My book ‘A Boys’ Brigade Collection of Bagpipe Music’, published earlier this year, was dedicated to the memory of twins Dennis and Alan Finch. Dennis was good enough to write the Foreword for me but unfortunately did not live to see the book published. I regarded it an honour to have him involved since he hated to thrust himself forward, always thinking of others and the boys he served and never of himself.

Dennis, the ex-Captain of the 5th Croydon BB Company and Hon. President of the Croydon Battalion, died at the age of 92 yrs. He was the remaining twin of the notable ‘Finch Brothers’ who were instrumental in maintaining the 5th Company at a very high level of efficiency from shortly after the war until the early 1990s.

By John H Shone

I well remember an incident at the Royal Albert Hall when the Edinburgh Battalion Pipes and Drums joined the 5th Croydon Company to play at the great display held around May each year. One would have thought Dennis, as Captain and President of the Croydon Btn., would want to take at least some of the limelight in front of the 6,000 audience. But no! Where was Dennis I asked? Oh sir, replied one of the boys, he is down in the basement, looking after the kit! That was typical of this self-effacing man.

Dennis was Captain of the 5th from 1958 to 1976 going on to be appointed the Croydon Battalion President, but remaining a Lieutenant in the 5th. It was In 1946 that he became an Army conscript and was posted to Singapore where he was instrumental in starting a BB company. He told me that, while he was there, he had the grizzly job of supervising the disposal of the Japanese soldiers executed for war crimes. 

My book mentions two of my teachers, both ‘greats’ of the piping scene, namely Donald MacPherson BEM and P/M J B Robertson MBE. These two men dominated solo piping from the early 1930s through to the late 1980s. JB was arguably the dominant competing piper from the 1930s to 1947. Unfortunately the war intervened in 1939 and put ‘big Robbie’ out of action until 1946.

He spent much of the war as garrison RSM of Cairo and the surrounding district. He served in the 2nd Btn. Scots Guards and after the war settled in Chelsea becoming Piping Instructor at both Cambridge University and Eton College.

My book contains some of JB’s unpublished tunes, one of which is a superb heavy reel named The Individual composed for his friend, David Ross of Rosehall. This is well worth a place in the competing pipers’ repertoire, not only because it is a great tune, but if placed in any list of tunes it is almost certain none of the judges would be familiar with it and this is considered by some a great advantage.

P/M JB Robertson

Donald MacPherson needs very little introduction to the modern piping fraternity. Donald was born in 1922 and died in 2009. To say he dominated the piping scene from 1948 till the end of the century is no exaggeration. The book broadly covers his career, from his early days in the BB, until his retirement from playing, becoming a senior and much sought after judge. I publish some of his better known tunes and my own tribute piobaireachd The Lament for Donald MacPherson.

What Donald would have said about my tune for him I think I know. I visited his home, Curlew Cottage, Balbeggie in Perthshire, on numerous occasions for instruction. After I had played for him he would always say ‘very good John, but…….come and sit down’. He would then proceed to pick up his chanter and show where I could improve.

One of the last photos of Dennis Finch with his wife with some of ‘his boys’

He said to me on more than one occasion, that he would not recommend composing piobaireachd ‘since, John, we only have nine notes and it is very difficult, quite unconsciously, not to repeat what has already been written down in the circa 200 piobaireachd at our command’.

As no doubt readers would have heard or read about, Donald’s pipe had a tone beyond all others I have heard on the boards. Was it Donald or the pipe? I really cannot say, but what I do know is the instrument was so easy to play. On one occasion when he let me play it, I immediately over blew it. It was so easy yet produced great volume.

It is a great tragedy that the modern recordings we have of his playing do not do justice to the sound of his instrument. Many pipers would travel miles just to hear his instrument, it stood out above all others.

My book has many new tunes from a variety of both old and new composers, including compositions of JB and Donald, plus four new piobaireachd by myself.

As much as I am reluctant to write about my own book, since publication it is remarkable the number of pipers who have contacted me about the way they were introduced to piping – the Boys’ Brigade. 

One of the latest is Andrew Wright. He is of course one of our greatest authorities on piobaireachd and past President of the Piobaireachd Society. I often had the pleasure of listening to Andrew’s playing in London contest in either the Bratach Gorm or Gillies Cup contests in which he gained a prize on many occasions. 

The great Donald MacPherson features in the book

Andrew was one of our most reliable of contestants, appearing year after year. It was always a great joy to hear him play and one tune I remember was The Lament for Donald Duaghal Mackay.

He tells me his first introduction to the pipes was through the Boy’s Brigade. He was taught in 213th BB Company in Govan, Glasgow. He still has, he told me, the original practice chanter he was given at that time.

Others have written to Piping Press and it was most gratifying to read this from Roddy Taylor, ex-Captain and P/Maj of 44th Dundee BB Coy. : ‘Many thanks for the quick fulfilment of my order for the BB music book from Mr Shone which arrived with today’s post.  

‘It has proved a fascinating read in these difficult times and brought back some very happy memories of playing with the 5th Croydon at Edinburgh Battalion’s Beating Retreat ceremonies through the 80s and most recently in 2017. I was a member of Dundee Battalion’s bands’ committee when Neil Macpherson of 65th Edinburgh won the tune competition for our battalion centenary in 1991. 

‘The tune reproduced in the new book was named Dundee Battalion Centenary. Neil was a good friend to my own company 44th Dundee which is based in Broughty Ferry,  Neil’s old home town where his sister in law still resides.

‘The photograph of the Edinburgh and Croydon bands playing at Edinburgh Castle Esplanade in 1986 includes the 44th Dundee pipers. The young laddie on the far left with red pipe bag cover is Dougie Rennie who took over from me in 2016 and now runs the 44th band. Dougie is also a long time member playing with the MacKenzie Caledonia PB.

‘Our 44th BB pipe band joined 1st Monifieth two years ago to practise and play together with great benefits to both companies. Sadly, like everyone else our chanter, drum and band practices have been suspended for now. Again many thanks for the best ‘pick-me-up’ purchase in a good while.’

* Order the Boys’ Brigade Collection of Bagpipe Music here. All profits from the book go to the Boys’ Brigade.

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