The Exceedingly Fascinating Musings of Band Historian, Max Kuniansky - The 78th Fraser Highlanders

July 18, 2016
By: Max Kuniansky

With the World Pipe Band Championships coming up, let’s take a moment to recall a watershed moment in piping history. On August 15, 1987, the 78th Fraser Highlanders from Ontario, Canada became the first non-Scottish band to win the World Pipe Band Championships in Grade 1.

 Photo courtesy: pipesdrums.com

Photo courtesy: pipesdrums.com

Time may have dimmed the significance of this achievement for some. So to put it in perspective: prior to 1987, no Grade 1 band outside of Scotland had ever won a major championship of any kind in a Royal Scottish Pipe Band Association event. The Glasgow-based Strathclyde Police Pipe Band seemed unstoppable, having won the Worlds in each of the prior six years - a record unmatched even today.

But the 78th Frasers in 1987 were a formidable lot. Their key players included some now-famous names: Bruce Gandy, Michael Gray, John Walsh, Iain Donaldson and J. Reid Maxwell. Their pipe major, William Livingstone Jr., was both a band leader and a solo competitor of the highest caliber, having won nearly every prize available in light music and piobaireachd. Livingstone is the only person ever to win the Clasp at the Northern Meeting (in 1981 and 1984) and take a band to the Worlds. He is also one of only two pipers to win both the Highland Society of London’s Gold Medal (1979) and the Worlds. The only other person to accomplish that feat was Robert G. Hardie – but that is a story for another time.

Livingstone’s recollections of the band’s performance that day in 1987 make fascinating reading (see the link under Further Reading at the end of this article). It’s highly recommended for anyone who wants to know what it is like to compete at the very highest level of the pipe band world. One would think that musicians at this level are immune to performance anxiety. But according to Livingstone, during tune-up everyone in the band was “on the edge of losing self-containment, just a breath, a heartbeat away from freaking out.”

Even worse, it began to rain heavily during the band’s first set, “with water literally running down the drone bores and accumulating on the reeds. They had to be completely torn down, dried with brushes, reassembled” and re-tuned in just 20 minutes before the band played its second competition set. “Those 20 minutes was one of the most frantic times of my life,” Livingstone stated.

Watch the YouTube video of the band’s performance. If anyone experienced gut-wrenching anxiety, they did a great job of concealing it.

After the 78th Fraser Highlanders’ victory, the Strathclyde Police dominated the Worlds’ Grade 1 for another four years. But then the tide began to turn. More non-Scottish bands went on to win the top prize, including Canada’s Simon Fraser University Pipe Band (six times), Northern Ireland’s Field Marshal Montgomery Pipe Band (ten times), and Australia’s Victoria Police Pipe Band and the Republic of Ireland’s St. Laurence O'Toole Pipe Band (once each). Still, the Frasers did it first, bringing unprecedented credibility to North American piping and helping to turn the Worlds into a truly global event.

The 2016 World Pipe Band Championships will be held on August 12 and 13. For more information, visit http://www.theworlds.co.uk/.

Further Reading

This account relies heavily on the following articles from the excellent online magazine Pipes | Drums, published by the Pipers and Pipe Band Society of Ontario, Canada.

Other suggested material: