Obituary: Pipe Major Gary Nicholson, soldier and musician

Pipe Major Gary Nicholson
Pipe Major Gary Nicholson
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Pipe Major Gary Nicholson. Born 12 February 1960 in Bolton. Died: 21 June 2018 in Mayfield, Midlothian, aged 58

The recent and sudden passing of Pipe Major Gary Nicholson brings to a close an era which for evermore will be associated with the Fourth Royal Tank Regiment (4RTR), “Scotland’s Own”. I was the last Commanding Officer of the Fourth and I was enormously privileged to have Gary Nicholson as my Pipe Major and the last of a distinguished line going back to 1972.

Gary Nicholson joined the Regiment in 1983 on transfer from 2nd Battalion The Scots Guards. Having served in Northern Ireland and the Falklands, he was an experienced soldier. As part of Recce Platoon Scots Guards he took part in the vital diversionary attack on Mount Tumbledown. The night diversionary attack began on 13 June 1982 at 2030hrs led by Major Richard Bethell (a former SAS officer). It was a bloody but ultimately successful operation where gallantry was recognised.

Gary was both an outstanding soldier and an immensely talented piper. Within the Regiment he trained as an HGV driver and was a committed member of MT Troop. Always reliable he led his Pipes and Drums with a determination that always ensured our tank squadrons were refuelled and replenished.

As Pipe Major, and along with Drum Major Dave McBeth, he set out to raise the playing standard of the Fourth by introducing increasingly more demanding music. By organising a regime of daily practice alongside his soldiering duties he enthused his pipers and motivated them to become increasingly more proficient. His learner pipers quickly became pipers in their own right and established pipers successfully completed their senior piper courses and pibroch courses. The testament to his ability as a Pipe Major saw the Pipes and Drums compete in a number of competitions in Scotland where awards followed.

His time with the Fourth came to an end when the Regiment amalgamated with the First Royal Tank Regiment (1RTR) . His legacy will always be the moment on 8 April 1993 when the Fourth formed up for one last time very early in the morning; the sky was blue and the air clear but the weather was freezing. The Pipes and Drums, along with the Band of the First, played Highland Cathedral; for those present the music was haunting and not a dry eye remained.

At the same time a CD, 
Making Tracks, was produced to recall the occasion; the fact that the Pipes and Drums recorded their Pipe Set in one take was remarkable and singled out Gary Nicholson as an exceptional Pipe Major.

On leaving the Army and the Regiment in 1993 he settled in Newtongrange in Midlothian. Once a small mining village, it was steeped in pipe band history. Piping was his love and he worked hard to reignite the Lady Victoria Pipe Band (named after the local mine). After some success he moved to the Newtongrange Pipe Band and had major success as Pipe Major with Bill (Scooby) Black, formerly Drum Major of the Royal Scots; they made a formidable team.

In the Newtongrange Pipe Band Gary linked up again with Brian (Fluff) Aitchison (also of the 2nd Battalion the Scots Guards and a fellow Falkland war veteran) and Danny Brown, formerly of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, as the leading drummer.

It was this strong military presence starting in 2011 that built the band to go on and win the World, European, British and Cowal championships at Grade 4 along with many others in 2013. This was to be a crowning highlight of his piping career after the Army.

A lot of young players today on the pipe band circuit, and indeed, a lot of experienced players, owe a lot to Gary. It was his enthusiasm and encouragement that enabled them all to grow in confidence. Sadly, he had to stop playing when he suffered respiratory problems; it was then that he was diagnosed with heart problems. His untimely death of heart failure at 58 forces us to say farewell to a wonderful man who will always be remembered as a true soldier, a great Piper and the last Pipe Major of the Fourth. He leaves behind his wonderful wife Vera and children Dawn, Ross, Courtney and Kieran.

If there was ever an epitaph it would be the Piobaireachd “I am Proud to Play a Pipe” (Robert Meldrum 1851-1941). Slainte.

Brigadier Martin Speller