The following article was commissioned by PP Publishing for Pipe Band Magazine in 2005. Written and researched by piping historian Jeannie Campbell MBE, it traces the history of ladies’ bands from the 1930s onwards. Today, ladies have taken their rightful place at the top level in pipe bands but it was not always so….
The Braemar Girls’ Pipe Band (above) claimed to be the first girls’ pipe band in Scotland and was the first female band to compete at the Cowal Gathering, where, in 1935, they played in the juvenile competition.
Despite their name, the band was founded by Mr and Mrs W. Galbraith in their home in Coatbridge near Glasgow in 1934 when five girls came to the house to learn. Within three weeks another 14 girls had joined and a hall had to be booked.
P/M John Imrie, an old Cameronian, was appointed as the piping instructor and Mr Joe Waugh instructed the drummers. Engagements soon rolled in and the girls played all over Scotland, England and Ireland.
One highlight was the launching of the liner the Queen Elizabeth at John Brown’s shipyard on the Clyde on 27 September 1938. The launch ceremony was performed by HM The Queen.
During the Second World War, three of the Braemar girls served with the A.T.S. Pipe Band in France, Italy, Palestine and the Middle East.
P/M Nan Currie (née Anderson), with Drum Sgt. Celia Galbraith and piper Agnes Ferguson, had the honour of leading the Women’s Services in the March Past at the WW2 Victory Parade in London. At the band’s twentieth anniversary dance four of the girls were presented with medals for 20 years service.
Some lady competitors at the 1935 Dundee Musical Festival Under-18 Piping competition were pictured in the local paper. The competition was won by Donald Shaw Ramsay from Avonbridge, later to be Pipe Major of the Edinburgh Police.
The ladies taking part were Miss Bertha Rait, Arbroath, Miss Georgina Smith, Crail, and Miss H. McBeath, Carnoustie, who was later better known as Mrs Reta Stewart later Pipe Major of the Maclean Ladies’ band and mother of formerly competing piper Mrs Anne Spalding.
There were girls’ pipe bands in other parts of the world too. At the Calgary Stampede Week in 1936 there were four pipe bands on parade, one of them a girls’ band. The bands were the Seaforth Highlanders (Canada), Blue Bonnets, Calgary Pipe Band and Calgary Girls’ Pipe Band.
In the Oban Times for January 1938 it was reported that the Vancouver Ladies’ Pipe Band had held an ‘At Home’ fund raising event.
In April that same year the Saskatoon (Saskatchewan) Girls’ Pipe Band was pictured in the paper. They comprised a group of High School girls and were trained by P/M Duncan Campbell a native of the island of Gigha.
The Elkes Girls’ Pipe Band was founded in 1935 in Uttoxeter, Staffordshire, England, and at first was known as the Dove Valley Bakeries Girls’ Pipe Band.
Their tutor, P/M W. F. MacMillan DCM, had joined the Cameron Highlanders in 1902, served in China and India during the 1914-18 war and afterwards had been appointed Pipe Major of the 2nd Battalion of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers. This was his first experience of a girls’ pipe band.
P/M MacMillan and all the girls, who were aged from 15 to 21, were employees of Messrs. C. H. Elkes & Son Ltd., biscuit manufacturers. Although practice was done in the evenings, many engagements were fulfilled during working hours.
Most of the girls had never even heard of the bagpipes, but P/M MacMillan had no difficulty getting volunteers for the band and was able to pick the most suitable girls for a training period of six months before they were admitted to the band.
The girls were supplied with their pipes and outfitted in Buchanan tartan by Peter Henderson Ltd of Glasgow and six months after their foundation were able to take their first engagement. In 1939 the band made a tour of Scotland, performing at Troon, Prestwick, Berwick upon Tweed, Glasgow and Edinburgh.
Although there were now some bands composed entirely of ladies, there were still ladies playing in male bands. In June 1938 it was reported that Donald Ramsay had been appointed Pipe Major of the Craigend (Falkirk) Pipe Band, which was composed of ten pipers, one a lady, and four drummers.
The Scottish Pipe Band Association Annual Report dated 1st February 1938, stated that close on 90 bands were now members of the Association and this included two Ladies’ Bands.
On 25th June 1938 a pipe band contest was held in the Western Park, Renfrew. A feature of the gathering was a contest for the Ladies’ World Championship, with a trophy presented by Mrs Michie, wife of the Provost.
The winners were the Scottish Ladies (Coatbridge and District), under P/M Sadie Wilson, sister of solo prizewinner Helen Wilson. At the Cowal Games that year two girls bands played in the juvenile contest. They were the Harthill Girls Jubilee and Braemar Girls bands.
The Ladies’ contest was again held at Renfrew in 1939 and the Ladies’ World Championship was won by Harthill Girls under P/M Miss B. McMaster.
- To be continued. Do you have experience of a ladies pipe band? If so please get in touch.