Great Piping: P/M William “Billy” Gilmour

October 29, 2022 on 6:47 pm by Michael Grey | In Music, Solo Piping, Stories, Video | No Comments

I’ve known about Billy Gilmour and his marvellous musical abilities for almost as long as I’ve been piping. Early on in my musical education I luckily found myself in the orbit of The 48th Highlanders of Canada. Through my lessons with my great first teacher, George Walker, I landed in the band – yes, for a little while, but a great while.

George ended his career with the band as – surely – one of its longest-serving members, at over 50 loyal years. Remarkable. In the context of today’s pipe band world, a half century in any band is simply hard to imagine.

The band of my short time as a member was led by the great Reay Mackay. A man that would become a real friend and treasured mentor. As one of the “young guys” – as the youthful bunch of us would then call ourselves – I brushed shoulders with a lot of piping history: stories and traditions, and the bearers of those traditions were at every turn.

On reflection: I was lucky. Today I’m grateful.

It’s during this time I connected and found my way to have lessons with John Wilson and – have my first adventure with this pipe band’s tipple of the day: “dark rum and coke” – ugh (well, I survived!).

The 48th Highlanders are a great regiment and have a fantastic piping history that goes back well over a century. Consider that the pipe band’s third Pipe Major, Farquhar Beaton was the composer of a couple of our music’s garden-favourite tunes: “The Midlothian Amateur Pipe Band” and “Colonel Robertson” (the melody of the 1960s million-seller Ballad of Glencoe).

Another person of the band’s history was Billy Gilmour. Along with Reay Mackay, these two child prodigy pupils of John Wilson would sweep the contest boards with their young teenage stylings and virtuoso musicality. In the 48th band room the name of Billy Gilmour was never much far from conversation. Though he had departed the band many years before to join the regular forces to be posted with the Second Battalion, The Black Watch, Royal Highland Regiment of Canada.

I have never heard Billy play live – and I say “Billy” as that is how I’ve heard his name in my time in the 48th and at all times after including around his good friend, Reay Mackay – but, he did judge me once. I still have the “scoresheet” (we have these things in Ontario).

It was at Maxville, at the massive Glengarry Highland Games. I was then competing in the grade 1 amateur piobaireachd contest (known today as “senior amateur”). The contest was at the prestigious north end of the fair grounds, alongside what were cattle stalls. I don’t think they’re there today. Sadly. Anyway, I was laying out what was surely an entrancing (and emotively moving) “Clan Campbell’s Gathering” and some damned rotten bratty kid kicked a massive inflated multi-coloured beach ball – at least the size of a bass drum – between me and Billy. My memory has it that Billy gave the kid and his parents the finger – but I could be wrong. Anyway, the tune survived intact.

In thinking back, even more kudos to William Gilmour!

I’ve had a 1962 vinyl recording of Pipe Major Gilmour’s tunes for a long time. I own no copyright but have brazenly digitized it and put tracks up for others to hear this man’s fantastic artistry and musicianship.

A tip of the hat to that fine piper and fellow, Gary West, host of BBC Scotland’s Pipeline program. He aired a couple of tracks of Bill Gilmour’s on his show last week. Just great.

And more samples here.

Billy Gilmour sure can play.

Great style.

M.

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