Today, March 8, is International Women’s Day. It’s a day that will be marked all around the world to reflect the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women.

We certainly have come along way since the bad old days of “blinkered sentiment” surrounding women competing in piping competitions. It was only in the early 1970s that The Argyllshire Gathering and The Northern Meeting accepted female competitors in the Gold Medal and Silver competitions. Anne Johnston (née Sinclair) was the first female recipient of the Silver Medal. Back then, it was fairly rare, but not unknown, to see women in pipe bands as well. Today, the piping world is vastly different. Today, you are either a piper or you’re not. Your sex doesn’t come into it.

To mark International Women’s Day, we asked piping historian, author and retired curator of the Museum of Piping, Jeannie Campbell MBE to write about women in piping. Her article, below, is based on a series she wrote for the Piping Times in 2006 but is up to date and without some minor errors that appeared originally. Part 2 follows tomorrow.

How women gained equal status in the professional piping world
– Part 1

By Jeannie Campbell MBE

It is an interesting and little known fact that the first piper in the world’s history whose name is known to us was a woman. To find her we must go back to Al Lahun in Egypt where a set of double pipes was found in a mummy case beside the owner. Sir William Flinders Petrie made the find in 1889-90 when a dozen coffins were found in a tomb dating from the 19th or 20th dynasty – about 3,000 years ago.

The richest of the coffins, and the only one to bear a name was that of the lady, Maket in which the pipes were found. Even she was not the first woman piper as an early mummy was found by Lord Carnarvon and Howard Carter in 1910-11 and she had a whole case of reed pipes beside her in the mummy case.

Moving on to more recent history, there is no way of knowing how many women were pipers in bygone centuries as the only pipers who made it into the history books were those employed either as pipers to a famous person or those involved in military activity and these careers were not open to women. In Scotland, there is evidence that some of the MacCrimmon daughters were pipers and three of the MacCrimmon ladies are known by name. Bess MacCrimmon was the daughter of Donald Donn (the youngest son of Patrick Òg). She was an accomplished piper and married Duncan Rankin, one of the last of the great Rankin family of hereditary pipers to the MacLeans of Duart and Coll. On one occasion, Bess deputised for her husband at a dinner given by MacLean. He was not aware of this and remarked that, “Duncan had excelled himself!” Bess died in 1790.

Elizabeth MacCrimmon was a daughter of Iain Dubh MacCrimmon. She was a proficient piper and married a MacKinnon. Angus MacKay wrote in 1838 that she was then “a worthy gentlewoman who now keeps a school for females at Dunvegan” and “is at the present day able to go through the intricacies of a piobaireachd.” Her half sister, Euphemia was the youngest daughter of Iain Dubh by his second wife. She was a talented piper and married a Skyeman, Malcolm Nicolson. Their son, John was a skilled piper and violinist. Angus MacKay also wrote that the MacCrimmon daughters were able in his absence to superintend the instruction of the students at the college for pipers and that although the bagpipe “appears rather an unfeminine instrument yet in the Highlands women certainly did play, especially after the harp went out of use, and they were sometimes proficient too.” The patronising tone in  that last statement is redolent of a sentiment heard often over the years from some male pipers, i.e. ‘She plays well, for a girl.’

Agnes MacLachlan, born in 1820 or 1821 at Crinan was the sister of piper and composer, John MacLachlan and the wife of piper, composer and pipe maker, Donald MacPhedran. She is known to have composed several pipe tunes but it is not known if she also played.

Moving on a few years we have two ladies of very different backgrounds. Sarah MacPherson was born in 1870 to a famous piping family. Her great-grandfather Peter, grandfather Angus and father Calum Piobair MacPherson were among the top pipers of their day. Six of her brothers were pipers and three of them were Gold Medallists. Her brother, Angus is on record saying, “My sister Sarah could play as well as any of us.”

Elspeth Campbell.

The second lady was Elspeth Campbell, born in 1873. Her father, Lord Archibald Campbell was the son of the 8th Duke of Argyll and Elspeth spent her childhood at Inveraray Castle. Her uncle, the 9th Duke, was married to Princess Louise, daughter of Queen Victoria, so Elspeth would have been familiar with the highest levels of society. Lord Archibald was a great enthusiast for piping and was the founder of the Inveraray Pipe Band in the 1880s. Elspeth shared his interests and became a capable piper who marched on parade with her father’s pipe band and liked to play round the table after dinner like the Pipe Major of a Highland regiment. Lady Elspeth was also a founder member of the Piobaireachd Society in 1902 and the only lady member. She took an active part in the work of the Piobaireachd Society and was the Secretary for a time. She died at Inveraray Castle in 1942 but was immortalised in the pipe march named after her.

