The history of the Argyllshire Gathering, part 4

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By Jeannie Campbell MBE

In 1884 there was some doubt as to whether the Gathering would be held. The Oban Times of August 23 carried a letter from ‘Gillie Calum’ saying he had been watching the columns for the announcement of the Games – “so far nothing, are they to come off at all this season or are they only postponed a week or two?”

The reply from the editor was: “We have not received the usual announcement of the holding of the Gathering Games. The members must incur a heavy expense by building the new hall, which we regret to notice is in an unfinished state. Possibly this accounts for the uncertainty as to whether they will be held at all.”

On September 13, the paper carried a notice giving another possible explanation. The letter’s author called himself, ‘The Old Man of Storr’. He wrote: “The part the Oban Times has taken in the struggle for the emancipation of the Highland crofters could not be palatable to the Argyllshire gentry and it was the most natural thing in the world for them to show their weak spite by ‘boycotting’ the paper. The Highland Chiefs care less for their people than for the sheep on their hills. These gatherings are merely the Gentry making a show of the natives to entertain to entertain their friends.” The author went on to discuss the balls which are “strictly confined to the Gentry and Strangers but debarred to the natives.”

In the same edition, there is the report of the Games. The day was fine after an unpromising start and at one time, about 14:00, the heat was oppressive. Attendance showed a considerable falling off. The competitors’ area had been made smaller to allow more space for visitors but at no time was the ground inconveniently crowded. It is not to be inferred however that the Games were not a success. The committee should see that athletes are decently dressed. It is an outrage on morality to have half nude men rushing about the field. In the caber event one competitor was seen to attempt to turn it over by rushing forward when it was on the descent on the wrong side by putting his hand to it.

John MacDougall Gillies.

There was also the first appearance of a previously unknown tartan. One of the dancers was dressed in what was described as a “fancy” tartan, the principal colour being yellow, which gave considerable trouble to strangers who were anxious in their enquiries as to what clan tartan it was, it was so pretty. The report went on to detail those who were present. “The ladies as usual were present in large numbers, the Games being the introduction to the balls of the same and following evening in which they are naturally more interested.”

The prize list was:

Gold Medal – 1. John MacDougall Gillies (Aberdeen); 2. Pipe Major John J. (3rd Battalion Royal Scots, Glencorse); 3. William Sutherland (Airdrie).
Marches – 1. Pipe Major John Connon; 2. John MacColl (Bonawe); 3. John MacDougall Gillies.
Strathspeys and Reels – 1. William MacLennan (Edinburgh); 2. Pipe Major John Connon, 3. John MacColl.
Strathspeys and Reels (Local) – 1. Archibald R. MacColl (Bonawe);  2.= Alex  McVean,  (Achnamara( and Donald McPhail (piper to John Campbell of Kilberry).

William MacLennan and John MacColl both won prizes in the dancing competitions. The Marquis of Lorne presented the prizes.

John MacDougall Gillies was born in Aberdeen in 1855 although his father was from Kilmodan in Argyll. He enlisted in the 3rd VB Gordons in Aberdeen in 1872. He was a house [ainter in Aberdeen then Piper to Lord Breadalbane from 1886-1888 then a painter in Aberdeen until 1890. He then returned to working as a painter, in Glasgow, until 1903 when he became manager of Peter Henderson’s the bagpipe makers. He remained there until his death in 1925. In Glasgow he was Pipe Major 1st VB HLI 1891 which became 5th PM 5th HLI Volunteers on the Haldane reforms 1908. At the Northern Meeting he won the Prize Pipe in 1882, the Former Winners’ Gold Medal in 1885 and the first Clasp in 1896. With the HLI band he won the first World Pipe Band Championships in 1906, with further wins in 1908, 1910, 1911 and 1912. He was the first President of the Scottish Pipers’ Association.

John James Connon was from Ross-shire. In 1878 he was Piper to Tulloch and in 1879 and 1880 Piper to John H. Dickson Inveran Lodge, Poolewe then Piper to Col Ewan Macpherson of Cluny. At the Northern Meeting he won Prize Pipe and Former Winners Gold Medal in 1880. In 1882 he was Pipe Major of the Royal Scots.

Archibald Robertson MacColl was born in 1871 at Kentallen, Duror. He was a nephew of John MacColl. He worked as a stonemason in Oban, then in Edinburgh and then Dunfermline. He went to Australia in 1912 and was Pipe Major of the 42nd Battalion A. I. F. Australia during the Great War.

Farquhar MacRae.

Farquhar MacRae was born in 1859 at Portree, Skye but moved with his parents to Glasgow. He worked as a commercial traveller and later an insurance agent. He was Pipe Major of the 3rd VB HLI (re-numbered 7th in 1908) for 25 years. The band won the World Pipe Band Championship in 1913. He formed the City of Glasgow Pipe Band in 1910 that was later re-named the Clan MacRae Society Pipe Band. He drowned accidentally in the Forth and Clyde canal at Port Dundas, Glasgow, on a dark night with lighting restrictions, while carrying out his duties as an insurance agent.

