This is a blog about music, photography, history, and culture.
These are photographs from my collection that tell a story about lost time and forgotten music.

Mike Brubaker
{ Click on the image to expand the photo }

The Sutcliffe Family Pipe Band

14 February 2013

The national costume of Scotland must be the most distinctive fashion ever made into a brand name for a country. Plaid says Scottish even in sepia tones, so this photo postcard of seven Scots almost sparkles in the color of their tartan kilts and cloaks as they line up in ascending height with their pipes and drums.

This set of postcards came with no identification but I have discovered that they are the Sutcliffe Family Pipe Band, a traveling vaudeville troupe that was popular in the early 20th century.

Their formal pose and polished smiles set them apart from ordinary tourist postcards or photos of town bands. They may be Scottish but they are not in Scotland because in the lower corner of the photos is a signature of Apeda, NY which was the Apeda Studio of New York City. This photography studio, which first opened in 1906, had several locations in the city and specialized in producing promotional postcards and  photographs for the entertainers of the Broadway theater world.

This third photo has the seven men holding bagpipes and centered between drums and crossed swords. When I acquired the cards I could tell they must be a professional musical group, but I had few clues for identification. Though they wear uniforms similar to military units like the Black Watch pipe bands , the clear focus on the individuals in the second photo was not typical of photos of Scottish regimental bands of this era.

So who were they? The letter S on the pipe banners was one clue, and another was found on the bass drum. The words SUT__FF_ FAMILY are painted on the drum shell but are partly obscured by the rope tensioners.

Several weeks later I found a fourth card that had the answer to their name. This photo card has a caption of   (SUTCLIFFE FAMILY) but unlike the other postcards, this postcard is printed in Britain. The two tallest pipers are easily recognized by their mustaches, but though the group still has seven performers in full Scottish garb, a woman has taken the place of one of the men. This photo includes bagpipes, drums, and swords along with a shield festooned with medals, and looking closely at the bass drum one can see the identical insignia of SUTCLIFFE FAMILY as in the other photo.

I found the name of the Sutcliffe Family first mentioned in a Boston Globe report of December 1893 as one of the groups scheduled for a Boston celebration of Scottish heritage. In the December 24, 1899 edition of the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle there was a report of the acts appearing at the Cook Opera House in Rochester.

Rochester Democrat & Chronicle DEC 24, 1899

A novelty in acrobatics will be offered by the Sutcliffe family of four performers. They are Scotch and appear on the stage in kilts, to the accompaniment of bagpipe music, to which they dance Highland flings. These performers are now making their first tour of this section of the country after five years spent in South America. Their act includes aerial somersaults from shoulder to shoulder and pyramid falls and leaps, the acrobatics interspersed with music and comedy in a manner that is said to make the act quite different from the average run of acrobatic exhibitions.

One can only imagine the Sutcliffe's version of the Highland Fling. Their dance styles must have been as much a novelty as the music of pipes and drums. I can say from experience that the sound of pipers playing indoors in a theater can be very intense, even deafening. With the many new immigrants to America at the turn of the 20th century, Italian, German, Hungarian, and other national themed bands were proving very popular in theaters.

The Lowell Mass Sun APR 16, 1912

Vaudeville was a very competitive business and weekly newspaper reports on local theaters might mention dozens of performing artists and groups. Photos were not common, so it was a great surprise to find this report from April 16, 1912 of the Sutcliffe Family when they played Keith's Theater in Lowell, Massachusetts. There at the top of the report is the same Apeda photo of the 7 smiling pipers.

The Sutcliffe Family were not the only Scottish band in vaudeville, but they certainly played more places than most groups. I would expect that their circuit included Canada and other parts of the British Empire.

A great resource for showbiz research is They have made a transcription of the Billboard weekly magazine from this period and this snippet comes from the January 9, 1915 edition.

Letter from Alfred Sutcliffe, of the Sutcliffe Family, from Grimsby, England: "We spent seventeen years in America in the circus business, five years with Sells Brothers, and seven with the B. & B., LaPearl and other shows.
Now our country with others are at war. As we all cannot go to the front, we are doing our little bit a home. When not on the stage we are out with our bagpipe band recruiting. I don't know when we shall return to America again, as our King and country may need us."

