The important contribution of women to Rothbury Highland Pipe Band as it celebrates its centenary year

The following is the second article of three about the Rothbury Highland Pipe Band by Katie Scott.

By Katie Scott
Tuesday, 28th July 2020, 10:51 am
Updated Tuesday, 28th July 2020, 10:52 am
The women in the band are, from left, Hayley Herron, Lauren Cockburn, Nikki Walker, Victoria Richardson and Fiona Mitchell.
The women in the band are, from left, Hayley Herron, Lauren Cockburn, Nikki Walker, Victoria Richardson and Fiona Mitchell.

Rothbury Highland Pipe Band (RHPB) operates as one large close-knit family. A family which supports and encourages one another and socialises together.

From the earliest days 100 years ago, behind the band there were women, assisting in many ways, as women always have done.

Then along came Sadie Charleton (1926-2017). Arriving in Rothbury as a Land Girl, ‘Lady Sarah’, as she was affectionately called by her larger-than-life husband, Dick Charleton, was a pioneer.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

Sadie Charleton.

Raising five children and keeping house was not enough for this tiny, determined, cherished lady.

Dick played the Big Bass Drum and heartily enjoyed the social side of being in the band.

Sadie decided that she was going to join. She got some pipes and began to practise.

Their nephew, Andrew Charleton, said: “Maybe she learned so she could keep an eye on Uncle Dick.

"After she mastered the bagpipes, she learned the accordion, keyboard, and saxophone.

"Honestly, she would have a go at anything!”

Dick and Sadie became the caretakers of the Jubilee Hall. In those days, it had a flat roof. Sadie would practise up there, on the roof, and her pipes could be heard up and down the streets of Rothbury.

Andrew said: “It was weird, because, as she was so tiny, no-one could see her.”

By the late 1970s, Sadie was a popular member of the band and they were kept busy playing at many events.

Andrew remembers: “She wasn’t the best piper, but she was enthusiastic. She was a real character, well, they both were.

"You always mentioned them together, Dick and Sadie. Never just the one. He was so proud of her – oh and the stories they would tell!”

Nowadays, it is not unusual for women to be part of pipe bands. Both Neilston and Rothbury Bands have several female members.

Two of Rothbury’s women live in Scotland, but choose to play for RHPB.

I ask Fiona Mitchell, who lives in Ayrshire, how she came to join: “My partner and I came down for the Music Festival, Alnwinton Show, and New Year’s Day.

"We loved the fabulous atmosphere and the support from the community. We joined the band on a permanent basis, even though it means a long journey to play with them.”

Paula Tanner tells me a similar story: “I came down from Paisley to play on New Year’s Day 20 years ago. Been a member ever since!”

The other women in the band are local.

In fact, the most prestigious role, Drum Major, is held by Lauren Cockburn, who plays the tenor and side drum brilliantly.

Lauren has competed all over the UK.

She said: “My favourite is the side drum. This is often a male-dominated position so to be female on the back row, and in charge, is incredibly special.”

Lauren was instrumental in teaching and supporting Hayley Herron, an especially talented tenor drummer, who has developed her style of twirling and flourishing and is a pleasure to watch.

In turn, Hayley has taught and encouraged Victoria Richardson – one of the younger band members, aged 19 – who enjoys playing at big events.

Women now play a fundamental role in RHPB. As they do in the Neilston Pipe Band. These women support, encourage and inspire one another. They are ‘sisters’.

I asked them all how it feels to be a woman playing in what was traditionally a male-dominated ensemble.

From the Neilston Band, Alyson Connell said: “For 40 odd years I’ve been associated with RHPB.

"There was always the huge character that was wee Sadie Charleton, so, it’s never felt unusual to me.

"However, you are aware of being in the minority when you get comments like ‘I’ve never heard of a lassie piper!’ which I got just a few years ago.”

Nikki Walk: “The first time I realised it wasn’t ‘normal’ for girls to play was when I performed at a wedding, aged 12, and a guest (older man) came up to me after piping guests in and said ‘I have never seen a wee lassie play the pipes before. Brilliant!’, and then popped a £20 note in my jacket pocket.

"Our band is a bit of an exception; there has always been at least four or five women involved at any one time during the last 25 years.”

Emma Mechan Spence: “I joined the band aged nine. I was taught the pipes by Iain MacDonald, who sadly recently passed away.

"Being a woman in the band has never made me feel out of place and in fact, it is now quite usual.”

All the women are fine musicians and most can play other instruments besides the pipes or the drum.

When I asked them how they felt when they put on the uniform of their band, every single one responded with ‘Proud’.

Lauren: “Wearing the uniform makes me feel special. It’s the feeling of belonging to something.

"I’m proud to be part of the group – they are my family.”

I ask: ‘What is the best part of being in the Band?’

I expect you can guess the answer: “The craic, the laughs, the socialising”.

I am sure you will agree with me that RHPB is all the richer for the legacy of the determination and perseverance of a special little lady, Sadie Charleton.

Next week, I will be telling you about the legendary Rothbury Highland Pipe Band ‘World Tour of Coquetdale’.