David Charles Mather was born in London in 1870 and educated at the Caledonian School. He worked as a bank clerk in London and then was Piper to MacDougall of Lunga then to Admiral Campbell of Craignish then to the Murrays of Lochcarron. He won the Gold Medal at the Northern Meeting in 1899 and was the composer of many well known tunes. He had a hotel in Perthshire for a time but immigrated to the USA in 1901 and was a prospector in Montana. He died in Montana in 1943.

At this time there are several letters to the Oban Times concerning an incident at Lochaber Games when William MacLennan shook his fist at the dancing judges who were not paying him proper attention.

On September 20 the Oban Times carried a letter from ‘A Parish Minister’ agreeing with the points made in the paper’s Games report: “The stewards should certainly see to it that the performers are properly clad, and that in their exercises they should scrupulously avoid all offences against decency and propriety. It must be a most painful trial and experience for ladies of taste and sensibility when exposures of an obscene and disgusting character take place before their eyes. There are persons so vain and callous that they fancy it is an act of gallantry and a contribution to the entertainment for them to make exhibition of themselves, for which they deserve the lash. The wonder is that the ladies attend these Games in such crowds when their senses and feelings are liable to be shocked by such degrading scenes.” The writer went on to deplore the prominence given to the heavy events and the neglect of the industrial department, i.e. weaving and knitting. He finished: “I cannot conclude this letter without referring to the narrow exclusive and intolerant spirit evinced by those who withheld the customary intimation and advertisement of the games from the O.T. Those who give way to such prejudices and practices may have their reward in the gratifications of paltry malice, but not in any gain or victory to their cause.”

In 1885 there is no advertisement but there is a report of the Games. The weather is described as “unfavourable” and the results were:

Gold Medal – 1. Pipe Major John Cameron, 2. Farquhar MacRae, Portree; 3. Pipe Major John J. Connon.
Marches – 1. Pipe Major Robert Meldrum; 2. John MacColl;  3. A. McRae.
Strathspeys and Reels – 1. Pipe Major Robert Meldrum, 2. A. MacRae, 3. John MacColl.
March, Strathspey and Reel, Local – 1. Farquhar MacRae; 2. D. C. Mather; 3. D. MacBean.

In 1886, the weather was wet and windy with continuous heavy rain. There were storms on Thursday so the regatta was delayed until Friday and would’ve been cancelled if the weather had not improved. The Games were better attended than in the past few years. At the conclusion of the Games “a band of eight pipers formed in to line and played the members of the Gathering back in to town. A large crowd followed but the march in consequence of the wretched state of the roads was anything but pleasant.”

The Glasgow Herald also carried a full report: “The annual games which are held at Oban in connection with the Argyllshire Gathering, and which are looked forward to by all classes in the district with keen interest as one of the chief events of the year, took place at Oban yesterday. Notwithstanding the unpropitious state of the weather, there was the usual influx of visitors from all parts of the county, both by land and sea. On account of the stormy weather, the Grenadier was unable to make her usual run to Staffa and Iona, but made a special run up the Sound of Mull to bring the people of that district to the gathering. The Chevalier and Mountaineer brought large numbers from the Fort William and Appin districts, while the railway company required to run a special train from Dalmally. In the early morning very heavy rain fell, and the outlook seemed of the most dismal description, and it was feared the games could not take place owing to the state of the weather.

“Towards noon, however, it cleared up, and at the usual time the competitors, who mustered at the office of Mr J. F. Sim, the secretary of the gathering, marched to the field, preceded by the pipers. The games commenced at noon, and were held, as usual, in Captain Cumstie’s park at Soroba Road, which is yearly rent by him for the occasion. The park is a most desirable one for the purpose, the hills rising on the north side of it affording excellent accommodation for hundreds of sightseers who object to pay for admission to preserved space below. The north side of the park was roped off for the reserved space, and marquees for the judges, cloth exhibits, refreshment stalls etc., while a portion of the south side of the park was taken up by carriages. Unfortunately, very heavy showers of rain and hail frequently interrupted the proceedings and caused a general stampede for shelter. The number of entries in the different competitions was in most cases in excess of former years. The pipe-playing in its various divisions occupied the greater part of the afternoon, and was somewhat wearisome. The dancing competitions were also protracted.”

The judges for the piping competitions were Captain Campbell of Inverneill; Captain Allanby, Altnacraig; Pipe Majors Ronald MacKenzie and James Maclachlan.

