By Jeannie Campbell MBE
At a piping competition in the early 1950s, Catriona Campbell (now Catriona Garbutt), was awarded third prize, playing against male competitors. She was pictured, below, with the judge, Seumas MacNeill. It is interesting to note that in the days before the advent of the Ladies’ pipe bands most of these women pipers are pictured wearing a tartan skirt with dark stockings.
The subject of dress and whether ladies should play at all has caused controversy over the years. In 1938 Thomas Reid, a member of the Canadian parliament, wrote that “… although women may become efficient mistresses of the bagpipes, in so doing they are losing their natural feminine charm. Most women pipers looked knocked out of shape, their bodies acquiring an unnatural twist from strenuous blowing. Men are preserving tradition by playing the pipes and wearing kilts. Women should do their part by wearing their original dress of Tam O’Shanter, blouse and plaid skirt, and leave the costume of kilt, sporran, dirk and plaid to the Highland lad. The bone of contention regarding the right of women pipers to compete with men arises mainly from the Scottish lass usurping the male attire and the fact that in mixed contests chivalry is displayed by judges in slight favouritism toward women pipers. Pipers generally are jealous musicians. They feel keenly when out-classed by another piper and it is not soothing to their pride to take a back seat to a woman.”
In 1969, F. C. MacColl Botly wrote to the Piping Times. He had been in charge of various piping competitions in the south of England for over 16 years and had always barred female pipers and mixed bands. He described this as a pro-feminine decision because, “female fingers and musical intuition is quite different from that of men, unless the woman is really masculine, or trying to be. The woman player is inclined to be far more correct in her fingering, more delicate, more accurate, plays according to the book. The male approach to music is, or should be, different. He has fists and fingers and a masculine mind. Women pipers can, in their own field, be quite competent and a pleasure to listen to, but there is no common ground with men. To try to equate the two in a so-called competition is a lowering of standards and a reflection upon the judge’s knowledge and competence.
“At the moment women pipers and drummers are encouraged to dress as men, to ape men, to take the micky. In fact they only make themselves ridiculous and bring contempt upon a noble tradition. It is no good for Scotland to tolerate this farce and then to complain about her music hall tartan image. It is the public responsibility of competition and games organisers to so direct their own ethical standards that women are encouraged to become ladies, and men, gentlemen. This is what happened to a large degree in the South. The same result could occur in Scotland, under proper leadership.”
Many letters in support of lady pipers followed and probably this directive from the south encouraged Scottish promoters to allow ladies to compete in their events. Mr Botly had one supporter, another Londoner, who wrote, “The reason that many competitions are for males only is because it is a man’s instrument although hundreds of women play it, some far better than I ever shall. But it is like a woman smoking a pipe; it just does not look right. Perhaps you can imagine what an old woman would look like playing the pipes? I hate to see women wearing travesty of the man’s dress, e.g. kilts, sporrans, spats etc. Aboyne will not allow it and I hope that other gatherings will follow suit. Women, when looking like women are wonderful, but laughable when imitating a man. How much nicer she looks when looking like a real woman should.” Elyn MacRae Cheney from New York, USA wrote that she was puzzled by what was going on in Scotland where constantly one came across ‘Men only’ in competition rules as no such discrimination was practised in the United States.
On the subject of the dress of female pipers, Seumas MacNeill wrote in the Piping Times in 1957: “Regarding the contention that girls appear in male attire at piping competitions, surely this is the fault of the organisers of contests, who stipulate the dress to be worn by competitors. Most girls, I am sure, would prefer to look their best in a properly tailored skirt, and it might be an idea to have Ladies’ bands so attired at future competitions. Perhaps the SPBA [Scottish Pipe Band Association] could take the bold step here.”
When the College of Piping was founded in 1944 one member of the Executive Committee was against the admission of girls but he was soon overruled. At first, the girls were taught on a separate evening from the boys but when the move to larger premises with better facilities had been made the boys and girls were taught in mixed classes and several girls became members of the College juvenile band. The 1950 intake of 112 pupils included 21 girls. Among the early girl pupils were Hazel and Rosemary Currie, Margaret MacDonald, Mattie Terris, Margaret Wallace, Grace Brown, Iris Kirkham, Pat Cameron, Irene Gilmour and Freena MacFadyen and two Australian girls, Beryl Thompson and Barbara Laycock.
