How skirl of the pipes remains music to tuneful ears of Brian

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THE Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo is a spectacular event that is renowned worldwide.

Staged on the esplanade of Edinburgh Castle it is a wonderful spectacle to say the least.

One of the event’s many golden moments is its emotional and poignant closure when a lone piper stands high on the castle ramparts playing a haunting lament.

Watching this on its stunning backdrop makes the hair stand up on the back of the neck.

It is an incredible honour to fulfil the role and one that Pipe Major Brian Gillies remembers fondly.

Casting his mind back to that occasion back in 1985, Brian, who works at Johnstons of Elgin, said: “I would think it’s every piper’s dream to be the lone piper at the Tattoo. It certainly was mine, but it was a dream that I thought would never come true.

“It’s difficult to put into words how it felt standing up there all alone on the ramparts at Edinburgh Castle, playing the pipes.

“It was certainly an unbelievable experience and one I’ll never forget. I can only describe it as ‘magic’.”

This is just one of the stories of Brian’s involvement with the skirl of the pipes, stories that have struck up sweet music in a variety of ways.

Born in the former Haig Maternity Hospital in 1957, Brian’s first home was at Lynwood Crescent, but the family moved to the brand new housing scheme at Burnfoot and took up residence in Burnfoot Road.

Looking back at his early days Brian, who has four brothers, George, James, Ian and David, as well as sisters Isabel and Susan, said: “Burnfoot was a great place to be brought up in.

“At first I went to the ‘little school’ and my main memories of this are that we got bottles of milk and orange juice and you didn’t have to pay for them.

“When you got a bit older you moved to the ‘big school’. It was just across the road but I remember this was a huge deal.”

It was during his Burnfoot school days that Brian’s interest and love of the bagpipes began.

He explained: “My dad George was in the Hawick Legion Pipe Band. He’d been a boy soldier and had been taught to play the pipes at the Queen Victoria School.

“He was in the Royal Scots and at 18 was captured by the Japanese and was a prisoner of war, but he managed to survive.

“He loved to play the pipes, but he never pushed me or any of my brothers to do the same. I wanted to learn though and I think this pleased him a lot, although he never said anything.

“He started to teach me and I also learned how to read music as well. And at ten-years-old I joined the Hawick Legion Pipe Band.”

The first notes had been well and truly hit. After leaving Burnfoot Primary School, Brian went on to the high school and on finishing his education, served his apprenticeship as a hand knitter with Barrie and Kersel, before moving on to Hogg’s.

A dramatic change in Brian’s life, however, was about to happen. He said: “It came right out of the blue as I decided I didn’t want to be a hand knitter all my life.

“I was passing the army recruitment caravan that was in the Common Haugh. I went in to enquire about joining up and everything happened very quickly after that.

“It was quite incredible, in fact, and it certainly wouldn’t happen nowadays. Within a few days I had a medical at Redford Barracks and I’d signed up for the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards.

“I went away on the train and my wee sister Susan, who now lives in New Zealand, gave me a pound note which she couldn’t really afford, to get something to eat.

“I didn’t spend it and I kept that pound for a long time as a keepsake.”

A life in the army, that was to last nine years, had began, and what a remarkable nine years it was to be.

Brian, who was to become a gunning instructor, regimental gunner mechanic and tank chieftain crew commander. He was also to pursue his love of piping.

He said: “You were a soldier first, the piping came second. However, I had some great times with the regiment band, which I joined right away. I loved it from the start to the finish.

“I went on to become a Pipe Major and that was a great honour and a thrill.”

Brian’s association with the army has taken him to many faraway places and given him memorable experiences.

On one occasion he had a one-to-one talk with royalty.

“I was stationed in Germany at the time and I was asked to play the pipes at a dinner in the Savoy Hotel, in London.

“The Queen Mother was there as she was the chairman of the Army Board and I thought it was brilliant to play in front of her.

“I’d just finished playing and was about to get changed in the kitchen when a steward came in and said the Queen Mother requested my company.

“At first I thought it was a joke but it was right enough. I was introduced to her and sat next to her on a couch. She asked me if I would like a drink and I said I wouldn’t mind a bottle of beer. A steward got this while the Queen Mother had a gin and tonic.

“I was a bit flustered as I’d never spoken to a member of the royal family before and I was speaking in my best ‘Sandbed English’.

“She put me at ease though and during our conversation I told her I came from Hawick. She said she had been to Hawick and she even knew all about the Common-Riding. It was great to talk with her and she was a real lady.”

Brian’s involvement with the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards have taken him all over the world, visiting places like Holland, Australia and the United States.

He has also played at many famous venues, such as Madison Square Garden in New York, and the London Palladium, at a Royal Variety Performance show in 1978.

On leaving the army Brian returned to Hawick and became a handknitter once more.

But he was soon on his travels again.

He said: “I read an advert in the Daily Express saying the Sultan of Oman was looking for a Pipe Major. I applied for it and I got the job as Pipe Major with he Oman Army Pipe Band.

“It was a fantastic experience being over there as it was a completely different world to anything I’d been used to before.

“The Gulf War started though so, after three years in Oman, I decided to come back to Hawick.”

On his return home Brian joined the Annan Ex-Serviceman’s Pipe Band and hit the road to Annan many time, as well as travelling to contests with fellow Hawick man Jim Beattie.

Apart from being a gifted piper, Brian also composes pipe music.

“A tune will sometimes come into my head for no reason and once I get the first two or three bars that’s it,” he said.

“Sometimes I’ve been lying in bed and this happens so I have to jump up right away and write things down in case I’ve forgotten by the morning.”

German composers Ulrich Roever and Michael Korb wrote the wonderful piping melody Highland Cathedral, which was to become a massive success all over the globe.

And Brian is linked to this masterpiece.

He said: “The two Germans composed it, but it was to be a military band piece originally. It was then thought it would be better suited for a pipe band and I was asked to write the pipe score, which I did.

“Highland Cathedral was then recorded by the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards Pipe Band on an LP. It wasn’t a hit right away but it certainly is now.”

Brian continues to play, at weddings, dinners and other functions. And his love of piping has never diminished over the years.

He said: “Every single night I play the chanter and I play the pipes three times a week.

“Thanks to piping I’ve been all over the world, met a lot of people and had some great experiences.

“Piping has been a big part of my life and I just love it.”