The history of the Argyllshire Gathering, part 2

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By Jeannie Campbell MBE

The Argyllshire Gathering of 1873 was not the first games to be held in Oban that year. The Lorn Ossianic Society had been formed in the previous year, its object being “the furtherance of Celtic Sports” and it held its first highland games on September 3, the day before the Argyllshire Gathering. The games were held in Captain Cumstie’s park, located just off Soroba Road, and there were around 2,000 spectators. The

The prize list was: 1. Ronald MacKenzie (Piper to Niel MacLeod MacDonald Esq. of Dunach); 2. Donald MacPhee (Glasgow); 3. John Bell (7th Argylls). The prize for best piper under 20 years of age went to Ronald MacKenzie. The judges were Keith MacLennan Esq. of Kilninver and Niel M. MacDonald Esq. of Dunach.

Ronald MacKenzie’s employer, Niel MacLeod MacDonald was born at Sleat, Skye in November 1836, the fourth son of Charles MacDonald of Ord and Anne MacLeod. Interestingly, she was a daughter of Captain Niel MacLeod of Gesto who in 1828 had published a book of 20 piobaireachd in the MacCrimmon canntaireachd. Niel (of Dunach) spent some years in India before returning to Scotland where he bought the Dunach estate and settled down with his wife and children.

Henry MacDonald of Dunach.

Niel’s son, Henry, born 1872, was said to be a proficient performer on the bagpipe and was in later years a member of the Gathering. He, too, spent some time in India as an indigo planter before settling at Dunach. His wife, Mrs. H. L. MacDonald of Dunach was the subject of the march composed William Lawrie. Niel MacLeod MacDonald died suddenly from heart disease in November 1881 on board the steamer Ancona, during his passage to Calcutta. Niel’s brother, Dr. Keith Norman MacDonald (1834-1913) the third son of Charles and Anne was the compiler of two collections of music, the Skye Collection in 1887 and another confusingly titled the Gesto Collection in 1890.

The following day, the highland games of the Argyllshire Gathering were held. The Marquess of Lorne was present, although Princess Louise was unable to attend. There was a regatta in the morning, the silver band played, the games were held in the afternoon in Captain Cumstie’s park, kindly lent for the occasion, and the ball in the evening was in a large pavilion erected on the Columba Terrace grounds near the beach.

The piping judges were Niel MacLeod MacDonald, Keith MacLennan (both of whom had judged the previous day) and Pipe Major Ronald MacKenzie, 78th Highlanders. The prize list was as follows:

Piobaireachd – 1. Donald Stewart MacDonald (Glentruim; 2. Robert MacKinnon (Kintyre); 3. John MacBean (Culloden).
Marches – 1. John MacBean; 2. D. MacPhee (Islay); 3. John Cameron (Glenforsa).
Strathspey and Reels – 1. Donald MacPhedran (Glasgow); 2. R. MacKinnon; 3 Donald. MacPhee.
Dancing Reels – 1.  Robert MacKinnon, 2. Donald MacPhee.
Sword Dance – 1. Donald MacPhee, 2. Archd. Macfarlane (Inveraray).
Highland Fling – 1. Robert MacKinnon, 2. Donald MacPhee.

Ronald MacKenzie, Seaforths.

In piping history, there were two well known pipers named Ronald MacKenzie. The older one was born in 1841/2 at Strathpeffer and was a nephew of John Bàn MacKenzie. He enlisted in 1860 and was Pipe Major of the 78th Highlanders then the Ross-shire Militia. From 1893 to 1916 he was Piper to the Duke of Richmond and Gordon at Gordon Castle. At the Northern Meeting he won the Prize Pipe in 1859, the Former Winners Gold Medal in1863 and the Champion of Champions Gold Medal for Gold Medal winners in 1873. He died aged 74 in 1916 at Gordon Castle.

The other Ronald MacKenzie was born at Sleat in Skye in 1855/6, served with the Black Watch and was afterwards Piper to MacDonald of Dunach then to Darroch of Torridon. At the Northern Meeting he won the Prize Pipe in 1873 and the Gold Medal for Former Winners in 1875. He died aged 55 in Glasgow in 1911.

The winner of the Piobaireachd, Donald Stewart MacDonald, was born at Carrbridge. He was Piper to the MacKintosh and Piper to the Duke of Hamilton. During the 1880s he was Pipe Major of the 1st Royal Scots. He died in South Africa in 1898.

John MacBean was from Applecross. He served in the Inverness-shire Militia under Pipe Major Alex MacLennan who had tutored him and was Piper to Lord Middleton for a time. At the Northern Meeting he won the Prize Pipe in 1869, the Gold Medal for Former Winners in 1877 and the Champion of Champions Gold Medal for Gold Medal Winners in 1883.

