About the Band
In 1963, as an outgrowth of the newly organized Billings Caledonian Society, a pipe band was formed by W.G. 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 with the Seaforth Highlanders in the Boer War before immigrating to Montana in 1904. A coal miner most of his life, he was a born teacher and his lack of tolerance for even the slightest mis-fingering combined with his sweet disposition endeared him to his students. During the fifties and sixties he taught a number of boys, girls, men and women to play the pipes and it was a group of these pipers that initially formed the Billings band. Another piper who taught and inspired the first generation of Billings pipers was Peter Matheson who had been a piper in the Lovat Scouts in World War One and then immigrated to eastern Montana and ranched for most of his life. In the 1960’s he was retired and living in Red Lodge and for the first time in 50 years, he was able to pipe to his heart’s content. He was the designated piper for all the Highland Dancing in the area and was a constant source of inspiration to the younger pipers.
The band was small in the early years, consisting of four to five pipers and two drummers. The first pipe major was W.G. Rose. 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 city functions or when Mayor Fraser wanted to impress visiting dignitaries. Beginning in the fall of 1969, the band almost ceased to exist and had a few weak years when 4 of the 6 pipers and 2 of the 3 snare drummers graduated from high school and left the area.
In 1970 W. H. (Hack) Phillips took over as Pipe Major and began revitalizing the band. 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. He 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. The pipe major position of the Caledonian band 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 considerable help from former P/M Hack Phillips, he raised the standards for the pipe section and reorganized the drummers. Hack, having become interested in tenor drumming, scoured the Northwest for input and proceeded to establish a crack 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, Ltd”. In 1995, Jenni Stewart 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 2003 Donell Small took on the job of Pipe Major until 2018 and John Anevski was voted in as the new pipe major.
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 began competing again in a limited way under P/M Small, with the help of Rick Foote as Chief Instructor, attending games in Jackson, WY and Enumclaw, WA, however it has not competed since 2012.
Since its beginnings, the band had been a “kiltie” band with each member wearing their own tartan. 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, oatmeal colored kilt hose, black leather sporrans, white military-style shirts and Glengarry bonnets. In cold weather the uniform is augmented with a navy blue jacket or white long-sleeved shirt with a black Argyll vest and tie. 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 uniform was designed and sewn by jack-of-all-trades, Hack Phillips, who sadly passed away in late 2006.
Today, the Caledonian Pipes and Drums is a non-profit corporation which has outlived the Caledonian Society which parented it and continues in its mission to preserve the Scottish legacy of Eastern Montana passed down by Bill Flockhart and other early pipers, a tradition which 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 20 people of all ages of whom 16 are pipers, 6 are drummers and several students in various stages of learning their instruments.