Lewis Beaton, Dr W. M. MacPhail and Archibald Campbell.
Lewis Beaton, Dr W. M. MacPhail and Archibald Campbell.

Since its inception in the 1930s the London Championship has grown in stature and is second only to Oban and Inverness in importance. In this article, by John Shone, we chart the progress of contest from idea to major championship

John Shone

Back in 1932 a group of very keen pipers found themselves in London, or in the vicinity of the metropolis furthering their careers. One in particular was a highly energetic and enthusiastic amateur namely, Lewis Beaton. He had a dental practice in Twickenham and it was his enthusiasm and drive that brought the group together, and, lo and behold, the Scottish Piping Society of London was born.

The group consisted of some illustrious pipers, already household names in the piping fraternity: J. B. Robertson (Scots Guards) David Ross of Rosehall and Dr W. M. MacPhail. Others who were also in at the birth were a Pipe Major Puller, Charles Stewart and Bob Gillies.

Pipe Major J. B. Robertson, Scots Guards.
Pipe Major J. B. Robertson, Scots Guards.

David Ross was already a competing piper of renown, a Gold Medallist and well-known pupil of Willie MacLean, Kilcreggan. J. B. Robertson was just getting into his competing stride as it were, and was to become the dominant prizewinner of the later 1930s. Archibald Campbell was to say later that he rated J. B. the greatest march player of the first half of the 20th century. Be that as it may, one look at J. B.’s record is enough to show that he was the man to beat.

The founding group soon got down to organising their first London competition. It was held at the London Scottish Hall at Buckingham Gate, and it was to continue at this venue until the 1970s, when redevelopment curtailed space. From the outset the contest attracted all the big names from Scotland and elsewhere. Indeed the first programmes read like a roll call of the great names from the past:

R. U. Brown, J. B. Robertson, David Ross, Hugh Kennedy, Charles Smith, Robert Reid, Owen MacNiven, Charles Scott, Andrew Bain, Charles Turnbull, Bob Hill, Archie MacNab, John Wilson, Donald MacLean of the Seaforths, Angus MacAulay, John MacDonald of the Glasgow Police, and Bob Nicol.

Clearly, from the outset the London Society made a big impact on the piping world, and so it has continued down the years to the present day. Now the contest is held annually in the wonderful venue of the great Glaziers Livery Hall, London Bridge.

To hear the Bratach contest in a hall that almost seems it was built for the sound of the well-tuned pipe is an experience that should not be missed.

Bob Brown in his youth. He won the Gillies Cup on 11 occasions.
Bob Brown in his youth. He won the Gillies Cup on 11 occasions.

It is no exaggeration to say that all the great names have competed in London since the early 1930s. One name stands supreme above the rest of those competing in the Open Gillies Cup for Piobaireachd, namely R. U. Brown of Balmoral. He won the coveted Gillies Cup on no less than 11 occasions, and in one period six years in succession.

Interestingly, during those early years there was some debate over what constituted a Great Highland pipe. In the notice to the competing pipers of 1934 there is a note drawing to their attention:

“On the notices of the competition it was stipulated that pipers must play on the Highland bagpipe (three drones). Since this, however, would mean losing the support of the Irish pipers, and since the Society believes that it is more in keeping with the sport of competition to welcome both Scottish and Irish Pipers, this stipulation has been withdrawn. The one drone less of the Irish pipers will, of course, be taken into consideration by the Judges”.

I wonder what “consideration by the judges” was intended to mean?

We often hear the organisers of the present day contests complain that they cannot get all the competitors through the programme in one day, so we have resorted to grading or some other form of selection. The problem is not a new one. One look at those early London contest programmes shows they had just the same problems as us. In the 1936 contest, held, remember, on one day only and starting at 10:00, there were 26 players in the Open Piobaireachd, 30 in the senior MSR, 16 in the Junior March, 19 in the Class 1 MSR, eight in the amateur piobaireachd, and nine in the boys’ march under 18.

