Lothian and Borders Police pipe band disappears as ex-major looks back

Former pipe major with the Lothian and Borders pipe band Iain McLeod. Picture: Greg Macvean
Former pipe major with the Lothian and Borders pipe band Iain McLeod. Picture: Greg Macvean
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IT was a bitter, snowy day during the harshest March Edinburgh had witnessed in decades.

Clad head to toe in Highland dress, members of what was once regarded one of the world’s best pipe bands turned out to play their swansong to a modest gathering of friends and colleagues.

The band perform at the foot of The Mound

The band perform at the foot of The Mound

As the Lothian and Borders Police flag was lowered, the rather sombre affair marked not only the end of the force as it became part of Police Scotland, but the end of its 130-year-old, world-famous pipe band.

While the low-key performance at police HQ at Fettes was perhaps a fitting tribute to the band’s first ever public performance at Waverley Market, back in June 1883, it was a far cry from the glitz and glamour enjoyed by the band during its heyday.

Not many people will know how its members starred in a Bond film, or how they rubbed shoulders with former Prime Minister Harold Wilson in Moscow during the Cold War, or joked with film stars like Peter 
Sellers.

And Edinburgh residents might also be surprised to learn that their local pipe band won seven World Championships since 1950.

It is this colourful and impressive past that has led to calls for the band to be resurrected and returned to the Capital for its residents to enjoy for another 130 years.

Former Tory MSP Brian Monteith has already urged Lord Provost Donald Wilson to reunite the members in a publicly-funded Edinburgh pipe band, following in the footsteps of one of his predecessors who formed the then Edinburgh City Pipers back in 1882.

And his calls are backed by former Pipe Major Iain McLeod, one of the band’s best-known and respected players.

“Not having a pipe band is a loss and leaves a gap and I feel shattered to be honest,” says Iain, 82. “I think it’s ridiculous that the Capital doesn’t have a top-grade pipe band of its own. We were part of the history and were great ambassadors for Edinburgh and for 
Scotland.”

Iain, who served with Lothian and Borders Police for 25 years, retiring as a sergeant, was Pipe Major for almost 18 years and his tenure was during what were the band’s glory days. Indeed, under his leadership from May 1959 to October 1967, the band won five of its seven World Championship titles.

“It was hard work and we had a lot of discipline,” recalls Iain, who lives with wife Mary in Barnton. “When people wanted a pipe band for anything, we were the ones they called because we were world champions and had established such a world-wide reputation.”

While it was undoubtedly hard work, there was certainly a lot of play involved, with all-expenses-paid trips to far-flung corners of the world and opportunities which would never have arisen for its members such as meeting the Queen and the Prime Minister.

Iain jokes: “It was better than working. If you were in the band you weren’t doing shifts like the other guys were.

“It was almost a full-time job. In fact, by the time I left, it was a full-time job for me. But I wouldn’t have changed it for anything.”

One of Iain’s most memorable tours with the band was in 1966, when they travelled to Moscow during the Cold War to perform at an event promoting British industry.

“It was a bit dodgy at that time. The bloke who was organising it came up from London to tell us the dos and don’ts. We were told not to drink while in public or we’d get arrested, but I have never seen so many drunks in my life.

“The Russians had water tanks filled with beer and they were telling us not to drink! We did have some vodka – only a couple though.

“Harold Wilson was Prime Minister at the time and it was such a big thing for British industry that he paid a visit to the show. He spoke to the boys and said we were doing a great job for Britain. Sir John Inch 
[Lothian and Borders Chief Constable at the time] came over as well to say hello to the band – it was a long way for him to come to say hello.”

As well as Moscow, touring with the pipe band also took its members to Tokyo, Guam in the Pacific, San Diego and Rhodesia, as it was known then before it became Zimbabwe.

“It was great,” Iain recalls. “It was at somebody else’s expense.

“The reason we got so many trips was down to the success we had here. When people wanted the top band, that was us.”

The life of one of the world’s most respected pipe bands also led to a career in the film industry for its members.

The Lothian and Borders Police Pipe Band appeared in five films in the 1950s – the original Casino Royale, Battle of the Sexes, Happy Go Lovely, Let’s Be Happy and the original Journey to the Centre of the Earth.

But despite such claim to fame, Iain takes it in his stride.

“You had to have good eyesight to see us in Casino Royale,” he jokes. “We were on for about two seconds but we spent about three days filming.

“We also met Peter Sellers and Peter O’Toole. Peter O’Toole was very interested in pipes – he had a set and could play a wee tune on them.

“Peter Sellers could imitate a Scots voice like you wouldn’t believe.

“In Journey to the Centre of the Earth, we came down The Mound from the Lawnmarket dressed up as people from the 16th century.”

It’s not just those involved with the band who are lamenting its demise.

Andrew Berthoff, editor of Pipesdrums online – which attracts 100,000 worldwide readers every month – took up the pipes after 
listening to the Lothians police band on vinyl.

He described the world famous group of musicians as the “rock stars” of the pipe band world and said it was a big loss to the piping community.

“Edinburgh without a top pipe band is like Paris without a decent art museum,” he says. “It just doesn’t make sense.

“I was too young to know them in their heyday but I remember listening to them as a kid and being inspired to take up piping, they were a magnificent group.”

Piping, particularly at the top level, has changed considerably in the 25 years since Andrew started the 
publication, he says, with issues like funding being more difficult to come by. Huge commitment is needed to maintain acts at the highest level with bands like Lothian and Borders Police Pipe Band, competing at grade one, needing 18 to 25 pipers to stay competitive.

On top of that you have the costs of uniforms and travel which is also 
expensive while fewer organisations are prepared to stump up sponsorship costs.

“It’s a huge challenge finding the pipers and drummers to play at the top level and then someone quality to lead it.

The decision to call time on the band was taken at the end of last year, but the band waited until 
Lothian and Borders Police joined Scotland’s super force before hanging up their pipes for good. 
And the idea that it was down to the creation of Police Scotland has been quashed by some band members.

Chief Inspector John Rae was the Secretary of the Lothian and Borders Police Pipe band for eight years from 1999 to 2007.

He says: “The disbanding was nothing to do with Police Scotland. In fact Police Scotland has been very supportive of the band and tried to help.

“But the reason the band folded was down to sheer lack of 
numbers. And it was the band’s own decision.”

A fitting tribute to bygone days, the band bowed out on March 23 
with their final song ‘Angus 
McKinnon’, a composition by 
former Pipe-Major Donald Shaw Ramsay.