Pipe bands in Australia ...

a journey

over more than

150 years

Stephen Matthews looks at the evolution of pipe bands in Australia and the various championships leading to the formation of PBA in 1960 and the years since.

New Year's Day Maryborough (Victoria) ... the first Australian Championships of the Australian Federation of Pipe Band Associations was held as part of the town's Centenary Highland Gathering in 1961

The Australian Pipe Band Championships, as a national event organised by Pipe Bands Australia and the APBA or AFPBA before it, has only existed since 1961. Before this time, in the absence of any national controlling body, the title of an ‘Australian Pipe Band Championship’ was adopted by individual organisers, who felt at liberty to use the name.

There is no reference to pipe band competitions of any kind in Australia before 1907, even though there were several bands in existence. Colonial Army pipe bands existed from the 1880s and civilian pipe bands from the 1890s, but the idea of bands competing did not take hold. Surprisingly, this was not just the situation in Colonial Australia, but elsewhere, including Scotland itself. Highland societies, games and gatherings had been held for decades in Australia, with dancing, heavy games and solo piping contests being commonplace from the 1850s, reflecting the significance of the immigrant Scottish population, especially in Victoria, where at one time a third of the population was Scottish. There were, however, no pipe band competitions as we know them until the early 20th Century.

The first recorded pipe band contest in Australia was held in 1907. It was held in Ballarat as part of the ‘Grand National Eisteddfod of Australasia’, a title still in recent use on certificates, and run by the Royal South Street Society. This series of competitions is Australia’s oldest, and covers many areas of music, dance, calisthenics, elocution and debating. Brass bands had been competing in graded competition at South Street for a few years prior to 1907, and travelled in large number from all over the country to compete. This was considered the national championship for brass bands, so including the newly developed and flourishing pipe bands was a natural extension.

Due to the South Street ‘Comps’ being considered the pinnacle of national cultural competition at the time, the acceptance of it as an Australian Championship was recognised at the time. Reinforcing this, the Brisbane press in 1913 covered the travel of the Brisbane Caledonian and Burns Club Pipe Band to “... compete for the pipe band championship of Australia” in Ballarat. Then, in 1922, The Argus newspaper in Melbourne carried notification of a Victorian Scottish Union event and the participation of the “Melbourne Highland Pipe Band, Champion Pipe Band of Australia” by virtue of the fact that band won South Street in Ballarat the previous October.

The record of results from the initial 1907 event has not

survived, but it is known that five bands competed.

All contests were held at Ballarat’s City Oval, and before

World War I, crowds witnessing the event in excess

of 15,000 – not including competitors – were

commonplace. The War itself did not slow down the

contest, apparently, and in 1917 the Ballarat Caledonian

Pipe Band – forerunner of the Federation University

Australia Pipe Band – won the event. Other prominent,

and regularly attending bands of the day, included the

Commun na Feinne Society (Geelong), Richmond

Caledonian, Collingwood Caledonian, Port and South

Melbourne (forerunner of today’s City of Melbourne

Highland Pipe Band – Victoria’s oldest surviving band),

Northcote and Preston, St Kilda and District, and Hamilton.

Comparatively big prize money was at stake, which made it attractive; £60 for prizes in 1907, and in 1910, £25 for first place. The event was ungraded and included a standing selection and quickstep. Dress and drill were part of the aggregate, and unlike today, drill often decided matters. Entries were generally small (up to eight bands), though there were fewer bands in existence than in later ‘boom’ years. There were regular entries from South Australia, Queensland and New South Wales, but travel time and cost in those days would have been prohibitive; perhaps a situation not greatly changed today, for many bands.

After running the even continuously from 1907-1927, South Street ceased pipe band competition in Ballarat, though it was revived in 1934, by which time there was another ‘Australian Pipe Band Championship’ elsewhere. It is not clear why South Street discontinued this contest when they did, although costs, a lack of entries, or the existence of the newly formed Victorian Highland Pipe Band Association, in 1924, may have had an impact. There is little doubt, however, that from 1907 until the mid-1920s, there is no record of any other pipe band contests that rivalled Ballarat’s in significance and status.

The Australian Championship appellation and its variations was still a rather loose one. Regardless of the title, the standing of the competition particularly relied upon the number of bands competing, the quality of those bands in a time of ungraded competition, and especially that bands were representing different states over time. There is also a sense that the reporting at the time, though newspapers, is not wholly reliable. A case in point occurred in on 26 December 1921, when it was reported in the Bundaberg Mail that Bundaberg Caledonia Pipe Band won the ‘Pipe Band Championship of Australasia’ held in Glen Innes, NSW. Bundaberg placed first, with ‘Sydney’ second, and the local Glen Innes band third. This contest took place around two months after Royal South Street’s existing Australian Championship, and perhaps the subtle difference in the titles of the two contests is instructive. Subsequently, and in a case that appears more like newspaper over-reporting by the Bundaberg Mail, the Bundaberg Caledonia is again noted as being the ‘Champions of Australia’ by virtue of having won two competitions; Tenterfield NSW on Boxing day, and Warwick (Qld) on New Year’s Day.

