How do you know if Ron Abbott is unwell? There’s no bagpipes resonating around the neighbourhood indicating his regular practice times.
Horsham residents have been the “sometimes” unwilling audience for Ron’s passion for the pipes for more than 70 years now.
The 80-something, fit, former plumber first heard the bagpipes being played at the end of the Second World War in 1945 when he was nine.
As the eldest of eight, he was allowed to accompany his mother to see the march through the town to celebrate the end of the war and when he heard the bagpipes he thought, ‘that sounds good’.
He informed his mother that he was going to learn to play – and he did.
He and his brothers all ended up playing in the Horsham Pipe Band, but Ron was the only one to play the pipes.
“We lived in Stewart Street,” he said.
“There were five of us boys playing so we had a pipe band of our own. Some of the neighbours didn’t appreciate it much, but others did.
“Pipe bands are like Collingwood – you either like them or you hate them.”
The pipe Major Murray Robinson lived just across the road so Ron couldn’t get away with much during his practice.
The band met to practice every Thursday night under the football stadium and the major would correct Ron on his playing techniques he had heard during the week.
When Ron began playing, he was one of 12 who started learning, but ended up the only one continuing.
Everything was supplied to anyone wanting to join the band – including the kilt uniform.
“The first kilt I had was touching the ground just about,” he laughed.
“They didn’t have one my size.”
The bagpipes and the band became a fixture in Ron’s life and led him to the other love of his life – Shirley.
“We used to play the dances at the Masonic Hall,” Ron said.
At that time he had also learned to play the saxophone and one night he was up with the band playing away when he noticed a girl come in the door.
He thought, “she’s a lovely girl” and ended up dancing with her.
“He foxed me out,” Shirley laughed.
“It was love at first sight,” Ron said.
However, it wasn’t until two years later they ended up together due to various circumstances – including Shirley living out at Dadswell’s Bridge and not being able to get to Horsham for the dances.
They remembered each other, however, and have been together ever since, raising three daughters to the sound of the bagpipes.
Shirley said Ron would practice in the hall or the spare room next to the sleeping babies and they would sleep right through it.
“But none of them wanted to play them,” she said.
The two older girls did highland dancing for a while and Ron would play the tunes in the morning before school for them to practice their steps. But they didn’t continue.
Family life revolved around the band to a large extent and Ron and Shirley are both life members.
There was also a celebration for Ron’s 70 years of service to the band and in July this year he was awarded Bandsman of the Year 2017-18.
He has been Pipe Major, taught many people how to play, competed in hundreds of competitions around the country and played at hundreds of events including parties, rural shows, parades, military days and funerals.
One of the highlights for Ron was when he and Shirley were in Scotland.
He not only played with the Scottish bagpiper who welcomed people coming in to Scotland from England but witnessed the piper playing in the Castle Argyle.
He said he and Shirley were staying at a bed and breakfast and he was getting a few squeaks out of his pipes, which of course he had taken with him in an overnight bag that Shirley carried for him.
The landlady heard and commented that her young lad, Charlie, played the pipes for the Duke of Argyle.
It was his job to wake the Duke on Sundays with a skirl of pipes while marching walking around a walkway in the castle.
Ron was allowed to enter the castle and sit – and not move – and watch and listen to the performance.
The days of the pipe bands have declined from when almost every community had one – including a women’s pipe band at Edenhope.
But Ron is adamant that bagpipes will never die out.
He said there did need to be more uptake in learning the bagpipes from younger people but you were never too old to learn.
The band is practising for the Australian Championships in Maryborough on April 14, 2020.
He said once, he could learn new tunes easily.
But now, he says, it takes him longer to commit them to memory and get his fingers doing exactly what he wanted.
However, Ron believes keeping his fingers nimble seems to have kept arthritis at bay.
Shirley said their involvement with the band and Ron’s playing had been a life-long journey but a good one where they had made many friends across several generations.
“Apart from me, it’s been the love of his life,” she said. “Everything stops for the band.”