Pipe Bands

Author: Tommy Millar

Date: 1993

Source: Ullans: The Magazine for Ulster-Scots: Nummer 1 Spring 1993

The 1992 Grade 1 World Championship, held in Bellahouston Park, Glasgow, was won by an Ulster band — Field Marshal Montgomery — with the two other prizes in the magical ‘big six’ leaderboard going to Australia and Canada respectively. Of the 175 bands entered in the six grades of competition, one-third were from outside Scotland, endorsing the assertion that solo piping — which has been ‘cosmopolitan’ for many years now — and pipe banding, are truly international in make-up.

From a provincial point of view, which is the nature of this article, pipe band competition had its ‘birth’ prior to the outbreak of World War I, although the first record we have comes from around the early 20s, when all bands were under the ‘umbrella’ of the North of Ireland Bands Association. This body’s competitions were usually confined to two each year, the principal one being held prior to Christmas, usually in the Ulster or Grosvenor Hall in Belfast.


The piping fraternity were accommodated within this framework, although they did form what was termed the Northern Ireland Pipe Band League, which gave the members a little autonomy, while still operating in membership of the NIBA.

World War II called a halt to all such activities, but on the cessation of hostilities, the League was re-formed in 1945, attended by six bands at a meeting in Waring Street, Belfast. It was decided to call another meeting — in September of that year — at which nine bands attended, namely Annahilt, Upper Crossgare, Ballycoan, Sydenham, Dromara, East Belfast, McQuiston Memorial, Ballynahinch and Drumlough. Priority was given to the election of officers and the recruitment of more bands into membership. The chairman was David Nelson, sen., vice-chairman Eddie McVeigh, secretary Tom Hart, treasurer Norman Bradley, with meetings to be convened on the last Thursday of each month.


But there was still one little ‘hiccup’ — pipe bands in the Province were still in membership of the NIBA, with Davy Nelson and Tommy Hart being the League’s representatives.

The only highlight, as we have stated earlier, was the annual contests in the Ulster Hall, usually spread over a week. Needless to say, it was standing room only on Saturday nights — this evening being allocated to the tartan travellers, with the rest of the evenings sparsely attended.

But the ‘natives’ were getting restless, and during 1949, ‘feelers’ were being sent to Glasgow with the intention of League bands applying for membership of the then Scottish Pipe Band Association.

The situation with regard to the NIBA was becoming untenable — it was a case of the ‘tail wagging the dog’ — the pipe bands attracting the largest crowds, yet being allocated a paltry one-night stand! Mr William Whitelaw — no connection of a former government official here — who was secretary of the SPBA during this period, answered the request for Association membership by intimating that if the Northern Ireland applicants could muster 10 bands, then a Branch could be ‘raised’ in the Province.

Good Business

In the fullness of time — 1950 to be exact — this was achieved and the following bands were the ‘pioneers’ in what Edward McVeigh, MBE, JP, often proudly describes as the ‘best day’s business ever done’ with regard to the propagation of piping and drumming in Northern Ireland.

Ballynahinch, Ballycoan, Sydenham, Waringsford, St Joseph’s, 8th Belfast Memorial, Duke of York, Raffrey, Boardmills and Rasharkin were the first intake. The city of Belfast — and its environs — at one time had 50 bands alone, not all Association members, yet today as a result of urban development, the Troubles, etc, not one band emanates from the city.

The tartan scenario has moved almost completely to the country!


With the advent the new Branch, drumming classes were held right away, under a big name in Scottish percussion in those days — Drum Major Alec McCormick — with the result that 29 participants received certificates in the first examination taken by Northern Ireland Branch pupils.

Piping instruction was not neglected in the formative years of the fledgeling movement here. Pipe Major Donald MacLean spent some time in the Province instructing the pipe majors of the initial intake of member bands.

