Not that Bill Baptie wants to blow his own trumpet – he’s more of a baritone man – but the music veteran talks to Mark Entwistle
“Aye, it’s been a long time – I can still remember my first public performance with the band and that was in aid of the town’s Spitfire Week, so it must have been 1944 or ’45.”
Those were the words of Hawick Saxhorn Band stalwart, Bill Baptie, reminiscing this week about a musical career that stretches back more than 70 years.
Bill was speaking to TheSouthern just a fortnight after a celebration dinner in the town’s Weensland Function Suite – at which he was guest of honour – was hosted by the band to mark his seven decades of service.
Bill’s career with the band began at the tender age of 11 during the Second World War, in 1941. The near 100 people attending the special function heard that in the years since, it was reckoned Bill had attended something like 5,600 rehearsals and 2,100 band engagements.
Band musical director Alan Ferrie was among those proposing toasts and he praised Bill as an extraordinary bandsman. Mr Ferrie said Bill had been a terrific influence on the band and his 70 years’ service was currently being checked to see if it was a world record.
Bill told us he had joined the band after receiving an invitation to come to a practice session. “I went along and I got into the band after about 12 weeks,” he recalled.
“To begin with, I played second cornet. Then I stepped up to piano cornet, then solo cornet, and then soprano cornet – but that last one only lasted a few weeks. Then I came back to solo cornet.
“However, the band was needing a baritone player at the time, and the then bandmaster, James Amos, who was excellent and came over from Galashiels twice a week to take rehearsals, asked if I would try the baritone, so I said yes, I’ll have a go. And that was the instrument I felt I managed to play properly!”
Bill liked the baritone, which is about the size of a small euphonium, for the size of its mouthpiece and because he could produce more of what he felt was a better “brass band sound” than he could on the cornet.
“I was on the baritone for quite a while. Then Mr Amos came to me and said the band needed a second trombone player, would I have a go. So I did.
“But the school had a lot of good young trombone players coming through and it wasn’t long before Mr Amos was back telling me the band needed a baritone player again.
“So I went back to it and that’s where I finally finished up.”
For Bill, his involvement in the band was his main source of relaxation. In his working life, he’d joined Braemar Knitwear in the town as an apprentice frame mechanic in 1944 and spent almost 15 years there before joining the local Henderson technical college and spending the next 31 years there as a knitwear lecturer.
“There’s two things I’ve always liked in life – brass bands and good pullovers!” he laughed. “The band was my fun and relaxation. I felt it was something I was good at and that I went because I wanted to, not because I had to.”
Bill can still remember that first public performance in aid of the town’s fund-raising effort to pay for the construction of another badly needed Spitfire fighter.
“I can remember sitting just to the side of the horse [Hawick’s 1514 memorial] and seeing the parade coming along. I think I would have been 14 or 15.”
For much of Bill’s time with the band, he and his musical comrades would turn out every fortnight to play at the former bandstand in Wilton Lodge Park.
As then, the town’s Common Riding remains the big annual event that the band takes part in. The main interest for many of the players, though, was taking part in contests.
“I played in my first contest just after the war, I think in about 1946, and it was in the Usher Hall in Edinburgh. My personal view is that the band’s real heyday was in the late 1940s, ’50s and ’60s. We were Scottish champions in 1961 for the one and only time. The secret was practice. When I started in the late 1940s, the band was able to practise practically six nights a week.”
Bill’s love of contests has not diminished and he will travel with the band, as always, when it competes in another event in Glenrothes next month.
But at 82, he admits he finds it harder to produce a note and a sound that he likes as a brass band player. “But I want to keep going as long as I can. The band’s been a great source of social company and I’ve had some wonderful friends and times through it,” he said.
Bill’s youngest son played trombone with the band for more than five years and now his two granddaughters, Chloe and Natasha, play alongside their grandfather.
Looking back over his career with the band – Bill believes Hawick is one of only two saxhorn bands remaining in the UK with the other being Flimby Saxhorn Silver Band in Cumbria – he says the years 1954 and 1961 stand out in his memory.
“My highlights are playing in my first really big contest which was in Manchester in 1954. Then we won the second class championship in Edinburgh that same year, then first class in 1961.
“And because we won the first class championship that year, the band was invited to play at the Albert Hall in London with the massed bands of Great Britain.
“That was a tremendous experience, but we didn’t really play that well. I think we were all a bit overawed by the whole thing – the occasion and just sitting in such a magnificent place.
“I remember the trombone player I was sitting next to looking around in awe and I had to nudge him and say, ‘Ian, you’re supposed to be playing now!’”
At the anniversary celebrations last month, Bill was asked to conduct the band for its last number – a first experience for him.
George Burt, president of the Scottish Brass Band Association, was among those who made several presentations to Bill and his wife of 57 years, Audrey, during the evening.
Bill added: “I really have to say that Audrey has been a fantastic support to me in my time with the band. She’s supported me so well, I can’t thank her enough.”