Masters of Piping: P/M Willie Ross, Scots Guards

The PP archive has an old cassette copy of the Masters of Piping programme Seumas MacNeill did on P/M Willie Ross for BBC Radio Scotland. Click this link and scroll down to ‘Seumas MacNeill’ to listen. This historic recording features the playing of John Burgess with short interviews with Duncan Cameron, Islay, Ed Esson, Vancouver, DR MacLennan, Angus MacAulay, South Uist, and John Burgess. A wide array of P/M Ross’s tunes are heard. Firstly some abridged background to the legendary piper courtesy Box & Fiddle Magazine…..

Born on 14th June 1878 at Camsorie, Glen Strathfarrar, in the parish of Kiltarlity, near Inverness, P/M Ross joined the Scots Guards when he was 17 years old and became P/M when he was only 24.

He was in charge of the Army School of Piping at Edinburgh Castle between 1919/20 and 1959.

He was a prolific composer, teacher (there is a story that Willie used to reward his young pupils with squares of chocolate), and a champion player.

Willie and his older brother Alec, who was also a Pipe Major in the Scots Guards, had an interesting musical background.

Their mother, Mary Collie (1854-1944), came from Loch Monar up the glen now flooded as a reservoir, and was a niece of Aeneas Rose (1832-1905) who was piper to the Duke of Atholl. A memorial cairn to P/M Ross now stands in Strathfarrar.

It was Aeneas, Mary Collie and Willie’s father Alexander Ross (1854-?) who taught him piping.

Willie married Edith Mary McGregor and was devastated by her sudden death in 1942.

They had a son who died aged about seven (probably of cystic fibrosis) and a daughter Cecily (she of the reel Cecily Ross) who won Mod medals for her piano playing.

His father was Head Forrester to Lord Lovat, and it was in these surroundings that he spent his formative years.

Throughout his long life Ross was regarded as something of a practical joker and story teller and one of his favourite ‘stories’ was how he was taught all of his piping by his mother. In fact he received nearly all of his formal instruction from Aeneas Rose. 

In 1896 he enlisted as a piper in the Scots Guards and on his departure from his native hills and glens composed that lovely, haunting slow air Loch Morar.

He won the first of his major prizes, the Gold Medal for Piobaireachd at the Northern Meeting, in 1904 and added Clasps to it in 1905, 1906, 1907, 1910, 1912, 1919, 1923 and 1928.

The Gold Medal at Oban was added to his list of successes in 1907 and further successes in the Oban Open Piobaireachd came in 1907, 1912 and 1928.

In all he won a total of 11 Former Winners, March, Strathspey and Reel titles at either Oban or Inverness proving he was as versatile in Ceol Beag as he was in Ceol Mor.

P/M Willie Ross, GS McLennan and John MacDonald, Inverness

The Scots Guards recognised his outstanding talent and in 1905 he was appointed Pipe Major of the 2nd Battalion in succession to Henry Forsyth who later became piper to the Sovereign.

Willie’s younger brother Alec also joined the Scots Guards and when he became the Pipe Major of the 1st Battalion in 1911 they created history as the only brothers ever to serve as Battalion Pipe Majors at the same time.

Unfortunately Army Pipers have always had their bit of soldiering to do and Pipe Major Ross saw considerable active service, firstly during the Boer War and latterly in France during World War 1.

In 1918 he was invalided out of the Army with severe rheumatism that he had contracted in France.

After the cessation of hostilities the Piobaireachd Society was keen to appoint Pipe Major Ross as their permanent instructor in succession to John MacDonald, Inverness.

A stumbling block was the requirement of the instructor, who was also responsible for the Society’s Army Class, to be in some sort of military service.

However, this was overcome when Lord Lovat appointed Ross as Pipe Major of the Lovat Scout’s and so began a period of 38 years during which time the Army Class became established as the Army School of Piping with its permanent home at Edinburgh Castle.

During that time Willie Ross gave instruction to hundreds of pipers in the British Army and the Commonwealth.

Included amongst his best pupils were Gold Medalists Donald MacLeod, John MacLellan, Andrew Pitkeathly, Donald MacLean and, of course, his boy prodigy, John D. Burgess.

Willie Ross teaching with P/M Donald MacLeod, left, facing blackboard

All of these men went on to become champion pipers in their own right and two of them, John MacLellan and Andrew Pitkeathly, became Directors of the Army School of Piping.

The five books of light music published by Patersons as the ‘Pipe Major W. Ross Collection of Highland Bagpipe Music’ is considered to be the finest pipe collection of ceol beag ever printed.

Many of Ross’s own excellent compositions are included and his settings of the classical style Marches, Strathspeys and Reels are considered by today’s leading players as standards.

Of his own tunes, Leaving Port Askaig, Corriechoillie, Captain Norman Orr Ewing, Brigadier Ronald Cheape of Tiroran and Center’s Bonnet are all well played by soloists and bands alike.

In 1945 Pipe Major William Ross’s services to piping were recognised with an MBE from HM King George V1.

Willie died at the Earl Haig Home, 23 Minto Street, Edinburgh on 23rd March 1966, aged 87 years.  

  • Get more historical recordings on the PP Audio Archive here.

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4 thoughts on “Masters of Piping: P/M Willie Ross, Scots Guards

  1. Alexander, William’s father was born 1853 and died 1926. He was in his time the head gamekeeper to Lord Lovat. Williams mother, Mary was born 1855 and died in 1947.

  2. always excellent to get famous history of reknown pipers.

    One thing which could be of great interest for those (by the way thanks to Jeannie Campbell) who like pipe makers as well is to know what set of pipes those famous pipers played and where are they now ? still playing under good fingers ? sleeping in attic ? or behind a glass window of bagpipe or military museum ?

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