During the war years, I found notices for the Sutcliffe Family playing in Shoreditch and other music halls in Britain. Did they have the same novelty appeal in England as they had in America? How many young men joined their parade to the recruiter's office?

Livonia NY Gazette AUG 3, 1923

After the war, the Sutcliffe family returned to the States and the vaudeville circuit, but by the times were changing and they were no longer the headline. That position was now taken over by a cinema title. The era of film would forever alter the world of music hall and vaudeville entertainers.

Scottish pipe bands are a natural for outdoor events and the Sutcliffe's turned to performing at county fairs. Their name shows up on advertisements and announcements like this 1923 ad for the Tri-County Fair in Caledonia, NY. The band continued playing until 1930 when their name disappears. After almost 40 years of marching around the world acting as ambassadors of Scottish culture, it was time to give the pipes and drums a rest.

Did they stay in America or return to Scotland? After so many years of touring the world could any one place be their home again?

UPDATE: Thanks to a comment from Piper Sean Folsom I looked up the Victor 78 record that he has with the Sutcliffe Troupe. It's available at the Encyclopedic Discography of Victor Recordings at the University of California, Santa Barbara Library. The Sutcliffe pipe and drums made 4 recordings on July 5th, 1912 (not 1926 as printed on the later release label).

We can actually hear them courtesy of the Library of Congress. Here is the
Scotch medley march (B-12157)
Reels: The Glendarual highlanders ; The cock o' the north ;
Comin' through the rye ; Miss McLeod

It's a shame we still have to imagine their acrobatic Highland flings.

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This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where you can admire the fine art of turtle painting this weekend.


L. D. Burgus said...

This is such a great post. It was good to find out so much information that was out there once you started the search.

Peter said...

"Several weeks later I found a fourth card that had the answer to their name." This is what I would call "cutting a long story short"! You wrote that sentence in probably less than a few seconds but I wonder how much effort you put in finding that fourth card. Again a great story, Mike!

Postcardy said...

I would love to see an acrobatic bagpipe band. It would be a good act for the America's Got Talent TV show..

Tattered and Lost said...

I hope at some point someone from the family steps forward to lay claim to this wonderful history. There's more to this story for sure.

Boobook said...

Another excellent research story Mike.

Oregon Gifts of Comfort and Joy said...

You did good on this one, Mike ... I love it how things just fall into place after awhile. I wonder when they went back overseas if they lost anybody in battle, or if they supported the king in musical ways. I like how they were with the circus for such a long period of time.

I sent your book out yesterday, so you should get it sometime this week. Have a super weekend!

Kathy M.

Teresa Wilson Rogers said...

Wonderful post Mike, the photos are eye catching and your research was excellent as usual. I too wonder if someone in their family won't see this and be so happy to find it!

Little Nell said...

An interesting insight into the true variety of vaudeville acts. I'm not a lover of Scottish pipe bands but I think I would have enjoyed this act, with acrobatics woven in!

Bob Scotney said...

Having spent my time at univerity at St Andrews plus several years working in various parts of Scotland I grew to love the sound of the pipes and drums. I never came across a set with acrobatics thrown in.

Wendy said...

Gotta give 'em credit for originality. Who would have thought to combine acrobatics and bagpipes? The Sutcliffes rule!

barbara and nancy said...

I also thought it was unusual for bag pipers to be acrobats. What an odd combination. I wonder how they were received in South America. Not too many Scots there.
I wonder what a daytime fireworks show would be like.
Great post as usual.

Helen Bauch McHargue said...

Fascinating. I wonder if the woman was added for acrobatic in she might be lighter and easier to toss around? This might add a whole new dimension to the Highland Fling.

Kristin said...

Several weeks ago in a post about kilts it was mentioned that nothing is worn underneath. I'm wondering if this was true of this acrobatic troupe of pipe players too.

Brett Payne said...

