Remembering the Glory Days Among the Bands at Cowal Highland Gathering

As part of our Lockdown Challenge we invited readers to submit a piece of artwork, an essay or a new tune to be judged by our experts and prizes awarded. Today we have an essay from reader Ian Forbes who looks back with some fondness on the once great Cowal Gathering – see Massed Bands pic above. Please keep the entries coming in. Send to the usual address

I remember those wonderful glory days at Cowal with deep nostalgia….. Saturday started with getting dressed in the band full No.1 uniform at a ridiculously early hour, then going to the nearest pick-up point to wait for the ‘band bus. One hour later we arrived at Gourock and boarded the busy Cal-Mac ferry.  The 30 minute trip ‘doon the watter’ was part of the excitement, and soon we were docking into Dunoon pier.

By Ian Forbes

After disembarking, despite orders from the P/M to the contrary, we snuck off to a local pub for a swift pint to wet the whistle (actually it was two or three pints). Then back to the band assembly point in the Castle Gardens, a quick tune up, and a search for the ‘board boy’ carrying the name of our band. Following ‘the nod’ from the parade marshal, we proceeded to make the exciting march up the road to the park, playing some locally composed 6/8 marches. Wonderful!

Having arrived in the park, after drying the pipes, we were told by the Pipey to go and eat something, and then come back at the agreed time for tuning up prior to the competition. Failure to come back at this exact time would result in an immediate court martial!

Oh, how those greasy pies and sausage rolls slipped down a treat, lubricated again with some lukewarm Scottish beer. Just wandering around the stadium with other band members created great camaraderie and strengthened existing friendships.

When we re-assembled, it was time for some serious tuning-up to prepare for the contest. For many of us, Cowal was by far a more prestigious event than the Worlds and we were all buzzing with anticipation. Who were the judges? How favourable was our draw position? Which band was on just before us or just after us? 

Rolls Royce Pipe Band under P/M Jim Henderson. Ian is far right and Tom Johnstone (with fluff on chin) is top right

These were the questions running through everyone’s mind. After one hour or so, we were almost ready to march to the competition starting line. The P/M was screaming last minute instructions to us including ‘a clean attack’, ‘blow steadily’, ‘remember the expression’. The nerves really notched up a gear now.

This was it. Onto the field, after much shouting and gesticulation from the stewards, and up to the line. We gave it our all, and we did not disappoint. Six minutes of music delivered with pure adrenaline and concentration. We were all delighted with the performance, and importantly, no trailing drones at the end! After marching off, there was a quick post mortem, then on to the beer tent. 

In the beer tent, the banter was amazing, with so many friends not just in our band, but in many other bands. We all knew each other, and offered our best wishes to our rivals for a good result for everyone. Trying to get served in the beer tent was a challenge in itself! Then it was time to stroll around the park, clutching plastic pint pot in hand. Time to listen to the ‘big boys’. Glasgow Police, Edinburgh [Lothian & Borders] Police and Muirheads were the bands everyone was talking about.

A glimpse of Ian McLellan talking calmly to his cadre of top soloist pipers, or Bob Hardie screaming instructions to his band, or Iain McLeod tuning drones while his band was playing (no meters in those days!) were iconic moments that no-one would ever forget. Who would win the top prize? 

Of this picture Ian says: ‘This is me playing in George Square some time in the early 1970s during August. A single piper playing for the crowds was the fore-runner of what happens today at Piping Live. It was organised by the RSPBA and Tommy Johnstone and I took it in turns’

We all had our favourite bands, but so did the judges! Sitting on the grassy embankments, we also enjoyed watching the other great events: solo piping, Highland dancing, track and field events – all taking place on the same day. An amazing superabundance of Scottish culture, and a real masterpiece in planning and organisation.

As the afternoon drew to a close, we had to meet up for the interminable massed bands and march past. Nobody really enjoyed this, because it took over two hours and overfull bladders were under severe strain.

Clydebank & District on the interminable march of 1,000 pipers at Cowal

Then the results came, first the lower grades, then eventually our grade, Grade 2. Amazingly, we had won 5th place in an exceptionally strong field including many legendary Irish bands (St Patrick’s, Robert Armstrong Memorial). We were delighted. This was the pinnacle of our pipe band year. Tears of joy ran down many faces. 

But now, silence had descended in the stadium for the eagerly awaited Grade 1 results. And the result…… Edinburgh Police had done it again, and won the marching and discipline too. What a great band they were, but so were the other top bands who had narrowly missed out on the number one slot.

Edinburgh City Police on their famous Pinces Street Parade during the Festival. The band, sadly, no longer exists

Now, there was the great stampede to march down the road. This was a spectacle beyond belief. Great bands playing majestic tunes and marching down the historic Argyll Street watched by 20,000 or 30,000 spectators. The roar from the crowd was deafening.

People lined the street five or six deep, residents perched on their window ledges, even climbing a lamp post could provide an extra few seconds of viewing pleasure. The most deafening roar was of course for the Edinburgh Polis. They had nailed it, again. What an outstanding leader, motivator and musician was P/M Iain McLeod.

After listening to all the street performances and watching the amazing fireworks display, it was back to the pier and ferry for the journey home. Cal-Mac ran non-stop ferries that day, so everyone was guaranteed a place. Then, eventually back home after a 15 hour day full of great piping, emotion, enjoyment and friendship.

Shotts playing down the road at Cowal after winning the Grade 1 title in 1996

It is truly heart-breaking that the Cowal Committee and the RSPBA could not agree on a sustainable way forward that would have preserved this great and truly unique Highland festival in all its grandeur, enjoyed each year by almost 50,000 visitors from all over the world.

  • Of his early years Ian writes…..I learned the pipes in the 1960s in that great institution the Boys Brigade in Glasgow. After further instruction with the Anchor Mills Pipe Band in Paisley, I played for many happy years with the Clan McRae Society (later moving en masse to the Rolls Royce Pipe Band) under P/Ms John Finlay, Jim Henderson and Tom Johnstone. Unfortunately, I had to move south for work reasons, but I always visited the Worlds every year. 2020 will be the first time in over 50 years that I will, sadly, not be able to watch the Worlds.

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1 thought on “Remembering the Glory Days Among the Bands at Cowal Highland Gathering

  1. Fond memories of Cowal Games also, I was there with a party of pals from 1979 to the end and because we travelled from the South it was a full weekend trip camping initially then as we aged moving into small hotels! Great stamina needed! Many good friends made centred principally around The Lorne Bar in Argyll Street initially run by the wonderful Hughie Wallace who allowed us into his inner snug sanctum where the solo piping judges gathered. I agree it was tragic that such a great festival and showcase was allowed to die!

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