In a lull between the lunch and supper crowds that fill the Lunar Rogue Pub in Fredericton on Sundays, Sandy Gordon sits at a long table in the back often reserved for the members of the Fredericton Society of Saint Andrew Pipe Band. It’s where he has sat many times with some of the best pipers in the world, some of his best friends in the world and many of his piping students.
Sandy has been a part of the pipe band scene in Atlantic Canada for more than five decades. During that time, he turned the Fredericton Society of Saint Andrew Pipe Band (FSSAPB) into an award-winning Grade 2 band, developed a training program to bring young pipers and drummers up into the band, and has taught countless pipers in the Fredericton area.
Before settling down with the FSSAPB, which he has been a member of since 1971, he played with bands all over the Maritimes. It all started when he saw the Black Watch Pipes and Drums in the Apple Blossom parade in Kentville, N.S. in 1952.
“I had a child’s dream to play bagpipes,” Sandy said, leaning over his Irish coffee.
His family moved to Plaster Rock, N.B., and that’s where his dream became reality. A pipe major in Campbellton, N.B. heard he was interested in learning the bagpipes.
“Without me asking, one day in the mail I got the College of Piping Tutor and a practice chanter and I was so excited,” he said.
Living in an isolated area of New Brunswick, Sandy took advantage of summer camps at the Gaelic College where he studied bagpiping under Seumas MacNeill. It wasn’t until his family moved back to the Annapolis Valley when he was in high school that Sandy joined his first pipe band: The Kentville Air Cadets. From there, he joined the Caledonia Pipe Band in Saint John in 1968, the Wylde Thyme Pipe Band (now known as Halifax Citadel) from 69-70 before settling down with the FSSAPB, “and I’ve been in that band ever since,” he said.
As Sandy sits among the teal booths and maroon whiskey cabinets of the Lunar Rogue Pub, a pendulum swings back and forth on a wall clock mounted behind him. It marks the seconds moving forward as Sandy recounts the past and thinks about the future of the pipe band he’s been a part of for more than 40 years.
“In the 70s, a close friendship developed between me, Dave Coleman, Tom Munroe, Brian Freeman and Frank Scott, among others. In the later 70s, a strong sentiment developed that we wanted to improve our standard of playing and the way to do it would be through competition,” he said. “The membership of the band, particularly the other four, said that they wanted me to be pipe major. I remember saying, ‘I don’t know anywhere near what a person needs to know to do this.’ But they said ‘That’s okay.’ So I said, ‘If I do this, it’s got to be a group thing,’ and that was the beginning of a new chapter in our pipe band. “
Sandy and a few others from the band travelled to Maxville, Ont. to watch the North American Championships.
“That gave a tremendous shot of enthusiasm to the whole idea of us becoming part of the bigger world of piping,” he said. “The feeling in the band was that we were outside the big world of piping in Nova Scotia and southern Ontario. We were outside. We didn’t know how to do what others were doing. The trip to Maxville just enthused everybody to somehow find our way into that world.”
Sandy said the band was willing to learn as much as they possibly could from anyone that would help them. They invited top instructors to come to Fredericton for workshops and took advantage of week-long pipe band camps held at Mount Allison University where top instructors from Scotland were brought in.
After a year of hard work, the band travelled to Maxville in 1980 to compete in Grade 3 for the first time and came second last. The next day, they came second last again in Montreal.
“We were furious, we were really mad. That’s the only way to put it because we had worked so hard. After that we were determined to work even harder,” he said. “We got help from Ed Neigh and we went back the next year - I love this story - and we came dead last both days. I think you can say there were no words to describe how mad we were then.”
But the next year, they fell in the middle of the pack and in 1984 they became the Grade 3 North American Champions. The band continued that momentum, picking up fourth at the Worlds. The following year, the band upgraded to Grade 2.
“Probably one of the highlight moments of my life was going up to receive the fourth place award from the Duke of Argyll. I was so excited and I know we all were.”
