Brian Monteith: Pay these pipers for good of city

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Now and again Edinburgh produces something or someone that is world class. Thinking of recent times, some might cite Sir Chris Hoy or Stephen Hendry, some wiil think of success stories such as Sir Sean Connery, engineering feats like the Forth Bridge or literature like Harry Potter.

There are many more I could list – but there are never too many to help Edinburgh remain relevant and interesting to life today, so when someone leaves the world stage or becomes a historical footnote it is a blow to our great city. If it can be avoided we should seek to do all we can to preserve those things that make our city special and above the ordinary.

It is a tragedy, then, that the Lothian and Borders Police Pipe Band passed on and is no more.

Formed by the city’s Lord Provost as the Edinburgh City Band and first playing in 1883, it became the Edinburgh Police Pipe Band and went on to win seven world championships in its illustrious 130-year history, five of them under Pipe Major Ian McLeod, before local governnment reorganisation meant they would become the Lothian and Borders Police Pipe Band.

Now there has been another reorganisation, this time of Scotland’s police forces, merging the eight constabularies into one called, unimaginatively and ungrammatically, Police Scotland, from April 1 this year.

Five of the constabularies had a pipe band and although they were promised that their funding would be available for the duration of 2013 their prospects were not guaranteed beyond then.

The new Chief Constable of Police Scotland, Stephen Howson, has let it be known on many occasions that he is not a supporter of police pipe bands and, as the boys in blue might say “has form” – for when he was Strathclyde Chief Constable his indifference nearly caused the nine-times world champions, Strathclyde Police Pipe Band, to close in 2009, until it won a reprieve.

Last November, seeing the writing on the wall, the members of the Lothian and Borders band decided to call it a day and lay down their pipes and drums. Leaderless, after losing their Pipe Major, who had taken up a new job in Dubai, the band faced a huge challenge – to recruit new people even though the band might be closed down through police force merger. In the end, it was decided to fold rather than struggle on without the support of the police leadership, without funding and risking the probability that its standards would fall and it could lose its Grade 1 status that makes it world-class. Better, the band members believed, to go out with 
dignity at the top of their game.

Like so many others, Lothian and Borders Police Pipe Band was not made up entirely of police officers. Indeed, at the time it stopped there were only four members serving with the police. This is a phenomenon of modern policing and management changes that stopped serving officers being given time off to practice, play or travel for the band.

Fair enough, you might say, but the fact that the band was able to bring in pipers and drummers who were not in the police shows the degree to which it was community-based. It became a strength not, a weakness – because it was an honour to play for them. The costs were also low, reputedly £30,000 a year, half of which was raised privately.

Whatever the modest cost, the band advertised Edinburgh worldwide, providing the city with publicity it could not afford at half the price.

The collapse of the band prompts some questions, not least what will happen to the trophies and memorabilia that it amassed over its lifetime and what will happen to the uniforms?

A clear public commitment to put the trophy collection and archives in the hands of the city’s police museum for permanent display and academic access should be made. The city is owed at least that.

As for the uniforms, there are two kits; the ceremonial and the second made-to-measure everyday wear. The latter should be given or sold at a peppercorn price to the current wearers – but the other more important kit should be retained by the city.

It is my understanding it is to be sold, with the proceeds going to the police – frankly, to auction it would be a scandal and unacceptable. The ceremonial uniform represents not just the police but the city and the wider Lothian and Borders area. The police are funded by taxpayers and it is to the local taxpayers that the uniforms should be given, kept in trust by the city.

There are other pipe bands in Edinburgh but none have the history, tradition and success – or are at the top grade – as the police band was.

But maybe it’s not too late. Maybe our civic leader, the Lord Provost – who’s office started the band all those years ago – could take the initiative to make the band the Pride of Edinburgh Pipe Band, paid for from a civic fund?

Putting Edinburgh on the world stage is a worthy investment – might we yet rally to the skirl of our own pipes and drums?