The Highland Gathering in Paris, 1889


By Jeannie Campbell

The Exposition Universelle was an event held in Paris in 1889 that commemorated the 100th anniversary of the Storming of the Bastille and featured the debut of the Eiffel Tower. Three similar events had been held in the decades before this one. It ran from May to November that year and a highland games was featured from October 17-20 – which apparently inspired Baron Pierre de Coubertin in his revival of the Olympic Games.

 I mentioned the Paris Gathering briefly in my article on Albert Johnstone – ‘Albert Johnstone – the first global piping superstar’. The games took Paris by storm and some of Scotland’s leading pipers took part in the piping competitions. However, the games ended up financially ruining one of the promoters. Further, it would seem that Elvis Presley’s manager wasn’t the only showbiz personality who pretended to be a Colonel …

The full story of the Paris Highland Gathering can be followed in newspaper reports from the Dundee Courier, Aberdeen Journal, Glasgow Herald, Pall Mall Gazette and others. The idea of the gathering originated with two members of the Strathallan Games Committee, David White, Stirling, and Robert Dow, Bridge of Allan. White was a Stirling solicitor and well known in Glasgow. I am not aware of the existence of any photographs of the Paris Gathering.

This first reports, on October 13, 1889, mention “about 70 Highlanders” who had arrived in the city ahead of the event. Several members of the British Embassy and consular staff were amongst the invited guests. The programme was only a forerunner of the three “monster performances” to be given at Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Camp at Neuilly, west of Paris, over subsequent days and consisted of racing, high leaping, throwing the heavy hammer, tossing the caber, wrestling and dancing. One report stated: “Colonel White, the organiser of the gathering, will arrive on Tuesday with 300 [more] Highlanders. The men marched with bagpipes playing to the Scotch Kirk in the Rue Bayard today.” There has been a Scottish church in the French capital since 1858. It was certainly a busy week for David White as he had married his fiancée, a Miss Ritchie, on the 14th!

A contemporary postcard showing a panoramic view of the Paris Gathering.

A considerable number of the Highlanders assembled at the Tour de Nesle on October 14 and marched to church on Sunday in processional array. The parade was purely voluntary and all who chose to absent themselves were entirely at liberty to do so. Permission could not be obtained to play the bagpipes in the streets. The procession was headed by a couple of carriages containing amongst other gentlemen, Robert Dow and Archibald Campbell. Both wore Highland costume.

On Monday 16, the main body arrived at Euston Station, London before embarking for Paris. ‘Colonel’ White and others met them on their arrival. After a brief interval the men of the Glasgow Police formed themselves in order, and, headed by a couple of pipers, marched out of the station, making their way to Charing Cross Station for Paris. A representative of the Pall Mall Gazette had a few minutes’ chat with a Captain MacIntosh, the gentleman responsible for the safe conduct of the party. MacIntosh told the reporter that 10,000 enthusiastic admirers had invaded the platform of Central Station in Glasgow prior to the departure of the party. He said that ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody’s Wild West Show that was to be a feature of the Gathering would form a team from to try their skill and strength at a tug of war contest with a Scottish team. The Scottish team seemingly consisted of 25 Glasgow policemen whose average height was six feet two inches, and whose average weight was 16 stone.

The French, wrote one newspaper correspondent, on the subject of the Gathering, have a strong leaning towards the Scottish people, and have a decided favour for the tartan. “The Highland costume is itself a subject of endless wonder and admiration,” the reporter states. “With the ladies especially the Highlanders find immediate and even demonstrative favour. They are admired both for their beaux yeux and their picturesque attire. Fifty times a day they are told by impressionable Parisians how beautiful they are, a compliment which unless a friendly interpreter happens to be at hand, seldom receives the acknowledgment it merits. The ladies are very inquisitive too on little matters of detail, such as the number of yards required to make a kilt, the uses and functions of the philabeg, the names of the different tartans, and the value of cairngorms. The dirks which the Highlanders carry and the numerous medals with which many of them are bedecked are also subjects of great interest and curiosity. Scotland is getting the fashion in Paris this winter. Scottish tartans, it is decreed, are to be the rage for ladies’ dresses. Already the Black Watch and other favourite tartans have made their appearance on the boulevards in the form of fashionable costumes, and the wins of the leading shops are full of woollen and silken goods of this class.”

