Pioneers of Pipe Band Drumming

Recently I posted on Piping Press drumming advice written during the 1940s and 50s by all-time greats Jimmy Catherwood and George Pryde. I have now taken a look through other papers collected over the years of my involvement with the RSPBA, particularly as a member of the Association’s former Historical Research Group. 

By Alistair Aitken OBE,
former RSPBA Adjudicator

Other prominent legendary pipe band drumming pioneers of the early 20th century included Paddy Donovan, Alex McCormick, Gordon Jelly and Alex D Hamilton.  Along with Messrs Catherwood and Pryde, and many others, these individuals all made a leading contribution to developing the standards of pipe band drumming and pipe band music which exist today. 

Some of them also helped develop the Scottish Pipe Band Association (SPBA) from its inception in 1930, the Association’s Piping and Drumming College, and the expansion of pipe band music to many other countries such as Australia and North America in particular.  

Among the papers I had acquired were copies of articles written for different publications by Allan Chatto OAM from Sydney in Australia about the influence of Messrs Donovan, McCormick and Jelly. 

Allan has confirmed to me that he has no objections to these articles being reproduced on Piping Press as part of this posting.  His article on Paddy Donovan has in fact already appeared on Piping Press in April 2019 but it does no harm in referring to it again in view of his close relationship with the others mentioned. 

Biographies of Jimmy Catherwood and Alex Hamilton, which I prepared some time ago in conjunction with Allan Chatto, can be found in the History Section of the RSPBA website ( ).  I have also unearthed interesting papers written by Alex Hamilton which were given to me by Allan Chatto and the late Tony Harris, when Tony and I were both members of the Historical Research Group.

Some of the younger readers of Piping Press, and possibly some of the older ones as well, might be interested in reading this history.  The papers illustrate some of the thinking in the pipe band world in the early 20th century as well as some of the problems faced by the SPBA after it was formed in 1930.  They might even make some people appreciate that many of their concerns or criticisms of today are anything but new.

Paddy Donovan

Paddy Donovan, from Dublin in the Republic of Ireland, clearly was a major influence on many individuals, perhaps most particularly on Jimmy Catherwood, but also on John Seton, Jack Seton and Alex McCormick (all former Leading Drummers of Glasgow Police Pipe Band) as well as on the legendary Alex Duthart. 

Paddy undoubtedly was a pioneer of drumming in pipe bands being accepted as musical accompaniment to bagpipe melodies.  He exchanged views, ideas and drum scores with many of his peers in Scotland and other countries. 

He also, of course, led the drum corps of the Fintan Lalor Pipe Band from Dublin to winning the Grade 1 drumming prize in 1939 in Dunoon in Scotland, when Cowal Games was recognised as the World Pipe Band Championships.  This was the first time the drumming award had gone to a pipe band outwith the UK. 

In the interests of accuracy, the Triumph Street Pipe Band from Canada achieved the same award at Nottingham in 1979, the first time an overseas pipe band had achieved this accolade at an RSPBA World Pipe Band Championships.

Read more on Paddy Donovan:

Jimmy Catherwood

As mentioned previously, Jimmy Catherwood was Leading Drummer of Edinburgh City Police Pipe Band between 1941 and 1951 under Pipe Majors Duncan Cameron and Donald Shaw Ramsay. 

He joined the Motherwell BB Pipe Band at the age of 12 and then progressed to Dalzell Highland Pipe Band, where he was tutored by John Duthart, Alex Duthart’s father. 

Like his friend Paddy Donovan, Jimmy was an advocate of composing drum scores which incorporated basic rudiments, rhythmic phrases and dynamics in such a way that they enhanced the musical interpretation of piping melodies. 

He pioneered new and varied methods of presenting drum scores, including orchestral percussion; and he also had a close relationship with Drum Major A D Hamilton of Glasgow who had similar ideas on pipe band musicianship. 

He also pioneered in Scotland Dr Fritz Berger’s ‘mono-linear’ system of drumming notation and was involved in the formation of the SPBA’s first Piping and Drumming Colleges.

  • To be continued.

1 thought on “Pioneers of Pipe Band Drumming

  1. Not wishing to detract from Triumph Street’s success, but Fintan Lalor won the RSPBA Worlds drum corp title in 1956.

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