P/M Bob Shepherd MBE: A Tribute to one of the Great Pipe Band Figures of the 20th Century

With the passing of Bob Shepherd MBE piping and the pipe band community have lost one of its legendary personalities.  Bob will be remembered as a successful pipe band teacher and leader, an innovative manufacturer of piping products as well as someone who played an immense role in the progressive development of pipe band music. 

Among his greatest attributes were his depth of understanding of bagpipes and pipe bands, his ability as a teacher and tutor, his leadership qualities as well as his business acumen and innovative talents which enabled him to build and develop a bagpipe and pipe band supplies business with an international reputation to the highest standards.

By Alastair Aitken OBE

Born on 28 April 1938, Bob grew up in Lochore in Fife, a mining community in which the local colliery had both pipe and brass bands.  After initially learning to play the piano aged 10, his grandfather’s influence led him to taking his first pipe lessons in the Lochore Juvenile Pipe Band under Pipe Major Hugh MacPherson.  On reaching 14 he joined the Dundonald Colliery Pipe Band (later to become known as Dysart & Dundonald) and also took solo piping tuition from the late Walter Drysdale.

Following National Service in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME) Bob undertook teacher training at Moray House School of Education in Edinburgh and was subsequently appointed as a Maths teacher at Ballingry School in Fife.  This coincided with the threatened demise of the Dysart band and Bob was asked to take over its leadership to ensure that piping was maintained in the community. 

Bob teaching the boys at Ballingry School

He initiated a tuition programme for young people at Ballingry School during lunch breaks and after school hours.  It proved to be highly successful and a revitalised Dysart band progressed quickly taking the pipe band scene by storm during the late 1960s and into the ’70s. 

The band tasted its first competitive success in 1968, taking first place in Grade 3 at Dunblane Highland Games.  After then winning the Champion of Champions title in Grade 3 the band was promoted to Grade 2 in 1970, and in 1971 the success swiftly continued by winning the Champion of Champions title in Grade 2. 

From 1973 the band started to become a major force in Grade 1, culminating in winning the Grade 1 World Pipe Band Championships in 1977 and 1978.  To date Bob Shepherd is the only Pipe Major to have taken the same group of youngsters through the RSPBA grades to achieve the ultimate accolade of winning the prestigious Grade 1 World Pipe Band Championship. 

Bob receives the Worlds trophy from Lord Elgin

The band was renowned worldwide for its distinctive sound as well as its innovative approach to pipe band musical interpretation, ably assisted by its drum corps led by Leading Drummer James King.  One of the band’s innovative musical compositions, which Bob often referred to as his “Bluebells” medley, and which included a distinctive interpretation of the tune “The Banjo Breakdown”, is still fondly remembered by many in the pipe band community.

Bob Shepherd achieved even more success with his tuition programme at Ballingry School, the school pipe band having an impressive record in competitions in the Novice Juvenile and Juvenile grades.  In 1987 the creation of a new High School in Lochgelly resulted in the closure of Ballingry School.  At that time the teaching programme was extended further when Bob was appointed the first full-time Piping instructor for Fife Region, based in Lochgelly.

1984 also saw the formation of Bob Shepherd’s bagpipe manufacture and pipe band supplies business “R T Shepherd & Son (Scotland) Ltd”, based in Cardenden in Fife.  Over the years the company has progressed to become one of the leading manufacturers of bagpipes, pipe chanters, drone and chanter reeds, tone enhancers and Scottish smallpipes, exporting its products to a wide range of countries worldwide. 

The poster celebrating RT Shepherd’s 50 years service to the piping and pipe band worlds

In particular Shepherd chanters and reeds are played by many of the world’s leading and successful pipe bands, including multiple winners of the Grade 1 World Pipe Band Championships such as Shotts & Dykehead Caledonia and Field Marshal Montgomery Pipe Bands. 

Bob was also renowned for the educational seminars he conducted on all aspects of pipe bands, in many countries which included Europe, Canada, USA, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.  His personal method of teaching is set out in his tutor book “LEARN TO PLAY THE BAGPIPES”.

Another significant feature of Bob Shepherd’s life was his involvement with the Royal Scottish Pipe Band Association (RSPBA).  His lengthy service (since at least 1974 until 2013) as a (sometimes controversial) piping and ensemble adjudicator is well known worldwide.  Perhaps less well known is his contribution to RSPBA education and adjudicator training, activities about which he was very passionate. 

He served as a former Piping Principal of the SPBA Pipe Band College which existed before the creation of the existing Music Board.  He served as a member of the RSPBA Adjudicators’ Training Group from its formation in the early 1990s until his retirement from the RSPBA in 2013, during which time many efforts were made to improve the standards of pipe band adjudication. 

Bob on judging duty in 1998

Bob was also co-author of the booklet “The Language of Music: Applying the concept to pipe bands” which formed the basis of the RSPBA’s “Musical Appreciation and Presentation” project, aimed at improving the performance of Grade 4 and Novice Juvenile pipe bands.  He also played an important role in the project which led to the formation of the Piping and Drumming Qualifications Board (PDQB) and development of the subsequent national piping and pipe band drumming qualifications which are now certificated jointly by the Scottish Qualifications Authority and the PDQB.  

Bob Shepherd was a fervent supporter of the concept of pipe band ensemble, reflecting the combined musical effect of all the instruments involved in the collective pipe band.  He had a vision of educating pipers and drummers to become “pipe band musicians” rather than the traditional focus on separate piping and pipe band drumming disciplines. 

As part of that vision he was a leading contributor to the development of a “Pipe Band Studies” qualification and related teaching programme as part of the PDQB project.  This envisaged a focus on how to develop and administer a successful pipe band, methods of teaching and tune selection, a clearer definition of the concept of pipe band ensemble, and advice on how to plan and present different types of pipe band performances. 

The approach was significantly different to the traditional piping and drumming qualifications which tend to have the main focus on playing ability.  Unfortunately, despite reaching an advance stage, the planned qualification was eventually abandoned primarily due to the ever present “pipe band politics” and possible some misunderstanding of its purpose.  One of Bob Shepherd’s greatest disappointments was that his vision in this respect was never achieved.

The foregoing represents only a summary of Bob Shepherd’s immense legacy to piping and pipe bands.  In 2002 his efforts in piping and teaching were recognised by HM The Queen with the award of Member of the British Empire (MBE), the investiture taking place at Buckingham Palace in London.  In 2013 Bob was also appointed an Honorary Life Member of the RSPBA, reflecting the major contribution he made to the work of the Association.

Bob and Dorothy and the painting by Robert Mathieson. The occasion was the appointment of Bob as a Life Member of the RSPBA

Our sincere sympathies go to Bob’s wife, Dorothy, and his wider family for their sad loss.

  • Bob’s funeral will take place on Tuesday 5 November at 2.15pm at Kirkcaldy Crematorium, Rosemount Avenue, Kirkcaldy KY2 6HQ followed by a get together at the Dean Park Hotel, Chapel Level, Kirkcaldy KY2 6HF.

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