Andrew Pitkeathly: a great piper and a great person

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By MARK MacKENZIE

Graham Adams’ recent article on Bagpipe.news brought back to me my own memories of Andrew Pitkeathly. As Graham mentioned in his piece, I stayed in Scotland for 12 months from November 1989 to November 1990 and received tuition from Andrew during that time.

Graham was my first piping tutor and in 1989 had ensured that I would call in and pay my respects to Andrew and his wife, Deidre at their home in Currie, not far from Edinburgh. I duly called in to visit and discovered that Graham had already written to Andrew regarding some tuition for myself.

I felt extremely honoured to be offered some “piping help” as Andrew called it. Andrew asked me: “When would you like your first lesson?” My jaw dropped. Eventually, I replied quietly, “As soon as possible please.

Andrew Pitkeathly

I had received a number of tapes from Pipe Major Iain Murdo Morrison of Pipe Major Donald MacLeod tuition after his visit to Australia in 1986. I thought I would have to make my way to the Isle of Lewis again for tuition.  When Andrew offered to help I was overwhelmed and concerned that I had double-booked tuition from two of the greatest players in the world. I rang Iain and he was very pleased that Andrew was offering some help (and so close to where I was staying!) and informed me that I was in very good hands.

Andrew polished a number of the tunes I already knew then started me on a loose learning programme. I say ‘loose’ as I had I started practicing with the Scottish Gas Caledonia Pipe Band under Gordon Campbell’s leadership. This was in the brewery at the end of the street where I lived – Gardner Crescent in Haymarket, Edinburgh – with my good friend, Jan Dudley – and was later playing with Boghall and Bathgate. I was not, therefore, always up to speed on new tunes when I went back to Andrew.

I recall a time in the middle of the pipe band season when I was having difficulty memorising Lament for Earl of Antrim so Andrew held the book up over his head whilst seated in his lounge chair like a music stand for me to read while he conducted with his free hand. I got through the tune but it was hilarious. There were no lengths he wouldn’t go to for me to learn that tune or any other tune. I still play that tune today and still remember Andrew holding the book up every time. Andrew always conducted pibroch and told me that Bob Brown, Bob Nicol and Donald MacLeod did the same. I think he said they got that from John MacDonald. I still miss being conducted and have fond memories of playing for hours with him conducting and singing along.

Andrew refused payment of any sort, stating that was how he received it from Bob Brown, who in turn said: “I received it for free so I pass it on for free” or words to that effect. I would try to pick up some of Andrew’s favourite pipe tobacco and the occasional whisky for him, but had to be careful driving my company car home as he and Deidre were very gracious hosts and would always offer a dram.

John Allan, Andrew Pitkeathly and Gavin Stoddart judging in 1991

My lessons with Andrew started at around 5.00pm on a Tuesday afternoon, or as soon as I could get there from my work in Leith, and ran until around 11.00pm. I would play a pibroch then stop for feedback. Andrew would either sing or play any pieces on his practice chanter; sometimes we both played the chanter for a few minutes until I had the piece sorted then back on the pipes. 

I would play the offending/corrected variation as many times as needed on the pipes with Andrew conducting as needed. Then… play the whole tune again. One some nights a whole piobaireachd in parts or in whole could be played three to six times. Their former house was at 28 Nether Currie Road. I once asked Andrew whether his neighbours (through the wall) had any problems with pibroch being played for that length of time and Andrew replied simply: “He is a Lewis man”. On average, two or three pibroch would be worked on during each visit.

At that time, Alasdair Gillies was also receiving “some help” from Andrew but we never once crossed paths at the house. When we did meet at the games one of us said we thought that the other was a figment of Deidre and Andrew’s imagination as I often heard that Alasdair had just left before I arrived … and Alasdair had heard the same about me! It became an on-going joke whenever we met. Alasdair came to Australia a number of times after Andrew had passed away and we always raised a glass in memory of him. 

Mrs Pitkeathly – Deidre  – was always around and was just wonderful to speak to as well. I heard her version of Andrew’s appointment as Piper to the Sovereign and she told me that she was the one who replied to the Queen, “woman to woman” regarding the low wage being offered compared to a Pipe Major in the Army (I think she said it was around half of the amount he received in the Army). Deidre stated that Andrew was the first serving Pipe Major to be posted to the position of Piper to the Sovereign.

Ronnie MacCallum, John MacLellan and Andrew Pitkeathly pictured judging at a competition in 1980

Andrew mentioned a funny anecdote about the Queen presenting him with his Christmas present – another golf club to add to his golf bag and asking him to show her how to use it… whilst inside the Palace!

Deidre told me a story of her and Andrew’s first night in a Middle Eastern country, I don’t recall which one. Andrew was required to pipe in the Officer’s Mess and Deidre was at home with no security. Andrew showed her how to load the magazine and ‘cock’ his Browning Semi-automatic pistol and she slept with it under her pillow until he returned much later that night.

I asked to see Andrew’s Gold Medal from Inverness and Deidre eventually dug it out of a cupboard containing crystal glasses and other items. She also found a Silver Star for Marches at either Oban or Inverness. I asked Andrew why he hadn’t spent more time with solo piping and he said he had to go to war. He explained that his job was to be a soldier first and a piper second. Andrew served in the Korean War and told an interesting story about piping during route marches. The cane drone reeds would instantly freeze shut after playing due to the temperature being around -20˚C and the moisture in the reed freezing. As a result when one piper started playing the chanter would sound but no drone sound was heard until the reeds began to thaw. As the drones came in one by one, another piper would reach over and give them a tune and the drones would continue working until the instant the piper stopped. Then they would freeze shut again and the process would have to be repeated when it was that piper’s turn to play again.