Although the solo piping competition system began in 1781, it was almost 200 years before, in 1976, women were allowed to take part on an equal footing with male competitors at the major competitions. Before this, many women did compete at other competitions and in events especially for ladies only. Although there are no records of women competing in the 19th century there is one recorded instance of a woman judging. In the Oban Times report of the Lorn Ossianic Society Games held in Oban in August 1875, the piping judges are listed as Miss MacGregor of Oban, Angus MacDonald, South Morar, Neil Campbell, Glasgow and A. Campbell, King’s Arms Hotel, Oban.

The pipe band competition system started much later, in the 1880s and 90s and when civilian and juvenile bands became more numerous women were able to be involved in bands, too. By the 1930s and 1940s, Ladies’ bands were springing up all over the world. Some women played in male bands if no Ladies’ band was available to them but they were in a minority. Ladies’ bands were allowed to compete against male bands and from 1938 onwards a separate competition for them was held at some of the major competitions.

During the first half of the 20th century several women are known to have played in solo piping competitions, although they were not allowed to enter the major events such as the Argyllshire Gathering and the Northern Meeting.

11-year-old Elizabeth Vipond who led the parade at Cowal in 1923.
11-year-old Elizabeth Vipond who led the parade at Cowal in 1923.

Women playing in solo events in Australia in the early years of the century. On Boxing Day, 1900 the Lismore NSW Caledonian Society Highland Gathering had several solo piping events. The Best Piper, (who has never won a prize) was won by Poppie Windsor with Janet Dargie second, but the papers reported that, “In this event a protest has been entered against the winner.” At the inaugural Gathering of the Clarence River Scottish Society in April 1927, as well as the usual solo contests for adults and juveniles there was a Consolation March and an event for lady pipers in which the winner was Mrs Antonelli (Coraki) and second Miss Ruby Antonelli (Coraki).

Back in Scotland, on August 28, 1910 at the Glenlivet Highland Games, the piping results were given as follows: 1. Daisy Watt, Aberdeen; 2. W. W. Gordon, 3. W. McGilvray. Marches – 1. Daisy Watt; 2. W. McGilvary; 3. W. Gordon.

On September 2, 1910 the Linlithgowshire Gazette reported on the success of Miss Jessie Black: “Further success of local lady piper. We have to report still further progress by our now when known lady piper, Miss Jessie Black. This latest success was attained at a piping contest in connection with the flower show at Larbert on Saturday last, when Jessie carried off the second prize, competing successfully against male pipers, some of whom had no doubt years of experience for her months. Her audience were very enthusiastic about the ‘lady piper,’ and she was loudly cheered on each appearance.”

A newspaper cutting with the heading ‘Lady Pipers’ has survived from 1912. This reads, ‘That the study of pipe music and the manipulations of the bagpipe are no longer to be reckoned male prerogatives was amply proved the other Saturday when no fewer than three young ladies figured in the prize lists in three Highland Gatherings, in open competition with the other sex. These were Miss Christina Mowat, Windygates, Fife, Miss Jessie Black, Winchburgh, and Miss Isa Henderson, Alloa. Probably the best known of the trio is Miss Mowat who is still in her teens. She comes of a piping stock and Highland at that, her family hailing from Caithness, Pipe Major John Mowat was a well-known earlier-day exponent of the cult.

“Christina started about seven years ago learning the rudiments from Pipe Major A. R. MacColl, nephew of the world-renowned Johnnie MacColl of Oban. She competed first at Culross Games in 1907 and had a second prize in the Marches. In 1908 she won the silver medal at Tynecastle Hall, Edinburgh, and a few days later a silver cup at Bowhill, Fife. In the Gaiety Theatre, Glasgow, she was placed third in order of merit from an entry of thirty-four good performers. For two seasons past she has competed at most of the gatherings throughout Fife, Stirling, Clackmannan and Perth. This year, she has been conspicuously successful, and it is noteworthy that she plays a march tune of her own composition, The Slated Cairn.

“At the forthcoming Cowal Gathering, a lady pipers’ championship is to be instituted, and Miss Mowat will make a bold bid for premier honours. Miss Jessie Black is also a young lady of note. She had many successes last season (1911). At Whiterigg Games she had second prize for Strathspey and Reel playing and at Kirkintilloch she was first for reels and second for marches. At Broxburn she had premier honours for marches, strathspey and reel; at Airdrie and again at Tollcross, Edinburgh, she added firsts, and at Larbert, Pollokshaws and Glenbrig, she was placed among the winners. This summer, Miss Black has had six firsts and several seconds in the semi-amateur class and with a little more experience may be relied upon to emphasise her ability to score in any company.

