Tales of the Muirheads from the 1960s – Part 2

Former Muirhead & Sons piper Gordon Ferguson, now domiciled in Australia, concludes his reminiscences…

The other memories that I have relate to a trip overseas to Russia in 1967 as World Pipe Band Champions. I was thinking of including some tales of the band trip to Halifax, Nova Scotia, that same year but though it was a memorable trip there is not a great deal to comment on, especially since I was unwell for the first few days as a result of a negative reaction to the smallpox jag we had to have a week beforehand as required then by the Canadian authorities.

As both trips were a while ago, I wasn’t sure of the dates, but had a call from Dick Hamilton who was a tenor drummer in Muirheads at the time. 

By Gordon Ferguson

Dick lives in Perth, Western Australia, and has a son who plays with the WA Police Pipe Band.  He was able to advise me that the trip to Russia was in June 1967 and the Canadian one was in August of the same year.  

The Russian trip was very exciting as very few pipe bands had ever played there before.  We sailed on the “Baltika” from Leith to Riga in Latvia, along with a Scottish concert party, which included a ceilidh band, Scottish country dancers, Highland dancers, piper John Rennie from Inverness, tenor Archie MacTaggart from Islay (a Mod Gold Medallist who was also a very good piper and played with the Clan MacRae Society band), plus another female singer whose name I can’t recall.  

We were welcomed on our arrival by a group of girls dressed in national costume, handing out flowers (see photo from yours truly with Jimmy Anderson and John Finlay disembarking, top).  We played in palatial concert halls in Riga, Vilneus, and Minsk. 

P/M Bob Hardie would set up the band out of earshot and we would march into the theatre in two files down the outside aisles, onto the stage and form a semicircle.  The audience was spell-bound and rose to their feet as one. 

The writer and well-known Muirheads piper Jimmy Anderson arriving at Riga in Latvia in 1967

When we stopped playing they just kept on clapping until we realised they wouldn’t stop until we also clapped, presumably to thank them for clapping for us.  

They had us on local television, and I think in general we made quite a hit.  Being back in the days of the USSR, we had guides who kept a very watchful eye on us and the hotel accommodation was two star at best. 

We were treated to a couple of banquets where we were entertained by professional Russian artists and plied with copious amounts of caviar and vodka.

In St Petersburg or Leningrad as it was back then, we played in an enormous park in the afternoon sunshine to a very enthusiastic crowd and were treated to a guided tour of the Winter Palace.

We had hundreds of biro pens with the name of the band on the side and lots of postcard sized photos of the band to hand out, which were eagerly sought by the locals.  I supposed after 50 years things have changed dramatically in Russia, with many of the states visited now enjoying independence. 

At the time we all felt the locals were suppressed and the standard of living way below what we enjoyed in the West.  There was a distinct military presence, and the authorities were very strict about things like taking photos at the airport, especially of the planes. 

We did have one Aeroflot flight which was really quite scary, causing one of our party to call out, ‘We’re all going to be killed!!!’, as the plane lost altitude.  We all made it home safely and thankfully can look back favourably on the experience.  

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4 thoughts on “Tales of the Muirheads from the 1960s – Part 2

  1. Oh Gordon that was some trip! I still have a copy of the record that was made there. I think dad needed a holiday when we got back! You kept out all the best bits! Lost glasses, lost children, being watched all the time. I do believe it was mum shouting on the plane as she had never flown before! There was also a jazz band from Dollar I think the leader was called Davie Kettles? There was a return trip by the Russians to Scotland and we went into Glasgow to meet with them. Again they were watched all the time by their own people.

  2. Gordon is really lovely bloke and a fantastic judge. He makes you at ease when competing; a real plus for the pipe band community here in Australia.

  3. When I played (1978 to 1986) with British Caledonian Airways Pipes & Drums, I remember reading in a newspaper that one of our pipers, P/M Joe Wilson (ex- Gordon Highlanders), had been sent all the way to Russia to play the pipes at a British exhibition. He was so popular with the locals that disgruntled officials stopped him from playing and had him sent home. My own experiences of Russia were limited to spending hours in Moscow Airport waiting in transit for flights: I never saw a happy face there.

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