John MacColl and John – Jockan – MacPherson, two of the well known pipers of the period who participated in David White’s Paris Gathering.

Another report stated: “Although a kilted Highlander is now a common sight on the streets near the Exhibition, the people exhibit greater curiosity and astonishment than if they were Heathen Chinee or Arab. In this respect they are rather rude. Men and women alike stand and stare, while the cabbies neglect their occupation in order that they may have a good view from their exalted position. When passing a café the occupants generally rush to the door; and when walking along the Avenue Rapp the vice-president of the Glasgow Perthshire Association underwent a most minute inspection at the hands of a tobacconist, whose curiosity exceeded discretion.”

The Gathering commenced on Tuesday 17. One newspaper reported stated: “Great animation prevailed at the Tour de Nesle, in Paris, where the clans assembled … There was a large attendance of the public on Wednesday afternoon while the exercises were in progress, and the various feats of strength were hailed by both French and British spectators with enthusiastic plaudits. Colonel White, attired in a Highland costume somewhat resembling that of the Gordon Highlanders, was in command. Mr R. Dow, president of the Gathering, and Mr Ross, the Queen’s own piper [William Ross – Editor], also wore the kilt, and, of course, the pipers and the majority of the Highlanders present were dressed in the same picturesque garb. Music was supplied alternately by the pipers and by an excellent band of military music, which has been organised for the occasion by Mr V M’Gowan, Edinburgh. The weather, though showery in the morning, cleared up in the course of the afternoon, and was in every way favourable for out-of-door sports. … 21 competitors have entered for the Highland Fling, 16 for marches on the bagpipes, nine for wrestling in the Cumberland style and 13 for the Scottish style.”

A sketch that appeared in London’s The Graphic on October 26, 1889.

On the day the weather was excellent, but the attendance, though fair, by no means evinced any extraordinary desire on the part of the Parisians to behold the feats of the “sturdy Caledonians”. In the tug of war, the Glasgow Police team beat an American team with ease.

The results from the piping competitions, which reveal the presence of some of the leading pipers of the day, were:

Ceòl Mòr –1. Angus MacRae (White’s piper); 2. William McLennan, Edinburgh; 3. John MacPherson, Badenoch.
Marches (confined to pipers of Army, Reserve, and Police Forces of Great Britain) – 1. A. Gillies, Aberdeen; 2. Albert Johnstone, Dundee; 3. J. Wilson, Callander.
Marches (Open). 1. John MacColl, Oban; 2. William McLennan; 3. Angus MacRae.

William McLennan.

It is not known who the judges were. Cash prizes were awarded to all the winners, e.g. in the ceòl mòr, first prize was 10 guineas, second, five guineas and third, two guineas.

On the 19th, at the ‘Wild West’ quarters, an audience of some 2,000 persons welcomed them, and when the pipers marched round the arena the cheering was tremendous. Even Buffalo Bill’s Red Indians, who are not easily roused to enthusiasm, were delighted and expressed their satisfaction in grunts and yells. “The bagpipe appears to be as popular with the Cherokees as it is with the natives of Lochaber,” wrote one reporter, “but I fancy that the Parisian is not so greatly enamoured of it, for there were a good many expressions of impatience with the frequency and length of the pibroch playing. Perhaps, like the character in Gilbert’s ballad, they were ready to exclaim –

‘If you really must play on that cursed affair,
‘For God’s sake play something resembling an air.’”