The results were:

Gold Medal – 1. Pipe Major Robert Meldrum (Parkhurst); 2. George Ross (Hamilton); 3. Pipe Major John MacKay (Paisley).
Marches, Argyllshire Gathering Silver Medal – 1. Pipe Major Robert Meldrum; 2.= John MacColl and PM John J.
Strathspeys and Reels – 1. John MacColl (Bonawe); 2.= John MacDougall Gillies and Pipe Major John Connon.
March, Strathspey and Reel, locals – 1. George Ross; 2. Alexander R. MacColl; 3. Duncan Grant (according to the Glasgow Herald) or D. C. Mather (according to the Oban Times)!

George Ross also won an extra prize, the Scottish Pipers’ Society Silver Badge and £2 awarded to the best player in the competition who had never won a first prize or medal.

The ball was held as usual that evening in the Argyllshire Gathering Hall, with Messrs. Adams’s band providing the music. The purveyors were Messrs. Aitchison and Sons, Edinburgh.

Pipe Major George J. Ross was born in 1858. He joined the Black Watch in 1887 and was Pipe Major from 1890, but may have had prior service. He served in the South African War. He left the army in 1901 when aged 43, with 24 years’ service and immigrated to Australia where he died in 1944. His brother William was Pipe Major of the HLI and won the Gold Medal in 1902.

Pipe Major John MacKay was born in 1860. He enlisted in the 56th Brigade at Glasgow in 1878 and was posted to 91st Argyllshire Highlanders as PM in1881. He was PM 4th Renfrewshire Militia Batt. Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders 1885. He won the Gold Medal at the Northern Meeting in 1889. He served in South Africa 1899-1902 then was Pipe Major of the Liverpool Scottish from 1903 until his death in 1925.

In 1887, according to the Oban Times, the weather was dull in the morning with rain in the afternoon. Seventeen pipers entered for the March and the Strathspey and Reel. “The sports as a whole may be said to have passed off very successfully but there were many people present who felt inclined to pronounce the proceedings for the most part heavy with a characteristic absence of ‘go’. Something certainly is needed to brighten up the dead ‘waits’ between the different items on the programme. The Committee of management should see to it in the future.”

The Glasgow Herald reported that unlike recent years the weather was favourable, being dry and clear in the morning although there was a cold north wind. The competitors mustered at the office of the secretary, J. Fraser Sim in George Square and marched to Captain Cumstie’s park, preceded by the pipers. There were no fewer than 17 entries in some of the piping competitions, which were very protracted, and 12 in each of the dancing competitions. The piping judges were Captain Duncan Campbell of Inverneill, Captain Allanby, Captain Stewart MacDougall, with Pipe Major Ronald MacKenzie, Seaforth Highlanders as professional judge.

Duncan MacDougall.

The 1887 results were:

Gold Medal – 1. Pipe Major John MacKay (4th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders); 2.= Alexander. R. MacColl (Bonawe) and Farquhar Macrae (Portree).
Marches (Open to all comers) -1. Duncan MacDougall (Piper to the Marquis of Breadalbane); 2. William MacLennan; 3. John MacColl.
Strathspey and Reel (Open to all comers) – 1. Angus MacRae (Raasay); 2. William MacLennan, 3.= Duncan MacDougall and John MacColl.
Marches, Strathspeys and Reels (Open only to natives of or residents in the counties of Argyll and Inverness who have never won a prize at the Argyllshire Gathering except in this class) – 1. John Wilson (Kingussie); 2. Lance Corporal Robb (93rd Highlanders); 3. D. C. Mather (Piper to Campbell of Barbreck).

William Robb was born in Stirling in 1863 when his father, a Sergeant in the 93rd Highlanders, was stationed there. He joined the 93rd Highlanders in his early teens and served as a piper, then as Pipe Major 2nd Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders 1887-91 and Pipe Major 1st Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders 1891-94. He served four years as Sergeant Piper with the 4th Militia Batt. HLI prior to his death. He is remembered as the composer of When the Battle is Over and The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders at Modder River. He died in Glasgow in 1909.

John Wilson, known as The Baldooser, served with the Seaforth Highlanders. He was shot in the leg in the South African War and afterwards had to play sitting down. The Campbells of Kilberry employed him as a butler and, in the 1920s, he then worked as a butler at Lawers House in Comrie.

Duncan MacDougall was born in Perth in 1837, when his father had a bagpipe making business there. On his father’s death in 1857 he took over the business but by 1862 he had left Perth when he was appointed Piper to Lord Elphinstone (brother-in-law to Lord Dunmore). Duncan returned to Perth briefly in 1865 but later that year was appointed Piper to the Prince of Wales. By 1867 he had settled in Edinburgh working first as an employee then on his own behalf as a bagpipe maker. During these years he was Pipe Major of the Edinburgh Volunteers. In about 1873 Duncan accepted the appointment as Piper to Lord Breadalbane at Taymouth Castle on condition that he was able to continue his bagpipe making business nearby in Aberfeldy. For over 20 years he was the Pipe Major of the 5th V.B.R.H. Black Watch (Volunteers), only retiring a year before his death. He was also Pipe Major of the Breadalbane Pipe Band, which played on several important occasions at Taymouth Castle. At the Northern Meeting he won the Prize Pipe in 1870, the Former Winners’ Gold Medal in 1873, Champion of Champions’ Gold Medal for Former Winners of the Gold Medal in 1876. He died in Aberfeldy in 1898.

