Ballymena based Ken Stewart has been a stalwart of piping, both solo and bands, throughout his life. Here he recounts at first hand the circumstances that led to the historic 1987 ‘Live in Ireland’ concert given by P/M Bill Livingstone’s 78th Highlanders Pipe Band……
A Night to Remember
by Ken Stewart, Ballymena
The picture above shows the 78th Frasers on stage on that great night in 1987, a night which made a lasting impression on those of us fortunate enough to be in the audience.
During the 1980s, Ballymena County Hall held a very special place in the piping scene in Ireland. At that time the area boasted three of the four grade one bands in N. Ireland and each used the venue to promote concerts by leading bands from Scotland.
MacNeilstown pipe band, from Portglenone, hosted Dysart & Dundonald under P/M Bob Shepherd; Polkemmet Grorud, under P/M Robert Mathieson; the Vale of Atholl Pipe Band under P/M Ian Duncan and Boghall & Bathgate Pipe Band under P/M Bob Martin. Cullybackey Pipe band had hosted the Shotts and Dykehead Caledonia under P/M Tom MacAllister Jnr.
The Graham Memorial Pipe Band, from Ballymena, hosted The 78th Fraser Highlanders Pipe Band from Toronto, Ontario, under P/M Bill Livingstone, in what was to become one of the most talked about concerts ever.
The 78th concert came about from a chance remark made by the Graham Mem. Bass Drummer Ken Kerr at band practice one evening. Ken was a great admirer of Luke Allen, the 78th Bass Drummer at that time, and suggested that the band investigate the possibility of inviting the 78th Frasers to play at Ballymena County Hall. Little did he realise what was about to unfold.
The then Graham Mem. President, Mr. Tom McCarroll, took the suggestion and developed a strategy for promoting the concert. Tom was the owner of a local electrical firm and also President of the RSPBANI. He set the process in motion by contacting the 78th PipeMajor, Bill Livingstone. All of the previous concerts at County Hall had been staged during the off-season competition period. This concert, however, would take place on the Wednesday evening before the World Pipe Band Championships, in Bellahouston Park, on 15th August 1987.
Once the venue and date had been agreed the process of organising transport, accommodation etc. began in earnest. The 78th also contacted Lismor Records and agreed terms to record the complete concert. Since this was the first concert promoted by the Graham Memorial Pipe Band they decided to call upon the services of Mr. Winston Pollock who had been involved in all of the MacNeilstown concerts, and also Mr. Tommy Millar, who was active in promoting pipe band events on both radio and in newspapers.
The great flurry of activity and organisation began to bear fruit on Monday 10th August when a very tired group of musicians arrived at Belfast Airport, via Heathrow. The coach brought them to Tullymore House Hotel, Broughshane, where the Graham Mem. Pipe Major, Len Browne, and Tom McCarroll welcomed them to Ireland. Once the formalities had been dealt with it was down to work. The complete ensemble was gathered into the large function room and rehearsal began. To be able to listen to 16 pipers dealing with ‘Journey to Skye’, for the first time, was something, which those of us who were present can never forget.
Later that afternoon the band members were taken to view the County Hall venue for the first time. P/M Bill Livingstone had a clear vision of how the concert should be presented and began to work closely with Pete Evans, who was responsible for the sound and lighting inside the concert hall.
The next day was the first rehearsal and also the sound check for Lismor records. Nothing was left to chance – every aspect of the performance was explored and even the time taken to walk from the tuning room to the stage was scrutinised. Wednesday morning and afternoon saw the final rehearsal and preparations for the evening concert.
That evening the audience experienced the 78th Fraser Highlanders Pipe Band performing original and innovative tunes and arrangements which was to set a benchmark for pipe band concerts for all time. The recording was to become probably the best-selling pipe band record ever and the content and material went on to inspire a new generation of musicians who could now unleash the potential of the great Highland bagpipe.
The tale doesn’t end here however. The band took some time to relax and do some sight-seeing on the day after the concert. With Jim Lamberton driving the coach and Tom McCarroll as tour guide, the Canadians were shown some of the sights of the North Antrim coastline and were able to visit the world’s oldest licensed whisky distillery at Bushmills.
Friday was taken up with travel on the Larne – Stranraer ferry and the 90 mile road journey to Glasgow. Saturday was one of those grey Scottish days, nothing out of the ordinary for the time of year, except that when the results were announced the 78th Fraser Highlanders Pipe Band were now Champions of the World.
So, a chance remark at band practice, the determination of Tom and Myrtle McCarroll, the skills and support of Pete and Letitia Evans, the logistical skills of Jim McCloy and William McCarroll, the invaluable experience of Winston Pollock and the publicity of Tommy Millar resulted in the 78th Fraser Highlanders producing a concert performance, which is still held in high regard after almost 30 years and a recording which still excites the listener.
One other fact that requires mention is that Saturday 15th August 1987 was the first time that an overseas pipe band had won the RSPBA World Pipe Band Championship.
Listen to excerpts from the concert and buy the CD here.