Where, then, did the Australian Pipe Band Championship go after Ballarat? Curiously, the current Victoria Scottish Pipe Band’s history indicates that it won the Australian Championship in 1926, but with no reference to where it was held, or who promoted it. There is some suggestion the New South Wales Highland Society adding an Australian Pipe Band Championship to the program for its long-standing New Year’s Day gathering, though this contest is referred to most consistently as the NSW Championship. One reporting of the 1933 event billed it the ‘Grand Interstate Highland Pipe Band Competition’ but there was also a ‘Junior Pipe Band Championship of NSW’ held on the day to add to the confusion as to status.

At this time, the format for the contest was a Quickstep around a set course with required drill movements, followed by a 2/4 March ‘standing selection’ played at the halt. This formula was already popular in Victoria and, aside from minor adjustments, remained very much the standard in Australian pipe band contests.

It seems clear that no Australian Championship in name was held from 1927 to 1933, and the next firm reference to an event is found in 1934. This was held at the Tamworth Oval, promoted by the Tamworth Caledonian Society with the results being Tenterfield first, receiving £65 in prizemoney and a £15 trophy, followed by Sydney Thistle second, Kurri Kurri (NSW) in third, with Sydney University in fourth place. It is apparent that this event only attracted bands from New South Wales and it seems this was a one-off event with no subsequent references made to Tamworth in this context. This event was reported in the local press, but also the Sydney Morning Herald.

On Boxing Day 1936, an Australian Pipe Band Championship was held at Wayville Showgrounds, Adelaide, as part of South Australia’s Centenary celebrations. Bands competing were Mildura and District (Vic), Eastern Goldfields (Kalgoorlie, WA), Hamilton (Vic), Maryborough and District (Vic), Blue Lake (SA), Glenelg Scottish (Casterton, Vic), Royal Caledonian Society of Melbourne, Caledonian Society (Adelaide) and Victorian Scottish Regiment. Then, in 1937 and 1938, the Canberra Highland Society and Burns Club claimed to promote an Australian Championships in mid-October, with the Highland Society of NSW winning in the first year, then Sydney Thistle first and Lakemba Caledonian second of the six bands that competed in 1938. There is only reference to these two years of competition for a national title in Canberra.

In 1940, Maryborough Highland Society (Victoria) claimed the Australian Pipe Band Championships name as another one-off event, which was followed by an apparent cessation of such events due to World War II. By 1946, yet another Australian Pipe Band Championship was held at Olympic Park in Melbourne on Australia Day. This event was organised by the rather entrepreneurial Drum Major William Darwin, who was also responsible for the Australian Ladies’ Pipe Band tour of Scotland in 1926. This event was held under the auspices of Australian Natives’ Association and its proceeds went to the Parkdale Children’s Welfare Committee, with a trophy donated for the event by Sir McPherson Robertson.

What was billed as the “largest band competition held in

the Southern Hemisphere” took place in Newcastle

between 6-21 September 1947, attracting forty brass band

entries “from all Australia” and also two from New Zealand.

Off the back of the brass band Australasian Championship,

an ‘Australasian Pipe Band Championship’ also took place on

14 September. Entries for this contest were much more

modest than that of the brass bands, and were limited to

nearby bands. First in the event was Sydney Thistle,

followed by Dulwich Hill Scottish Society, Highland Society

of New South Wales, and Lakemba Caledonia.

Newcastle City, Newcastle Scottish and Wollongong and

District also competed. It has to be said that, at this time

and despite the naming of the Newcastle event,

the NSW Championship itself was much larger, and that

contest was dominated immediately before and after

World War II by the Royal Caledonian Society of Melbourne.

The year 1948 was to bring about a significant change. In this year the (not-yet-Royal) Scottish Pipe Band Association (SPBA) sanctioned an Australian Pipe Band Championship that was promoted by the Border Caledonian Society based in Tenterfield (NSW). The SPBA provided both the rules and a trophy for the event; the Bruxner Shield. Each year a pipe banner was also presented to the winning band’s Pipe Major. During the period of Tenterfield holding the Championships, grading of bands apparently first took place at a Championship level. As was established long before in the world of competitive brass bands, A and B Grades were used, and later C Grade. Ladies' and Juvenile bands combined, had been based on gender and age (under 21 in the early years); something that would never happen in today's world!

From its first running on New Year’s Day 1949, the competition aimed high, with the organisers contacting each of the (also not-yet-Royal) New Zealand Pipe Band Association’s eighty-five registered bands. Though there was some interest, no overseas entries are thought to have eventuated. Results from the time indicate that entries, up to a maximum of about eleven bands in any one year, were exclusively from Queensland and New South Wales, and that pipe bands from further afield were not able to travel to compete. During the same period, Maryborough in Victoria was attracting a greater number of band entries than Tenterfield, but only from Victorian bands. In its first year, Tenterfield attracted an estimated 4000-5000 people.

