Outstanding in his field... how this farmer is banging the drum for our pipe bands after an accident at work forced him to give up the accordion
Co Antrim man George Ussher has breathed new life into the piping fraternity here. He tells Una Brankin how the band-playing tradition is enjoying a resurgence among young people
When he was a 25-year-old accordion player George Ussher found himself - or his fingers, to be more precise - in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The Ballinderry farmer was chopping wood when he noticed his companion cutting against the grain.
"I put my hand out to show him how to do it properly, just as the axe came down," he recalls. "I had two fingers cut off, my little finger and the one beside it on my right hand. I went into shock. I didn't know pain - I was just totally numb. The fella with me was in a terrible state about it."
The distraught axe-wielder, Frank Lavery, wrapped the severed fingers in a handkerchief and rushed George to Lagan Valley Hospital, a 20-minute drive away.
"It was a clean break and they got them sewn back on, but they stick out a bit," he explains. "That was the end of the accordion playing - you need all your fingers for that. So, anyway, Frank would come to see me; then he started to come to see my sister, Margaret, and in the end he became my brother-in-law."
Four decades on, George Ussher is the longest-serving president of the Royal Scottish Pipe Band Association, with 16 years' involvement with World Pipe Band Championships under his belt. He's a laid-back country man, who bestrides his land with a Jack Russell at his heels and enjoys looking after his young grandsons - James-Arthur, Matthew and baby Charlie.
"I'd like nothing better than to see them getting involved with the bands when they're a little older," says George. "It's great discipline for children, and if they can learn to play the most difficult instrument in the world, it gives them confidence.
"I can see tremendous skill in some of the kids playing now and it's great to see the revival of interest in the whole Ulster-Scots cultural heritage, from both communities."
George turned to the drums when he recovered from his accident - and firmly rejects the notion that drummers are merely guys who hang around with 'real' musicians.
"There's a tremendous skill involved with playing the drums," he says. "I couldn't play the snare - it's very difficult without the use of my fingers, so I played the bass."
The injury to his right hand affected George's engineering work, at the time, with Bridgeport Brass, and in 1972, he moved to an energy management job at Belfast International Airport in nearby Aldergrove. His last job, from 2000 to 2013, was in Ulster Carpet Mills in Craigavon, but he continued working on his cattle and cereal crop farm throughout.
After his parents died, George and wife Elyse, a former medical secretary, moved from their bungalow on their land into their handsome Georgian home.
"I have the original documents from my great-great grandfather's purchase of the place in 1877 from great Sir William Wallace. He owned everything from Derriaghy out. They had cattle and sheep and grew flax in a field with two streams. They blocked the streams with blocks to soak the flax. We don't grow it any more, but we still call it the flax field," he says.
The Ussher family home now has listed building status.
"It was a bit of a change from living in the bungalow. We installed central heating, but we have big sash windows and the wind still blows in - even when they're shut - and billows the curtains," says George.
"My parents had a pantry, but we incorporated it into the kitchen when we moved in. I remember the milk being kept in it for the home-made butter - it was quite salty, but tasty.
"It's still a beautiful house, but it's quite hard to maintain."
The late Arthur and Kathleen Ussher weren't musical, but his father kept a small accordion in the house.
"It was a wee small instrument. I picked it up when I was about 11 or 12 and got interested in it. I played in Ballinderry Accordion Band for many years before joining Ballydonaghy Pipe Band as a drummer in 1987," says George.
Just three years later, he was appointed Drum Major Steward with the Royal Scottish Pipe Band Association, Northern Ireland Branch (RSPBANI), and in 1994 he became vice-chairman.
Thereafter, his rise to the top was swift. In 1999 he was appointed vice-chairman of the Royal Scottish Pipe Band Association (RSPBA) in Glasgow, and became involved in the organisation of the World Pipe Band Championships which are held annually at Glasgow Green.
Widely credited for restoring the fortunes of the RSPBA, George became RSPBA chairman in 2000. He's modest about being a good organiser.
“Ach well, I suppose in some ways I am. When I took over in 1999, the association was in difficult straits. It was £12,000 in debt. I went into negotiations for competitions and brought in a chief executive to treat it like a business.
“He was a former manager of a building society and we got the debt cleared, and took off from there.”
To George’s credit, Elyse never found herself a pipes band widow. The couple met in Bangor and have two children Neil (37), who lives next door and helps George on the farm; and Joanne (35), who runs a business in Sunderland. Both have competed in bands; Joanne as a drum major and Neil as a grade-one leading piper.
“Elyse enjoys the bands — she never misses an event, like a lot of the bands’ wives,” he says. “She’s very musical; she was a good pianist in her day. When the kids were small we’d go to the competitions together on a Saturday and have a family day. We’d bring a picnic; it kept the family together.”
The top job came in 2003 when George was appointed to the top World Pipe Band post of President of Royal Scottish Pipe Band Association, a post he still holds. The position involves public speaking, which George isn’t always comfortable with.
“Recently I had to make a speech at the end of the day to 8,000 bands and a crowd of 40,000,” he says.
“I don’t find that sort of public speaking too bad; it’s worse in a more intimate dinner party setting.
“I remember I was in Belgium for the European championships 10 years ago, and the first minister of the country was entertaining us in the courtyard of his castle — a dinner for 600.
“My wife and I were guests of honour and were treated like royalty. I noticed this podium and a microphone and I asked someone who was the speaker, and he said ‘you are’.
“Now the first minister was well used to that and he read from a prepared speech, but I had to think on the hoof. That wasn’t easy.”
Even with his many pipe band duties, George is proud to say that he is first and foremost a farmer. He runs a herd of Aberdeen Angus suckler cows and is a breeder of sport horses. He also grows around 30-acres of cereal crops, including oats and barley.
“I could be ploughing fields tomorrow and the next day I could be attending a pipe band championship or meetings with councils and possible sponsors to negotiate funding for pipe band events,” he says.
“One day I could be preparing horses for training or showing, and the next, I could be entertaining government ministers at a pipe band championship.
“But I count myself very fortunate to be able to have such an enjoyable role. Both communities take part — I haven’t made a big thing of that; you don’t like to draw attention to that in case it gets picked up and then you get the trouble-makers turning up.
“On Saturday, we were in Portrush and there were 20,000 there to see the bands from both communities coming down the street. There’s never any trouble, and we have strict disciplinary measures if any ever did arise. It’s great to see more people coming — they’ll come up and say, ‘my father used to play’. People often come out of curiosity.”
George featured in a BBC Scotland programme last week when he presided over the World Pipe Band Championships in Glasgow, with 16 bands from all over the world, including one from Malaysia. He says: “Their outfits were unbelievable — saris, white trousers, turbans, and they’re quite good on the pipes.
“It’s not unusual for other countries to be involved — even the Sultan of Oman is a player.
“Personally, I like music from far and wide. I like reggae — Bob Marley, as well as country music, and I’m a big fan of Simply Red.”
Like all dedicated musicians and farmers, George has no notion of retiring.
“A farmer’s work — like housework — is never done. The four horses I have take more looking after than the herd of cattle,” he says.
“I’ve another three years as president of the association in Scotland — it’s a great honour for me. I host international conferences — there was one recently with visitors from Argentina, South Africa, Australia and Canada. It’s got very big now.
“We have what’s called Major Championships in Northern Ireland every year — I’ve only missed one in the last 10 years — and we’ve the solo drumming championships in Glasgow in October.
“And we’re starting to get into primary schools to get the kids interested in playing pipes.
“Not all develop to playing the pipes. Out of those I taught in the past, there was maybe one out of six that stuck at it. But it’s worth it when they do.”