The Gathering had remained unchanged for many years but 1976 marked a watershed with the first of several big changes coming in the force. In January 1976 Seumas MacNeill wrote: “1976 is going to be – for piping at least – a great deal different from any of its predecessors. This is the year of the emancipation of women, a thought which will make many strong men feel that recovery from the annual Ne’erday festivities is taking a great deal longer than usual.

“On December 29th last year the Sex Discrimination Act officially came into force. As a result, it is now illegal to treat women less favourably than men, in almost all possible forms of human activity. (Most men welcome the Act, because it also means that it is now illegal to treat men less favourably than women).

•Patricia Henderson (née Innes)

“The places which will be affected most in piping are of course Oban and Inverness, where traditionally women have been debarred from competing in the piping competitions. The pros and cons of this are interesting but at the moment not important: it is sufficient to contemplate the changes which will have to take place this year when the sacred platforms are invaded by a monstrous regiment of women.

“Exceptions to the Act are permitted, but piping is not one of them. The act allows discrimination, ‘in any sport, game, or other activity of a competitive nature where physical strength, stamina, or physique puts a woman at a disadvantage with an average man’.

“A cursory glance at the results of the amateur competitions shows that the girls do not seem to be at any disadvantage compared with the boys. The main reason that we do not find them equally dominant in the professional competitions in which girls are allowed to play is a tribute to the work which has been done over the years by the Highland Society of London and the Piobaireachd Society. Their competitions are the ones which make or break pipers.   Girls in the past who were good players never reached the top because they never had the incentive of playing at Oban and Inverness.

“With the large numbers of young people learning nowadays, and the increasing number of juvenile and amateur competitions, combined with the wind of change so far as sex discrimination is concerned, the numbers likely to be entering for the premier contests will be reaching the three figure mark soon.

“This year it will be impossible to run the Gold Medal competitions unless some restriction is made on entry.  And restriction cannot refer to previous performance in medal events, because this would discriminate against women. The only alternative is the highly desirable, and highly desired, one of grading pipers. We have to start doing this very soon or chaos will be upon us.”

It was announced in April 1976 that the Argyllshire Gathering at Oban and the Northern Meeting at Inverness would accept ladies for the Gold Medal competitions. However the monstrous regiment of women feared by the diehards did not materialise. Anne Stewart and Patricia Innes played in the Gold at the Argyllshire Gathering and were joined by Rona MacDonald in the Gold Medal event at the Northern Meeting.

An article appeared in the Oban Times on Thursday 26th August 1976 with the heading ‘Women challenge for piping award’. It ran as follows: “Two young women were due on Wednesday to play themselves into a page of piping history by becoming the first females to compete for the prestigious Gold Medal for piobaireachd at the piping competitions of the Argyllshire Gathering in Oban – for 105 years a jealously guarded male preserve. The women who planned literally to ‘up and gi’e them a blaw’, were Patricia Innes of Aberdeen and Anne Stewart of Carnoustie. Said Pat on Wednesday morning: ‘We have both had a lot of competitive experience and we just think of ourselves as pipers.’

“There were female prize winners at Oban in 1976, however they were not Gold medal candidates but prize winners in the local piping events, Eilidh Keith and Laura Stewart, both from Inveraray, and Esther MacKenzie who won the under-15 march.

“The Gathering was held on the 25th and 26th August and the Piping Times reported as follows: Towards the end of August each year all roads lead to Oban, and on Tuesday the 24th of this long hot summer finding a place to stay in this gateway of the west was as difficult as finding a recognisable double C at a band contest.

“The wise pipers look on the Argyllshire Gathering as the culmination of the piping year, and prepare themselves accordingly. To them the Northern Meeting is a bonus which, coming three weeks later, gives them a second chance to shine – or an opportunity to recoup any losses which may have inadvertently occurred.

“The procrastinating competitor, on the other hand, considers the Inverness Gathering to be the peak of his year, and the affair at Oban merely a preliminary rehearsal. Strangely enough, it seems to be the same people who take the opposing views each year. Those who are not entered at the first meeting, or withdraw, or play tentatively, usually shine quite brightly a few weeks later. How much better it would be if they just started their preparation three weeks earlier.

“On the other hand, the standard in the various events at the two meetings seems to vary according to no known law. A stormer of a Gold Medal event at Oban can be followed by a fairly petty struggle for premier honors at Inverness, and vice versa. With the continuing increase in entries however the chance of getting several reasonable tunes at either meeting is increased considerably – through sheer weight of numbers and statistical fluctuations.

“The event which always attracts the greatest interest is the competition for the Gold Medal presented by the Highland Society of London (not the Piobaireachd Society, please note. The Piobaireachd Society does not present medals anywhere, and does not lend its name to any medals inside Scotland).

“This year there were forty-three entries, of whom forty-one actually turned up and played, which was a vast improvement on some of last year’s professional competitions, where the non­appearance of those who had entered caused almost chaos in the organisation.

