Thirty years ago this August, the 78th Fraser Highlanders Pipe Band of Toronto, Canada landed in Ballymena for a few short days of ‘Norn Iron’ hospitality and sight-seeing. The band was enroute to the World Pipe Band Championships in Glasgow but first would make an historic stop at Ballymena’s now shuttered County Hall auditorium.
The 78th (as they are often affectionately known) would not only be the first foreign pipe band to headline a concert in the UK, but also the first to take the stage at a ‘pre-World’s’ concert.
Large scale pipe band concerts had been regularly held in the off-season in Northern Ireland and Scotland but never before had a band been asked for such a major performance output at the height of the competitive season.
The suggestion to invite the 78th first came from The Graham Memorial’s bass drummer, the late Ken Kerr, who was an admirer of his counterpart in 78th, bass drummer Luke Allen. The idea did not immediately take off with all band members.
“Half the band didn’t even know who the 78th were!” laughs Len Brown, then Pipe Major of the Grade 2 Graham Memorial.
“We didn’t know how the band or the concert were going to go off, but we made it happen in the end.”
Thankfully, Graham Memorial Band President Tom McCarroll saw the potential in the idea immediately and led the way on the organisation and promotion of the concert.
Convinced that the idea of a 78th concert at the County Hall was more than just a ‘pipe dream’, Tom made contact with Bill Livingstone and set the ball rolling. Months of flurried work and prep paid off when finally, the bus carrying the band on the final leg of their journey across the Atlantic arrived in Ballymena.
Soon after checking into the Tullymore House Hotel, the band gathered for their first practice on Northern Ireland soil.
Ken Stewart, then a piper with the Graham Memorial and now a well-known NI solo piping judge, watched quietly from the side lines with P/M Len Brown.
“We stood listening to their rehearsal on practice chanters,” remembers Ken. “Fourteen or fifteen practice chanters all as perfectly tuned to one another as pipe chanters. You could hear all of the harmonies and counterpoint perfectly as they played Journey to Skye. Len and I looked at each other but didn’t say a word. Our expressions said it all: What were we in for?”
The Troubles were in full swing that August of 1987, and security alerts, bomb threats and a general sense of constantly being on edge had slowly become everyday life for many Northern Irish.
“For many, the 78ths visit and concert represented a much-needed dose of normality,” states Ken.
The concert was held on the night of Wednesday, August 12th, to a crowd of over 800 packed into the County Hall. The excitement that night, remembers Ken, was palpable. “It’s hard to convey in words. The energy that band created in the short time they were here happens only once in a lifetime… You could almost taste it.”
Pipe Major Richard Parkes, a guest star in the upcoming ‘Live Back in Ireland 87’ celebratory concert, was in the audience that night.
“You could feel the excitement in the hall,” says Richard. “The band created a show which built to a crescendo with the great final three sets of Journey to Skye, The Mason’s Apron medley and the iconic encore set finishing with the Clumsy Lover, which brought the house down.”
Len Brown describes listening to the music that night as a superb experience. “It was a real privilege to sit down and listen to these guys, to watch how they did things. The playing was so controlled and in perfect tune. Hearing Journey to Skye for the first time was unbelievable.”
Unbeknownst to most there on the night, the show was almost called off minutes before getting underway. The concert had been targeted by a terrorist bomb threat.
“The whole thing was within a hair’s breadth of not taking place that night,” Ken remembers. “The crowd were in and settled and the band was ready to go, and we were waiting on the security forces to decide whether we should evacuate or not.” After careful consideration, the police deemed the threat not to be legitimate and a conscious decision was taken to carry on with the show.
The legacy from that rainy August night lives on around the world even now. The recording of the concert quickly went on to become the best-selling pipe band album of all time and the music played that night has gone on to shape the careers of some of today’s piping and drumming greats.
Don’t miss your chance to see members of the original 78th Fraser Highlanders Pipe Band along with special guests live on stage at the Belfast Waterfront at 8pm on Saturday, February 25. Tickets are available from the Waterfront box office online or on 028 9033 4455.