Jimmy Banks – a career in piping

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From Piping Today #41, 2009.

Jimmy Banks has been in what might be seen as fortunate situations throughout his working life where every job he has had has strongly featured the Highland pipes.  From the age of 10 his future was being shaped by his grandfather Jimmy Herd, who was a good player and pipe band judge, giving him lessons and taking him around the games and across to Belfast to see the World Championships.  

Jimmy played with the Bowhill Colliery pipe band from his home town of Cardenden in Fife, until he joined the Scots Guards in 1964.  The Scots Guards then had their own piping school at the Pirbright Barracks in Surrey, and after 18 weeks basic training, he attended the school for a few months to learn all the regimental tunes.  He was first posted to the 2nd Btn. for one year and then moved to the 1st Btn. in 1966 under Pipe Major Angus MacDonald and was with him for a number of years.  “I moved battalions a couple of times,” said Jimmy.  “I like to think I never got chucked out of one, but invited into the other.  I went back to the 2nd Btn. as Pipe Sergeant when Dixie Ingram was Pipe Major, and eventually was made Pipe Major of the 1st Btn. in 1980.  I had about seven years in that position which included time in Northern Ireland and Hong Kong.”

In 1980 when the 1st Btn. went to Northern Ireland they formed a Pipe Band Platoon, with Jimmy as the Platoon Commander. It kept the band together and gave them a chance to play pipes.  From a piping perspective Northern Ireland was a good place to be as they met with a lot of the piping community and won the Ballygowan mini-band competition. 

“I had Richard Parkes as a pupil for a couple of years – a good player, who has gone on to great things,” added Jimmy. “He had obviously been taught properly and was easy to work with, I just guided and helped him on his way.”

“We had two years in Northern Ireland and then two years in Hong Kong, and won the grade two World Championships when we returned from Hong Kong in 1984 – that was quite good having been away for two years.  Our couple of years in Hong Kong were great, I mean we didn’t live it up – I didn’t encourage a lot of drinking… unless I was doing it!”

Jimmy then had a final year with the band in grade one and then was demobbed after a 23-year career, spending his last year at the Scots Guards’ piping school back at Pirbright. All of these piping schools have now closed down with everything centralised at the Army School of Bagpipe Music and Highland Drumming at Inchdrewer House near Redford Barracks in Edinburgh.  Jimmy did his Pipe Major’s course there in 1969-70 for about six months.  “The course teaches you to improve your own technique, it was super for that, and it also concentrated on piobaireachd.  It taught you musical management of a pipe band and a lot on music theory and how to write music – that was all very helpful.  I personally got more experience of pipe band work after I had left the course, it is not an exact science, and hats off to these guys at the top of the tree who know how to get a sound out a pipe band – that’s the difficult part.”

“I didn’t do a lot of solo piping, but I went around the games circuit in 1970 and 79, and I played the Argyllshire Gathering at Oban in 1974.  I won the marches at Oban in 1974, and won the strathspey and reel, and the former winner’s MSR at Oban all on the same day in 1979.  I also played at the Glenfiddich Championship in 1979, but I never got the chance to compete in the solos after that.”

On leaving the Army Jimmy got a piping engagement for a private merchant bank, Robert Fleming, in London, who then offered him a job.  Jimmy worked there for 12 years and part of his job entailed playing in the bank three times a week to promote the bank’s Scottish identity and just for the general ambience in the building.  

•The banner is the company badge of Right Flank 1 Scots Guards and is worn on the pipes at state occasions.

“It was known as the ‘James Bond Bank’ as the cousin of the owners was Ian Fleming who wrote the Bond books,” said Jimmy. “As the bank developed I was sent to their office in Moscow to play and to Bermuda six times to play at their St. Andrew’s day celebrations — and at functions all over Europe for corporate finance and overseas markets.  It was a really nice role, and they had a six-star dining area in the bank for their clients and I made sure it ran OK.  We had butlers and top class chefs, and for a piper it really was a different world.  The bank was eventually bought over by the Chase Manhattan Bank and I moved back to Markinch.  Although for a year I went down there every Tuesday morning, and back on a Thursday night, to work in their financial boutique in Mayfair to smooth over the transition to the new owners.”

