Gordon Ferguson – Continuing my piping after the 214

The following memories page was taken from two articles published in Pipingpress on 12th and 13th October 2021. Click here to see originals.

Memories of Muirhead and Sons Pipe Band and the Great PM Robert G. Hardie

Muirheads complete five-in-a-row at Perth in 1969

I have been asked by the Editor to reflect on my time playing with the Muirhead and Sons Pipe Band and in particular what it was like being led by the maestro that was P/M Robert G Hardie.

Though I have lived in Queensland, Australia, for many years now, my time with the band when we won a civilian band record of five World Championship wins in a row 1965-69 is still as fresh as ever in my memory. Indeed, I don’t think I shall ever forget this time though these historic events happened more than half a century ago.

By Gordon Ferguson

Regarding Bob Hardie’s teaching methods, I remember how during the winter months we would spend Wednesday evenings and Sunday afternoons in Muirhead and Sons (Sawmillers), Grangemouth, canteen sitting around the table, practice chanters in hand, working on the three march strathspeys and reels we would be playing in the forthcoming competition season.

Bob was a perfectionist and every gracenote and embellishment had to be played accurately and cleanly in order to achieve his goal of playing like one with ‘soloist’ expression and faultless fingering.  He would play the first part of the tune through, pause for two beats, then play the first part again with all pipers joining in.

Hardie ensured he had a solid player (usually local man Derek Boyd, a very fine player) on his right so next he would play the first part and if Hardie was satisfied, pause for two beats and play along with Derek.  Provided they were expressing the tune exactly the same and execution was spot on, again he would pause for two beats and the whole pipe corps would play the first part again, before moving on to the next piper in the circle.

The advantages of such a system are pretty obvious:

  • Each piper had to play solo
  • Each piper had to play with Bob
  • Each piper had to play with the complete pipe corps a dozen or so times. This engraved the tune in one’s mind and fingers, as well as assisting with maintaining concentration 

It gave Bob an opportunity to assess each player, point out any faults, and achieve the togetherness he was seeking.

P/M RG Hardie with his first Worlds trophy at Forfar in 1965

We wouldn’t have the pipes out during winter months except for the odd engagement or indoor competition.  But with the approach of the ‘season’ Bob would have the pipers still on the chanter around the table and call on Leading Drummer Robert Turner.

He had been beavering away on drum beatings with his drum corps throughout the winter months. They would come and join us playing only on their pads the drum beatings which Turner had written and taught the corps.

With the blessing of Bob Hardie, we began the process of moulding drum scores with pipe tunes. Being such a musical drummer, Robert’s beatings seldom required much ‘tweaking’ since they usually fitted the tune perfectly.  Although Turner was a talented drummer and teacher, he seemed to be content playing to complement the pipe score rather than going hell for leather for the drumming prize.

Muirheads’ Leading Drummer Robert Turner

When the pipes finally came out of their boxes, Hardie would work his magic with the chanters ensuring that they were perfectly matched with the help of his trusty reamer. 

A solid reed would be selected to meet the blowing capability of the individual piper and firm instructions given to blow in the reed but not to touch it!  Drone reeds (cane) would be issued as required and pipes tuned before forming a circle for a warm up prior to practicing the competition MSR sets. (This was before the days of the Medley.)  On a dry night we would play in the yard among the timber stacks and if it was wet we would settle for the spacious canteen.  

Bob Hardie was a hard worker and expected band members to give 100%.  To miss a practice was a crime unless you had a valid excuse, and to miss a competition was almost a hanging offence.  Practice sessions were always a serious event and Bob ensured that not a minute was wasted. 

Pipers looked after their instruments and having been set up with quality reeds and matched chanters, little time was lost in achieving a ‘sound’.  Hardie would stand in the circle with eyes closed as he listened intently for imperfections.

Frequently he would stop the band in the middle of an MSR, walk over to a piper, take out his chanter, and fix a sharp high G which had been offending.  Bob had an amazing ear and never used tape which he reckoned would be a bad advert for Hardie chanters.

Muirheads leaving the field after winning their third Worlds in a row at Oban in 1967

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’!

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. 

Gordon at Cowal in 1967

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. 

Ready for the march off at Oban in 1967, with band secretary Lawrence Jenkins proudly holding what was then the Worlds trophyGordon Ferguson can be seen in the centre, back rankOther pipers in the picture, left to right, are Ronnie Motion, P/M RG Hardie, Derek Boyd, Jim Dow, GF, Jimmy Anderson, Davy Hutton and Andra Dowie

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 were to limit our alcohol intake to a single pint, this 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.

Muirheads mini band with the author standing far right. To his right is P/M Bob Hardie. Others we can identify are John Finlay, third from the left standing and Andra Dowie on John’s left. Sitting centre is bass/ tenor drummer Jock Waddell with Peter Anderson to Jock’s leftMissing names welcome

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.]

Muirheads leaving Bught Park, Inverness, after winning the Worlds in 1966

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.