A number of Rose Fletcher’s girls from Manchester were pupils of the College. Rose was born in 1916 in Lancashire and began piping aged 15. She became involved in pipe bands and started her own band, the Rose Fletcher Ladies. From the 1940s she was involved with the College, having instructors travel to Manchester to teach, and sending a group of girls to the summer schools each year.
Rose’s eldest daughter, Pauline was an excellent piper and won many juvenile prizes in England and Scotland. Another of Rose’s girls, Annie Thacker, now Mrs Annie Grant settled in Dunoon and became Pipe Major of Dunoon Grammar School Pipe Band and the schools’ piping instructor for the area – see below. In 2001 Rose was awarded the Balvenie Medal for services to piping. She died, aged 94, in 2011.
In 1957 a photograph appeared in the UK press of a young lady tuning up at a band contest. It provoked a spate of uncomplimentary comments on female pipers. An English correspondent wrote that playing the bagpipe made women look ugly and should be deprecated but most of them became tired of it on reaching maturity when it was hoped they would regain their feminine elegance. “Arms too short to go round the bag, head cocked on one side, left shoulder at 45˚, and the blowpipe rammed into the throat. No wonder the result is an ear splitting din so unique as to be indescribable. No wonder the simple Englishman looks on with bewilderment and awe and grudges not one penny of the amount he has paid to see this parody of a pipe band. Many a phoney has got away with gulling an easily gullible public, but the girls’ pipe band has no superior in this so-called form of entertainment.”
Following this, Heather MacKenzie, Pipe Major of the Nova Scotia Gaelic College Pipe Band, was featured in the Piping Times. Seumas MacNeill wrote that to mention lady pipers was a sure way to stir up trouble but that Heather was a better piper than nine out of ten of the die-hards who were always ready to snort their disapproval. Heather was of Highland stock, two of her grandparents being MacKenzies and one a MacKay. Seumas had taught a lot of girls and listed Heather MacKenzie of Canada, Freena MacFadyen and Hazel Currie of Glasgow and Pauline Mellor of Manchester as the four best in the world. Other talented girls in Nova Scotia were Frances MacLeod, Emily Murphy, Linda Hickman, Bunny MacLeod and Marjorie MacDonald.
At the Cowal Games in 1960 Annie Thacker and her twin sister, Lillie were the only female pipers in the Cowal open solo events. From 1961 to 1966 Annie was the only female competitor, and therefore the only female prizewinner. Annie, who became Mrs Annie Grant, had originally learned piping with Rose Fletcher pipe band in Manchester – see above. She settled in Dunoon and became Pipe Major of Dunoon Grammar School Pipe Band and the schools’ piping instructor for the area. Annie has tutored the advanced course of the RSPBA and became the first female judge on the RSPBA panel. She was awarded the Balvenie Medal for services to piping in 2005.
Rona MacDonald was born into a South Uist piping family. Her relatives included Pipe Major John MacDonald and Roderick MacDonald of the Glasgow Police. Her father, Archie and all her brothers were pipers. Her mother’s brother, Angus Campbell, taught her piping. Rona’s great aunt Kirsty, who had gone to New Zealand in the late 19th century, was said to play a good tune.
In August 1949 Rona won the juvenile chanter competition at South Uist Games and came third in the Juvenile piping. In February 1950, aged 13 she competed at the College of Piping Amateur Championship in Glasgow. In later years she won the piobaireachd contest at South Uist and so was eligible to play in the Bratach Gorm at the London contest, but was not allowed to play for the Gold Medal at Oban or Inverness. Seumas MacNeill wrote in 1971, “The mind boggles at the injustice here. Any man or youth, decrepit or immature, no matter how awful a piper, no matter how ghastly an instrument, be he Scot, Irish, Breton, Canadian, New Zealander, Bantu or Hottentot, may compete for the coveted gold medals. But a Highland lassie, a MacDonald of Clanranald, full of Gaelic language and Celtic culture, trained in the purest piping traditions, is not allowed to be heard. If this cannot be put right then we truly labour in vain.” Rona became Mrs Lightfoot and in 2010 was awarded the Balvenie Medal for services to piping.
