Stuart Letford: One picture, many stories

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This is not a photo essay. Rather, it’s an essay on a photo, the one shown here. That said, the purpose of a photo essay is nothing if not a way to tell a story or evoke emotion from the viewers through a series of photographs. And I think there are more than a few stories to tell in this photo.

The photograph was included in the May 1985 edition of the Piping Times and I discovered it last summer. It’s been on my mind ever since.

Take a good look at it.

In the photo are: Standing, left to right – Angus MacPherson, Mrs Alice MacPherson, Mrs Colin MacLeod, Mr A. E. Milne, Mrs Meldrum, Dr Neil Ross. Seated – John MacDonald MBE of Inverness, Pipe Major Robert Meldrum and Sheriff J. P. Grant of Rothiemurchus.

The photograph was taken at the Piper’s Ceilidh held in the Imperial Hotel, Inverness on August 21, 1937. Presumably, the ceilidh was related in some way to the Northern Meeting that was due to take place a few weeks later – although it can’t be a Northern Meeting ceilidh or it would have billed as such. The first question that comes to my mind, therefore, is: is there any link between this ceilidh event and the Northern Meeting? No doubt, there are readers who will be able to explain this. Please get in touch.

Who decided to gather these people together for the photograph? And why? There seems to be a MacPherson connection with most of them.

On seeing the photo for the first time, my eye was drawn immediately to old Meldrum and his spats. Why on earth is he wearing spats at a ceilidh? It’s not as if he is wearing No.1 dress. He’s sporting a simple tweed jacket and waistcoat. Was it to complement his white Carlos Santana-style ‘tache? Meldrum would have been aged 90 here. As a youth he received piping tuition from Malcolm MacPherson (Calum Piobair), whom he later said: “At pibroch playing, Malcolm Macpherson was the father of us all. It may not be too much to say that for musical expression and taste he was the best ever heard by me.”

Standing at the far right is the Rev. Dr. Neil Ross. He, like Rothiemurchus and Macdonald, is staring into the distance away from the camera. Did he – and the other two – not like having their photograph taken? Were they superstitious about such things? Ross may have been. A native of Skye, he was hugely knowledgeable about the folklore, mysticism, legends and beliefs of the island, as was his son, Roddy.

Rev. Dr. Neil Ross died six years after this photo was taken. Years before, he had taken his family to the tiny church in Laggan in Badenoch, in order to devote more time to study and writing. He was a household name in the Highlands during his lifetime. Four years previously, Ross and Macdonald took part in the unveiling of the MacCrimmon cairn at Boreraig, Ross delivering a eulogy in Gaelic. He was born at Glendale, a few miles to the west.

Photographers are known to be pernickety. Maybe this one had been trying their patience? Or maybe he knew one of the secrets of posing for the camera is to never stand facing it, but position your body to one side or the other. Maybe he is staring icily at his young son misbehaving at the side, out of shot? “I must take a firm grip of young Roddy, or goodness knows how he’ll turn out.” As professional photographers will agree, if the subject looks outside the frame it can create either tension or intrigue. This can either spoil or make the shot.

Regardless, Ross has an impact on this shot because he looking away from the camera and the probable reason he is doing so could be simple. As General Frank Richardson wrote of Ross in the July 1985 PT: “I knew him well and greatly liked and respected him. I understood that his reputation as a Gaelic scholar went unchallenged, and he was a fine piper, though a very nervous competitor … His jitteriness was infectious, as I have cause to remember. In those days the competitors in the Scottish Pipers’ Society’s piobaireachd competition went in alphabetical order, so I shared the tuning room with him several times. Before the judges he kept his face firmly turned to a thick curtain, which his eyes never left.”

Maybe Ross was up next at the ceilidh!

Next to Dr. Ross is Mrs. Meldrum. She looks as if she’s thinking: “I did warn him about the spats.” A. [Alexander] E. Milne is next to her. Other than being a member of The Cairngorm Club, one of the oldest mountaineering clubs Scotland, I have no idea who he was and why he is with such distinguished company.

