In 2016 Greentrax Recordings released an album called Edinburgh City Police Pipe Band – Revisited [CDTRAX389]. The tracks were chosen by Pipe Major Iain McLeod as his favourite tunes the band recorded during their heyday. Shortly before the release Andrew Bova visited Iain to conduct an interview for Piping Today magazine which was published in September 2016. Andrew said he was grateful for the opportunity to speak to one of the pipe band legends. Iain passed away on March 30, 2017 at the age of 85.
Stories from the legend – by Andrew Bova
Piping Today ran a story in 2015 entitled Piping’s Most Exclusive Club: Pipe Majors Who Have Won the Worlds. On that list of greats sits Iain McLeod. A legend in his own right, he’s a man who’s seen it all and done it all, a walking encyclopedia of piping and drumming history who breathes life into the knowledge and stories he shares.
Fortune smiled on me when I was asked to interview Iain, a man still sharp and brimming with humour. What was planned as a 45-minute interview turned into a nearly two and a half hour conversation about everything from the history of our craft to the present state of competitive piping, all interspersed with unabashedly selfish questions posed from a current competitor to one of the greatest competitors ever to cross the line.
Above his many achievements and accolades, Iain’s name is synonymous with the Edinburgh Police Pipe Band, latterly renamed Lothian and Borders Police Pipe Band, of which he was the Pipe Major from 1959-1976, winning five World Championship titles. With such incredible competitive success, I asked Iain what his method was for running the band.
He said: “Once the competition season was finished, we put the pipes away for at least a month, then started again from square one, started selecting what music we were going to change, what we were going to do and got to it on the practice chanter.
“I was a great believer in having a group of four practising together, before we came together as a unit.”
“We had a lot of engagements as a police pipe band, so everyone had to keep their pipes in a first-class condition, which was more difficult in these days. You had to do that in the whole of the winter months. Then, when the competition season arose, you doubled down. Everyone had to be on top of their form.”
Curious about the music selection process, I asked Iain how he went about picking repertoire for the band.
Iain said: “We were very open to suggestions. I would decide at the end of the day what we were going to play but everybody had their say. And some of the lads came up with some good suggestions, some had good music.”
The pipe band medley was introduced in 1970, and under his leadership they won the Worlds in 1971, 1972 and 1975, so they were obviously quick to grasp and succeed in this new genre.
Iain said: “People were getting fed up of going to competitions and championships and hearing Donald Cameron, Cameronian Rant, and Pretty Marion. This was brought in mainly from the public’s point of view, to get a variety of music and decide who was presenting it best and who had the most musical sound.
“There were bands who competed at that time and could only play about three march strathspeys and reels, half a dozen 6/8s — end of repertoire. But we always had a big repertoire in the police pipe band so we had a lot of tunes to choose from to make up the medley. And from there on, it was a case of everybody trying to beat everybody else — it was to attract good music to competitive piping.
“I thought it was a better result to give the best bands coming out on top, who could produce the best music with the best sound rather than the same old stuff churned out month after month, year after year. And to use a bit of variety in the time signatures you were going to be playing. I think, from the public’s point of view, it was much, much better.”
I asked if he had a favorite time signature, curious about his own musical tastes. With a mischievous smile and a suppressed chuckle he replied, “Aye. All of them.”
Satisfied with his tongue-in-cheek answer — I did eventually get him to admit that he’s a fan of the heavy 2/4 marches — I pushed the question how the band had their early success. His response was simple: “Hard work. A lot of practice. And dedication.”
“Practice, practice, practice until you can do it backwards kind of thing. And keeping the interest alive in competing and playing.
“I also had the hardcore — I used to call them the Dirty Dozen. Twelve pipers who were all of a high standard, who were all keen as mustard and were very good players.
“You can’t do it without the players. You’ve got to have the top-notch players in my opinion, or have them all thinking along the same lines and working towards the same goal. There were some people who wanted to play differently but when they came to the band they had to knuckle down and play the way I wanted them to play. There was only one man, who shall remain nameless, who had a problem adjusting. He didn’t play with us very long.”
