P/M Robert Mathieson and the History of Shotts & Dykehead Caledonia Pipe Band

The highlight of World’s Week this year will be the concert ‘Rise’ to be given by the 2015 World Champions, Shotts & Dykehead Caledonia Pipe Band (above). To set the scene, and help everyone appreciate the history of this iconic band, we are running an interview from eight years ago when they celebrated their centenary. Editor Robert Wallace is in conversation with the then Shotts P/M Robert Mathieson, now a respected figure in the pipe band judging community….

What it means to win…P/M Mathieson and Shotts seconds after their win was announced in 2003

What does the 100th anniversary of the band actually mean to the band?
Well I think nowadays when any organisation reaches 100 years it is something to celebrate. I think in modern life there’s so often the situation that something is just ‘passing through’ so it is great that the band is still in existence after 100 years. If you think back to the early days of Grade 1 when people used to talk about the ‘big six’, well there’s quite a few of the ‘big six’ no longer here. So for us to  come through and still to be actively competing at the top end of the grade I think is a great achievement in itself.

How is the band managed to sustain this over the years? Has it just been constant competition success. Has that led people to want to join the band?
Yes, I think that is a big contributory factor. One thing we have discovered from the research we have been doing for the anniversary is the number of players that have passed through the band even in the last 30 or 40 years. There is a corps, a nucleus that has been there for a long time, but we’ve never shied away from taking in younger players, overseas people; and that, if they are the right kind of player, keeps the thing fresh. If you are always bringing in fresh blood all the time you’ve a chance of surviving.

P/M Ryan Canning and the current Shotts band

Isn’t it remarkable that a small mining village like Shotts can keep that going. Visitors wouldn’t say it was the bonniest place on earth. In the days of the pits, when men didn’t have much by way of recreation, it was understandable, but nowadays, what drives people to go there twice a week and more for practices?
I wish I could answer that. I don’t really know. There is something magical about playing in Shotts. I remember joining Shotts for the first time from Polkemmet as a young boy. It was like a young footballer going to Old Trafford [Manchester United football club’s ground] just to go up to the Shotts band hall and have a tune with them. I think there is still an element of that nowadays. We get people coming who just want to say they have played in Shotts for a couple of years and then move on, just to say they’ve done it. And long may that continue. We don’t always want to have people like myself who only ever played in two bands. I meet a lot of young people nowadays and they’ve been piping for 10 or 12 years and they’ve been in six bands already. Shotts has been very lucky; we’ve had good members over the years.

When did you take up the reins?
As pipe major I joined the band in 1987 and my first competing season was 1988.

What was the state of affairs then?
Well the band was going through tough times, probably the scariest point in the band’s recent history. We were at the bottom of the grade and down to eight pipers. We were really needing a shake up. I had been playing with Polkemmet at the time having served years in Shotts as a youngster as well. I think the band was on the verge of going to Grade 2 or folding or whatever. I remember when Tom MacAllister approached me about going up to take over the band and I had a think about it and I really felt that I owed the band something because I had learned a lot of band craft up there and I didn’t want to see the band disappear. I’d seen big names disappear like Red Hackle, Muirheads.

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I remember listening to them in a tuning park as a youngster and thinking that’s where I want to be; playing at that level. And for them to disappear was very sad and I didn’t want that to happen to Shotts. They actually announced to the Polkemmet band at Cowal that I was going to Shotts. I remember going up for a prize and the band behind us was the RUC and their P/M, Nat Russell, said to me: ‘Is it true what I’ve heard that you’re leaving Polkemmet to go to Shotts?’ I said, ‘yes, it was true’. He said, ‘Why are you doing that?’
Remember Polkemmet was very strong at that point. I remember saying to him that if myself and Jim [Kilpatrick] can’t go back and help Shotts who do we expect to save them? We’d learned so much there.  We decided to do it for that reason because we knew they were going to go down. We thought that we couldn’t complain if we did nothing about it.  

And Jim Kilpatrick was your leading drummer at Polkemmet?

• To be continued. Read more on P/M Robert Mathieson’s success at the Worlds here. Get your tickets for Shotts’ ‘Rise’ concert, to be held in Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, here. Read more about Jim Kilpatrick’s career in the January 2017 Pipe Band Magazine.

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