Progress in membership build-up was fast and spontaneous, and the growth, enthusiasm and administrative capability was rewarded by the parent body in Glasgow. The ‘mandarins’ of Washington Street designated a major championship outside Auld Scotia for the first time in the Association’s history, that of the European event held in Balmoral Showgrounds, Belfast, in 1953.


If there were any doubts or inhibitions by the hierarchy in Glasgow that its newest member branch couldn’t ‘stand on its own feet’, these were finally dispelled after the ‘European’, the administrators in Ulster never looking back after that red-letter day! As a mark of the respect and confidence which the new branch had at headquarters, the Association designated two even bigger honours on its newest and fastest-growing branch — the 1956 and 1962 World Championships, also held at the spacious Balmoral Showgrounds.

Since those formative years, Northern Ireland bands have travelled to the mainland — notably for the World’s and Cowal Games events, and were not long in making their presence felt in the lower grades. In 1970, the now-defunct Robert Armstrong Memorial Band, under the late, lamented Tommy Geddis, won the Grade 2 World Championship at Aberdeen and were subsequently elevated to the big league — Grade 1 — along with St Patrick’s from Donaghmore in Co Tyrone, led by Scot Tommy Anderson. This band, sadly, is also no longer with us.


As the standard improved, in later years the RAMS and St Pat’s were joined by Cullybackey (which was the first Ulster band to make the play-offs in the old-style Grade 1 format), McNeillstown, Graham Memorial, RUC, Upper Crossgare, Field Marshal Montgomery and, most recently, Eden from near Omagh.

Always there, or thereabouts in the ever-increasing exodus to the five major events on the mainland, the ‘balloon’ finally went up — as all true Ulster-Scots well know — in August of last year with domination in practically all the ‘big ones’ by Ulster bands.

Yes, the centre of global pipe banding was, unbelievably, Ulster, with the Field Marshal Montgomery completely monopolising the scene — Scottish, British, Cowal, World, runner-up in the European, and culminating with the title of Supreme Champion of Champions. They were ably supported with high placings by the large contingent of Ulster bands over the other grades.

Drum Majors

The Province’s drum majors have always set a parallel standard to that of the bands, with both world senior and juvenile titles returning more than once across the Channel. The current custodian of the Senior World trophy is Roger Young from Portadown.

The dramatic progress in the raising of the musical standard at all levels over the last decade can be attributed, in no small measure, to the activity of the Northern Ireland Branch’s Education Committee — formed in the early 80s — into which is incorporated the Piping and Drumming School, the new name change coming in 1986.

The distribution of certificates at the annual graduation each spring numerically increases and is an endorsement of the proficiency of the programme devised and executed by Principal Sam Bailie and his superb team of instructors, which include such luminaries as Richard and Gordon Parkes, who have taken the Field Marshal Montgomery to such success.


Down the years, the Northern Ireland Branch, in its continual process of laying even firmer foundations and the subsequent raising of standards, has utilised the rich vein of resource available in the ‘land of our forefathers’. Influential personalities have been invited to come “o’er the water” and assist in this evolution — household names like Willie Sloan, A D Hamilton, Alec Duthart, Donald MacIntosh, Alec McCormick, Tom MacAllister and his son, John K MacAllister, and many more. The last-mentioned duo — the MacAllister Connection — has been an important and vital contribution to progress in banding in this passionate piping Province, especially in the formative years.

And it is also worth noting that the Branch has also supplied officials for the parent body which received the ‘Royal’ prefix in 1980 — during its four decades of membership. Edward McVeigh, who was honoured a few years ago with the MBE by Her Majesty the Queen, was Association chairman for six years and vice-chairman for three. Alistair Gray held the chair for one term, while Archie McKinley — one of the foundation officials of the branch here — was the Association treasurer for a period.

In spite of the political and social upheaval of the past two decades, the propagation of the music of the Noble Instrument has made even more progression… a strident affirmation of the character, resolution and determination of those of us proud to be called Ulster-Scots!

Tommy Millar



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