Iain reduced the mix of talent, dedication, and hard work to two simple words which elegantly reflect the way he ran his pipe corps: “No passengers.”
Curious about his “Dirty Dozen”, I asked his thoughts on band size, starting with his ideal number.
He said: “Twelve. That was my ideal, but now it could be 24 or 26.”
“When I hear some of the results Field Marshal get or St Laurence O’Toole, it takes a lot of doing, to get them to be so perfect in every respect — blowing particularly.
“And the unification, there’s a lot of work by the pipe major. There must be a whole lot of time with individual players. Everybody has their own idea of the best way to do it.
“I think they have to draw a line. Or we could go, ‘Right, we’ll have 16 pipers this year, we’ll have 26 next year and so on. It has to stop somewhere. And it’s all the more work for the pipe majors or they must have some good pipe sergeants working with them.”
In addition to an excellent pipe major, pipe sergeant and pipe corps, every great band needs a solid drum corps, and Iain had the talent behind his “Dirty Dozen” to ensure sustained success.
He said: “The band are judged on the pipe major’s performance. Despite the great drum corps that you have, it’s a pipe band competition. So piping should be the principal thing, in my opinion.
“But when you come up against people like Alex Duthart, who we had for a wee while, or Jim Kilpatrick, it’s a great boost to the pipe section, provided that the PM and the leading drummer are thinking along the same lines.
“Provided the PM is able to say: ‘Well that’s very good from a drumming point of view but from an ensemble point of view, I’m not so sure, would you be able to alter that bit?’”
Iain had the good fortune to work with Alex, who is arguably the greatest drummer of all time. He said: “Alex Duthart once said to me, ‘My ambition is to get the Shotts Drum Corps, and your (pipe) section.’ And we did get Alex but only for about six months and then he had to move back into the west of Scotland again.
“He played with us at Perth in 1968 and he played with us in 1969, then he went back to Shotts. His wife’s father wasn’t keeping very well so she wanted to be near him and they moved from Edinburgh. That was the reason they left us, unfortunately.”
Iain also spoke highly of another of his leading drummers, Bob Montgomery, with whom he won four of his five Worlds titles.
He added: “A lot of credit should be given to Bob because he had a good drum corps. But it was difficult getting drummers into the police service, whereas in other bands it didn’t matter what the drummers did for a living.”
There have been massive changes in the pipe band scene over the years and Iain says there have been great strides forward in sound quality. He added: “The overall standard, particularly the quality of sound, of tone, of bands has improved, in my opinion. And it says a lot for the pipe majors to maintain such a high standard of sound.
“You hear some of the things that the likes of Field Marshal do that I think are absolutely brilliant and other bands like Inveraray are coming along the same. St Laurence O’Toole have improved beyond all recognition in the last 10 years. Top notch.”
Such improvements have a lot has to do with the availability and quality of equipment around today. Iain retired in 1976, just at the beginning of introduction of synthetic materials to piping.
But no matter how good the equipment, Iain still believes that it’s the pipe major that really makes the difference. He said: “Everyone is making chanters these days and bands like to follow trends. What they don’t tell you is that you don’t get the pipe major along with them!”
Iain compared piping to football, saying that the two fields are similar nowadays with transfers, money, and sponsorship.
But he doesn’t think bands are focusing more on the sport — the competition — rather than the music. He said: “The pipe band scene will never change dramatically, you’ll still have a top dozen bands above the rest.
“But nowadays, if you’re on the periphery of the prize list and getting fourth and fifth, it’s not seen as good enough to be contented with that.”
I was able to reassure him that the camaraderie around the bands is still strong. But there are many ways things have moved on.
Bridging a generational gap he said: “I’ve got something in common with you, too. I played with Shotts, when I was about 15 or 16.
“Here’s what I had to do for a practice. Go by train from Edinburgh to Shotts on a Friday, go to a competition or a practice on a Saturday and back to stay in Shotts overnight afterwards. There were no trains on a Sunday, so I had to come back to Edinburgh by bus. So to go to a practice took me three days.
“Those were the days of the McAllister family, with old Tom McAllister. I played behind him at Cowal one year when I was a wee boy. He was a hard man. A very fair man, but a hard man. Very dedicated. Old Tom, he was the one who perfected the introductory E.”
