A Look Back at Grade 1 at Cowal in 1968 and the MSRs Bands Played at that Time

Following on from reader Trevor Clydesdale’s list of the tunes submitted for the Grade 1 1970 ‘Medley’ Worlds, reader Ian Forbes asked for a programme from yesteryear showing the MSRs bands played back then.

Within a few hours another reader, who asked not to be named, sent us in the 1968 Cowal programme. It makes interesting reading, writes the Editor.

Notice the iconic cover which was used for many years by the Cowal committee to front their publication. It is redolent of the old railway and MacBrayne’s ferry posters of the 30s and 40s. Price 1/6d, which in today’s money is about 7p.

In these days everyone went to Cowal. It was second only to the Worlds in importance, especially given that before WW2 it used to be considered just that – the World Pipe Band Championship. The winners in Grade 1 (£50) were the Edinburgh City Police under P/M Iain McLeod, with Muirhead & Sons (£40) and P/M RG Hardie in second.

This must have a been a big win for the Edinburgh band given that only a couple of months earlier Muirheads had won the Worlds on their home patch at Grangemouth. In these days the Worlds was held end of June and Cowal is, as everyone knows, end of August.

The Edinburgh cops are pictured up top with the Cowal G1 trophy, the huge Argyll Shield. Apart from P/M McLeod, I recognise George Lumsden far right next to the Drum Major, Lawrie Gillespie (a fine jig player) behind the Chief Constable, Colin Forbes, two to the left of the P/M, Harry McNulty on Colin’s left, and L/D Bob Montgomery behind piper Gillespie. Please fill in the gaps if you can and forward to us.

Third went to the 1967 winners, City of Glasgow Police under P/M Ronnie Lawrie (£30), fourth to Shotts & Dykehead (£20) under P/M Jock MacAllister and fifth (£10) to P/M Tom MacPherson’s Renfrew. I don’t know much about P/M MacPherson so again, all info gratefully received. Ineterstingly, the G1 drumming was also won by Renfrew and I wonder if their leading tip then was Joe Noble, the former 214 BB boy and RSPBA adjudicator now retired.

Cowal’s famous G1 bass drum prize was won by whoever was on the mallets for Edinburgh City Police, again any information welcomed. (Whilst on drumming, there was a big win that day for Fintan Lalor from Dublin who took that prize in Grade 2.)

There were only nine bands in Grade 1. To add to those above we have Polkemmet Colliery (P/M Johnny Barnes), Woolmet and Monktonhall Colliery, P/M Norrie Summors, Clan MacRae, P/M Andy Bell and Red Hackle, P/M Johnny Weatherston.

Now to the tunes. The programme says that bands must play ‘two part tunes twice over and four part tunes once over’, the sort of instruction reserved nowadays for the lower grades and not Grade 1. It goes on to list 50 different MSR sets. These cannot have been only confined to the top grade. I seem to remember that bands then had to submit two MSRs (an abbreviation never used 50+ years ago in Scotland), so in G1 that would have meant 18 sets, probably the more difficult ones shown.

Anyway the list makes interesting reading. Unfortunately the scan is not great but you should be able to make out most of the tunes on the list:

I counted 25 different marches. When do we ever hear a band tackle Dr MacLeod of Alnwick, Leaving Lunga, Blackmount Forest, John MacFadyen of Melfort, Glenfinnan Highland Gathering, P/M John Stewart, Jeannie Carruthers or the Duchess of Edinburgh? All great tunes and sadly neglected.

There was much less diversity in strathspeys. I counted 16, ranging from easier stuff such as Loch Loskin, Captain Colin Campbell and Caledonian Canal, perhaps from the lower grades, to the heavy standards, Bogan Lochan, Blair Drummond and Cameronian Rant. Again all fine tunes.

Of the reels I tallied 25 with some terrific melodies seldom heard in the bands these days: Salmon Leap, Champion Piper, The Flagon, Dolina MacKay. These can be placed alongside the usual suspects which don’t feature as much as they do today: John Morrison, Assynt House, Mrs MacPherson, Pretty Marion, Smith of Chilliechassie.

I cannot place mamny of the MSR sets with bands but maybe readers can help. Sets 20 and 27 were Muirheads. 37 and 39 would be Edinburgh Police. 44 would be Shotts (P/M Tom MacAllister) and 49, Glesca Polis (big Ronnie’s Glenfinnan Highland Gathering). All suggestions to pipingpress@gmail.com.

Would bands consider using the current down time freshening up their MSRs? Worth a thought. Be good to hear new pieces when we come roaring back (fingers crossed) in 2021.

  • Many thanks to all those who have complimented PP on keeping interest alive during this very flat period for piping and pipe bands. We rely on readers keeping us supplied with their stories and information, more so now than ever, so please let us have your pictures, memories and comments no matter how minor you may feel they are.

5 thoughts on “A Look Back at Grade 1 at Cowal in 1968 and the MSRs Bands Played at that Time

  1. 1968 was a significant and highlighted year for the City of Leeds pipe Band (P/M Jeff Nixon), who took the top spot in grade 4 playing Duncan MacInnes (if I recall correctly). Just prior, we had taken delivery of our new matched ‘Hardie’ blackwood chanters and our Pipe Sergeant at the time was Willie Bell (ex Ayr PB and Glasgow Shepherds) who was a great friend of Fraser Melvin who was inveigled to help set up our chanters that day down by Highland Mary’s statue. I think it was about the same year we appeared on Hughie Green’s “Opportunity Knocks” TV programme. Good times.

  2. I concur Donald McBride’s statement. When I was a young piper playing in grade 1 in the 1960s, we submitted three march, strathspey and reel sets. That, of course, changed in 1970 when the MSR was dropped altogether in favour of two medleys.

  3. Hi Robert,
    As a young lad of about 13 I joined the Grade 1 Clan Fraser Pipe Band in Glasgow. The Pipe Major was Fraser Melvin (a pupil of Bobby Reid) and one of the pipers in the band was the late Tommy MacPherson, who, as a young boy, I looked up to and admired. He left and went to Renfrew Pipe Band. Also in the band at that time was the late Bill Fortune who went on to join the Glasgow Police Pipe Band. Another excellent player in the “Fraser” then was Jim Dow who joined Renfrew and then Muirheads. I listened and learned from them all. Happy days.
    All the very best to you,
    Tom Morris.

  4. It was a long time ago but I think that up through 1969 the Grade 1 bands submitted three MSRs, Grade 2 two, Grade 3 one, and Grade 4 one 2/4 March.

    Muirhead’s MSRs were 18, 19 and 20. Edinburgh Police’s were 37, 38 and 39. At the Worlds that year Muirheads won with their Donald Cameron set. Edinburgh Police, in my humble eight-year-old opinion played better, but they played their Mrs Margaret Anderson set, and I think Iain McLeod’s choice of unorthox, non-mainstream marches used to cost them dear (The Conumdrum, Royal Scottish Pipers’ Society, and the aforementioned Mrs Margaret Anderson).

  5. The Edinburgh Police line up is as follows;
    Back row l to r, Davie Boyle, Alex Duthart, Murdo Murray, George Brown, Roy Miller, Tam Ritchie and John McIntosh.
    Front row l to r, Iain McLeod, Davie Laird, Colin Forbes, Harry McNulty, Alex Shand, Laurie Gillespie, Martin Wilson, Chris Anderson, Bob Gibson, George Lumsden and Jimmy Hermiston.
    I believe the uniformed officer to be the band president Chief superintendent Jimmy Ballentyne.

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