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90 Years Of The Thurso Pipe Band
THE THURSO PIPE BAND
Formed in 1913 by the late Alex Mackay of the St Clair Hotel, Thurso the band has proved a major asset to the town down through the years. The weekly parades and displays in the summer months holds out a strong magnetic appeal to locals and tourists alike.
The founder of the band, Alex Mackay was also the first pipe major. In the bands early days they had little in the way of funds to kit its members and had to rely on public contributions to scrape together sufficient funds to purchase ex-army kilts and jackets. The kilts were Mackenzie tartan and the band has retained this tartan throughout its 90 year history. To ensure that the band looked as good as it sounded the khaki tunics were dyed black. The early years proved to be very successful but when war broke out in 1914 a number of the members were called up for active service. However, those that remained kept the band alive throughout the war years.
In 1918 Donald Swanson took over as pipe major. A few years later the band had sufficient funds to purchase their first full uniform. They retained the Mackenzie tartan and had black tunics for the pipers and drummers. The drummers wore glengarries whilst the pipers wore glengarries with a blackcock feather. Belt, buckles, sporran tops and broaches of a matching design provided the finishing touches. The first mace was hand-made by Willie Coghill, a drum major in the band. It was made from a paper- weight depicting a stag’s head, a leg of a chair and a broom handle. By all accounts it looked like the real thing.
When John Macdonald of Achnavast took over as pipe major in 1923 it started an unbroken 71 year reign of the same Macdonald family holding the post of pipe major. In fact the family connection with the band goes back even further, John’s cousin Charlie joined the band as a piper in 1916. John continued as pipe major until 1938. Another successful public appeal for funding to purchase new uniforms were worn for the fist time at the pipe band ball in the territorial Army hall in Sinclair Street, at one time a highlight of Thurso’s social calendar.
In 1938 John handed over the reins to his brother Peter who continued as pipe major until 1965, apart from the years during the second World War when the band disbanded. The band practised and stored their equipment in the Town Hall. Contrary to many beliefs the Band Room was not named after the pipe band but after the local brass band that also practised there, Unfortunately a fire in the town Hall resulted in the equipment and the uniforms being destroyed much to the disappointment of the band members.
When the band reformed after the War in 1947 another public appeal was made to replace the equipment lost in the fire. The total cost of kitting out the band at the time is believed to be around £800 (not even enough money to kit one member in the band today) At the end of the war, the Canadian band disbanded and sold their drums to Potters of Aldershot thus allowing the Thurso band to purchase them second-hand. The first set of leopard skins worn by the bands was gifted by a Mrs Laurie after she emigrated to South Africa. During the 1950’s the drummers changed their headgear from the glengarries to feather bonnets and green hackles which they still wear to this day.
After 1947, under the leadership of Peter Macdonald, the band competed in championships with a fair degree of success. They were crowned champions at the inaugural event of the North of Scotland Pipe Band Championships held in Inverness. On the same occasion Drum Major Robert Hood won the Drum major contest. The band had many successes at the Dornoch Games, winning first prize on many occasions. The Invergordon Games attracted all the top bands in the north of Scotland and it is some measure of their ability when the records show that the Thurso Band took the honours on seven occasions.
From 1965 to 1967 Robbie Macdonald succeeded his cousin Peter as pipe major. After two years with the band Robbie joined the Invergordon Pipe band that went onto win the European, British and Scottish Championships under Donald Shaw-Ramsey. Robbie’s departure to Invergordon in 1967 gave his brother Sandy the opportunity to continue the Macdonald reign as pipe major of the band. The band continued to take part in major championships and competed regularly at the World Championships and the renowned Cowal Games. Sandy retired in 1994 brining to an end the long Macdonald family connection with the band, spanning over 70 years.
In 1994 the pipe major role was taken over by Staurt Webster. In 1998 Staurt handed the reins over to Kevin Gunn the bands current pipe Major.
In the last few years the band has seen an upsurge in younger members joining the band. The highlight of the band in recent years has seen them travel to Brilon in Germany, Thurso’s twin town to play at the Altsdatfest.
As well as celebrating the 90th year with the massed bands, the band will publishing a book charting the history of its 90 years. The book has been writing by Sheila Plowman who has spent many painstaking hours researching information through the years.
Over its 90 years the band has been indebted to the people and businesses of Thurso, Caithness and beyond for their help and support to keep the band running and making it a success.