Tenterfield was to hold the Australian Pipe Band Championship from 1949 until 1960, but not without a good deal of controversy and confusion. In 1954, Tenterfield had its Australian Pipe Band Championship, as usual, but the Brisbane Caledonian Society, backed by the Queensland Pipe Band Association, declared it was also holding an Australian Pipe Band Championship in Brisbane... the day before Tenterfield! Needless to say there was a furore and all sorts of accusations made. Tenterfield relied on its SPBA sanctioning. Nonetheless, two championships did run in 1954, on consecutive days. Two bands bothered to take part in both, with the A Grade results for the dual championship that year being:

Friday, 1 January 1954 – Brisbane result – A Grade: 1st Mt Isa, 2nd NSW Police
Saturday, 2 January 1954 – Tenterfield result – A Grade: 1st NSW Police, 2nd Mt Isa

It is difficult to say if the results were contrived to ‘even out’ the clash between the States, or if it was a true reflection of the performances on the day. This ludicrous situation only happened on one occasion, though Tenterfield had at least one more rival claim. Reference is made to Daylesford (Victoria) declaring that their 8th annual gathering an Australian Pipe Band Championship in 1959, in which Melbourne Highland won the A Grade. Brisbane Red Hackle won the Tenterfield equivalent that same year. With Australia’s large size playing its role, it was clearly the lack of interstate support that relegated Tenterfield more realistically to the status of a local contest. Something had to change.

1960 was to be Tenterfield’s last hosting of the Australian Pipe Band Championship as, at long last, moves were made to bring together the various state pipe band associations. It has been observed that, whilst the governing body in New South Wales – the Pipers and Pipe Band Association – was an ineffective governing body, Tenterfield was able to retain control of the national titles. In 1958, when the New South Wales Pipe Band Association was formed, the end for Tenterfield was inevitable. The new NSWPBA, along with the Queensland Pipe Band Association and the Victorian Highland Pipe Band Association moved to a co-ordinated, national approach. The result was the Australian Federation of Pipe Band Associations (AFPBA).

On the Queen’s Birthday weekend in June of 1960 a meeting was held in Sydney that resolved to hold an Australian Pipe Band Championships. The first were to be held in Victoria the next year followed by New South Wales, Queensland and then other States as their associations joined the AFPBA.

Tenterfield, however, did not go down without a fight and there was a long period of acrimony that ensued between country NSW and the Sydney-dominated NSWPBA. Tenterfield actually held its event in 1961 but the day before, the NSWPBA delegate withdrew Tenterfield’s permit to conduct the Tenterfield Highland Gathering. Brisbane Caledonian won the contest – which would have been its second Australian Championship – but the result did not receive official recognition.

In 1961, Maryborough, Victoria held the first official, nationally

sanctioned Australian Pipe Band Championships. The town’s

Highland Gathering was first held in 1858, the year following the

establishment of its Highland Society. Interestingly,

Maryborough had actually planned what would have been

Australia’s first know pipe band contest in 1900, but it never

eventuated, with only the Victorian Scottish Regiment in

attendance, it having formed in 1898. It was not until 1921

that Maryborough’s first pipe band competition took place

at the Gathering.

From 1961 to 1968 the Australian Pipe Band Championships

ran annually. With travel cost still a big factor for bands, except

for a brief period in the early 2000s, the event moved to once

every two years. The full record of the Championships since

1961 is reproduced elsewhere. The basic Championship format

of a Quickstep and a March, Strathspey and Reel was retained by

the AFPBA until 1988, when the Quickstep became optional and the aggregate was then based on the MSR and Medley.

Until the Australian Pipe Band Championship in Ballarat in 2012 – arguably 105 years after the first in that city – the venue for the event followed the rotation policy around the states, according to a willingness and ability to take on the task. For the 2012 event, the APBA embarked upon a tender approach, opening the rights to a broader range of potential promoters. For the first time in the history of nationally organised pipe band championships – apparently anywhere in the world – an individual band, rather than an association was the promoter of the championship. Federation University Australia Pipe Band, itself formed in 1909 as Ballarat Caledonian Society to compete as the local band in the Australian Championship its city hosted, then repeated its promotion of the event in 2014. In so doing Ballarat also became the first city in the Pipe Bands Australia era to host the event on successive occasions.

With the advent of pipe bands and then pipe band competitions only taking place Scotland from the 1890s and early 1900s, our Australian efforts to run organised competitions, especially in the form of a national championship, compare very favourably in global terms. Although there was initially no way of controlling the use of the championship name, the advent of our national association finally brought into being the Australian Pipe Band Championships we know today.


Article by Stephen Matthews, adapted on the basis of further research from the original written for the 2012 Australian Pipe Band Championship program.

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