Donald Shaw Ramsay


Donald Shaw Ramsay, as pictured in The Edcath Collection around 1953.
Donald Shaw Ramsay, as pictured in The Edcath Collection around 1953.

Only a handful of pipers command iconic status in the world of piping without having won the major solo prizes; Donald Shaw Ramsay is one of those pipers.

He was born in Avonbridge, Scotland, near Falkirk, and taught by Sandy Forrest of Torphichan and Bathgate Pipe Band, a pupil of John MacDougall-Gillies. He competed as an amateur and as a professional with promising success. But he did not pursue solo competition after the outbreak of the Second World War when he joined the Highland Light Infantry. He passed the pipe-majors’ course at the Castle under Willie Ross and subsequently became Pipe Major of the 10th H.L.I. out of Wick, part of the 15th Scottish Infantry Division. At age 20, he was the youngest Pipe Major ever appointed in the British Army. He saw action on the continent and proved himself a dynamic leader even at a young age.

After the war, he became piper to the Duke of Hamilton, then in 1947 he joined the Edinburgh Police Force. In 1949 he took over from Duncan Cameron as Pipe Major of the Edinburgh Police Pipe Band, which at the time was a promising but not threatening competition band. The move was controversial, but Ramsay’s ability to attract top players became legendary, and soon names like William Denholm, Jimmy Young, Harry McNulty, Jimmy Catherwood, George Pryde and Bob Montgomery graced the ranks. Ramsay made a focused effort to teach every piper in the band to play in the same correct style, and the results were dramatic. Within a year, the band captured the first of two World Championships it would win under his leadership, the second coming in 1954. He was also instrumental in introducing jigs and hornpipes into the pipe band scene through the Edinburgh Police repertoire.

Ramsay accepts a retirement gift from incoming Edinburgh Police Pipe Major John D. Burgess in 1957.
Ramsay accepts a retirement gift from incoming Edinburgh Police Pipe Major John D. Burgess in 1957.

In 1957 he was severely wounded in a shooting in the line of duty. He spent some months in hospital recuperating, and though he returned to policing, another injury necessitated his turning the band over to John D. Burgess and leaving the force. He and his wife Bessie moved to San Francisco in 1958, and while there he led the City of San Francisco Pipe Band to its first California Pipe Band Championship.

In 1964, Ramsay was convinced by Frank Thomson, owner of the Invergordon Distillery, to return to Scotland to become Pipe Major of the fledging Invergordon Distillery Pipe Band. Again, his charismatic ability to draw talent led to the appointment of Alex Duthart as Leading Drummer, and the addition of such players as John Burgess, Jim Hutton and John MacDougall. The band won the European Championship a scant nine months after Ramsay took the helm and placed in every championship during the 1965 season. During the 1965, ’66 and ’67 seasons, Invergordon Distillery would capture every Championship except the World’s, which for five years was dominated by Muirhead and Son’s Ltd. Pipe Band.

The band became the stuff of legend, and to this day, pipers who played with Invergordon under Ramsay are carry with them the Ramsay/Invergordon mystique. The band’s recording, released at the height of its fame, included a groundbreaking full-band rendition of the piobaireachd “The Old Woman’s Lullaby” that many feel has not yet been outdone.

But it was not just in the pipe band world that Donald Shaw Ramsay made his mark. He is regarded as one of the leading modern composers of bagpipe music , with such tunes as “Angus MacKinnon,” “Mrs. Lily Christie,” “Tam Bain’s Lum,” “The 10th Bn. Highland Light Infantry Crossing the Rhine, ” “Jimmy Young” and “Schiehallion” now ensconced as stalwarts in the piping repertoire.

The now-rare Master Method, compiled with James Robertson, 1953.
The now-rare Master Method, compiled with James Robertson, 1953.

He compiled two significant collections of bagpipe music published by Hugh MacPherson: The Edcath Collections, Books 1 and 2 in 1953 and 1958 respectively, the former also containing drum scores for many of the tunes. (MacPherson had gone to St. Catharines, Ontario, where he ran a Highland supply shop before returning to Edinburgh to set up a new shop there, thus the name “Edcath.”)

In 1953 Ramsay and James Robertson published The Master Method for Highland Bagpipe, a collection of tunes and a tutor component for both light music and piobaireachd.

After his brief but meteoric stint with Invergordon, the Ramsays returned to California, and the latter years saw them back and forth between Scotland and the San Francisco area, with Donald Shaw involved in judging on both sides of the Atlantic.

Living in California in the 1990s.
Living in California in the 1990s.