The band moved from the bottom of Grade 3 to the top of Grade 2 in only a few years under Sandy’s leadership.
David Coleman had left New Brunswick when Sandy was elected pipe major, but returned to lead the drum corps when he was five years into the role. Coleman said it was Sandy’s approach that caused the band to make great strides in a short amount of time. Coleman said two things stand out to him about Sandy as a pipe major, the first being his admission to everyone when he became pipe major that he had no experience as a leader of group this size.
“The band had just come through a very rough time with a change in leadership, and he would need everyone’s support and help if the band was to heal and move forward,” Coleman said.
“It was Sandy’s continued belief in the band, his leadership by example, and the continued dedication of its members that came together to start Fredericton's climb up the ladder. He gathered a sizable group of members around him and made sure each had individual roles or responsibilities of some kind.”
Coleman said the second thing that stood out most to him about Sandy’s leadership was his absolute and single-minded commitment to the band and its improvement over time.
“He led by example, worked harder than any other band member, and let people know in a variety of different ways that he expected the same from them. He was absolutely adamant about peoples’ attendance at practice.”
Coleman recalls calling Sandy on a wintry afternoon in the late 80s to tell him he wouldn’t be at band because of snow and it being his son’s birthday. Coleman said Sandy’s response was “The driving is fine! Change the birthday dinner to tomorrow night. Chris is young and he won’t remember twenty years from now anyway! See you at seven.”
“Well, we managed to have the birthday dinner anyway and I was a bit late for practice, but I did show up - and so did everyone else,” Coleman said. “That level of single-mindedness could drive people absolutely nuts, but we’d get over it and hey, it paid off didn’t it?”
Under Sandy’s leadership, the band continued on to win the Grade 2 North American Championships in 89 and 90. The band returned to Scotland the following year to achieve what Sandy says is the band’s most impressive feat to date.
“For me, the most impressive competition result the band has ever got was we came second in the European Championships. It was in the freezing rain and wind in August on a hill. Oh God, it was miserable,” he said with a laugh.
Sandy is revered among those who have played in a pipe band with him as an enthusiastic recruiter, always willing to go the extra mile to make sure anyone who wants to, has the opportunity to play bagpipes.
Sandy was instrumental in the establishment of a teaching academy for the pipe band. He and others in the band started a junior band that still exists today, operating as a development system to bring players into the senior band.
Brian Freeman, who played in the band for many years with Sandy, said the development system earned the band a nickname among their rivals in Ontario.
“In ‘89 we won Maxville, then we lost eight pipers out of our circle and they knew we lost them,” Freeman said. “They thought they were going to win next year, but Sandy reached down into our junior band and brought seven kids up, and we beat them anyway.”
The pipe major of the 48th Highlanders, who came second to Fredericton in Maxville, told Freeman in a beer tent that Fredericton was “The Montreal Canadiens of Pipe Bands.”
“Because the Montreal Canadiens had a farm system and were famous for it,” Freeman said.
Sandy said it was the idea of a few members of the band to start a teaching academy in order to keep the organization going. It still exists today, in large part due to Sandy’s dedication to teaching.
Michel Boyer, current Pipe Major of the FSSAPB, said when he was a 15-year-old piper in the band, he had trouble commuting from his home in Oromocto for practice. When Sandy heard he might not continue with the band, he found him transportation and would even drive the 25 minutes out of the city to pick him up if he needed to.
“I think if you mention piping to anyone in the city most, if not all, would think of Sandy Gordon,” Boyer said. “Sandy is extremely committed to the band, its members and the academy program. For years, he has gone above and beyond to make sure everyone has the opportunity to play.”
Once again, the FSSAPB is facing a decline in membership. But Sandy hopes it’ll turn around and he’s doing his part to see that it does. As a bagpiper he knows sits down at that long table in the middle of the pub, he turns to him and says with a smile “So, we’re looking for players this summer.”
Written by Amy MacKenzie