Andrew and Deidre mentioned other campaigns and other funny or interesting stories were told about the various weather conditions. I recall Andrew was posted to a very hot and humid country in Asia (perhaps Malaysia?) and was responsible for stores that were parachuted to the troops in the field. A number of units would report unopened parachutes resulting in lost supplies and re-order another drop. On one occasion, Andrew was in a small plane following the cargo lane dropping the supplies and noted that all parachutes opened. He later received a call from one of his own pipers who was in the field requesting more supplies. Andrew informed him he was in the small plane behind the cargo plane noting that all parachutes had opened and all of the requests for extra gear and equipment suddenly stopped.

By late 1990 my wife was pregnant and insisted on having the baby back in Australia with her mother to help. As a result, I had to finish up my pipe banding with the Boggies and my lessons with Andrew. During the contest season that year, I had come to know Gordon Walker quite well, sometimes picking him and his wife up from various train stations near competitions and ferrying them to the grounds. When it came to light that my Tuesday lesson night was becoming free, Gordon and I agreed that I would approach Andrew about Gordon taking over my timeslot. When I spoke to Andrew he agreed readily and Gordon began receiving “some help” from Andrew.

I was very pleased to hear that Gordon won a Gold Medal at the Argyllshire Gathering in 1993; Gold Medal Northern Meeting 1994; Open Piobaireachd at Oban in 1995 and 2007; Silver Chanter 2004 and the Glenfiddich in 2007. Gordon has always acknowledged the great “help” he had from Andrew and I am certain that Andrew’s help made a great difference in the same manner that Alasdair Gillies’ pibroch bloomed under his influence.

After Andrew died in 1994, I always visited Deidre whenever I was in Scotland competing around the games. In 2008 I had my youngest daughters, Erin and Tara (aged 10 and nine at the time), with me, and Deidre had them up in the loft playing with toys. She was a lovely and very knowledgeable lady and a great support to Andrew during his career as a piper and later as one of the top solo judges. Andrew was often called upon to judge at the Clasp in Inverness and the Senior Piobaireachd in Oban.

I have also spoken a number of times to another former pupil of Andrew’s. Bruce Hitchings, a Silver Medal winner and the proprietor of Highland Reeds, who later succeeded Andrew in the position of Director of the Army School of Piping, told me that he did his Pipe Major’s Course under Andrew’s tutelage when Andrew was the Director. Bruce always speaks very highly of Andrew and kept in touch with Deidre. Sometime after Andrew’s death, Bruce borrowed Andrew’s Piobaireachd Society books to copy. Andrew had many hand-written notations in his books from his time with the “Two Bobs” and Bruce was able to scan Books 1-9, the entirety of Andrew’s collection during his time with the “Two Bobs”. Bruce has since kindly sent me those scans of Andrew’s books and notations. Unfortunately, a lot of the notations were in lead pencil and appear to have worn off after being carried around by Andrew over the years. I only had a Kilberry Book at the time and asked Andrew to make some notations in my book for me (in pen). I still have that book and it survived a fire in my (police service) flat in Mount Isa in 2008.

The author competing at Luss in 1990

I picked up some prizes in the early part of the 1990 season and was lucky enough to be able to enter the Silver Medal. I played Beloved Scotland but due to my inexperience, didn’t know where to tune and tuned up outside in the cold. In the first or second line of the ground one tenor drone stopped. I never heard if the tune was any good. I reported back to Andrew and he gave me loads of helpful information about the tuning areas … after the event. I am still kicking myself! I hadn’t been able to get to see Andrew in the time just before that competition as I was lucky enough to be played at every band competition with Boghall and Bathgate and was also working full time. 

As another piece of trivia, it was Andrew who first played me a track from a cassette of Boghall and Bathgate called The Rubik Cube – which is still a great album to this day. He played me the Rubik Cube set which contained a lot of harmonies. I loved it and little suspected I would be playing the same tunes with that same band only a few months later.

As Graham Adams mentioned, we have both been very fortunate to meet so many wonderful people in piping and have been privileged to receive tuition from pipers with such wonderful piping pedigrees. I have been lucky enough to continue solo piping and in 2006 was placed second in the Dunvegan Medal playing Lament for Mary MacLeod (the year Richard Hawkes won). I never expected a small tune to do well but played as taught by Graham and Andrew and it did well. I competed again at the Dunvegan Medal in 2009 with The King’s Taxes. Iain Murdo Morrison was one of the judges and I vividly recall him looking highly intently towards me as if willing me not to make a mistake. I got through the tune with a clean run and was fortunate to receive a place. 

As mentioned in previous articles on Bagpipe.news, Captain Andrew Pitkeathly of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, former Director of the Army School of Piping and former Piper to the Sovereign was one of the most underestimated competing pipers of his time. If he had not been called to do his duty as a soldier first and foremost then continue his duty to the Queen (in person) I strongly believe his name would be on all of the prize lists we see today with the names of all the piping ‘greats’.

As a man, a tutor and friend he positively influenced the lives of many pipers – at no charge – and it is my hope that this article, in addition to the others, informs current pipers of his contribution.