Now retired from the RSPBA adjudicator’s tent, P/M Ian McLellan is the most successful pipe major in the history of the pipe band movement. With his band he won 12 World Pipe Band Championship titles at the helm of the legendary Strathclyde Police Pipe Band. (The band is pictured above in 1991 with Ian’s last World’s banner). He was also an expert performer on the solo platform winning all the ceol beag prizes on offer and setting a standard of execution and expression that few could match. In later excerpts we will look at his early career but in this interview we concentrate on his pipe band work, work that made him a household name around the world.
You must have inherited players at all different levels. How did you meld that together into a unit?
I did do a lot of work with them on a one to one basis. I am not just talking about the weaker players – the stronger players as well. You know what it’s like; little things can creep in to the playing as a unit that can upset the applecart. So I did an awful lot of one to one tuition with all the players during the winter months. I was very lucky that I had the facility to do that. We had the band room and I could put up a rota of who was with me and when. Once I was quite happy that all the guys were familiar with the tunes that we would be competing with, I would then start doubling them up, then a quartet, always on the chanter and eventually we would go on to the pipes. That’s how I built up this very tight unison. That would probably be throughout the winter, though with police duties December was a no-no for us with the build up to Christmas, so we never had any practices then. But as soon as January came I would work away building things up slowly but surely and that went on until the middle of April but in between times have band practices with the whole band playing together.
Would you be fixing chanters or picking reeds for them at this point?
I always went to the McAllisters for our reeds; we never played anything else. When the McAllister reed came on the market Tom McAllister said would I fancy trying them. I said okay but they were very, very sore to begin with. They were strong! But we persisted with them and I never used anything else after that.
Why was that?
Because I felt they were so consistent. There was real body in the cane. If you ever had any problem with it you just said so to Tom and he would change them.
Even when you were playing against his band, Shotts?
Oh yes, the man was a gentleman. Some people had reservations about Jock but I got on great with him because I just answered him back and told him to shut up!
Was this the Sinclair chanters that belonged to Lanarkshire police that you were setting up?
Yes. The Shotts got a set of Sinclairs and so did Lanarkshire Police at the same time. Campbell McGougan who had the Lanarkshire Police had a very good ear. He had pipers like Hugh MacInnes and Barry Donaldson in his band and a lot of others who were pretty tight players. Obviously when the police forces amalgamated and became Strathclyde we were playing wooden Warnock chanters. They were a good enough chanter but they didn’t have that energy that came out of the Sinclair chanter. It took a little while to get the ear to adjust but as soon as we had, I said to myself ‘oh, we’ve got something here’. I knew right away. At that point we started to play the McAllister reed – this was before they produced their own Warmac chanter. The same reed was going into the Shotts’ Sinclairs and they were getting a great sound so I thought that if could get anywhere near that I’d be quite happy. To my mind we actually refined on it. I started going through to Willie Sinclair and he taught me a lot about how to work the chanters. I always remember I felt the chanters were dull on the C, the D and the E, compared to the other notes on the chanter. So he put them into the lathe and took some very fine sandpaper and gave the middle a gentle rub. He just skinned the shell of the chanter and these notes came alive. He said the wood there had been just a little thick and the chanter wasn’t vibrating. I was absolutely amazed. He said we could probably have done it by gouging the holes but you would have to take out quite a lot of wood to achieve the same result. If you gently sanded it, it brightened up right away and then you could fine tune it by taking a little from the back of the hole.
Once you had the chanters going did you find a difference in your prizes right away?
Oh yes. I don’t want to sound big-headed or anything but we were actually getting a far better sound than anyone else was getting. I mean, if you strike up and you hit E and it hits the judge right between the eyes and the playing is up to scratch you are going to make a big impression. We held that sound for a long, long while and eventually other bands latched on to what we were doing and slowly but surely were catching up on us. By the time I was ready to go they had caught up! I got out just in time!
As far as a lot of drummers were concerned Alex was probably the most musical drummer out there. He might not have had the best technicians but when it came to the actual music and accompanying the melody he knew how to bring out the music, how to support what we were playing.
So how did you achieve that? Did you sit down with chanter and drum pad?
Well once we had made up our minds what we were going to play – and we tried to change at least one medley completely every year – I would record it on the pipes at the tempo I had in my head and I thought was going to work and then Alex would go away and he would start making up drum beatings. Then he would come back to me and we would see what worked and what didn’t. That would be on the chanter and pad. However what we agreed on would not always work when we came to try it in the band and Alex would get frustrated if we had to up the tempo and his beats were then too crammed. Fortunately that didn’t happen too often.
Did you have a natural instinct for tempo?
I had the music in my head and I always thought it would work but sometimes when we tried a particular tune in the band it just died and the adjustments were necessary.
When did you win your first Worlds?
1976 and the next time after that was 1979. In ’77 and ’78 we were second to the Dysart under Bob Shepherd. In ’79 we won it at Nottingham. Then in 1980 was the first time they ever held it at Bellahouston and Shotts won it and we were second. It was after that that we went on the run ’81, ’82, ’83,’84, ’85 and ’86 so that was six in a row. Then the 78th Highlanders under Bill Livingstone won it in ’87 and then we won it the next four years on the trot.
Did you play badly in ’87?
No, I wouldn’t say we played badly but I wasn’t as happy with it as I would normal have been and when we played it was actually coming down in torrents and we were on near the beginning. I think we were on second or something like that and the 78th came on second last and by that time the weather had cleared. I am not saying it would have made any difference on the day because they did play well and the type of stuff they played in their medley was a wee bit more commercial than what we were playing – but I have to say that from the time the Championship became a two leg affair with an MSR and a Medley we never ever lost an MSR contest. We won it every time. Even the last year I was pipe major and we were second to the Field Marshal we won the March, Strathspey and Reel. We were hot and cold with medleys. One year we would come out with a cracker but see trying to follow it up the next! It might be two or three years later we’d find another one, one that really worked. The two that always stuck in my mind were the ones that started with Carradale Bay [hear below] and the other with Detroit Highlanders. They were two cracking medleys as far as Strathclyde Police was concerned. I never felt we had another medley that could compare to these two.