The Cowal Gathering minutes for 1911 do not give much information, stating only, ‘Open Piping for Ladies to be held on Saturday. Dr. Bannatyne Prize to be applied if he consents.’ Dr. Bannatyne was a well known amateur piper and a prominent member of the Scottish Pipers’ and Dancers Union which judged the Cowal composing contest in 1911, the tunes from which made up the second Cowal Collection published in 1912. Dr. Bannatyne is best remembered today for his compositions The Brolum and The Blackbird. The Cowal Gathering of 1912 was the first to be held over two days so extra events could be fitted in to the schedule. Most of the solo piping events were on Friday and the band competitions were on Saturday, but also among the results from the Saturday published in the Glasgow Herald we see, “Bagpipe Playing for Ladies: 1. Miss Annie Bruce, Greenock, 2. Miss Jessie Black, Winchburgh, 3. Miss Bessie Sinclair, Dunoon.”

The Cowal Gathering was not held during the war years 1914 -1918 and when the Gathering resumed in 1919 the minutes state that pipe bands were to be given preference and some of the existing competitions were to be dropped including the Ladies’ competition.

In 1955 the Piper and Dancer Bulletin reported: “There passed away at Victoria Hospital, London, Ontario, this month Mrs Alice Henderson (Alice Galbraith). Born 80 years ago at Bathurst NB the daughter of a Presbyterian minister, she came to London with her family as a girl of ten. She was taught by the late Jimmy Mann, a leading piper and dancer of that time. After competing for some years at the games she took to the stage and played with different stock companies throughout Western Ontario as Alice Dunbar. She had also a large school of Highland dancers.”

Bessie Watson, who was born in Edinburgh in July 1900, began piping at a very early age. Her complete life story was serialised in the Piping Times some years ago and a plaque was unveiled in Edinburgh last August in memory of her. There were other young girl pipers, though. Bessie, aged nine, played in a pageant in 1911 organised by the Women’s Social and Political Union, better known as the Suffragettes. There were about six other girl pipers including May Watson from Leith and Sarah MacDougall and four others all from Broxburn. Bessie was the youngest. In January 1955, a small article in the Piping Times featured Mrs May Hall of Dalkeith who may well have been May Watson before her marriage. Mrs Hall was a widow, aged 68, and had played pipes almost every day for over half a century. Every day she paced up and down her living room, with a light spring step, playing her favourite marches.

In 1914 Bessie met a Miss Mowat, from Windygates in Fife who she described as, “The champion lady piper of Scotland”.

Agnes Wallace, born in Kilsyth, Stirlingshire in 1902, started piping at the age of five and could soon play the miniature bagpipe. In 1911 the family moved to Canada. Agnes continued to play and appeared in shows all over Canada and the USA, including Hollywood and Hawaii. In 1938 she settled in Hawaii where she founded and taught the first Hawaiian pipe band.

Bessie Brown.
Bessie Brown.

Bessie Brown was born in 1903 and started to learn piping secretly when her young brother Bob (R. U. Brown, one of the Bobs of Balmoral) was being taught by William Fraser, a pupil of G. S. MacLennan, who was under keeper at Blackhall Castle in Aberdeenshire. Her father at this time was head keeper at the Castle. Somehow she managed to listen in to the lessons and then practise on her own without being discovered. By the time Bessie had mastered six tunes she let Fraser know that she could play, so he began to teach her as well. After he left the district, Pipe Major Ewing taught her and Bob, Ewing being a pupil of G. S Allan. Together they continued to make good progress, but Bessie was a victim of polio, and although playing the bagpipe in a wheelchair is possible, her achievements were all the more praiseworthy because of the difficulties under which she worked. Her enthusiasm however knew no bounds, and although she could not be a competitor she was a fanatical enthusiast for the local Highland Games and attended every one she could. There she heard the great G. S. MacLennan who made a powerful impression on her, and he with G. S. Allan became frequent visitors at weekends at the Brown household. At the end of World War One she began the teaching career, which was to make up the major part of her life. Her first pupils were Cadets in Banchory Drill Hall, and lots of her youngsters went on to win prizes at the local games and later at Inverness and London. Sometimes she was asked to judge local and juvenile events but she gave that up after a while because she did not have the heart to decide that some young person should not get a prize for his or her efforts.

When the Second War came along she continued with her teaching and at the end of it took on further commitments with the Banchory Boy Scouts. Although all of this work was done for the pure love of piping it did not go entirely unnoticed, because in 1977 the Queen awarded her the British Empire Medal. Few honours can have been more deserved. Many of the foremost pipers of Scotland had visited her cottage and all around the room were photographs of the famous. But Bessie’s lifework was with the young and it was good to know that her pupils never forgot her. Seumas MacNeill said of her that he had never met a happier person and described her as one of the nicest things that had happened to piping in Scotland. In 1987 Bessie was awarded the Balvenie Medal for services to piping. She died in 1992.

