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Updated 05/09/2013


PM William Ross' Farewell to the Scots Guard

Pipe Major William Ross, M.B.E., (1878-1966) was born to piping parents in Glenstrathfarrar near Beauly in Inverness-shire on June 14, 1878, and was taught primarily by his mother, Mary Collie. He turned his sights on the army quickly, joining the Scots Guards at age 18 in 1896, thus beginning an military association that would last for 60 years.
He was decorated with the 1st Battalion in the Boer War in South Africa from 1899-1902. By then he was already composing tunes, among them The Scots Guards’ Farewell to South Africa. In 1905 he became Pipe-Major of the 2nd Battalion, while his younger brother Alexander would become Pipe-Major of the 1st Battalion in 1911. He served in France during the Great War until he was invalided from the service in 1918 due to rheumatism.
In 1919 he secured his famous post as Instructor at the Army School of Piping at Edinburgh Castle, a position at the time under the auspices of the Piobaireachd Society.

This being only a half-time position, he was also able to accept a position as Piobaireachd Society instructor in the Highlands of Scotland, and also supplement his income with private pupils. In 1921 he was appointed Pipe-Major of the Lovat Scouts, a post he held until 1933.
By this time his competing prowess was the stuff of legend. He won the Gold Medal at Inverness in 1904 and at Oban in 1907. He won Clasps to the Inverness Medal in 1905, ’06 and ’07, 1910, ’12, ’13, ’19 and ’28 – a record of eight that would stand for decades, untouched even by piobaireachd great John MacDonald of Inverness. He won a total of 11 Former Winners’ M/S/R events at Oban and Inverness. This competitive record easily distinguishes him as the best overall competitor of his day.
He was a tall man and very handsome in his younger days. His wife Edith (MacGregor) was equally striking, and as Dr. William Donaldson writes in his book Pipers, “They used to turn heads in the Strand as they walked out, she dressed in the highest fashion and he resplendent in the full No. 1’s of a pipe-major in the Scots Guards.” They were married in 1903.
They had two children: a son William who died young, and a daughter Cecily, very musical, and immortalized in Roderick Campbell’s superb four-parted reel, Cecily Ross.

Ross would hold his position at the Castle for nearly 40 years until his retirement in 1958, when he was succeeded by Pipe-Major John A. MacLellan. During this time he transformed the position into a high-profile one, training hundreds of pipers and being responsible for virtually all the premier players the army produced at this time, including Donald MacLeod and John A. MacLellan. His most famous private pupil was John D. Burgess, who won both Gold Medals at age 16 in 1950, and with whom Ross toured North America in 1952. He produced a long series of gramophone recordings and played frequently on the radio. His fame spread. Angus MacPherson of Invershin honoured him with a piobaireachd, Salute to Pipe-Major William Ross, and he was often referred to as “The World’s Pipe-Major,” a reputation he lived up to as more than just a piper.
His many compositions include some top-drawer tunes: the lilting 6/8 marches Leaving Port Askaig and Queen Elizabeth’s March, the haunting slow air MacRoberts’ Lament, the evergreen quick marches Corriechoillie’s 43rd Welcome to the Northern Meeting and Captain Norman Orr Ewing, the daunting and powerful competition march Brigadier General Ronald Cheape of Tiroran and the classic jig Center’s Bonnet.
He compiled five books of music between 1923 and 1950. They remain in print today and any pipers worth their salt turn first to these for competition pieces. More than any other publications, these set in firm print the gracing style evolved by the likes of John MacColl, G.S. McLennan, his cousin William McLennan and Ross himself. It is a style that is still in vogue – often gracenote-for-gracenote – on the competition platform today.

King George V awareded him the Royal Victorian Medal in 1910, and in 1945 King George VI invested him as a Member of the Order of the British Empire. While these were honours well deserved, a more distinctive one was the request from King George VI that an air composed by Pipe Major Ross and played in the hearing of the then King and Queen before it had been 'christened,' should be given the name 'Queen Elizabeth.'

His final years were dogged by ill health. He died on March 23, 1966 in Edinburgh and was buried beside his wife in Morningside Cemetery.