Albert Johnstone – the first global piping superstar, part 1

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By Jeannie Campbell

Some time ago, I received a letter from Dale Brown with a request for information on an unknown piper from the past. He told me that he had been asked to look at a piece of music found in a pipe box few years previously by a piper from Michigan who had inherited a set of pipes and the old pipe box. The box and contents belong to the chap’s long deceased grandfather in Chicago and among the old sheets of music he found one called Detroit St Andrew’s Society Gathering. [pictured; click on image to enlarge – Editor]. It had evidently been composed in 1924 by an Albert Johnstone.

The tune, a sophisticated four-part competition march was played by Dale subsequently at a Society meeting. At the meeting he also met the person who had inherited the pipes who showed him more music including the march, Walter Sinclair also by Albert Johnstone. This tune was dated 1911. These two compositions indicate to Dale that the composer had to be a very accomplished player. His suspicion was that Albert must have been a Scottish immigrant who came to the US or Canada in the early 1900s.

Clearly, there wasn’t much for me to go on but during recent research for my forthcoming book on the history of pipe bands, I had come across this name. There was an Albert Johnstone who was Pipe Major of the Kirkcaldy Pipe Band in 1895. If this was the same man I had a starting point with a date and place. Further research followed and gradually the full amazing story of this early globe-trotting superstar emerged.

Albert Johnstone was born on February 16, 1864 at Lochee in Dundee, Scotland. His father, George, was a blacksmith, born at Guthrie in Forfarshire in 1827. He had learned his trade and had been employed as a journeyman blacksmith 15 miles away at Glamis in Angus. George married Helen Millar on April 3, 1852 in the parish of Liff, Benvie and Invergowrie. In 1861 George and Helen lived at Galts Land, Liff, Forfarshire with their sons George (10) and James (5). Another child, Helen, was born soon afterwards Albert followed her. In 1871, when Albert was aged seven, the family lived at 22 South Church Street in Dundee. All four children were still living at home. In 1881 Albert, now aged 16, was living at 204 Lochee Road in the parish of Liff and Benvie in the county of Angus with his parents and 19-year-old sister, Helen. Liff is just north of Dundee but the parish included parts of the city. Albert worked as a Jeweller’s Apprentice.

Albert photographed in 1904.

At this time there were two pipe bands in Dundee, the Dundee Volunteers led by Donald Bain and the Dundee Highland Pipe Band led by John Stewart, who was also a piper with the Volunteers and who took over as Pipe Major after the death of Donald Bain in 1895. John Stewart’s sister was the mother of Pipe Major George S. McLennan. Albert may have played with either or both of these bands. John Stewart was known to have taught many young pipers in Dundee and Albert Johnstone may have been one of his pupils.

From 1884 until 1894 Albert won many prizes for piping and dancing. Although he was perhaps not one of the great pipers he did win some good prizes and competed alongside some of the top players of the time. For example, in July 1884 at Leven Games the result of the piping competition was:

1. William McLennan (Edinburgh); 2. John MacColl (Oban); 3. Albert Johnstone (Dundee). The following month, at Glen Isla Games, John MacColl was first for both Marches and Strathspeys and Reels but Albert Johnstone was second for Strathspeys and Reels. In the dancing events John MacColl took first for Highland Fling, Highland Reel and Reel of Tulloch, and second for the Sword Dance with Albert Johnstone was third for Fling, Highland Reel and Reel of Tulloch. Other highland games results from that year and subsequent years show Albert in the prizes regularly in both the piping and the dancing competitions.

The Exposition Universelle in Paris, held in 1889, was an event that commemorated the 100th anniversary of the Storming of the Bastille and featured the official inauguration of the Eiffel Tower. David White, a Stirling solicitor known as ‘Colonel White,’ was involved in organising a Highland Gathering in October as part of the Exhibition and took a team of 300 competitors from Scotland to Paris. In addition to the solo competitions, the pipers were used to lead the other competitors on parades through the street and to play together to lead guests and officials around the field. The Queen’s piper, William Ross also attended the gathering. Albert Johnstone and David Anderson from Dundee were among the 21 entries for the Highland Fling. Albert was also one of 16 competitors in the piping events. The results were:

Piobaireachd – 1. Angus MacRae (Colonel White’s piper); 2. William M’Lennan; 3. J. MacPherson (Badenoch).
Marches – 1. A. Gillies (Aberdeen); 2. Albert Johnstone; 3. John Wilson (Callander).
Highland Fling – 1. William M’Lennan; 2. John M’Neill (Edinburgh); 3. J. Norman M’Leod, (Kirkcaldy).
Sean Truibhas – 1. J. M’Neill Jnr. (Edinburgh); 2. J. M’Kenzie (Edinburgh); 3. W. M’Lennan.
Ghillie Callum – 1. Angus MacRae; 2. John M’Coll; 3. J. M’Kenzie.

