Ladies’ Pipe Bands – A History Part 1

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.

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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. 

Pioneers…..the misses Rait, Smith and McBeath

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. 

An early picture of Vancouver Ladies

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. 

Elkes biscuit 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.

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14 thoughts on “Ladies’ Pipe Bands – A History Part 1

  1. Hi Jeannie
    My mother, Christina Shaw, nee Stewart and her friend Chrissie Nicholson were members of a Glasgow Ladies Pipe Band in the 50’s. William Reid brother of PM Robert Reid was PM and instructor. I have very little information regarding and would like to find out further details.

  2. There was a ladies pipe band in Port Elizabeth which my father, Eric Hugh Weycliffe Bonny inaugurated in the early to mid 1960’s. He was the pipe major of The Port Elizabeth City Pipe Band which he also started as a break away, stand alone band, from the Caledonian Pipe band. This was in the late 1950’s to early 1960’s. My father taught all the pipers from scratch and the same with the various drummers, side, snare, and base drum. He was the coach for the entire band, as well as pipe major. He then recognised the need for a separate ladies pipe band and that band thrived under his tutelage too. Both bands competed at the South African gatherings every year and I do know that they won a few times too. They were commissioned by the City Council of Port Elizabeth to play at various events during the year in Port Elizabeth, The Opening of the Summer Season, The Remembrance Day parade at the Cenotaph and various other events too. Sometimes the ladies and the men’s bands would play together at some events and both bands were quite prolific in Port Elizabeth. I know of one lady that I am still in contact with who played in The Ladies Band right from the start of the band and could give you her name and contact details as soon as I’ve cleared that with her. She now resides in England and has a number of photographs and would be able to give you a lot more and also more accurate details of the ladies band because she is that much older than me. She is in contact with quite a few of the ladies who were in the band over the years and so, would be of much more help to you than I could be. Both bands were very active until the late 1980’s when my father retired and both bands disbanded.

  3. My mother, Margaret Reid was a drummer with the Clan Stewart Ladies Pipeband in Glasgow in the 1940s. I have lots of photographs of her in the band and a few snippets of stories but not much else. Wondered if there is anyone with more information about this Pipeband?

      1. I don’t know who ran the Clan Stewart Ladies Pipe Band but perhaps there are archives or news paper articles that might shed some light on this?

      2. Hi Donald
        Apologies for delay in responding
        I have come across several mentions of Willie Reid
        Apparently he went under the nickname of ‘Snowball’
        It is very possible that he may have taught the City of Belfast Girl Pipers as he appears to have taught quite a few bands in Belfast.
        I believe he had been a ‘Black Watch’ piper who came out of the army in the 1940’s and joined the Shaftesbury Pipe Band were he taught a young PM Tommy Geddis who was a member before he went to the Robert Arnstrong Memorial. In the early 1970’s he was the ‘Pipe Master’ of an organisation called the Classicial Highland Pipe Society which was formed by quite a few members of the RAMS and which was motivated toward the playing of Piobaireachd. Apparently he had studied under PM Willie Ross. Hope this helps

    1. Just found the above article. My mother Betty Jeffrey was a drummer with the Clan Stewart Ladies in the late 40’s. Her sister Margaret was the drum major. I had photos but due to house damage lost them all. Would it be possible to forward any that you have to me? She won various competitions and competed against Alex Duthart et al. Later married R.G Hardie.

  4. In Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland there were a number of girls pipe bands but as far as I know there are none left .
    The City of Belfast Girls [they beat the Field Marshal Montgomery at a contest in the early 1950’s and many other male bands too] , the Balmoral Highland Lasses [Belfast], Debretta Ladies [Newtownards] and the Falls Highland Lasses, There may also have been an Ulster Girls but I am not sure about that

    Probably the most famous local ladies bands in Northern Ireland was the Faulat Girl Pipers [a Brian Boru pipe band] which operated out of the shirt factory owned by the President of the NI Branch Mr JA Faulkner. They gave displays of piping and Irish dancing at numerous World Championships in Scotland the 1956 event in Belfast. They also toured the Continent and played regularly in Scotland and England. There was a Bangor Girls Brigade Pipe Band for a short time – I know they were taught their marching by the late Cecil Shaw who taught many of the drum majors in the 1970’s 1980’s.
    There were a number of girls bands in Eire but one interesting point is that the following played at the first All Ireland Championships in 1946 namely City of Dublin Girls, Emerald Girls and Nua Eire Girls. I have also heard of a Ballybofey Ladies band.

  5. I have a published book on the history of the Fremantle Ladies Highland Pipe Band of Western Australia, of which my grandfather Archie MacMurchie was the founder and tutor. The book was written by Lynne Cairns a member of the band for many years. I was also a piper in the band. My father John MacMurchie tutored in piping in the band at times too.
    There was also another ladies pipe band, the Perth Ladies Highland Pipe Band, in Western Australia also. Both bands have been disbanded a number of years ago. At the time of their inception women were not welcome to play in the male bands, and there was a sense too that women would never be able to reach the standard of male players. As this changed at the international level, Australia followed suit and now most bands have female and male musicians.

  6. Vancouver Ladies PB was an solid concern well into the 1980s. Respectable players and wonderful spectacle. Quite an inspiration for a young man wanting to get into a pipe band. 🙂

  7. Many years ago on Coronation street Jack Duckworth was getting an earful from wife Vera. His response was ‘Belt up Vera you are worse than the Dagenham Girls pipers’.h

  8. Emerald girls were a famous band for many years in Dublin. Probably one of the first Irish bands to win a worlds title in any grade which they did in 1956 at the worlds in Belfast.

  9. Hi, Jeannie

    I know that there was a Ladies’ Pipe Band in Port Elizabeth, South Africa in the 70’s and 80’s, perhaps sooner. I shall try to get more information.

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