Caledonian Pipes & Drums of Billings

A brief history of our pipe band:

In 1963, as an outgrowth of the newly organized Billings Caledonian Society, a pipe band was formed by Bill Rose, Dave Thomas, Ben Taitel, and others. The major guiding force for the young band was Bill Flockhart of Red Lodge, Montana. Bill was 79 years old in 1963 and had served in the Seaforth Highlanders in the Boer War before immigrating to Montana in 1904. During the fifties and sixties he taught a number of boys, girls, men and women to play pipes and it was a group of these pipers that initially formed the Billings band.

In the band’s early years it was small, consisting of four to five pipers and two drummers. The first pipe major was W.G. Rose and the drum major was Ben Taitel. For a time during the terms of Mayor Willard Fraser of Billings (himself an erstwhile chanter student) it was the Official Pipe Band of Billings and played regularly at official functions or when Mayor Fraser wanted to impress visiting dignitaries. Beginning in 1969 the band had a few weak years as the entire pipe section that had played through the sixties graduated from high school and left the area. In 1970 W. H. (Hack) Phillips took over as pipe major and began revitalizing things. Hack had been active in pipe bands all over the country since the 1940’s and brought a wealth of new experience to the band. Hack also helped organize the West Mosby Volunteers, a pipe band formed partly to establish a separate entity from the Billings Caledonian Society. Quite a few people played with both bands and in the 70’s it was common knowledge among local pipers and drummers that the West Mosbys had a lot more fun than the Caledonian Pipe Band.

In 1972 the band played at the funerals of both Willard Fraser and Bill Flockhart and again began charting a slightly different course as Hack turned the pipe majorship over to Jim Burns, a local piper famous for his handlebar mustache. In those years the band organized a separate for profit wing under Burns called the Rimrock Scottish to try to resolve an ongoing conflict with the Billings Caledonian Society as to where the money the band received for performances should go. Burns left the area in 1977 and the Rimrock Scottish dissolved as the pipe major position was taken on by John Stewart, the first of the younger generation of Bill Flockhart’s students to lead the band.

In 1980 Jim Morrison, another of Flockhart’s students from the sixties, took over. With lots of help from former P/M Hack Phillips, Jim raised the standards of the pipe section and re-organized the drum section, while Hack, whose interest had turned to tenor drumming, scoured the Northwest for input and then established the beginnings of a top-notch tenor section. In 1985 the band formally separated itself from the Billings Caledonian Society and was incorporated as the Caledonian Pipes and Drums of Billings, Montana. In 1995, Jenni Bushey became the first female pipe major. Jenni had learned pipes from Jim Burns and had first played in the band at age 13. Jenni was followed by Steve Cashel in 1997, Oscar Thompson and Jan Dalbey jointly in 1998, and Oscar Thompson in 1999. Oscar was one of Bill Flockhart’s original students, beginning his piping lessons in 1959 and traveling with Bill to piping schools and competitions all over the country in the early sixties. In 2002 as the newest Pipe Major, Donell Small took on the task of expanding the band to its current size, larger and better endowed than ever before.

Beginning in 1988, the band itself had begun traveling to competitions at Estes Park, Colorado and over a period of eight years brought home a first, two seconds and numerous third places in the Grade IV Pipe Band Competition. Instrumental in pushing the band to compete and getting the band ready for the competitions was Pipe Sergeant Rick Foote. By 1996 the band had lost a number of its more experienced pipers and temporarily withdrew from competing. By 2002 the band again entered the competition arena and has since then competed in Missoula, MT, Jackson, WY, and Enumclaw, WA.

In 1989 as a tribute to Bill Flockhart the band bought kilts in the Seaforth Highlanders (MacKenzie) tartan. In the summer the band is seen in the dark blue Seaforth kilts, cream colored hose, black leather sporrans, white military-style shirts and Glengarry bonnets. In cold weather the uniform is augmented with a navy blue sweater or grey long-sleeved shirt. For a time in the 90’s the band adopted a parade uniform with white jackets patterned on the tropical dress uniform of the 19th century Seaforth Highlanders, complete with white pith helmet for the pipe major and drum major. This entire uniform was designed and sewn by the jack-of-all-trades, former P/M Hack Phillips who sadly passed away in late 2006.

Today, the Caledonian Pipes and Drums is a non-profit corporation. The band’s mission is to preserve the legacy of piping passed down by Bill Flockhart and other early pipers, a tradition which, although native to the highlands of Scotland has been alive now in Montana for five generations. The band offers free piping and drumming lessons to all those interested and plays numerous parades and public appearances throughout the year. The band currently numbers over 30 people of all ages of whom 16 are pipers, 8 are drummers and the rest in various stages of learning their instruments.


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