“The competition began shortly after 9 in the morning, and the last piper finished at 8.30 in the evening. The judges – Dr. J. C. Caird, John MacFadyen and Seumas MacNeill – had two breaks, totaling one and a half hours, so their task involved concentrating for something like ten hours, and remembering the respective merits of tunes performed almost twelve hours apart.

“Whether or not this is too much to ask of judges is hardly a moot point, and for the sake of everybody concerned it is to be hoped that the move that has been afoot for a few years now to restrict numbers in any given event will come to some fruition before next year.

“In fact, the standard of playing was very good throughout, although not excellent. About eighteen of the players were of good Gold Medal standard, remembering that the Gold Medal is not for top competitors but confined to those who have not yet won that coveted award. Of the remainder, about a dozen showed reasonable promise even although they were out of their class. One is tempted to say the rest of them would have done us all a favour if they had stayed at home, but such is not really the case. Anyone who wishes to compete in a piping competition should be able to do so, and a special event should be held even for those who broke down in the first line – or worse, went on playing when we would have preferred them to break down in the first line.

“Competitors were required to offer four tunes from a list of six, all of them being good and pleasing compositions well worthy of a piper’s interest and effort. The quality of the tunes of course was one of the reasons for the good standard of playing, and it was evident that many of the competitors had made a real effort, not only to memorise the pieces but also to study some of the possible interpretations.

•Malcolm McRae

“The Gold Medal went to Malcolm McRae of Australia, now resident in the Tayside area.   Malcolm’s piece was The Parading of the MacDonalds, and he gave a very pleasant and enjoyable rendering of this tune on a first class bagpipe. The tune is not difficult to play, but unless considerable care is taken it may develop into a very monotonous repetition of just a few notes. This performance was nicely phrased and expressed, and although the triplets were a shade untidy at times the rest of his technique was of a high order.

“Second prize went to William Livingstone from Ontario, playing MacNeil of Barra’s March. This is an easier tune to express although on the whole more difficult to memorize and execute. The playing of the ground was a bit on the square side, with many of the passing notes held too long. He fell into the fairly common mistake of over-pointing Variation 1 singling, and so leaving himself nothing fresh to put into the Doubling. The triplet movement was again a little bit untidy, with the gracenotes a bit tight and close. Indeed execution was apparently a problem because there was also a choke in the taorluath doubling, and the first two dres of the crunluath doubling were missed.

“Third prize went to Jacques Pincet from Brittany, also playing The Parading of the MacDonalds. This was one of the really exciting performances in the competition, and it was indeed astonishing to hear a comparatively inexperienced competitor producing mature phrasing and changes of tempo which were more likely to be heard in the open event than in the Gold Medal contest. Indeed, he tried many subtleties of expression which were apparently not even thought of by any of the others. He did however tend to rush the second lines of the variations, and his taorluath and crunluath were just a little bit light.

“Fourth prize went to one of the earliest competitors, Pipe Major Iain Morrison who played second.  His tune was The Lament for the Viscount of Dundee, and he gave a competent performance on an excellent bagpipe. He did not manage however to achieve the majestic sweep of melody in the ground, and strangely enough both his high G and low G gracenotes were light and superficial.

“Chris Terry from South Africa was placed fifth with a surprisingly good interpretation of the most difficult tune in the group, Lady MacDonald’s Lament. His ground was a shade on the slow side, and he had the common fault of coming too quickly off the low G to the high G throw, but otherwise both the ground and doubling of the ground were well executed and expressed. Occasional gracenotes were missing in taorluaths, especially from D, and this later fault also appeared in the crunluath.

“Many good performances were in the running for prizes, but unfortunately not all of them could be given recognition other than in a report of this nature. Murray Henderson gave a competent Parading of the MacDonalds, but his triplets were a bit blurred and although his fingering was heavy and strong throughout it lacked neatness at times. Tom Speirs was astray in his interpretation of the first half of The Lament for MacSwan of Roaig and seemed to be depending heavily on the book. The second half of the tune however was good.

The King’s Taxes appeared on every piper’s list and seemed also to be the favourite of the judges. Duncan Watson gave the first good performance of this one although he clipped the tune far too much in the ground. Variation I and Doubling were good, but he missed the last note of this part, and he was one of the many people who thought that a drum accompaniment – with the foot – is an improvement to a crunluath a mach. David Martin played the same tune, but his choice of tempos was not good. The ground and first variations were too slow, with the proverbial startling dash into the singling of the tripling.

