In September 1987 the Piping Times began a series called ‘Famous pipers’. Bessie Brown was the first piper to feature. The following month, at that year’s Glenfiddich, Bessie was awarded the Balvenie Medal for services to piping. She died in 1992. Below, we reproduce Seumas’ feature on Bessie.
By Seumas MacNeill
Throughout the piping world there are many people who, without winning the magic and glory that goes with top prizes, nevertheless do a tremendous service to the art through their unselfish devotion to teaching or administration. It is not too much to say that these people are the backbone of the whole piping scene, for although their fame many be limited and local in many cases, the work they do is more important than that of those whose only aim is to win prizes. One such person is Bessie Brown [pictured], although it can hardly be said that her fame is only local nowadays. Throughout the world her efforts on behalf of young people have been widely acclaimed, and it is only right that she should be the first person in our new ‘Famous Pipers’ series. Robert U. Brown has been a name in piping households for many decades, ever since he shot to fame as a premier competing piper in the 1930s. It has taken a little longer for his sister’s contribution to piping to be recognised, but in many ways her life and her example have been just as valuable as that of her famous brother.
Bessie Brown was born in 1903 [in Strachan near Banchory] and started to learn piping secretly when her young brother, Bob was being taught by William Fraser, underkeeper at Blackhall Castle in Aberdeenshire. Her father at this time was head keeper at the castle and somehow she managed to listen to the lessons and then practice on her own without being discovered. ‘‘Hasten slowly,” was the watchword in these days and she remembers that Bob (and therefore she herself) was kept on notes and exercises only, for the first year. [Bessie’s three uncles were also pipers – Editor].
William Fraser was a pupil of G. S. MacLennan and a relative of Dr. William Fraser of Aberdeen, who was himself a noted player and a judge of piping at Aboyne and Lonach. 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 [aged six], 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 to the Brown household.
At the end of World War I she began the teaching career that to this very day makes 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.
In 1920 she went to Aboyne Games for the first time and has never missed a gathering since then. She remembers that the best players she heard in the 20s and 30s were Robert Reid, Malcolm MacPherson, John Wilson, J. B. Robertson, Peter Bain, Charlie Scott, Pipe Major Greenfield, C. H. Smith, George Cruickshank and, of course, Bob Nicol and her own brother Bob. Sometimes she was called on 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.
Bessie has achieved world renown, in another field, not entirely divorced from piping. She is one of the best at tying fishing flies in the country and her exquisite lures are eagerly sought after by salmon fishers everywhere. [Bessie began tying salmon flies when she was only 13 – Editor].
She lives alone in her cottage on the outskirts of Banchory and although she has a host of neighbours and friends eager to help, she can look after herself and her house very well, thank you. There can be few ladies of 84 years of age confined to a wheelchair but still able to set and light her coal fire every morning.
Banchory, like so many Highland towns, has grown a great deal in recent years, so when James L. MacKenzie and I went with Hugh MacDonald of the B.B.C. to record an interview with Bessie we were not too surprised when the people in the main street did not know where Lochton Road (where Bessie lives) was. But when we asked where Bessie Brown stayed everybody was able to inform us immediately.
It is good to think that so many of the foremost pipers of Scotland have made their way to this lovely little cottage set in beautiful surroundings. All around the room are photographs of the famous, but Bessie’s lifework has been with the young ones before they achieved fame and fortune, and this being a moral universe it is inspiring to know that they have never forgotten her.
I can safely say that I have never met a happier person in all my life. Seeing her meeting James L. MacKenzie (their birthdays are in the same week but two years apart) was an added bonus. She wrote later, “Such a nice chap and a lovely dancer — always my favourite.”
Bessie is one of the nicest things that has happened to piping in Scotland.
• From the September 1987 Piping Times.