ago. Also, we are resurrecting our old competitions. Most of you will remember the open contest that was held annually in the Royal Arch Halls. And the MSR, Hornpipe & Jig contests held in Leith Town Hall. In addition, we have allocated dates for ‘special’ evenings and we invite most, if not all, of the Edinburgh schools to come down with a quartet to play.

Left: George Stoddart with Pat Sandeman. Right: Pipe Major David Aitken BEM, left and Willie Sinclair. The photograph was taken in the rooms of the Royal Scottish Pipers’ possibly at the launch of the International Piper.

The key is effort. Like every other club or organisation, things don’t just happen. You need willing bodies to drive them forward. You need key people in key positions who are prepared to give their time and make a few sacrifices. You need to be proactive to maintain interest. Societies need to evolve with the times with an eye fixed to the future. The future generally involves attracting youth and fresh blood.

Piping societies provide an informal arena where pipers can play outwith the competitive arena. They must work, as there are quite a few piping societies all over the world. They are about tradition and the platform they offer fosters and promotes out instrument and music. And let’s not forget the bonhomie and the friendship aspect.

An Eagle Pipers’ Society club night in 2018.

For me, they are where I cut my teeth. They were all a tremendous introduction to the piping world. As the original constitution put it, they’re run by pipers for pipers.

* In part 2, Alan Forbes discusses the Royal Scottish Pipers’ Society.

• From the January 2018 Piping Times

Soar like an Eagle: George Stoddart, an Eagle Piper, plays as comedian Billy Connolly dances a Highland Fling on Princes Street, Edinburgh some time in the mid-1970s