He must have been fairly important to be included, though.

Mrs. Colin MacLeod is also a mystery. Who was she? Presumably, she had a forename? And where is Colin? Is it he behind the lens?

However, the couple standing next to Mrs. MacLeod are familiar. The woman is Alice MacPherson (née Ross) and the man is Angus MacPherson. Alice was Mrs. MacPherson of Inveran. She was a Cockney woman who won the heart of Angus and went on to run the Inveran Hotel with him. They married in 1905 when Angus left Skibo Castle where he had been working for its owner, Andrew Carnegie, as his piper. Apparently, Alice was a grand-daughter of John Bàn MacKenzie’s sister and a cousin of William Ross, the Sovereign’s Piper until 1891, something I discovered only recently. She was the mother of Malcolm Ross MacPherson, one of Scotland’s outstanding pipers from the 1920 onwards.

At the time of the photograph, Malcolm was experiencing many personal issues including failed relationships and drinking problems. Indeed, he was a chronic alcoholic and argued violently with his parents. Poor Alice. Her father John, Cluny MacPherson’s piper for a time, was also a chronic alcoholic.

As Bridget MacKenzie wrote in her book, Piping Traditions of the North of Scotland (1998), Alice retained her Cockney speech all her life and wasn’t much liked by the MacPherson family. Apparently, they felt she resisted Highland ways and looked down on the natives. The people of the Inveran, Lairg and Bonar Bridge district and the surrounding district remembered her as a kindly and welcoming woman. She died in 1964.

Angus, as Frank Richardson pointed out in the same issue of the PT referred to earlier, disowned his son for a time. Richardson wrote: “I reproached Angus for leaving Malcolm out of the succession of MacPherson pipers of whom he was so proud (in his 1965 book, A Highlander Looks Back). He replied ‘I have no son,’ upon which I told him that I would never forgive him, nor I felt would any father whom I knew.”

Malcolm R. MacPherson and Dr. Roddy Ross.

As Seumas MacNeill said in reply to Richardson, though, it seems Angus didn’t maintain that attitude towards Malcolm. In 1966, Malcolm showed Seumas letters from his father commenting on tunes and piping affairs generally. Malcolm died by his own hand in Edinburgh in November that year. Maybe Angus had a sense of foreboding during that last year of his son’s life. Angus died in 1976. He and Alice lie beside each other in the kirkyard at Inveran. Malcolm, their only child, lies beside his grandfather, Calum Piobair, in the kirkyard at Laggan in Badenoch.

Malcolm, of course, along with Dr. Neil Ross’ son, Roddy, from 1959-67 published Binneas is Boreraig, an essential publication for any piper who plays pibroch. It’s interesting to see Rev. Dr. Neil Ross and Angus MacPherson at the extreme sides in the photograph. Both were men of sound moral character whose sons were … let’s just say flawed characters who were fond of a libation and leave it at that.

What is also interesting in the photograph is that Angus has a hand resting affectionately on John Macdonald’s shoulder. The two did not always see eye to eye but clearly at the time of photo Angus was on friendly terms with the man who received many lessons from Angus’ father at their small family home in Catlodge near Laggan. At the time of the photograph, John had unchallenged celebrity status, an MBE and a position of Honorary Piper to the King. As Archibald Campbell of Kilberry put it, his “position as a link with the famous pipers of the past is now unique.” Macdonald died in 1953.

In this era of Photoshop and filtered images, it’s always refreshing to look at old photos. They remain raw. In those days, the camera didn’t lie. It couldn’t! A few faces have tired eyes and ruddy complexions (maybe a few drams had been partaken?). Let’s face it, this photograph does none of the individuals any favours; none are photogenic. And I say this as someone who knows full well his visage would never grace Vogue nor his corrugated countenance on the Cosmo cover.

It’s a fascinating photograph. I think you’d struggle to find a pre-War image that featured more historically important piping individuals than this one.

N.B. a few weeks after the ceilidh, Hugh MacRae of Achnasheen won the Gold Medal at the Northern Meeting. His tune was Massacre of Glencoe.