Seumas wrote another scathing editorial on the same subject in November 1972 after two Canadians came to Scotland to take part in the major piping competitions that year. One of these young Canadians was a woman, however, and was not allowed to compete at Oban and Inverness.
Women were allowed to play at other professional solo competitions such as the Scottish Pipers’ Association and the Uist and Barra. Competitors at these events in the 1970s included Jennifer Hutcheon, Anne Sinclair (later Mrs Johnston), Patricia Innes (later Mrs Henderson), and Anne Stewart (later Mrs Spalding). By the late 1970s and early 1980s they had been joined by Anne Marie MacLellan, Catherine MacInnes, Mary MacNeill, Annie Grant, Christine MacNeill, Fiona Anderson, Elaine Marnoch, Janice Milne, Amy Goble (Garson), Ann MacKay and others. Patricia Innes, from Aberdeen, began her piping career aged nine. She played with Bon Accord and Deeside Ladies and won many solo prizes. In 1976 she married a fellow competitor, young New Zealander Murray Henderson.
Anne Sinclair came from a Tiree family of pipers. She played with British Caledonian Airways in the 1970s and was pictured on the cover of their 1976 LP, but had to leave the band when a new Pipe Major took over in 1977. She married drummer Tommy Johnston and is the mother of 2019 Glenfiddich champion, Finlay Johnston.
Elaine C. Marnoch from Aberdeen won the Scottish Ladies’ Championship at St Andrews in 1975. As a student nurse she joined the Aberdeen University O.T.C. Pipe Band and became not only the first girl to play at the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo (REMT) – in 1977 – but also the first girl to appear as the lone piper on the ramparts of Edinburgh Castle. She died in 2017 aged only 58. In 2016 Lance Bombadier Megan Beveridge, 19th Regiment Royal Artillery, became the first female regular army piper to appear as the lone piper at the REMT. Megan, from Fife, also gained the distinction of being the first female and the youngest piper to pass the Army Pipe Major’s course.
In 1974 the Cowal programme wording was at last changed from ‘confined to boys’ to ‘confined to boys and girls’ and there were seven girls in the juvenile events, but only Jane McLachlan from Canada in the open solos. In 1975 there were six girls in the juvenile piping events and two in the open piping, Lezlie Campbell-Paterson from Canada and Annie Grant.
The breakthrough came in 1976 when the sex discrimination law came in to force. It was announced in April that year that the Argyllshire Gathering at Oban and the Northern Meeting at Inverness would accept ladies for the Gold Medal competitions.
This was the first year that any piper who wished could play at Oban and Inverness. It was also the last. The problem now was numbers, with 43 entries for the Gold at Oban and 56 entries for the same event at Inverness in 1976. A Silver medal competition was introduced at Inverness in 1977 and at Oban in 1978 when entry to the Gold was restricted to those who had won a prize other than first in a previous gold medal competition.
The first ladies to win prizes at Oban in 1976 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. In 1977 Kathleen Paterson, Catherine MacInnes and Laura Stewart featured in the local prizes.
Anne Stewart and Patricia Innes played in the Gold at the Argyllshire Gathering in 1976 and were joined by Rona MacDonald in the Gold Medal event at the Northern Meeting. They were excluded again in 1977 as the rule had been changed to restrict entries to those who had won a prize other than first in previous Gold Medal competitions. However, they were now able to play in the Silver Medal in order to qualify for a place in the Gold. The first Silver Medal competition was held at the Northern Meeting in 1977 and the following year the Argyllshire Gathering followed suit.
Patricia Henderson’s (formerly Innes) third place in the Silver in 1977 qualified her to play in the Gold Medal competitions in 1978, in which she won fourth prize at the Northern Meeting in 1978 and fifth in 1979, becoming the first female piper to win a prize at this level, although others soon followed.
Also in 1977 three young girls from the USA, Laurel Anne Harrison and sisters Luanne and Mary Alward competed at the Northern Meeting. Anne Stewart was fifth in the Silver Medal at Oban in 1978. In 1979 Anne Marie MacLellan took third place in the under 18 MSR at the Northern Meeting, joining two soon-to-be famous names in the prize list, Alasdair Gillies in first place and Gordon Duncan in second. Anne Sinclair won the Inverness Silver Medal in 1980, becoming the first female winner, and was soon followed by Amy Goble who won in 1981. In 1982 Anne Sinclair was placed third in the Gold Medal and Amy Goble fifth.