Robert MacKinnon was born at Skipness, the small village on the east coast of Kintyre, in 1834/35. He was Pipe Major of the 105th Glasgow Highlanders and from 1875 until his death he was a bagpipe maker in Glasgow. He published a tutor/collection of pipe music in 1884. He died in Glasgow in 1902.

John Cameron [pictured] was born in 1854 at Cromdale. He was Piper to Col C. G. Gardyne of Glenforsa, Mull c1874-77 and later with Marquis of Lorne then the Duke of Sutherland. He enlisted 1878 71st HLI, served 11 years and was PM from 1881. He was then PM Cameron Highlanders Militia from 1892 for 16 years. He composed The Highland Brigade at Tel El Kebir. At the Northern Meeting he won the Gold Medal in 1892 and the Clasp in 1899. He died in 1908 at Inverness.

Donald McPhedran was born in 1820 at Inveraray. He played for Queen Victoria at the opening of the Loch Katrine Waterworks and played at Inveraray Castle for Queen Victoria and the Duke and Duchess of Argyll and their family. Donald was Pipe Major of a Glasgow regiment of volunteers and was a joiner, then a bagpipe maker in Glasgow from 1884 until his death there in 1888. His collection of music was published posthumously c1903-6 by his son, John.

In 1874, the Lorn Ossianic Society held its Oban Athletic Games on September 8. The attendance was 2,500 and the judges for pipe music were Keith MacLellan Esq., Lachlan MacKinnon Esq., Duisdale House, Skye and Pipe Major Alexander MacLennan, Highland Infantry. (MacLennan was born in the Black Isle in 1811. He enlisted in the 74th in 1833 at Forres and was PM 74th 1843-1850 then PM Inverness-shire Militia 1850-1885. At the Northern Meeting he won the Prize Pipe in 1857 and the Gold Medal for Former Winners in 1860. He died at Falkirk in 1902.)

Glasgow Herald, August 6, 1874.

There were several improvements on last year’s arrangements but, to quote: “There is still room however for one or two things lo be improved on, as for instance in the piping competition, which might be carried on simultaneously with other contests and thus enable the  programme to be got through more expeditiously besides relieving the tedium of listening so long to nothing but the music of the bagpipe. Our pipe-loving friends should remember that on a Southron ear the shrill and pathetic notes of the piobaireachd have no more effect than (to use the words of a vigorous transatlantic writer) ‘castor oil on a graven image’.”

The piping results that year were:

Piobaireachd, the Gold Medal – 1. Ronald MacKenzie (Piper to N. M. MacDonald Esq of Dunach) playing Lord Barridale; 2. John Cameron (Piper to Colonel Gardyne, Glenforsa, Mull) playing Glengarry’s Lament.
Marches, Strathspeys and Reels – 1. Robert MacKinnon (Pipe Major Glasgow Highlanders); 2. Donald MacPhee (Glasgow); 3. John Cameron.

Donald MacPhee (1842-1880) was of an Islay family but spent most of his life in Glasgow where he was a bagpipe maker. He was a prolific prize winner in piping and dancing, including several prizes at the Argyllshire Gathering and the Northern Meeting. He published a tutor, a collection of light music and two collections of piobaireachd.

An extra prize was given to the oldest piper in the ground – Paul MacKillop, Pipe Sergeant of the Inverness Militia for 19 years and previously a piper in the 74th Highlanders for 21 years. He was born at Kilmore, Argyll, c1814/15 and enlisted in the 74th Highlanders c1835, retiring in 1855. He joined the 76th HLI Militia in 1855 age 40 and was discharged in 1886.

The next day the Argyllshire Gathering held it games. The events and rules were the same as before but with the addition of a third prize of 15 shillings in each of the piping events. Princess Louise and the Marquess were both present. The piping judges were the same three individuals who judged at Lorn Ossianic Society’s Games the previous day.

Alexander MacLennan.

The results were:

Piobaireachd – 1. Ronald MacKenzie (Dunach); 2. Malcolm Macpherson – aka Calum Piobair); 3. Donald Paterson (Poltalloch).
Marches – 1. Donald Paterson; 2. Pipe Sgt. Paul MacKillop (lnverness), 3. Ronald MacKenzie.
Reels and Strathspeys – 1. John Cameron (Glenforsa); 2. Ronald MacKenzie, 3. Pipe Sgt. Paul MacKillop.

In September 1875 newspapers reported that Queen Victoria, who was staying at Balmoral, was to visit her daughter and son in law at Inveraray. Although it was a private visit, a number of other people were also staying at the castle. The papers reported: “The Argyllshire Gathering will be on a grander scale this year than usual. The Princess and the Marquis and several of the noblemen staying with the Duke, are expected to be present on the occasion. Some fêtes will probably be held at Inveraray during her Majesty’s stay.”