It was the practice in those days to hold a dancing contest as well! And so, in addition to the above competitions, we have five dancing contests with circa 35 entrants. For the pipers there was no grading, no selection (other than that done by the competitor himself). All who wanted to enter could do so and this has continued to the present time. The only major change to the event is that there is now no dancing competition.

So, what is it that makes the London contest so popular? There has not been a year since the war that it has not attracted the great and the good. It may be the atmosphere of the place. That’s what the top competing pipers have said to me over the years; it ‘buzzes’ from early morning to late at night for the closing jig contest, and of course, there is the great Bratach contest for piobaireachd in that wonderful setting, always with a full house of several hundred. Yes, the London contest looks good for well into the next millennium. I wonder who will be the winner of the Bratach in its centenary year 2032; not me I fear.


The Bratach Gorm

Bratach Gorm competitors, 1974, L-R: Iain MacFadyen, Jimmy Macgregor, Hugh McCallum, Pipe Major Angus MacDonald, Dr Jack Taylor, Kenny MacDonald and Andrew Wright.
Bratach Gorm competitors, 1974, L-R: Iain MacFadyen, Jimmy MacGregor, Hugh MacCallum, Pipe Major Angus MacDonald, Dr Jack Taylor, Kenny MacDonald and Andrew Wright.

Dr Calum MacCrimmon, a great, great grandson of Iain Dubh MacCrimmon, presented the Bratach Gorm (the Blue Banner) to the Scottish Piping Society of London (of which he was a founder member) in 1938 as a prize and as a tribute to the MacCrimmons. In order to be eligible to compete for the Bratach Gorm, competitors must have won first prize in one of the major piobaireachd competitions.

Dr MacCrimmon records that, according to tradition, the Bratach Gorm was first used in 1503 and matriculated in MacLeod’s arms. It was the ambition of all MacCrimmons that they would reach to the honour of carrying the Bratach, an honour only for the very best amongst them.

It is a tradition that MacCrimmon had a galley of 60 men and that the galley brought him to Dunvegan where the Gillie Phiob carrying the pipes with the banner attached always met him. In 1603 Donald Mòr MacCrimmon met Donald Gorm of Sleat on the occasion of the Great Banquet at Dunvegan. Donald Mòr, carrying the Banner, composed a salute to Donald Gorm as he met him in front of Dunvegan and on entering the castle he composed MacLeod’s Salute. At the Banquet the Toast was “Failte MhicLeoid, Slainte MhicLeoid, Slainte an Righ”.

The Banner was never taken from Dunvegan. Donald Bàn MacCrimmon did not have the Bratach Gorm when he was killed at the Rout of Moy.

According to one tradition, the MacCrimmons’ were descended from druids and with the Blue Banner went the mystic herb juniper.

lain MacCrimmon MacLean records, in the Oban Times of 1939 that the composition of the original Bratach had a blue background, for the druids, with on it:

1. The three-towered castle for Leod of the Castle and the Sword, King of the Isles and Man, and for Olaf the Black, father of Magnus, King of Man.

2. The nailed bent arm with the Turkish scimitar for the head of the MacCrimmon family.

3. The juniper — the herb of mystic healing.

Glenn Brown, winner of the 2018 Bratach Gorm.
Glenn Brown, winner of the 2018 Bratach Gorm.

This was the design used — apart from substituting a chanter for the scimitar — for the Bratach Gorm in 1938, together with the motto of the MacCrimmons — “Cogadh no Sith” — and also for the replacement Bratach Gorm in 1991.

Dame Flora, Mrs MacLeod of MacLeod, tied the blue silk banner on to the pipes of Pipe Major J. B. Robertson, the first winner of the Bratach Gorm in 1938. She confirmed that over 400 years ago one of her forebears at Dunvegan Castle had presented a similar banner to the MacCrimmons.

Pipe Major Robertson won the Bratach Gorm playing, as the Oban Times recorded, “MacCrimmon’s Lament for his Children”. As was the custom at that time, the winner was asked to play a piobaireachd on receiving the Bratach and Pipe Major Robertson played I Got A Kiss Of The King’s Hand.

• From the October 1999 Piping Times.