“At all events, they took less interest in the pipe competitions than in the running, wrestling and dancing. The sports were thoroughly good, and the feats achieved by some of the Highlanders astounded the Parisians, as did also the agility of the pole-vaulters. An accident happened to one of the latter when at the greatest height, Arthur Borland’s pole broke, and he fell head foremost, as it appeared, to the ground. For several minutes he remained stunned; but he soon recovered, drank a glass of whisky and then continued the competition.” Borland was not a Highlander; he was from Kilbarchan in Renfrewshire.

The tug of war contest – between eight of the Highlanders against 12 of Buffalo Bill’s men – ended in the Americans being “pulled over with comparative ease.” In piping and dancing, William McLennan, two MacNeills, John MacColl, a MacLeod from Kirkcaldy, a Chisholm from Kingussie, Peter Henderson of Glasgow and John – ‘Jockan’ – MacPherson of Badenoch took part.

Tossing the caber – or “exercise with a tree,” as a French translation had it – rather astonished the Gallic spectators, and the Red Indians grunted their admiration as loudly as they had done in the case of the pibroch playing. The difficulty that three men had in carrying the caber laterally, and the ease with which one sent it head over heels perpendicularly were a sore puzzle to those who had not previously seen this feat of strength and skill.

‘Colonel’ White was reportedly highly pleased with how the event had gone. The 400 Scotsmen left Paris on the Sunday night, the 21st, and arrived in London early the next day cheered by large crowds. To the music of the pipes they marched through the streets. White told a reporter that although he was pleased with the success of the adventure, it “will not turn out satisfactorily from a financial point of view. This he attributed to the terror struck into the hearts of the Parisians by the overbearing physique of his men. He says the Frenchmen were frightened to look at them. In every other way, however, the gathering has been a great success. There were many sportsmen over from England, and they were, he says, unanimous in their admiration of all the performances of the Scotsmen. Buffalo Bill had quite fallen in love with the idea of the gathering and wanted to start a Highland team on his own account. He fancies that they would put even the Red Indians in the background.”

A contemporary photograph of Buffalo Bill. Despite the caption, he wasn’t a Colonel either. During his service in the United States Army he only reached the rank of Private (Chief of Scouts).

A couple of days later, one of the newspapers reported that, such was the success of the Paris event, a tour was being considered. The report wrote: “I called on ‘Colonel’ [by his use of single quotes, the reporter was aware that White was not a real Colonel] White at his hotel. He was seated at breakfast, and received me most cordially. Mrs White, a very pretty and most engaging young lady, put in an appearance, and at the ‘Colonel’s’ request I accompanied her to her room where the presents which she had received in Paris were laid out. Mrs White spoke highly of the way in which she was feted in Paris, and of the courtesy which she received everywhere … Among the beautiful presents which I was shown were diamond bangles from Colonel Cody (Buffalo Bill) and Prince Karngeorgevitch, a diamond brooch from the Marquis D’Oyley, a gold watch from the Vice-Consul to the British Embassy, and a number of photographs of eminent persons.

“Mrs White, who was attired in a magnificent Highland dress, said she had enjoyed herself thoroughly, and was greatly delighted with the whole proceedings. ‘Buffalo Bill,’ Mr White said, ‘is a thorough gentleman and one of the ‘fliest’ men living.

“‘I have,’ continued the ‘Colonel,’ producing a telegram from Paris, ‘sealed an engagement with Buffalo Bill to take the Highlanders round about the world. It will cost an enormous sum, but it will pay. The Highlanders will appear at New York and they will there challenge the world … I shall take them on tour for three years all over the world in conjunction with Buffalo Bill’s show, and it will be the greatest sight on record.’

“But will you get the men to go?” queried the reporter. “’Get them to go!’ retorted the ‘Colonel’ it’s not a question of getting them to go – it’s a question which I will take. Fancy a tour through Europe for three years, and to come back with plenty of money in their packets.’ Before bidding the ‘Colonel’ adieu, the reporter ventured to ask him about the financial result of the gathering. The ‘Colonel’ was reticent on this point, but volunteered the query – ‘Had it not been a success would I have been here? I would have missed the train.’”

