Drummer’s Corner: 1948 and the Emergence of the Great Alex Duthart

Alex Duthart and his Shotts corps from the late 1950s ten years after he emerged on the pipe band drumming scene as the leading exponent of his era

We are grateful to Alan Chatto, Australia, for forwarding this article from the ‘Piping, Drumming and Highland Dancing Journal’, the forerunner to the SPBA’s ‘Pipe Band’ Magazine. Many of those listed went on to become household names in the pipe band world: Alex Connell of Strathclyde Police, Betty Jeffrey, later wife of RG Hardie, Alick McCormick, Glasgow Police, Gordon Jelly, Billy Stevenson, Jock Kerr, Jim Hutton, Jimmy Catherwood….

THERE is something in a name, they say. So far as the Open Solo Drumming Contest organised by the Scottish Pipe Band Association was concerned, no venue could be more appropriately named than Clan House, Grove Street, Edinburgh (which housed the competition on Saturday, 25th March).

The usually serene Saturday afternoon in Grove Street resounded to the skirl of the pipes and the staccato rattle of differently pitched drums. Opposite the Clan House – a new Edinburgh Dance Hall – lies the historical factory and showroom of one of Scotland’s premier bagpipe makers, James Robertson and Sons.

It is doubtful if these old walls ever echoed to such a babel of piping and drumming. Inside the hall itself, the limited seating capacity was filled, indeed many more seats could, and should, have been available. The contest, open to Scotland, was opened by Mr William MacLean, President of the Scottish Pipe Band Association.

Drummers of all ages from all over the country competed. Among the well-known ‘stars’ of the sticks, were seen Duthart (Dalziel Highland), Catherwood (Edinburgh Police), Ferguson (Edinburgh Police), Alick McCormack (Glasgow Police – Principal of the Drumming College), James Hamilton (Arniston Colliery), James Blackley (Edinburgh Special Constabulary), William Paterson (Clan MacRae Society of Glasgow) and Gordon Jelly (Shotts and Dykehead Caledonia).

Among the spectators were Douglas MacLeod (Edinburgh), Charles Davis (Red Hackle Pipe Band), and many other enthusiasts. Drum Major AD Hamilton (Newton Mearns), Scotland’s outstanding authority on drurnming and drummers, was also seen later in the afternoon. The judges, Drum Majors David Lyle, Menstrie, and Neil Campbell, Perth, were under cover.

The acoustics of a hall always bear greatly on the quality of the performance. In the case of the Clan House, it seemed that the drumming was very clear, but the drummers experienced difficulty in hearing the pipes properly. The sound seemed to lift and become diffused in the high centre vault of the ceiling.

It was perhaps unfortunate that the competitors could not position themselves, but had to stand on a small stage under a low part of the dance floor some distance away, and under the high vault. Clan House was nevertheless an improvement on some of the dingy apartments in which some of the contests have been held in the past.

Alex Duthart was a blacksmith to trade and worked in the Lanarkshire steel mills. He attributed his strength of wrist to working with irons and could often be found during breaks practising with them on an anvil. This photograph is from when he played with the B Cal band when he gave this impromptu performance at a gala day where wrought iron products were on offer

There was one great fault which must be remedied if these contests are to be really successful, and that is the lack of tuning and practising space. Clan House lacked both. There is no doubt it will be difficult to obtain ideal premises where 50 or 60 pipers and drummers can tune their instruments and go over their competition pieces before going on the boards.

‘I’he S.P.B.A. committee deserve congratulations, however, for the excellent provision of catering and refreshments within the four walls of the building. This greatly improved the continuity of the competition. It must be forcibly impressed on the audieces that this matter of calling ‘good old so and so’ whenever a favourite competitor takes the stand must be stopped if the expected fairness of under cover judging is to materialise.

Following are the principal prizewinners, followed by a list of other competitors and points received:
1 Alexander Duthart, Dalziel Highland, 191 points
2 James Blackley, Edinburgh Special Constabulary, 189 points
3 William Stevenson, Dalziel Highland, 187 points
4 John Kerr, Kingshill Colliery No. 2, 186 points
5 Gordon Jelly, Shotts and Dykehead, 186 points
6 James Welsh, Bowhill Colliery, 186 points

Other competitors in order of points: A. Healey, Renfrew, 186; John Whalley, Glasgow Police, 185; James MacKenzie, Dalziel Highland, 185; James Catherwood, Edinburgh Police, 184; John Kirkwood, Newmains and District, 184; James Gray, Muirhead and Sons, 184; James Hutton, Muirhead and Sons, 184; Harry Blackley, 47th B.B. (Edinburgh), 183 (Special mention is made of young Harry Blackley, brother of James Blackley, Edinburgh Special Constabulary, for putting up such a fine show in this important contest. He looks like being a worthy opponent to his brother in the near future); John Paterson, Shotts and Dykehead, 183; Alick McCormick. Glasgow Police, 183; J. Colville, Kingshill No. 2, 181; William Paterson, Clan MacRae, 181; A. Colville, Kingshill No. 2, 181; John Ferguson, Edinburgh Police, 179; David Richardson, Pumpherston, 179; D. Syme, Rutherglen, 179; William Turnbull, Clan MacRae, 179; Ian Holland, Muirhead and Sons, 178; Alexander MacCa!lum, Craigneuk Parish, 178 John Douglas, Edinburgh Police 176; Tom Hunter, Newmains, 176; John Kirkwood, Newmains and District, 174; Alexander Connell, Clan MacRae, 174; Henry Mitchell, Pumpherston, 174; Andrew Greig, 47th B.B. (Edinburgh), 173; Andrew Swan, Airdrie Highland, 172; Henry Wallace, Edinburgh Postal, 172; Robert Burns, Airdrie Highland, 171; James Hamilton, Arniston Colliery, 170; Ian Gillon, Arniston Colliery, 170; George Grant, Rosewell, 170; Thomas Hislop, Clan MacRae, 169; E. Wright, Rutherglen, 169; James Brown, Stevenston, 169; David Armit, Newmains, 167; and Miss Betty Jeffrey, Clan Stewart Ladies, 167.

1 thought on “Drummer’s Corner: 1948 and the Emergence of the Great Alex Duthart

  1. My father Jimmy Graham played pipes in the Dalziel Highland Pipe Band with Alex Duthart, and also with Shotts and Dykehead when Alex moved there. This would be in the late 50s and early 60s when I was living in Wishaw and attending Wishaw High School. My clear memory is of Alex being in our house at my father’s request to show a would-be drummer how it was done and to encourage me to take it up seriously. I was certainly awed by his amazing skill and technique on the practice pad, but all I really wanted to be was Ringo Starr. But I persevered long enough on the practice pad to fake some ability and initially drummed with the 3rd Wishaw Boys Brigade band, followed by rock drumming for The Corvettes, a Wishaw rock band. I attended many Cowal Games where my dad and Alex played, and still get a lump in my throat when I think of hearing the massed pipes and drums coming over the hill at twilight. I realize this post is a bit self-serving, but coming across this post about Alex Duthart brought so many memories flooding back that I hope whoever reads this will understand and forgive. Warm regards.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *