Time Machine: The UI's Scottish Highlanders

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When Army Col. George Frederick Ney Dailey was assigned to the University of Iowa’s Department of Military Science and Tactics in 1934, he wanted to form a marching unit.

At first, he settled on a drum and bugle corps. Then he saw a bagpipe band perform when he was in New York City and brought the idea, complete with kilts, home to Iowa City.

The corps, dressed like Scottish Highlanders, marched with the UI band on the football field in 1936, while Dailey searched for a bagpipe instructor. He discovered one in Toronto.

Dailey packed university student Cloice Myers, of Council Bluffs, off to Canada for a five-week intensive course in bagpipe playing.

Myers became proficient enough to teach five other university students to play the bagpipes: George Fieselman of Rudd, Robert Hampton of Iowa City, Karl Beck of Davenport, Leon Karel of Riverside and James Bowman of Downey.

Dailey designed the unit’s uniforms, which were copied from no single regiment. They wore red, white and blue kilts and capes and carried bagpipes ordered from Scotland, since there were none to be found on this side of the Atlantic.

1937 debut

The Scottish Highlanders made their debut at the January 1937 ROTC military ball. After that, the six pipers joined four drummers (sometimes six) to perform at UI basketball games and then at a convention of music teachers at the Iowa Memorial Union.

When asked to share the name of the Canadian bagpipe tutor, Dailey refused, saying, “What? And encourage other schools to copy my idea?”

When Myers graduated in the spring, Dailey was left without an instructor. His search for a pipe major turned up 28-year-old William L. Adamson in Boston.

Adamson was his family’s fourth generation of pipers. His parents came from Scotland, and Adamson began playing the pipes when he was 9. His father organized a juvenile bagpipe band, making Adamson the director when he was 12.

the world’s fair

Adamson spent the next couple of years in Iowa building the all-male band into a unit of 25 pipers and 25 drummers. In April 1939, Scottish organizations invited the band to appear at the World’s Fair in New York City in June.

Forty students made the 10-day trip, with Joseph Belehrad of Cedar Rapids as drum major.

Adamson’s wife, Frances, LeVonne Karel and Ruth House were dancers with the group, performing the Scottish sword dance, the reel of Tullock and the Highland fling. Frances attracted attention by performing the Highland fling on top of a bass drum.

Dailey and his wife accompanied the band to the fair, and the colonel said farewell to his beloved Highlanders before heading for Fort Crook, Neb., his next Army assignment.

The pipe band was soon the largest in the country, with 44 men.

switch to women

When the United States entered World War II at the end of 1941, band members were among those leaving Iowa to serve in the armed forces. By 1943, the ranks of the Highlanders were decimated.

Adamson, unwilling to let the Highlanders die, decided to open applications to women. Hundreds applied in August. He chose 55, beginning bagpipe and drum lessons on Sept. 2 for the band’s first performance at the Iowa-Wisconsin game on Oct. 2.

He discovered the women picked up the intricacies of the bagpipes more quickly than men. “The women not only are as good as the men, they definitely outshine them,” he said.

From that point on, until 1973, the Highlanders were an all-female band.

Keeping them in uniform was sometimes difficult. Several items, including hose that came from a special loom, had to be imported from Scotland.

The Highland uniforms included white spats, kilts made of one 7-foot piece of woolen plaid, a cape, also about 7 feet in length, which folded over the left shoulder, and a doublet of dark blue. Drummers wore a crimson doublet. Tall, plumed headpieces called busbies were worn by the pipers. Glengarry bonnets topped off drummers’ uniforms.

biggest in world

In 1947, the Highlanders traveled west for the International Lions Club convention in San Francisco. They were invited back to the 1948 convention in New York to parade on Fifth Avenue and perform in Madison Square Garden.

Adamson hoped to take the band to Europe in 1950, but transportation plans fell through. The Highlanders numbered 75 at that point — the largest bagpipe band in the world. They also were perhaps the most expensively attired band in the world, with a uniform valued at $25,000.

The European tours began in 1952 and continued every four years.

Adamson led the Highlanders until his death in 1965, when membership was at its peak of 113. Under his direction, the Highlanders had given 500 performances in the United States, Canada and Europe, traveling more than 125,000 miles and appearing before more than 10 million people.

slow demise

Graduate students took over the band’s direction, beginning with Alan G. McIvo in August 1966.

In the spring of 1973, the first man was initiated into the group since 1943.

After more than 40 years, the Highlanders were a fixture at Iowa football games, so when cost-cutting at the university eliminated the band’s $29,000 operating budget in 1981, it came as a shock.

At sunset on May 31, Highlander director Bruce Liberati played a Scottish lament on his bagpipe on the steps of Old Capitol to mark the end of the iconic organization.

But it wasn’t quite the end.

While the band prepared for a performance at the 1982 World’s Fair in Knoxville, Tenn., a nonprofit — the mid-America Center for Scottish Performing Arts — was formed in an effort to save the Highlanders. Country-western singer and bagpipe player Glen Campbell joined the effort.

The next year, the Hiland Potato Chip Co. offered corporate sponsorship. That year, the Highlanders made at least their third appearance in Cedar Rapids at the United Way’s Free Family Fun Festival, with the first two coming in 1950 and 1966 parades.

After a long history of performing for presidential inaugurations, Rose Bowls and huge European audiences, however, the popularity of the Highlanders waned. They performed for the last time at a 2007 Halloween parade, disbanding in 2008.

l Comments: (319) 398-8338; d.fannonlangton@gmail.com

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