Pipe Major Alasdair Gillies, who has died aged 47, was regarded by many as one of the finest players to have ever picked up the pipes. He was the winner of many awards, recorded widely and was a much-respected figure throughout the world of piping.
He was the last pipe major of the Queen’s Own Highlanders prior to its amalgamation with the Gordon Highlanders and was then the first pipe major of the new battalion The Highlanders. In 1997 he took up a teaching position in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, at the Carnegie Mellon University Pipe Band which he filled with much distinction until 2009. As a piper he had superb technique and a natural understanding of the music that made his piping special.
George Balderose at the Balmoral School of Piping in Pittsburgh said: “Alasdair was one of the very best Scottish pipers in recorded history, and we were very privileged to have had the opportunity to study with him, work with him, and get to know him as a delightful friend. We are saddened by the tragic loss of such a wonderful person, loved by many of us in Pittsburgh and around the world.”
The magazine Pipes|Drums also paid full tribute to Pipe Major Gillies. It said: “Probably the most successful solo light music competitor in history, Gillies won almost every major prize in both piobaireachd and light music, some many times over.”
Alasdair Gillies was born in Glasgow, was brought up in Ullapool and was initially taught piping by his father, a renowned piper. He had his first experience of piping with the Ullapool and District Pipe Band which his father had founded. Later he played with the City of Glasgow Pipe Band.
It was in 1981 that he won his first prize at the Northern Meeting and he was to go on to set a record, winning every trophy in both senior and junior piping except one (the B-Grade Strathspey & Reel). Among Pipe Major Gillies’ other many awards were the Glenfiddich Championship on three occasions, both the Highland Society of London Gold Medals and the Clasp at Inverness.
Pipe Major Gillies had an active military career, serving in the UK before spending five years in Northern Ireland, Germany, in the Middle Easdt for Operation Desert Storm and Kenya. But it was in the Falkland Islands that Pipe Major Gillies made a special mark. His piping maintained morale and he was, famously, photographed playing his pipes in a barren landscape to a flock of penguins.
He left the army in 1996 and the following year took up his post in Pittsburgh (having gained a distinction on the pipe major’s course) and every summer taught at the Balmoral School of Piping & Drumming where he was principal piping instructor
Pipe Major Gillies was a modest man, always quiet and unassuming – keen to help young pipers and share his knowledge. He was held in high regard throughout the piping community and it was of no surprise when, a decade ago, the readers of Pipes|Drums voted him the best piper of the 20th century. But such accolades were of little interest to such a retiring man – he was once hailed, to some personal amusement, in America as “the Michael Jordan of piping.”
Robert Wallace, Principal of the College of Piping in Glasgow, recalled some “magnificent performances by Alasdair at Inverness when he strode the platform like no other”. But Mr Wallace fondly remembers his exceptional playing and musicianship: “The clarity of the fingerwork, the flowing expression, the easy, effortless, tuneful bagpipe ... he well deserved the roar of the crowd at the end.”
Pipe Major Gillies, who died in Ullapool, was married to Pauline and they had one son, Norman.