Despite not being a real Colonel – I can find no record of him ever having been a soldier – one newspaper reporter described a chat with him in Glasgow’s Buchanan Street. White, said the reporter, was dressed in the uniform of a 92nd (Gordon) Highlanders officer: “The ‘Colonel’ is well known in legal circles in Glasgow, having served his time as law apprentice in Glasgow, and some years ago attended the usual classes at the University … Meeting one or two old friends, the ‘Colonel’ went into a public house, and, in response to calls for a speech from the people who happened to be there at the time, he made a few racy remarks on the Paris Games.”

Things started to go wrong very quickly for White. A Public Notice [pictured, below] placed in the Glasgow Herald the following week – on October 23 – stated: “The subscriber, Colonel White, who has just returned from Paris with the thanks of His Excellency Lord Lytton, and the various representatives of every Foreign Nation in Paris, for the magnificent appearance made by him on behalf of Scotland, and who has been repeatedly interviewed by all the Press Representatives of the World, has received the following letter:-

‘77 St Vincent Street, Glasgow, 22d October, 1889. Mr David White of Abbey Craig, Stirling, Central Hotel.

‘Sir, – We have been instructed by our Clients, Messrs G. Edward & Son, Jewellers here, to recover payment of the sum of £127 17s due by you to them, and unless payment of this sum is made to us by Twelve ‘clock Noon Tomorrow (Wednesday) we shall serve you with a Summons for the amount without further notice.

‘Your obedient servants,

‘M’Clure, Naismith, Brodie & Co.”

‘Colonel White will be glad to meet the writers of the foregoing letter at the Central Hotel, Glasgow, To-Morrow, when the account which has been urgently requested to be paid will be settled in full, as well as the various other claims which have been made against him in connection with the successful venture in Paris.

‘He has pleasure in intimating to the Public of Scotland that he has concluded a Contract with Colonel Cody in connection with the successful venture in France, by which the Colonel agrees to advance the sum of 100,000 Guineas as a premium upon Scotland’s successful venture, in recognition of which Colonel White has undertaken to show to the world, under Buffalo Bill’s direction, that Scotland is prepared to maintain the reputation she has secured for herself by her individual exertions in Paris. Colonel White. October 22, 1889.’”

It seems that the Paris Gathering venture certainly hadn’t been the financial success for White that he had hoped and his debts were piling up as a result. On January 10, 1890 at Stirling Sheriff Court, decree was given against White for £580 for goods supplied in connection with the event. The actions were at the instance of Hugh Morrison, Outfitter, Jamaica Street, Glasgow; Porteous & Co., advertising agents, Glasgow; and McKinlay & Son, tailors, Stirling. It was stated that in September 1889, “the parties agreed to promote a great Highland Gathering in Paris during October. The terms of the agreement were that the profits were to be divided equally, and the losses were to be borne in similar proportions. Pursuer was to organise in Scotland and defender was to arrange as to advertising and management in France. In pursuance of this arrangement pursuer stated that he remitted a sum of £3,200 to enable Dow to adequately advertise and manage the gathering. He averred that he had repeatedly called upon defender (who is understood to be in Paris) for an account of his intromissions, but this he refused to give. Pursuer reserved action for the whole financial loss attached to the undertaking, in respect it was incurred through defender’s gross and reckless mismanagement. The case was not defended and the Sheriff accordingly granted decree for the sum sued for.”

On February 25 at Glasgow Sheriff Court, White was declared bankrupt. White and Dow had entire charge of the Paris Gathering, with the Strathallan Games Committee taking nothing whatever to do with it. William Henderson, a member of the Committee, said he remonstrated with White for making too much use of their name. At court, White was asked when he saw that he was insolvent. He replied, “When I came back from Paris, after the gathering was over.” The court heard that White’s marriage a couple of days before the Paris Gathering complicated things as far as his marriage contract and assets were concerned.

By November 26, 1890, White was dead but there were still debts to be paid. The Bank of Scotland, one of his debtors, sued the trustees of his estate.