As the competition season approached, practices became more frequent and intense. The week before ‘The Worlds’ would involve several extra practices.
I remember one night having just completed a gruelling MSR comprising a six part march, an eight part strathspey, and an eight part reel. Hardie made no comment but casually said, ‘We’ll try that again’!
By Gordon Ferguson
Yes, these were solid practices and we were ‘match fit’ by the time the season came round. The year Hardie brought the march Jeannie Carruthers into the repertoire we practiced it so much that Pipe Sergeant Andra Dowie commented that the birds in Grangemouth were whistling the tune!
Often before a major competition the ‘Glasgow Pipers’ – members of the band from the west – would be billeted with their counterparts or perhaps committee members from Grangemouth or Falkirk.
I had the good fortune to be hosted by Charlie Stuart one of our committee men [and father of Jimmy Stuart, the Barlinnie Highlander] and was treated like royalty by his lovely wife.
Muirheads was more than a group of pipers and drummers. It had a team of supporters and followers who turned up for every practice and ensured we were fed and watered. They also ensured that everything was attended to when we travelled to competitions so that we could concentrate on the job in hand, winning championships!
I attended four World Pipe Band Championships with Muriheads. The first was in Forfar in 1965 and it turned out a great disappointment for me. My old 214 Boys’ Brigade pal Dougie Elmslie and I had earned our spots in the band having only joined at the end of the previous season.
The band was playing well and we had won the first major of the season, the British. It was the first time that Muirheads had won this championship so Dougie and I were considered lucky charms by the other band members.
Our preparations at Forfar were going well and we were virtually in the final tuning area when disaster struck! My chanter reed went ‘off’ and although Bob tried his best to rectify it in the precious minutes before entering the arena, it could not be revived and Bob asked me to stand aside.
We played with only 11 pipers rather than run the risk of spoiling the overall sound. Muirheads won that day, the first of their unbeaten five in a row for a civilian band. I think I shed a tear!
Being reigning champions is not always an enviable position to be in; everyone is trying to knock you off your pedestal. However we worked really hard in the off season and were ready to defend our title in Inverness the following year, 1966.
We left Grangemouth on the Friday night and stayed over at Carrbridge. There was a buzz of excitement on the bus and we practiced on chanters and pads for a large part of the journey.
Bob’s instructions to limit our alcohol intake to a single pint was strictly adhered to and we all had an early night.
Rather than drive the hour or so to Inverness in the morning, after a healthy breakfast, we spent hours practicing and perfecting our sound in the local hall.
After lunch, we dressed and boarded the bus for Inverness. Now, I can’t remember what time Grade 1 started or where we were in the draw, but I do recall comments from the punters when the bus rolled into the parking area at Bught Park – ‘Muirheads have left their run a bit late this year!’ Little did they know of the immaculate preparation we had enjoyed in the peaceful setting of Carrbridge.
We unpacked the gear, had a quick tune up, and marched towards the tuning area playing the three 6/8 marches, Murdo McKenzie of Torridon, MacLeod of Mull and MacNeil of Uigadale. The sound was stunning causing lots of heads to turn around.
Our performance that day was outstanding; we all seemed to be ‘in the zone’ and couldn’t put a finger wrong. We thought we had played well but there was no hint from Bob which was not uncommon.
He would never lavish praise on the band for a good performance (although he would not hold back if not up to standard). So silence or no comment was taken as a positive.
Come the March Past and the results……There is nothing quite like hearing your pipe band’s name being read out as champions of Grade 1!
We were walking on air as we left the park and marched down the side of the river to meet our bus in town. I vividly remember that we nearly lost a complete file during that march as the pipe sergeant ‘big Andra’ caught his chords on a barbed wire fence which hauled him backwards to collide with the piper behind and the guy in the back row!
Excitement was running high as we boarded our bus for the journey back to Carrbridge. On Hardie’s instructions, we pulled over and stopped just short of a bend on the outskirts of the village. After a quick tune up we marched playing into the heart of the village and formed a circle in the middle of the road and proceeded to entertain the crowd which had appeared from nowhere.
It’s hard to imagine that we brought the A9, the main Perth Inverness road, to a complete standstill!
No one seemed to mind and we were delighted when the hotel manager came out with a couple of bottles of whisky to fill the cup which was ceremoniously passed around the circle.
[In those days work on the ‘new’ A9 was still some way off, the old road connecting all the villages between the two main population centres, criss-crossing the railway at several points.]
It was a memorable day and after dinner we had a ceilidh into the wee small hours; great stuff! We successfully defended our title at Oban in 1967 and at Grangemouth in 1968, where I heard the band’s former pipe major, Jacky Smith, a spectator on the day, tell Bob Hardie that we had played so well he was ‘greetin’.
In February 1969 I left for Australia so wasn’t around for the win at Perth that summer but I look back at my time in Muirheads with pride and thank my lucky stars I was in the right place at the right time.
Muirheads was a great band, full of characters, a hardworking committee, a talented leading tip and a legendary Pipe Major – Robert G. Hardie.
Get ready for the Winter School!