In 1875 the Lorn Ossianic Society again had its Games on the day prior to the Argyllshire Gathering. Judges for the piping were a Miss MacGregor of Oban, and Messrs Angus MacDonald of South Morar, Neil Campbell of Glasgow and A. Campbell of the Kings Arms Hotel, Oban. In the piping competitions a change was made on the arrangement of former years. Instead of giving first, second and third prizes “awards of £1 were adjudged to each competitor who reached a certain standard of proficiency, but whether the innovation satisfied the parties concerned remaineth a matter of doubt.”

The results were:

Amateur bagpipe playing  (a silver mounted chanter presented by Donald MacPhee) – Finlay Sinclair, Oban.
Senior bagpipe playing – Donald MacPhee, Robert MacKinnon, John Cameron and Alexander MacArthur (Glasgow), Ronald MacKenzie (Dunach), Donald Paterson (Piper to Poltalloch).

Alexander MacArthur was born on the island of Lismore in 1825. He served with the 93rd Highlanders then by 1853 had settled in Glasgow where he worked as a mechanic and then a bagpipe maker from 1873 until his death in Glasgow in 1889.

Princess Louise.

One newspaper report was rather critical. Attendance was down on previous years due to insufficient publicity and the arrangements were criticised: “Twelve o’clock was the advertised hour for commencing the proceedings but it was fully three quarters of an hour after that time before a start was made, the unnecessary delay taxing somewhat the patience of onlookers and competitors. Indeed it may be mentioned that this dilatoriness was not merely confined to the opening of the contest as throughout the greater part of the day much valuable time was actually frittered away through the incompleteness of the Society’s arrangements. The brunt of the work seemed to devolve upon two or three and despite the commendable efforts of these parties, it was absolutely impossible for them to carry out with sufficient alacrity the various items of the lengthy programme. The consequence was that a number of the competitions lagged dreadfully; and towards the evening hundreds of spectators left the ground before the contests were half completed.

“The contestants were also much hindered by the enclosure becoming surrounded by a host of busy-bodies and nobodies, who despite the strenuous exertions of Sergeant Campbell and a small (too small indeed) force of police, very selfishly persisted in clustering round each competition, thereby interfering with the speedy issue of the games and shutting out from the view of the seat holders the distances covered by the individual competitors.

“So flagrant has the nuisance become that stringent measures must be taken by the Society in future to prevent its recurrence as laxity in this respect rapidly spreads a deteriorating influence over the entire field and ultimately entails confusion and delay”.

The next day, the Argyllshire Gathering games started at 12 noon, an hour earlier than in previous years. The day started rather inauspiciously as from eight in the morning until ten it rained almost incessantly. There had been heavy rainfall during the night and the field was rendered somewhat spongy. The weather brightened shortly before noon and the day’s events were carried out comfortably.

Donald McPhedran.

Events were still confined to Argyll and Inverness and the prize money remained the same but in addition to the £5 prize the winner of the piobaireachd received the Highland Society of London Gold Medal. Piping judges were Pipe Major Alexander MacLennan, Inverness, Keith MacLellan Esq of Melfort, and John MacKinnon Esq, Kyle, Skye. The prizes were awarded as follows:

Piobaireachd, the Gold Medal – 1. John MacBean, Culloden; 2. Angus MacDonald, South Morar; 3. Donald MacPhee, Glasgow.
Marches – 1. Donald MacPhee; 2. Keith W. Cameron (Piper to Ardkinglass, Inveraray); 3. Allan MacDonald (Piper to Skeabost, Skye).
Strathspeys and Reels – 1. Keith Cameron, 2. Donald MacPhee, 3. Ronald MacKenzie, piper to Dunach.

In the evening the ball was held in a large temporary wooden pavilion erected in Breadalbane Place, with 216 ladies and gentlemen attending. Messrs R. J. and R. Adams supplied the music.

Angus MacDonald was born in Morar and was the estate agent and piper to Aeneas MacDonell of South Morar. He won the Prize Pipe at the Northern Meeting in 1875 and the Gold Medal for Former Winners in 1882.  His brother, George, was Piper to Invercauld.

Keith William Cameron was born at Urray in 1855, the youngest of Donald Cameron’s three sons. He was Piper to Ardkinglass and Piper to MacPherson Grant of Ballindalloch, before enlisting in the 2nd Batt HLI. He died while serving as a private at the barracks in Hamilton in 1899 while still serving with the HLI. He was Pipe Major for a time but had been demoted due to what were euphemistically called unsteady habits.

• Part 1.
• Part 3.