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Updated 02/28/2017

 


10th Bn HLI Crossing the Rhine
Pipe Major Donald Shaw Ramsay

The Highland Light Infantry later the Highland Light Infantry (City of Glasgow Regiment) was a regiment of the British Army.  It was formed as part of Childers reforms on 1 July 1881 by the amalgamation of the 71st (Highland) Light Infantry and the 74th (Highlanders) Regiment of Foot, becoming the city regiment of Glasgow its name being expanded to reflect this in 1923. Its exact status was a somewhat ambiguous one - although the regiment insisted on being classified as a non-kilted Highland regiment, it recruited mainly from Glasgow in Lowland Scotland.

The HLI (as it was always known) continued in service, actively taking part in the First and Second World Wars, until it was amalgamated with the Royal Scots Fusiliers in 1959 to form the Royal Highland Fusiliers (Princess Margaret's Own Glasgow and Ayrshire Regiment).

The HLI was the only Highland regiment to wear trews, until 1947 when kilts were authorized. An earlier exception was the Glasgow Highlanders who wore kilts and were a territorial battalion within the HLI.
 
Donald Shaw Ramsay was born in 1919 in Torphichen, Scotland. When he was eight, his first teacher was Sandy Forrest, who was then Pipe-Major of the Torphichen & Bathgate Pipe Band, which exists today, led by Pipe-Major Gordon Stafford and promoted to Grade 1 in October 2008.

Ramsay enjoyed early success in solo competition, doing well in the junior categories at, among other events, the Northern Meeting. At 19, he became pipe-major of another local band, and the next year joined the 10th Battalion Highland Light Infantry, recruited by the colonel of the battalion to establish a band who pulled strings to ensure that Ramsay was part of his group. At the time, however, the minimum age for a British Army pipe-major was 21, but corners were cut and Ramsay became the latest "youngest pipe-major ever," a title that seems to have been given to numerous people over the years. It was with the 10th HLI during the Second World War that Ramsay saw action, and wrote one of his first great compositions, the 6/8 march, "The 10th Battalion H.L.I. Crossing the Rhine."

Immediately after the war, Ramsay became piper to the Duke of Hamilton. He joined the Edinburgh City Police force in 1947 and was again recruited, this time to take over the Edinburgh City Police Pipe Band. He officially succeeded Duncan Cameron on October 7, 1949. The band at the time was considered something of an also-ran; the dominant Glasgow Police and Shotts and Dykehead Caledonia garnering most of the prizes. Ramsay set about tossing revamping the band for competition success, recruiting new players and dismissing many stalwart members.

Success was virtually immediate. The Edinburgh Police won the World Pipe Band Championship in 1950 and then again in 1954. The band hadn't won a major since 1919.

With the Edinburgh City Police Ramsay began to extend the reaches of pipe band music, which, until then, had comprised only large MSRs and parade marches. In what would seem today as content for lower-grade bands, his introduction of two-parted strathspeys and reels, dot/cut hornpipes and jigs set the pipe band world on its head. With the band's expanded repertoire, borrowing heavily from accordion and fiddle sources, it became in-demand for performances, and the superstar era of the Edinburgh Police that would last until the late-1970s was started.

Ramsays's own composing ability also took off. He collaborated with Highland wear and bagpipe-maker Hugh MacPherson to publish two volumes of the Edcath Collection, which showcased his tunes and brought much of the band's repertoire to the masses. The collections, which also include several snare scores by Jimmy Catherwood and Alex Duthart, are considered today as classics, on the same level as those from Willie Ross and Donald MacLeod.

His compositions are relatively few, but his rate of hitting the melody and popularity bull's-eye might be unparalleled: "Mrs. Lily Christie," "Schiehallion," "Angus MacKinnon," "Tam Bainís Lum," "Jimmy Young" "Mary Horne" and "Flora, Mrs. MacLeod of MacLeod" are all essentials in any good piper's repertoire.

Ramsay's career continued apace until 1957 when he was shot at point-blank range in the abdomen while investigating a call while on duty with the police. After more than six months of recovery, he returned to duty only to be injured again in another crime investigation. He was forced to retire with full pension and moved to San Francisco, eventually working with the Wells Fargo Bank, only to leave the job to start a Highland outfitting business, The Scotch House. He also took over the San Francisco Caledonian Pipe Band, bringing them to "Grade 1" in 1960.

In 1964 another dark event struck Ramsay when his shop was robbed, his wife held at gunpoint. That same year he was recruited once again, this time by the Invergordon Distillery in the north of Scotland, whose chairman, Frank Thomson, was determined to create a world-class pipe band as a marketing mechanism. Ramsay accepted, moved back to Scotland and again set about creating a competitively dominating pipe band from virtually nothing.

Over the next four years Donald Shaw Ramsay convinced the likes of John D. Burgess, John MacDougall, Alex Duthart, Kit Reynolds, Jim Hutton and Bert Barr to join the Invergordon ranks, put on the distillery's payroll. Again, with an innovative spirit similar to the one Ramsay deployed with the Edinburgh City Police, Invergordon combined competition success with musical adventure. The band's LP on 1966 featured a full rendition of the piobaireachd, "The Old Woman's Lullaby," complete with multi-level harmonies and non-traditional percussion. The band would also win every major championship except the World's.

After the Invergordon "experiment" ended, Ramsay returned to the United States, and was yet again recruited, this time to start a new pipe band program at the St. Thomas Episcopal School in Houston, Texas. He agreed, but found the climate unbearable, and he negotiated quarterly visits instead. Among the students was Mike Cusack, who Ramsay taught and who would eventually become the United States' most decorated solo competition piper ever.

Ramsay's next 25 years were relatively quiet, in piping terms. He continued to teach and work with pipers in the San Francisco area, and was an occasional judge at events. He returned again to Scotland to be closer to his daughter, and he and his wife ran a guest house in the Highlands for more than 10 years. While he had accreditation on the RSPBA's adjudicators' panel, he infrequently judged in Scotland. His last significant judging assignment was on the Grade 1 circle at the RSPBA's Diamond Jubilee competition in 1990.

Donald Shaw Ramsay died on July 14, 1998. He was buried at Grand Sable Cemetery in Polmont, Scotland, and former-Lothian & Borders Police Pipe-Major Harry McNulty played "Schiehallion" at the funeral.