The history of the Argyllshire Gathering, part 1

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By Jeannie Campbell MBE

Pipers at the Argyllshire Gathering, if they think about its origins at all, probably believe it began as an ordinary Highland Games or as a piping competition to award the Gold Medal and the other important prizes. If they notice the presence of the Duke of Argyll they probably think he has been asked along to present the prizes.

However there are clues to its origins, such as the march of the stewards and members, the members’ enclosure with all the heraldic banners, and the lists of presidents and chief stewards that appear every year in the programme.

The people in the members’ enclosure are the present day representatives of the families who started the gathering as a social event so that they could meet every year, literally have a ball and enjoy other events such as the regatta and the Highland Games The heraldic banners on display in the members’ enclosure show the presence of many families well known in piping history. The results of the early Argyllshire Gatherings show that these families employed a large number of the competing pipers. Others were army pipers whose presence was also due to support from these same families. They provided the officers who were responsible for much of the funding of the regiment’s pipers.

Competing pipers passing the members’ enclosure at the start of the 2019 games.

The members of the Gathering not only funded the events, they paid for the building of the Argyllshire Gathering Hall, they bought the Argyllshire Gathering ground and they paid to have the grandstand built. One might argue that this money came not from their labour but from that of the tenants on their estates but even so, they could have chosen to spend it on travel, gambling, buying racehorses or in many other ways. The Piobaireachd Society was also a major contributor to the Gathering from 1903 onwards, giving money prizes, selecting tunes and providing judges. Today, the Argyllshire Gathering members and the Piobaireachd Society continue to provide support but, in addition, other sponsorship is needed to fund the events.

Some aspects of the Gathering have remained the same over the years but there have been some major changes, such as moving some of the piping events indoors, the admission of women competitors, the move from the Argyllshire Gathering ground to Mossfield Park, and more recently the change in the order of the parade, with the pipers now preceding the stewards and members. One thing that has not changed is the weather and reports over the years include many accounts of torrential rain, high winds and muddy conditions.

Left: John, 9th Duke of Argyll (1845-1914). Right: George, 8th Duke of Argyll (1843-1900).

Despite these drawbacks it was rare that events were cancelled although there were times when the start was delayed or very occasionally the piping took place in a local hall. Some of the great pipers of the past won their Gold Medals under sometimes appalling conditions. 

The Gathering was born out of the festivities to celebrate the marriage of the 9th Duke of Argyll to Princess Louise, fourth daughter of Queen Victoria, and was designed as a social occasion for the gentry of the county.

The bridegroom, John Campbell, was the eldest son and heir of the 8th Duke of Argyll. He bore his father’s second title of Marquess of Lorne until succeeding to the Dukedom in 1900. He was Governor General of Canada from 1878 to1883. The marriage was childless and the present Duke is descended from his brother Walter.

Sydney Prior Hall’s painting depicting the wedding in 1871 of 9th Duke of Argyll to Princess Louise. (Photo: Royal Collection Trust).

Queen Victoria disapproved of the marriage, preferring her daughters to marry German princes. Eventually, she agreed to this match with one she considered to be not of Royal descent, although ancestors of the Duke had married the sister of King Robert Bruce, grand-daughters of Robert II and Robert III and a daughter of James V.

Royal weddings today attract a great deal of attention and media coverage and things were no different in 1871. This was the first Royal wedding with a Scottish connection for centuries and the people of Argyll were determined to make the most of it. From the beginning of the year the newspapers were full of it. There were bonfires and firework displays, towns and villages were decorated with flags and bunting, landowners organised dances for their tenants and there were balls and parties for the gentry. The Oban Times had articles on every aspect of the event, even on the shape of the Marquess’s nose, which had been flattened by a cricket ball, but, they said, the disfigurement was hardly noticeable.

The actual wedding took place on Tuesday, March 21 in St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, but the celebrations in Argyll continued to a climax in August for the homecoming of the young couple. They travelled in the Royal train to Glasgow and after suitable celebrations in the city continued by train to Helensburgh, and then by carriage to Rosneath. There they boarded the Duke’s steamer for the final part of their journey to Inveraray where all kinds of events were prepared to welcome them. Apparently, the county families enjoyed it all so much that they decided it would be a good idea to do it every year.

The Oban Times of September 9, 1871 had the following report: “It will be seen from our advertising columns today that one happy result of the recent festivities at Inveraray has been the formation of an association of gentlemen connected with the County, for the promotion of an annual meeting for social purposes, the association to be called the Argyllshire Gathering. Such meetings tend to elevate the tone of society and cement feelings of cordiality and friendship. We bespeak beforehand a brilliant gathering for season 1872”.

The advertisement is as follows: “At a meeting held at the Argyll Arms Hotel Inveraray on Friday 25th August 1871, Sir Thomas M. Riddell of Suinart, Bart in the Chair, the following resolutions were unanimously adopted:

  • That in the opinion of the gentlemen present it is desirable that there shall be in future an annual gathering of the Gentry of the County of Argyll for social purposes,
  • The gathering to be called the Argyllshire Gathering and to be held at such time and place as may hereafter be determined,
  • That an association of gentlemen connected with the County be formed for the promotion of the above object,
  • That each member of the association pays an annual subscription of one guinea,
  • That a small acting committee of landowners in the County or their sons be annually appointed for the purpose of making the necessary arrangements connected with the gathering,
  • That the following gentlemen be appointed to form the committee for the present year.”

This was followed by a list of committee members and members, headed by the president, the Marquess of Lorne. Future Dukes of Argyll have continued to fill this position to the present day. The Argyll Arms Hotel is still in existence and occupies a prominent position on the front at Inveraray. The 3rd Duke built it for visitors to Inveraray Castle. Designed by John Adam, it opened in 1755. It has been known in the past as The Great Inn, The Argyll Arms Hotel, The Argyll Hotel and now The Inveraray Inn.

Where it all started.

On September 7, 1872 the following advertisement appeared: “The first annual ball of the Argyllshire Gathering will take place at the Great Western Hotel, Oban on Tuesday October 1st 1872. Gentlemen’s Tickets £1-1-6d.  Ladies Tickets £0-10-6d Non-members may obtain tickets from the honorary secretary at Oban on the production of a written voucher from a member of the gathering. H. G. MacLaine of Lochbuy [Lochbuie]. Hon. Sec.”

The date of inauguration, August 25, 1871, has appeared on the Gathering programme over the subsequent years.

The Glasgow Herald of October 5 carried is a full report of the gathering which stated that Oban bay was full of the steamers of the gentry, there were firework displays, the silver band of the yacht, Northumbria played in the town; there was a dinner and then the ball. The Princess and the Marquess were unable to be present due to the death of the Princess of Hohenlohe, but the attendance numbered 190 ladies and gentlemen, all of whom are listed in the paper. The Quadrille Band of Messrs Adams of Glasgow provided music. It was suggested that next year they have games and perhaps a Regatta and a company be formed to erect a suitable hall in order to accommodate a larger attendance at the ball.

On August 16, 1873 The Argyllshire Gathering Highland Games were advertised to be held on September 4 at 1.00pm. There were 25 events in total, including three piping events: Piobaireachd, Marches and Reels:

“Pipers to lodge in Gaelic and English, those for piobaireachd playing the names of six piobaireachd, those for march playing the names of six marches, and those for reel playing the names of three reels and three strathspeys any of which they may be required to play”.

Part 2
• Part 3.