Editor’s Notebook: A Sad, Sad Seven Days

What a grievous week this last. The passing of Bob Shepherd, Sandy MacPhee and Robert Turner represents a huge loss to piping and pipe bands. Sandy’s son Donald’s tribute to his father was touching and sincere. Sandy made a highly significant contribution to piping in the US and was respected on both sides of the Atlantic.

Donald wrote: ‘Dad was not only my dad but also my primary bagpipe teacher. He instilled in me a love for the instrument. He always told me, ‘do what you are going to do competitively, and when those days are behind you, give back in every way you can’.
He would have been proud to see Donald doing just that.

Robert Turner, doyen of drummers, was great company and a great musician. I knew him throughout my time at Muirheads from 1970 onwards. He took over as leading tip from Jim Hutton in 1964 after Jim departed for Shotts following a fall out with Bob Hardie.

Hardie, said Jim, didn’t value drummers highly enough. Faced with a problem, Bob turned to 20-year-old Rab, fresh from the 214 Boys Brigade band, and handed him the responsibility. I think what happened next is well known to everyone and has entered pipe band folklore.

Rather than not valuing drummers, Bob worked closely with Rab on MSR beatings which were ahead of their time. Between them they produced five Worlds titles in a row 1965 – 69 and still a record for a civilian band.

On practice nights Rab would take the corps away to a corner of the Muirheads sawmill in Grangemouth whilst the pipers were drilled on the practice chanter. For the last hour we would come together as a band.

On the bus on contest day Rab would join the pipers on the upturned pipe box as we precision practised phrasing and expression. Far from not valuing drummers, I would say that Bob Hardie considered them integral to his band’s success – though maybe Jim Hutton had a point and Bob learned from it.

Either way, Robert Turner’s place in pipe band history is assured. He will be remembered as a brilliant musician, lad o’ pairts and a welcoming, warm, human being.

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What can one say about the loss of Bob Shepherd? I first met him when he brought his Dysart band to Muirheads practices. They would sit round on the available chairs in the works canteen whilst we were put through our tunes. Bob worshipped Bob Hardie (Dysart Bob’s words) and there can be no doubt about the influence and knowledge taken back to Cardenden after these visits.

Bob Shepherd went on to win the Worlds on two occasions and he told me that his proudest moment was parading the trophy down the main street following in the footsteps of Chris Sutherland who had done the same thing with his Bowhill band when they won the first RSPBA Worlds title in 1947.

At the time of Bob’s success he got a fair bit of stick for a lot of the innovations he brought to pipe band performance: cutting the drone sound to let the chanters project; the application of ‘simple but effective’ ensemble touches; not letting fingerwork impede flow. But it clicked for him and he was right to enjoy the success whilst it lasted.

The best compliment I can give him is that he never lost the common touch. No matter his success with band or business Bob Shepherd remained of the people – whatever you thought of those huge cigars. A dedicated Fifer, an honest companion, a man of integrity and candour, never afraid to speak up and willing to help anyone who needed it, generous to a fault.

As Alastair Aitken pointed out in his superb tribute yesterday, Bob’s greatest achievement was probably in taking those scallywag lads from the pit lands of Ballingry to the summit of the pipe band world. He trained them all; shouted them into submission; talked the language they understood and gave them a life gift and a lift higher than any Lindsay coal bing.

Folk singer John Watt wrote the popular song ‘Fife’s Got Everything’. With Bob Shepherd they had even more.

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