The Story of the MacMillan Pipe Band
by DM David Ricklis (PHS 1967)
For over forty years, students learned to play the bagpipes and drums at Robert E. Peary and Rockville High Schools in Rockville, Maryland, and after their graduation, many continued to perform with pipe bands all over the country. While many moved on to other interests, a significant number developed successful solo and band careers. Some became teachers and adjudicators, and others volunteered their expertise to piping associations and Scottish games contest committees. It is undeniable that few high school programs in the United States have had the kind of impact on the world of piping and drumming as did the pipe band at Peary and Rockville High Schools.
In May of 2001, a pipe band consisting of Peary and Rockville alumni was organized to perform at the National Capital Area Scottish Festival marking the 40th Anniversary of the Rockville High School Pipe Band. Anyone who had performed with or helped teach the band at either Peary or Rockville was invited to participate. Distance, uncertain contact numbers, schedule conflicts and some communications breakdowns were among the obstacles that had to be overcome. With only a few serious rehearsals, the alumni appeared at the Festival, marched into the gymnasium of the old Peary High School and helped fill the old school with the first sounds of pipes and drums in seventeen years.
Following that 2001 performance, the players agreed that there was a foundation for a new band in the area and they did not want that opportunity to slip away. That band became a “home” for the alumni for the two schools and another band option for area pipers and drummers to consider. In keeping with the spirit of its founding, that band was named the MacMillan Pipe Band in honor of the naval officer who was second-in-command during Robert E. Peary’s arctic explorations, Donald B. MacMillan. The chieftain of Clan MacMillan granted approval in 1961 to the Peary HS Pipe Band to wear the MacMillan tartan, and the MacMillan Pipe Band chose to continue to honor D.B. MacMillan and all of those who played the pipes and drums in that tartan while celebrating “Two Schools, One Tradition.”
They currently compete regionally and internationally (Canada, Scotland) in Grade 2.
The MacMillan-Birtles Memorial Pipe Band was formed in December 2004 as the Grade 5 (developmental) partner of the MacMillan Pipe Band and made its first appearance on the competition field at the Virginia Scottish Games in July 2005. Their progress is illustrated by their subsequent successful competition seasons, by their success in 2017 success in Scotland (qualifying for finals in Grade 4; placing 9 out of 33 pipe bands), and by their latest promotion for the 2018 season to Grade 3 by the Eastern United States Pipe Band Association.
The name honors the memory of Drum Sergeant Walter Birtles, whose influence on pipe band drumming stemmed from his being the snare drum instructor for the Robert E. Peary and Rockville High School Pipe Bands for over twenty-five years, his service as the Drum Sergeant of the Denny and Dunipace Pipe Band of Washington, DC, the MacAlpin Pipe Band/ Clan Campbell Pipes and Drums of Columbia, Maryland, and his being the drumming instructor for many other pipe bands throughout the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area.