Other competitors at Oban and Inverness during the 1980s included Catherine MacInnes, Anne Marie MacLellan, Kathleen Paterson, Connie Burke, Alison Palmer, Alison Stewart, Lezlie Paterson Jones, Joyce MacFarlane, Anne MacKay, Kim Greely, Nancy Crutcher, Cheryl Taylor, Moira Morrison, Darleen Miharija, Anne MacKenzie, Alison Campbell and Fiona Fraser.
In 1988 Amy Garson became the first woman to play at the Glenfiddich, qualifying by being the overall champion at the Colonial Highland Gathering, Fairhill, Maryland.
Competitors at Oban and Inverness from the 1990s to date include Amy Garson, Moira Morrison, Alison Campbell, Anne Spalding (awarded the Balvenie Medal for services to piping in 2019), Mary Ann MacKinnon, Glenna MacKay, Marion McVean (later Horsburgh), Ann Gray, Carol Ann MacKay, Jeanie Hawes, Yvonne MacKenzie, Paula Glendinning, Louise Hay, Maureen Connor, Jenny Hazzard, Fiona MacKay, Shirley MacKay, Pamela Smith, Margaret Houlihan, Fiona Manson, Erin McCarthy, Lisa Morrison, Jean Morrison, Clare Lynas, Alison Dunsire and Andrea Boyd.
Mary Ann MacKinnon has enjoyed considerable success in at Oban and Inverness, including a first in the B Grade Strathspey & Reel (1990). Mary Ann also played with the Vale of Atholl band and has composed many tunes, some of which have been played by bands at the top level.
Female success in piobaireachd has continued at Silver level, with Marion McVean (later Horsburgh) winning in 1993 at Oban, while at the Northern Meeting, Darleen Miharija won in 1987 with Alison Campbell in second place. Moira Morrison won in 1990, Jenny Hazzard in 1999, and Fiona Manson in 2002.
Other light music successes at the Northern Meeting have included Jeanie Hawes’ first in the B Grade Strathspey & Reel in 1997 and Ann Gray’s first in the B Grade March in 2000, while at Oban, Margaret Houlihan won the A Grade Strathspey & Reel in 2003 and Andrea Boyd’s won both the B Grade March and the B Grade Strathspey & Reel in 2006.
Margaret Houlihan’s first place in the A Grade Strathspey & Reel in 2003 would have qualified her for the Former Winners in previous years, making her the first female to qualify for this event but under new rules that year it was now necessary to win both the march and the strathspey and reel in order to qualify. This rule was changed the following year.
30 years after the ban was lifted, a second generation was enjoying success at the Northern Meeting, where in 2006 Finlay Johnston, son of Anne Sinclair, won the Silver Medal and Faye Henderson daughter of Patricia Innes, won the junior piobaireachd. Anne and Patricia may have given up their chance of Gold Medals as they stopped competing to raise families but they have raised a new generation of prize winners. Finlay Johnston went on to win Gold Medals in 2012 and 2015, and Faye Henderson won Gold in 2010.
In 2007 at the Northern Meeting, Margaret Houlihan won the Silver Medal and Faye Henderson won the Junior Piobaireachd with Ashleigh Bell in second place. At the Argyllshire Gathering in 2007 Faye Henderson won the MacGregor Memorial Piobaireachd which entitles the winner to entry in the Silver Medal the following year. Marion Horsburgh was third in the Gold Medal and Margaret Dunn third in the Silver Medal. In the light music, Margaret won the A Grade March. In 2008 Ashleigh Bell won the MacGregor Memorial, Andrea Boyd won the Silver Medal.
In 2010 Faye Henderson reached the highest level by winning the SPA Piobaireachd in April and went on to win the Gold Medal at the Argyllshire Gathering in August, becoming the first woman to do so.
Since this article was first written, the last male dominated bastion, the Judges’ Bench, has been breached, as Patricia Henderson, Rona Lightfoot and Anne Johnston are now on the Solo Piping Judges’ Association’s List of Adjudicators.