Bertha Rait (Arbroath), Georgina Smith (Crail) and H. McBeath (Carnoustie), later Mrs Reta Stewart.

In 1934, Rena Hall was asked about women and piping and said: “The crux of the whole question is physique. For a woman I am exceptionally well endowed physically, but I feel it would be preposterous on my part to contend for honours with male performers. The truth of the matter is that few women are strong enough to become proficient bagpipe players, and even the strongest of us must be at a great disadvantage in a piping contest with men. Bagpipe playing demands a standard of physique which few women possess, and that is why – I admit it readily- my services have been in demand. When I say bagpipes I refer to the full-sized instrument, not the Boys’ Brigade type, which many women can and do play. I believe I was the first woman to play full-sized pipes in public in a professional capacity. I have played to huge audiences in Scotland, England and Wales, and in Spain and Germany. I may add that I had the opportunity of going much further afield with my pipes – to Australia, South Africa, Canada and the USA.”

Some lady competitors at the 1935 Dundee Musical Festival under 18 competition were pictured in the local paper. The ladies taking part were Miss Bertha Rait, Arbroath, Miss Georgina Smith, Crail, and Miss H. McBeath, Carnoustie who was better known in later years as Mrs Reta Stewart, former Pipe Major of the MacLean Ladies’ Band and mother of competing piper Anne Stewart who became Mrs Anne Spalding. Another piper of the 1930s, Miss Lily McMillan was pictured with her brother Cpl. Hugh McMillan at the Strathardle Highland Gathering.

Helen Wilson in 1935.
Helen Wilson in 1935.

At the Clan Games in Boston USA on September 7, 1936 there was a solo competition for men and one for women. In the women’s event the result was: 1. Louise Graham Campbell, 2. Annie Cooper, 3. Gertrude Graham.

At the Scottish Pipers’ Association Amateur/Juvenile Competition in April 1939 the prize for the Best Dressed Piper and Most Correct Juvenile Marcher went to Miss Nan Stevenson from Coatbridge.

Three sisters, Helen, Sadie and Mary Wilson were well known in the 1920s and 30s. They came from a piping family and had several brothers who were army pipers. In his autobiography, John Wilson of Edinburgh and Canada, described Helen as “a darned good player.” This was borne out by the results of many Highland Games at which Helen was a prizewinner. At Sauchie in 1936, Robert Reid won the piobaireachd, with Helen Wilson second. Robert Reid won the Strathspeys and Reels with Owen McNiven second and Helen Wilson and Pipe Major Kerr joint third.

In 1938 John MacDonald of Inverness held a piobaireachd class in Glasgow. The class included Gold Medallists and top solo competitors. The class members were: Pipe Major John MacDonald, Roddy MacDonald, Charles D. Scott, John C. Johnston, Archie MacNab, Angus Campbell, Hugh Kennedy, Hector MacLean, Hugh MacRae and Helen Wilson. Helen must have been quite a player to be included in a class of that calibre. All three sisters had been taught by Pipe Major Hector MacInnes of the Stonehouse Pipe Band.

Edith MacPherson.

Another notable female piper of that era was Edith MacPherson. She began piping at the age of seven and had tuition from John MacDonald of Inverness and Pipe Major William Young. William was uncle of the late Jimmy Young who recalled going to his uncle for a lesson and being told, ‘If I were you I’d put my pipes in the box. I’ve a girl coming who will put you to shame”. Jimmy recalls that Edith was indeed a fine piper. For three successive years she was runner-up for the Dunvegan Medal at Skye Games, she won the piobaireachd at Invergordon Games and the Open Piping Championship at Dornoch. She also held classes in towns around Inverness. In 1961 she was at Fort George twice weekly to train the soldiers for their appearance at the Edinburgh Tattoo. Edith was commemorated in the reel Edith Macpherson and the strathspey Edith Macpherson’s Goat, both composed by Pipe Major William Young.

In 1946 Sheila MacDonald won several prizes at the Scottish Pipers’ Association juvenile competitions, joining such well-known names as John Burgess, Duncan MacFadyen, Willie Connell and John Findlay in the prize lists. Other girl competitors in the late 40s and 1950s included Rona MacDonald, Catherine Campbell, Margaret Wallace, Madge Kelso, Freena MacFadyen, Hazel and Rosemary Currie, Grace Brown and Nettie Davidson.

• Read Part 2.