At that year’s Northern Meeting, Albert did not feature in the piping events but was placed third for dancing the Sword Dance and first for Strathspeys and Reels.

Throughout the subsequent years, Albert Johnstone continued his good competitive record around Scotland’s highland games in the piping and the dancing events. In March 1891 there was a newspaper report on his dancing prowess where, at the Dundee Highlanders Ball, he “executed the Seann Truibhas in his usual faultless manner.”

Albert’s adverts for his dance classes from the Dundee Courier in October 12, 1891.

In August that year, advertisements for his classes and assemblies began to appear regularly in the Dundee Courier newspaper. In September, he inaugurated his classes with a Grand Oriental Dress Assembly in Buchan’s Hall where upwards of 400 people were present. In the 1891 Scotland Census, his occupation was now Teacher of Dancing. He was still living with his parents and sister Ellen but at 143 Lochee Road.

Albert continued to compete around the games and he was by now increasingly asked to judge dancing competitions. His classes remained popular and from 1891 onwards they expanded, firstly to Kirkcaldy in Fife then, from 1895, with classes in Edinburgh and in Dysart (Fife).

Advert placed in London’s The Era on December 17, 1898.

Albert was soon asked to tour with his best dancers, called the Johnstone Troupe. In a newspaper report from May 1896, he is described as, “the champion piper and dancer of Scotland”. Albert and his troupe headed a bill at the Empire Theatre in Barrow-in Furness, England. In July, the Theatre Royal in Peterborough, advertised a show from August onwards and in October at the Theatre Royal in Croydon a report of the show stated: “The Johnstone Troupe of Characteristic dancers appeared for the first time in Croydon and very quickly danced themselves into favour.”

In January 1897, a Fife newspaper paper stated: “Another popular turn is Albert Johnstone and his world renowned troupe of Characteristic Dancers. Miss Cissy Grant and Mr Albert Johnstone have now won a name all over three Kingdoms.” Clearly, the popularity of Albert and his troupe was spreading.

In April 1898, the Belfast Newsletter reported that the, “Clan Johnstone Troupe, assisted by Albert Johnstone, the renowned Scotch piper”, were on the bill at the city’s Alhambra. Interestingly, in June, the London newspaper, The Era reported that, “Mr R. Marshall Rhodes has engaged the services of the Clan Johnstone Troupe of international pipers and dancers, including Albert Johnstone, who defeated Piper Findlater for the Queen’s Medal.” In September, Albert and the troupe toured Germany and Austria before returning to London. Throughout 1899 and 1900, advertising and theatre reports of the troupe’s appearances at various London Theatres continued. After Piper Findlater’s exploits at Dargai several articles reported that Albert would give a “capital rendering” of Cock of the North during the Troupe’s performance.

In 1901 Albert and the troupe were in London at the time when the Census was taken (on the night of March 31). They were lodging in London Road, Southwark where their occupation was given as “Music Hall Artiste Act”.

After their successes in London, the troupe toured North America where they came to the attention of Thomas P. J. Power, a hotel owner in Belleville, Ontario. It was Power who in 1900 had first conceived the idea of forming a local band and probably at that time did not expect the group’s meteoric rise to world fame. The group was the Belleville Kilties and The Clan Johnstone troupe agreed to join the band. (The Kilties recording of The Maple Leaf Forever in 1902 was the first musical recording by an ensemble in Canada.)

Thousands of glowing newspaper reports from around the world would appear over the next few years.

A photograph of the Johnstone troupe that appeared in the Evening Post of October 3, 1904. By now the troupe was part of the Canadian Belleville Kilties group.

Power and his Kilties undertook their first tour of the British Isles in 1904. One of their first engagements on this tour would be at Balmoral, where the Kilties played before King Edward VII. This reputation earned them many more opportunities to perform in front of other royalties of the world as the tour progressed. The tour itself was the first of 16 tours across the world that took place between 1904 and 1930 and took its members nearly half a million miles across 20 countries spending 110 days crossing oceans, performing in the largest coliseums, music halls and theatres. Wherever they went, large and enthusiastic audiences greeted them.

The band’s popularity soared, branded by the press and the public as one of the world’s greatest concert organisations. The Kilties were a brass band, composed of 40 members who wore striking kilts and featured a trained choir of 16 voices as well as Albert Johnstone’s dancing and piping specialists.

• Part 2 continues tomorrow.