Pipe Major Alasdair Gillies, Queen’s Own Highlanders (QOH), was undoubtedly one of Scotland’s outstanding musicians of modern times. Born into a piping family in Glasgow in 1963, he first studied the bagpipe with his father Norman, himself a leading exponent of pipe music, particularly ceol beag: marches, strathspeys and reels, hornpipes and jigs.
With the long overdue expansion of piping into Scotland’s schools in the early 1970s, Alasdair moved with his family from Glasgow to Ullapool where his father had been appointed school’s piping instructor. There his talent blossomed. He quickly won all the junior prizes round the Highland games and then proceeded to jolt a few reputations by getting in front of the adults in the prizelists.
Having joined the QOH cadets aged 13 he signed on as a full time soldier in 1980. He received tuition from Pipe Major Iain Morrison, QOH, and from Captain Andrew Pitkeathly, formerly director of army bagpipe music, both outstanding military men and outstanding pipers.
This solid background of expert tuition allied to Alasdair’s natural musicianship set him on the road to piping stardom. He served 17 years with the Queen’s Own and was appointed Pipe Major aged just 28. He saw service in Iraq, Germany, Northern Ireland and elsewhere around the world, most notably in the South Atlantic, where, during the Falklands Campaign, he was photographed playing to penguins on South Georgia.
Such were Alasdair’s fingers that it is doubtful if the bitter cold had any effect on him. He was blessed with a digital dexterity most musicians – whatever the instrument – would envy. Notoriously difficult to manage to any level of proficiency, the great Highland bagpipe came to him as one born to it. Not for Alasdair the huffing and puffing and sweat so common among the less skilled.
There he was on the competition or recital platform, a complete master of the pipe and its hugely intricate gracenotings and complex tunings. He won all the top awards available to him – including the coveted Gold Medals presented by the Highland Society of London – and this despite the pressures of military service.
The scene of his greatest triumphs, however, was Inverness and the annual Northern Meeting piping competitions held in Eden Court Theatre.
There, year after year, in his regiment’s home town, he thrilled the audience with his cultured reading of the classic tunes, ceol mor, and with his playing of the competition march, strathspey and reel – six pieces played consecutively from memory – his real forte. These last are tunes designed not for any activity but listening.
Most pipers are happy if, over their career, they can pick up one or two first prizes in this most demanding discipline. Eleven times in total, Alasdair Gillies would be called forward to receive the Royal Scottish Pipers’ Society Silver Star, the top award for this music at the Northern Meeting. His is a record unlikely to be beaten in our lifetime.
He used to speak of his preparation when he would repair to the hill tracks above his parent’s home in Ullapool. Shouldering the pipe he worked his way through all the difficult passages and phrases, not returning home until he had them flowing off his fingers, each rhythmical pulse given the correct amount of stress, vital in an instrument over which the performer has no dynamic control.
Once a piper has achieved a certain level of success on the competition board he values the opinion of his peers above all else. I know that a tear came to Alasdair’s eye when the story was related to him of two judges discussing a performance of his at Eden Court in the early 1990s.
The first is Lt Col DJS Murray of the Cameron Highlanders; the second Pipe Major Angus MacDonald, Scots Guards. Lt Col Murray is a noted expert on all aspects of pipe music. The late Pipe Major MacDonald was a master piper and was now judging the event he had won himself on several occasions.
Alasdair Gillies had just completed his performance to great applause. The tunes may have been John MacDonald’s Welcome to South Uist, George Ross’s Farewell to the Black Watch, Piper’s Bonnet, Tulloch Castle, John Morrison, Assynt House, The Smith of Chillichassie, demanding test pieces for all but the master player.
Lt Col Murray turned to Pipe Major MacDonald: “You know that was something really special; it reminded me of you in your heyday.”
“Me?,” said the pipe major, “I could never play like that.” This was a comment Alasdair valued more than the Silver Star he duly received later that day.
On leaving the army in 1997, he became the world’s first “piping professor” when he accepted a teaching post at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Until 2009 he taught the university pipe band and worked hard successfully establishing their unique performance degree in bagpiping.
His passing was lamented round the world by those who knew this great piper and by the many thousands more who had been touched by his music.