Then by chance he met Roddy MacLeod at the Northern Meeting in 2001.  At the time Roddy was looking for someone to administrate the BA (Scottish Music – Piping) degree course at the RSAMD and Jimmy liked the sound of it.  “A lot of  people asked me ‘what are you doing in Glasgow?’ and I’d say ‘missionary work’.  

“This was right at the start of the degree course, and I used to do Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and really enjoyed it.  I learned a lot from people like Iain MacInnes, Hugh Cheape and Allan MacDonald.  My job was to book the lecturers and ensure that the course was delivered, and I also taught a wee bit of light music and piobaireached to the students.  I found that it was really good for the pipers to be integrated with the Traditional Scottish music students at the RSAMD when they would go over there for the group music sessions. 

“We also had a bagpipe technology section where we visited bagpipe makers and had people come to us and give lectures.  We went to Ezeedrone to see Tom Johnstone and Ronnie McShannon and they were super and gave us a real in-depth look at how they made their reeds.  Bob Shepherd also came through and gave lectures on the RSPBA and the history of competing pipe bands.  These people showed a lot of goodwill towards the course and gave their time freely. 

“It was early days and there were a few bits to smooth over, but you can see the success of it now.  It has turned out a lot of very good players who are doing well around the games, and a lot of the guys that I saw who were the first students to come through are set up pretty well.

“It is interesting to note that over the four years I was there the pipers got stronger and stronger results from the examining board, till we got Gordon Bruce coming out with top marks and there are others who have done likewise.”

Jimmy then left the degree course and also became Chairman of the Scots Guards Association Club in Edinburgh in 2005.  Jimmy instigated the piping recitals when the manager of the club said they could do with a bit more activity on a Sunday.  The club had gone through a bit of a lean spell and the aim was to get it back on its feet.  “We had a couple of piping recitals,” explained Jimmy, “and they started to go down very well.  In the early days we had Gordon Walker and Chris Armstrong — really good players, and then I thought we should have a knock-out piping competition and over the years they have gone very well.   We start off with eight pipers and have a draw to give us four heats with two pipers in each heat.  So that is one heat a month, over four months, then two semi-finals and the final. 

“Each player has to play 30-40 minutes and must play a march, strathspey and reel, the ground of a piobaireachd and then they can do what ever they like. We get the audience to vote, and I have to say we have always had the correct results in the voting — we haven’t had any cases of a bus load of supporters turning up.  However, for the final I have sometimes got a couple of professional judges and given them a say.  It has gone very well.  It is a very pleasant Sunday afternoon’s entertainment, starting at 4pm, with a couple of hours of piping and a curry thrown in for the ticket price.  

“In between the knock-outs we have had the occasional recital and have had some great players in here.  There has been a dearth of this type of thing in Edinburgh, and although there are plenty of piping enthusiasts, they have had no one to listen to.  These recitals are good for piping, and it’s good for people to hear these players in a relaxed atmosphere.

“We also get a lot of youngsters coming to the recitals, and last year we had a junior piping competition at Queen Victoria School in Dunblane and got 60 entries.  This year it is at the Army School of Bagpipe Music in Edinburgh, which has a purpose-built building for bagpipes, and it will be held on November 22.  The age ranges are under-15 and under-18, and the under-15s have a march, a strathspey and reel, and a piobaireachd.  The under-18s have a MSR and a piobaireachd with two tunes of each to be submitted.”

So even in his retirement Jimmy is still heavily involved in piping.  He was the piper to the Highland Society of London, and was also Pipe Major of the Scots Guards’ Association Pipes and Drums.  “The band are trying to promote the Scots Guards, and although I’m not a recruiter, all I can say is that it never did me any harm.  I had a great life in the Army — and after it.”