He died on July 14, 1998 and was buried at Grand Sable Cemetery in Polmont, Scotland. Fellow former Edinburgh Police pipe major Harry McNulty played “Schiehallion” on the walk to the graveside.

JM, January 2008
-with notes from The Piper and Drummer, Fall 1989, the Piping Times, September 1998, the Lothian and Borders Police Pipe Band, the Invergordon “Off the Wall”.



    May he RIP

  • Mr Ramsay spent time in Nova Scotia as well, and penned a wedding song for a family member

  • Thanks for article. I collected many years ago old 78 recordings of piping and have one, among others, of Edinburgh City Police Pipe band published in 1957 M3515.
    Produced by Beltona BL 2681. Pipe Major Donald Shaw Ramsay The Rowan Tree M3515 (Trad., arr. Ramsay) Scotland the Brave M3699 (Traditional)
    The 78 is still sounding great with new needle for each play to preserve the grooves.

  • Comment re Donald and Bessie …from New Glasgow Nova Scotia..where Donald and Bessie moved to After he was shot in Edinburgh..
    They lived in Stellarton and Donald was employed as office manager with Henderson Glasgow Express..and Bessie worked as seamstress at Chisholm MacBeth Wearwell Garments…He was a most knowledgeable and capable piping influence..but daughter Morag was living in San Francisco and led to the move there..and then on to Frank Thompson’s Invergordon Distillery where a star studded band was formed by Donald and Alex Duthart and led them to a ‘mercurial rise’ to the top of the pipe band world..
    I still play his Frank Thompson as one of my signature tunes with fond memories of Donald and Bessie..
    607-2677 Gladstone Street,Halifax Nova Scotia B0K 0A3

  • Whilst helping my mother in law downsize her house contents I have just discovered a copy of Master Method for Highland Bagpipe by JAS Robertson. I would say it’s in good condition with all pages present and intact. There is some evidence of ‘chewing’ (possibly by insects rather than rodents) but otherwise the book is in good shape with the spine intact.
    We’re open to offers…

  • Thank you for your post. Pipe Major Alexander Forrest was my paternal grandfather. I never got to meet him unfortunately because he was killed in a car crash before I was born but I grew up with stories about him and my great uncle Bill Noble who was also part of the Torphichen band. I know he made some recordings but so far I have been unable to obtain them but I do have some of Pipe Major Ramsay who was his pupil.

  • In 1972 Pipe Major Ramsay made a fantastic stereo recording for Highland dance practice called “Highland Dance Master”. This recording was a cooperative effort between C. Stewart Smith and D. S. Ramsay. Mr. Smith, like P/M Ramsay, moved to the Bay Area from Scotland and was the San Francisco Bay Area’s premier Highland dance teacher producing many championship-level dancers.
    Curiously, I haven’t seen this recording mentioned in any of the articles that I’ve read about P/M Ramsay; it seems to be little known. A copy of this record needs to be found and put out there for the piping community to rediscover. His playing in this recording is nothing short of phenomenal.
    As a lad in the early ’70s, I was a Highland dancer and also starting on the practice chanter. We owned a copy of this record, which is sadly long gone. Donald Shaw Ramsay was my hero, and his playing informed my understanding of the music of the Highland bagpipe. I would listen to this album over and over again with headphones on marveling at the precision of his playing. It’s what made me want to become a piper.
    In the summer of ’72, I won a gold medal for the Highland Fling at the Caledonia Club Highland Games in Santa Rosa California. Donald Shaw Ramsay was my piper. It remains a cherished day in my life.

  • Regarding the “Highland Dance Master” recording, I’ve discovered two copies on Ebay. There are pictures of the front and rear of the album cover. The record label is Leslie, catalogue # MLBS 501. Copyright 1972 Studio Imports in Pasadena, CA.

  • He was friends with my father in law Harry Whitfield. A private in the 10th bn H.L.I during WW2. Who sadly passed away in 1997. Who used to say about the pipe major. He went all through war and never got injured then got shot in Scotland.

  • Jack MacISAAC formerly of new in Halifax 607-2677 Gladstone st.Halifax B3K 0A3

    DSR AND BESSIE LIVED IN NEW GLASGOW AREA FOR OVER 2 years..where Donald worked as office New Glasgow Express for Stan Henderson and Bessie as a seamstress at Wearwell garments for Sandy MacBeth ..he returned to Scotland to take on Invergordon Distillery along with Alex Duthart for Frank Thompson 6/8 tune composed by DSR for Thompson..we did a number of tunes together when I was P/M of NS HIGHLANDERS

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