Like me, you have to play the long game with these photographs in your collection, waiting for all the pieces to fall into place, but it must take a lot of time on your part to assemble the framework so that you can recognise the right bits when they suddenly appear.

There's a lot of Scottish influence here in New Zealand, particularly on the South Island, and plenty of pipe bands, but I've yet to see one as acrobatic as this one claims to be. I have a friend who's learning to play the bagpipes - I'll have to ask him if he intends including a few hand stands or flick-flaks in his routine.

Alan Burnett said...

As rich a post as a piece of fruit cake. You always perfectly balance the words and the pictures, it is not a picture blog with words, or a wordy blog with pictures .... it is TempoSenzaTempo. I once lived in the same block of student residences as a bagpipe player. I could have murdered him by the end of the term.

Mike Burnett said...

I had a lecturer called Sutcliffe - he was bearded but I never saw him dressed up like that.

Karen S. said...

I have to say that your day job is that of a detective, am I close? Marvelous post again, it seems you and I run on the same paths of tracking things down, although much of my tracking never gets here, although this week's theme did uncover something for me to dig out more and bring it to life for next week!


An impressive band. But you're right in your last comment, after so many years on the road, where is "home"?
Did they all settle down in one place, or disperse? What did they do for a living? Teach? But I daresay they enjoyed a career far longer than many. Great post!!

But I am disappointed here:
I had wagered on the FB page that you'd feature a band wearing turtle necks...
A too modern concept for you, I guess...

Cassmob (Pauleen) said...

What a clever take on pipes! Despite all my bagpipe playing great-uncles that didn't cross my mind. What fun! I'm told you may be able to identify the instruments in my post for this week's topic...check the link under Pauleen. Cheers.

tony said...

Ah The Scottish side of my family salutes you & the Bands! You cant beat a good bagpipe!
You know,Boston is the only city in the US I know.....And,of course, The Boston Irish connection is well known.But I didn't appreciate the equally strong Scottish connections the city has.
Thanks For Another Splendid Post Mike.

Sean Folsom said...

This is Piper Sean Folsom. I have a 78 RPM Record of the Sutcliffe family Band and a Post Card photo with 6 Men & 2 Women. The Writing says: "Yours in Tartan-Sutclffe Family 18-7-26" That's July 18th 1926
The Record is from VICTOR # 17408-A
has "The 79th Highlander's Farewell to Gibraltar" & side B has "Highland Laddie" & "My Love is But a Lassie Yet" Thank You for all the information on this Troupe !

eamfreem said...

The leader was Tom Sutcliffe of Glasgow, also in the troupe were Charles Stainton of Hawick, Lewis Bevil Mould & his brother Horace Arthur Mould both born Southport in England, Olive Ibbetson born in Stockton on Tees England, a very distant relative of mine called Alfred Richard Head born Wiltshire in England but died in Conneticut. He was an acrobat & changed his surname to Sutcliffe when he joined the troupe some time prior to 1911.

eamfreem said...

In 1926 Olive married Lewis Bevil Mould in Canada and, at some stage between then and 1934 they, and other 'theatricals' performed in South Africa so perhaps the whole troupe went over there when American audiences dried up?

Mike Brubaker said...

Thank you very much, eamfreem, for the names and history. It's very interesting to learn that they were a "family" only in a theatrical way. Many music groups then, and now too, created a professional reputation around a successful brand name that was more valuable than the individual members. Nonetheless, after so many years on the road as pipers and acrobats, the Sutcliffe show may have just run out of energy.

Brian Sutcliffe said...

Been drumming in pipe bands for 45yrs, doubt any family connection, but proud of them just the same. my father served in the Black Watch, what must be, must be. They would have love listening to FM Montgomery PB and how their music has developed.

Elma Fleming said...

Hello - doing some research on Charles Stainton of Hawick who was in the Sutcliffe pipe band and would like to use one of the photos in a Family History Society magazine. May I ask permission to use the photo of the Sutcliffe Family.
Also to eamfreem - may I ask where you got the information that Charles was in the band ?
Thank you


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