It’s funny that Iain, whose band had such a rivalry with Shotts, spent time there as a boy. He always had a winning mentality as a piper and pipe major. He said: “It was a football manager who said, ‘Show me a good loser and I’ll show you a loser.’ Great statement. I’ve always liked that.”
But not every band shared the philosophy, although he felt Muirheads and Shotts did.
He added: “But the rest were quite happy to get a prize.
“I was never jealous of other bands. We had a great rivalry with Shotts. A big rivalry. But a fair bunch of boys, they were good lads. There was a statement in a press clipping Mary came across the other night. We won a quartets competition many years ago in Motherwell, we played really well you know, we got first. Shotts were second.
“Willie McAllister went up for his prize and he said, ‘Well, all I want to say is, I’m proud to have been second to that performance.’ So that was quite a compliment.”
While everyone associates Iain McLeod with Edinburgh City Police, few remember that he was an incredibly successful solo piper, winning three Silver Stars at the Northern Meeting, the Gold Banner at the Mod, and the Gold Pennant for former winners.
He chuckled: “Only two of us won the Gold Pennant, John Burgess and myself. So, no bad.”
Iain had firm views on choosing solo repertoire. He said: “You have to select tunes that you can perfect, for a start, not that you want to play so that you’re giving the adjudicators a more difficult time to knock you back.
“For instance, you don’t hear an awful lot of people playing The Little Cascade in solo stuff, tunes such as that.
“They can master it but they come to the fourth part and maybe there’s something they’re not going to like, so they’ll drop it and bring in another tune, rather than persevere and get it wrong.
“There’s a lot of them that try to play the stuff but they haven’t mastered it at all. You better be 100% sure of what you’re doing.”
And he has some controversial views on the solo competitive scene.
He said: “I honestly think — and I’ll get slated for this — there’s too much emphasis placed on piobaireachd.
“I could mention half a dozen guys who are Gold Medal holders that I wouldn’t classify as top pipers. I think the emphasis that’s put on it is all wrong.
“You can encourage study and learning piobaireachd as I did with Donald MacLeod and Willie Ross but winning the Gold Medal does not ‘automatically’ make you a top player. I think that I’m not too popular with this opinion, but who cares?”
You can’t help but admire his confidence in an opinion which has been formed through years of experience, observation and thought.
For the interview, and admittedly my own personal gain, I asked what advice he has for aspiring young soloists.
He said: “It’s the same old story — practice. But not too much. If you peak before the competition, then you’ve hit it too early.
“You’d see me picking up the pipes before the Northern Meeting at the most, three or four days before the competition. But never for a month or so beforehand.
“There’s a lot of natural ability that comes into it. If you’ve got it, nurture it, but don’t go over the top on the practice side in the run-up to competitions.”
And what does he suggest for young players who want to get into Grade 1?
Iain said: “Don’t jump into the deep end. Take it easy. It’s a good idea if you can get into a top band, even though you’re not playing in competitions, then graduate through the ranks and into the competitive side of the band.”
This interview comes off the back of an album soon to be released, highlighting the history of Edinburgh City Police Pipe Band, going right back to the 1960s.
It showcases more than just competition music. Iain said: “It’s a big variety. It’s Gaelic airs, strathspeys and reels, hornpipes, jigs — you name it. A good variety of stuff. And for that time, the quality of sound is pretty good.”
Naturally, I wondered if he has a favourite track on the album. He didn’t need to think for a second before responding: “Yeah, I did a solo spot on it. Leaving Glenurquhart, Inveraray Castle, and The Smith of Chilliechassie.”
And of the other highlights, he said: “The sound of the opening 6/8 marches is, I think, near perfection. It starts off with Old Adam. I thought that was really good.”
Reflecting on all the stories — not all of which are reproduced here, sadly — and the knowledge and advice that Iain had shared, I thought it only fitting to give him an open forum to speak to you and I, those still in the game, and provide a parting thought for our community.
He became introspective, clearly considering his options and sifting through his years of experience. He smiled, chuckled, and encouraged: “Keep up the good work.”