“James MacIntosh played MacSwan of Roaig and as always produced some beautiful touches in it. However, he was handicapped, very surprisingly, by a flat high G which seemed to put him off a bit. William Wotherspoon played very steadily with MacNeil of Barra’s March, but the tune was rather square throughout, with not enough attempt at phrasing. The same might be said for Ian Clowe’s Lament for the Viscount of Dundee, which was good enough and enjoyable, but devoid of any change of tempo within the variations. Jack Taylor with MacSwan of Roaig erred slightly in that direction, but tended also to start the doublings of variations very fast, and then slow them rather abruptly. He played a D for E at the very end of the tune, and had the strange habit of playing a D often with all four fingers of the right hand off the chanter. John Wilson had the brightest fingers in the competition but he must learn to slow them down in order to get the full value out of a lament like MacSwan of Roaig.   His brilliance at present leads to over-cutting of the tune.

“Some other points are worth a mention. Ronald McShannon beat his foot – heel or toe – on the platform to every note of the first two variations of The King’s Taxes. If a drum accompaniment were wanted it is probable that the Piobaireachd Society would have written one in. As it was, the listeners were fascinated by the feet and unable to concentrate on what the fingers were doing. Robert Barnes comes into that same category with his performance of MacSwan of Roaig. To our surprise he played hioenen exactly as it is written. We are all so accustomed to ignoring the amusing efforts at timing which appear in the standard books, that it is a great shock to us when we hear somebody taking the time values literally. The rest of Robert’s tune was very good.

“The march event attracted an entry of thirty-eight competitors, of whom thirty-four actually played – again a vast improvement on the way pipers have been behaving at other competitions in the past year.

“The competition was judged by Seumas MacNeill and Capt. Andrew Pitkeathly, and after a preliminary run through, in which the tunes were played once only, a short leet of seven was chosen. This time the tune was played twice over, as used to be the custom at Oban for many years.

“Once again, the over-all standard was good without being in any danger of exciting the blood pressure. First prize went to Hugh Macinnes who has been a consistent performer in this light music for several years.  He played Stirlingshire Militia in order to reach the short leet, and then Lochaber Gathering to win the prize. Hugh, as always, played on an excellent bagpipe, and played extremely well, but again, as always, his style of marching did nothing to help the tune along.

“Second prize went to Robert Worrall from Canada who showed the brilliance of his fingering with Capt. Carswell and again with The Highland Wedding.  His style of the latter tune is one not heard often nowadays, and he had some unsteadiness of tempo within the parts, but otherwise this was also a good performance.

“Angus MacLellan gave sound renderings of The Braes of Brecklet and South Hall. His playing was solid and steady without being brilliant, and it appeared in fact as if Angus was playing himself carefully back into form once again.

“Fourth prize went to Tom Speirs for good bright performances of The Balmoral Highlanders and Blackmount Forest. Hetended to go for expression at some expense of execution, for the gracenotes were often a little bit too tight. Double C particularly at the end of the parts was inaudible. In fifth place came young Jack Lee from British Columbia, playing the seldom heard Marchioness of Tullibardine and then the very popular Donald MacLean’s Farewell to Oban. He has good fingers this young man, but he was not blowing out the high A of his chanter, did not emphasize the double C at the end enough and was a little unsteady in his timing with the second tune.

“Of those not on the prize list, Duncan Watson played a competent Angus Campbell’s Farewell to Stirling and then a brilliant Abercairney Highlanders – except that on this very warm day he sounded as if his fingers were cold. Although probably the best march player in the competition, he somehow was unable to play many of the taorluaths or the throws correctly. The other piper in the short leet was Ian Clowe, who gave musical renderings of Blackmount Forest and Pipe Major John Stewart, but was a shade too rounded in his playing and was not quite clean in the first part of  the second tune.

“Of those who did not quite make the short leet, good performances were heard from Robert Barnes, Murray Henderson and Robert Wallace.”

March: 1. Hugh Maclnnes, Glasgow; 2. Robert J. Worrall, London, Ontario; 3. John Wilson, Strathclyde Police; 4. Tom Speirs, Edinburgh; 5. Jack Lee, Surrey, B.C.

Strathspey and reel: 1. Tom Speirs, Edinburgh; 2. William Livingstone, Whitby, Ontario; 3. Duncan Watson, Aberdeen; 4. Ian F. Clowe, Dumfries; 5. Murray Henderson, Eassie, Angus.

March, strathspey and reel (former winners):  1. D. Ferguson, Kirkintilloch; 2. Arthur G.  Gillies, Kilchrenan; 3. John Wilson, Strathclyde Police.

March (local): 1. Eilidh Keith, Inveraray; 2. Laura Stewart, Inveraray; 3. Hector Campbell, Oban.

Strathspey and reel (local): 1. Hector Campbell, Oban; 2. Laura Stewart, Inveraray; 3. Eilidh Keith, Inveraray.

• Part 1
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• Part 3

• Part 4
• Part 5
• Part 6
• Part 7
• Part 8
• Part 9
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• Part 12
• Part 13
• Part 14
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• Part 17
• Part 18
• Part 19
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• Part 24
• Part 25
• Part 26
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• Part 33
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• Part 36
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Part 38
• Part 39
• Part 40