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The Highland Bagpipe by Gary West

I have to admit I've never been a big fan of those league tables of the "20 best ever" lists that seem to be all the rage these days. And so it was with mixed feelings that I recently agreed to contribute to one of them, although I have to admit that once I started to think about it, I got rather hooked and thoroughly enjoyed the whole process! The list in question was the "20 greatest pipers in history." There were certain criteria that had to be considered: nominees had to be born after 1750 (on the grounds that before the mid 18th century it becomes harder to separate history from myth); they had to be deceased (presumably to avoid causing fights among current-day players); and all aspects of their contribution to piping were to be considered, including composing, teaching, publishing and innovation, as well as playing ability and competing success. I was one of a panel of eight commentators invited to take part in the selection process, although we were not told who the others were and we worked entirely independently without any discussion between us.

From an initial list of 65, we each had to rank them in what we considered to be their order of importance, and those results eliminated around half of them. From that reduced list, we each then repeated the process, giving our justifications for our selections, and when the numbers were crunched, the final top 20 was announced. So who are the greatest pipers in history? Let's focus on the handful at the very top.

Fifth place went to Pipe Major Willie Ross (1879-1965) from Glen Strathfarrar near Beauly, some miles to the north of Inverness. Piping was very much in his blood and he was taught by his father, uncle and, unusually for the time, also by his mother. Joining the Scots Guards in his teens, he rose to the very top of army piping, becoming director of the recently founded Army School of Piping in 1920, and going on to teach almost all the great players of the following two generations. He won everything there was to win on the competition boards, most of them many times over, and was a prolific publisher of pipe music. His contribution to piping was immense, and it seems there was little disagreement that he deserved his place towards the top end of this pantheon of greats.

The full text of this column is available in the Spring 2015 issue of Scottish Life.

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