Three Commonwealth Games and two Edinburgh Tattoos – an impressive record for Montvillian, Gordon Ferguson, and his bagpipes. He played at the opening ceremony in Brisbane in ‘82 and the closing ceremony in Glasgow in 2014. And now, this ‘lone piper’ may be seen inspiring the Scottish team at venues on the Sunshine Coast.
by Gay Liddington
The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo is an annual event that finds me settled in front of the television wishing I was a live spectator. My Celtic ancestry rises up to meet the unique harmonics of the bagpipes. Interplay of the melody pipe, the Chanter, against the steadfast background chord of the Drone stirs my emotions at the very core.
Gordon Ferguson, proud Scot and piper in two Edinburgh Tattoos shares his lifelong love of the Great Highland bagpipe from his Montville home.
“When I was about nine, my father encouraged me to learn a musical instrument. He gave the choice of bagpipes or fiddle. I told him, it’s the pipes or nothing.”
Gordon’s piping career began in the early 50s with an esteemed tutor who taught at the College of Piping in Glasgow.
“At the age of 11, I joined the 214th Glasgow Company Boys’ Brigade. They had a great set-up teaching kids from scratch through to accomplished players.”
Boys’ Brigade imparted life skills to young Gordon. Sunday was Bible class and bagpipe lesson. Week nights were ambulance class, band practice, fireman’s class and Fridays the Boys’ Brigade Company night. Add football on Saturday, leaving no time for a lad to get into mischief.
“From mid-May through September we played competitions every Saturday. We won the World Juvenile Pipe Band Championship on a number of occasions. Also, the Highland Shield Competition for the best Boys’ Brigade band in the Glasgow Battalion. We won it 26 times in a row.”
Gordon left school at age 15. He began work as a Wages Clerk in the steel industry.
“School didn’t resonate with me but once I realised the error of my ways I qualified as an accountant through night school and correspondence.”
Soon after Gordon left Boys’ Brigade at age 17 he joined Muirhead and Sons Pipe Band.
“The first turnout was the British Championships. Muirheads had never won but they won that day. We went on to play in the World Championships winning the Grade 1 category five years in a row.”
The calibre of Muirheads was such that they were invited to travel far and wide. Expo ’67 in Halifax, Nova Scotia and a Scottish Concert Party to Russia added to their acclaim.
“We also played in the movie ‘Casino Royale’ with Peter Sellers and Ursula Andress. Filming was at Shepperton Studios in London.
“Our part was the dream sequence where Ursula Andress saw a pipe band coming towards her out of the mist. She had a set of bagpipes which doubled as a machine gun and shot all the pipers and drummers. It was good fun.”
In ’69, Gordon craved adventure. He left Scotland, landed in Australia and settled in Newcastle. His girlfriend joined him and they were married the following year. Scotland and family soon drew the couple back home with their first child. Nine years on they returned to Australia with five children and settled in Brisbane.
“Within a couple of days, I was playing with the Queensland Irish Association Pipe Band. In ’85, we went to Scotland and Northern Ireland winning third place in the World Championships in Grade 2.”
In 2001, piping with the Queensland Highlanders saw Gordon Ferguson playing at the Celtic Festival in Lorient, Brittany.
“It coincided with the world championships in Scotland. We won Grade 2 which was a great achievement for a little band from Australia.”
After receiving a redundancy from his job, Gordon was successful in an application to join the Queensland Police Pipes & Drums. He adds, “I was paid for my hobby for the next six years.
“We travelled to Scotland in 2006 and played at the Edinburgh Tattoo. I left the band five years later when we moved to Montville.
“I’d made friends with quite a few of the police bands including the Tasmanian police. I played with them at the 2011 Basel Tattoo in Switzerland and again at the Edinburgh Tattoo, 2014.
“It’s hard work. You’ve got a week of rehearsals to prepare for the Tattoo. You know the tunes but you don’t know what they’ve got in mind for the performance so they’ve got to knock you into shape. There are 24 shows over three weeks.
“To create atmosphere while we practised they got local kindy kids and people from the old folks’ homes to make an audience around the barrack parade ground.”
When one views the Edinburgh Tattoo from a spectator’s seat you hear the sound of a military march. Music swells, cannon roars, then applause as the massed pipes and drums file through the drawbridge. Clan tartans signify a history that speaks of battles won and lost. The bagpipe is the only instrument declared a weapon of war.
Gordon shares his experience of being on the other side of the drawbridge: “You stand behind closed doors holding onto your pipes chatting to the boys. Then the call to action. There’s a flurry of activity. Although you’re ready, in a way you’re not because when the cannon goes off you just about jump out of your kilt.
“There’s the command, doors open and you’ve got maybe 13 files of pipers and drummers trying to squeeze through that entry. You can only get six at most side by side.
“By the time they fan out onto the esplanade it all looks pretty organised but prior, it’s every man for himself.
“One Sunday, supposedly our day off, buses took us to Balmoral Castle to play for the Queen. Afterwards, the pipe and drum majors were taken into the castle and introduced to the Queen and Prince Philip. Ordinary pipers and drummers were shunted off to the army barracks at Ballater, given pie and chips then bused back to Edinburgh.”
Although Gordon is retired he occasionally guests with such as the Tasmanian Police Band and Christchurch Metropolitan Pipe Band. He also judges pipe bands and solos in Queensland and New South Wales.
Gordon concluded: “I now tutor students and play at weddings, funerals and social events including three gigs on Anzac Day: Montville dawn service, Mapleton at 9.30am and Alexandra Headland for the Korean War memorial service. I love playing at these events because of the surprise, the tears and memories evoked.”
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