Pipe band clocks up 100 years

20:45, Dec 17 2012
mackenzie highland pipe band
RESTING: The Fairlie Pipe Band takes a break at the Fairlie Showgrounds (circa 1920).
mackenzie highland pipe band
THE ORIGINALS: The Fairlie Pipe Band with W MacLeod, left, T Southby, G Cowan, R Bain, J MacDonald and D Ross 100 years ago.
mackenzie highland pipe band
POPULAR: The Fairlie Pipe Band as it was first known quickly attracted new members and supporters (circa 1914).

Noel Guthrie's centennial history of the Mackenzie Highland Pipe Band was initially meant to be a 50-page booklet, but snowballed into a much bigger project. Matthew Littlewood talked to the author about his efforts and the band's centennial celebrations.

The Mackenzie Highland Pipe Band started with a £5 donation. That much is known - but the identity of the donor is still elusive. When Noel Guthrie trawled through the archives to compile the history, he narrowed it to two or three names; but could not be certain.

"He was known to the locals as Highlan' Chief," Guthrie says.

mackenzie highland pipe band
LONG HAUL: Starting out as a 12-year-old, Colin was to become the band's pipe major, and at 83 years old he's still keen as ever.

"We know he existed. We can no longer be certain who he was."

According to folklore, back in 1912, George Cowan, Danny Ross and Joe McDonald, played their bagpipes on the corner of School Rd and the Main St in Fairlie.

"The mysterious 'Highlan' Chief' approached this small group one evening, and said: ‘Can you play Mackenzie's Farewell to Ross-Shire. If you can, I'll give you £5 towards your band'."


mackenzie highland pipe band
LONG HAUL: Starting out as a 12-year-old, Colin was to become the band's pipe major, and at 83 years old he's still keen as ever.

Guthrie said this donation of "five quid" marked the band's official beginning.

It was initially known as the Fairlie Pipe Band.

"It was immortalised in a poem, Pipers Three told by a Mackenzie local, the late Nina Mackintosh, which I included in the book. It's a lovely poem and tells a great story," he says.

Guthrie's book about the band's history was intended to be only a 50-page pamphlet. But as he got more into the project, he wanted to do the story justice. The final publication is about 400 pages long.

"The pipe band committee gave me free rein, as long as I told an interesting story," Guthrie said.

"The book features profiles of all of the 200 pipers and drummers who have played with the band. Some are only a few lines long, others are far more detailed. There's a lot of humour in the book."

Guthrie said several past and present members contributed to the book.

"Colin McKinnon, who is in his 80s, was invaluable. His knowledge of the band goes back to the 1940s and he was able to fill in many of the gaps."

Guthrie, a former member of the pipe band, was also able to provide his own recollections. However, the biggest disappointment for him was the fact that more than 50 years' worth of committee meeting records could not be found.

"It made my job harder. I relied a lot on newspaper clippings and interviews for a history of the first 50 years. But so much has been lost," Guthrie says.

The Highland Pipe Band has experienced many trials and tribulations over its 100 years. Membership numbers declined after World War I, while it was only the efforts of local businessman Hector Carlton in 1929 that saved it from being disbanded, after a lack of members put the band into a brief recess. The band was reformed under the name of the Mackenzie Highland Pipe Band, which it has kept to this day.

"Its centennial has been hard won," Guthrie said.

Earlier this month, more than 100 past and present members gathered in the Mackenzie community theatre in Fairlie to celebrate the Mackenzie Highland Pipe Band's centenary. The celebrations were followed the next day, by performances on the local school grounds from more than 200 pipers and drummers from all over the South Island.

Today, the band has about 30 active members, and Guthrie said the efforts of people such as John Campbell, who has taught more than 250 pipers, have kept it going over the past two decades. However, the majority of the band's current membership are women.

"When women started to join in the 1950s, there was some resistance from the old guard, but everyone agrees now that without the women, the pipe band would have ceased to exist years ago. They've been the best thing about the band," Guthrie said.

What has been the secret of the band's longevity?

"It goes back to their Scottish roots. All but one of the original members were Scottish. There's that Scottish commitment and sense of preservation, which the band members have continued on today."

People can buy a copy of Mackenzie Highland Pipe Band: A Century in the Making by contacting club secretary Graham Parcell at ggparcell@xtra.co.nz.

The Timaru Herald