On September 8, 1888 a small advertisement appeared in the Oban Times stating that the Games would be held on Wednesday, September 12. There is no list of events or rules. Adjacent to this is an advertisement for the Centenary Northern Meeting on September 20-21. The 1888 Gathering was “marked by an amount of success to which it has been unaccustomed in recent years.” Among those present were Prince Henry of Battenberg and the Marquis of Lorne. The results were:

D. C. Mather.

Gold Medal – 1. Kenneth MacDonald (Piper to Panmure Gordon Esq.); 2. Alexander R. MacColl (Piper to Mrs MacDonald of Dunach); 3. Norman Macpherson (Piper to Dunstaffnage).
March (Open to all comers) – 1. William MacLennan; 2. Pipe Major Robert Meldrum (Cameron Highlanders); 3.= John MacColl and Pipe Major MacKay (4th Batt. A and SH).
Strathspey and Reel (Open to all comers ) – 1. Pipe Major William Robb (93rd Sutherland Highlanders); 2. John MacColl; 3.= Angus MacRae (Lochearnhead) and Pipe Major John MacKay.
March, Strathspey and Reel (Local) – 1. D. C. Mather (Piper to Admiral Campbell of Barbreck); 2. John Wilson (Kingussie); 3. Lachlan MacCormick (Creagorry, Benbecula).

Lachlan McCormick, known as Lachie Ban, was born at Creagorry in 1859. He joined the Militia Batt. Cameron Highlanders in 1889 as Pipe Major then later was Pipe Sgt. of the Lovat Scouts. He died in 1951 aged 92.

Kenneth MacDonald was born in Inverness. He was Piper to Lord Dunmore at Rodel on Harris, c1881-1886, then Piper to Panmure Gordon of Glenalleter, Braemar in 1888. He was living in Inverness in 1890 and in Glasgow 1892.

Norman MacPherson was born at Laggan in Badenoch in 1869, and was a son of Calum Piobair MacPherson. He was Piper to Cluny then to Campbell of Dunstaffnage and others. He went to Canada in 1906 and worked in the railway service. He died in Muskoka, Ontario in 1947.

In 1889 according to the Oban Times there was an “unusually large and distinguished assemblage.” The entries for piping and dancing were “greatly in excess of any former year.”

The Glasgow Herald on September 12 reported: “The annual games in connection with the Argyllshire Gathering were held at Oban, yesterday. The weather was rather dull and threatening in the morning, but before noon it cleared up, and kept fair throughout the day. Owing to the fine weather which has continued during the season the town has been more than usually thronged with visitors, and although the hotel accommodation has been considerably increased during the past year, the influx of county people, on account of the gathering on Tuesday evening, taxed it to its utmost limits. The additional attraction of the R.H.Y.C. regatta, which is to take place today, brought also a large number of yachts to Oban. The country people, who look upon the gathering as their annual holiday, flocked into the town in unusually large numbers, as the harvest work being much more advanced than many years back left them free to avail themselves of the holiday. Special facilities were offered by the railway and steamboat companies, which were fully taken advantage of.

“The competitors were marshalled by the stewards at 11 o’clock at the office of the secretary, Mr J. Fraser Sim, in George Street, and, preceded by 21 pipers, marched to the field. The sports, which were held as in former years in the park at Soroba Road, appear to be yearly increasing in interest, as the number of spectators within the reserved spaces and upon the hills on either side of the field was larger than at any previous gathering, while the entries in the various athletic competitions were much in excess of the entries for the last few years. Prizes were as usual offered for industrial work, which was laid out in a large marquee on the west side of the field where the sports were held.”

The piping judges were Captain Campbell of Inverneill, Captain Allanby, Captain Stewart MacDougall and Malcolm MacNeill.

John Macpherson.

The results were:

Highland Society of London’s Gold Medal – 1. John Macpherson (Cluny); 2. D. C. Mather; 3. Norman Macpherson (Piper to Col. MacDonald of St. Martins, Perth). Norman Macpherson also won the extra prize, The Scottish Pipers’ Society’s Silver Medal to the best player in this competition who has never won a first prize or medal.
Marches, Argyllshire Gathering’s  Silver Medal – 1. John MacDougall Gillies, 2. Angus MacRae; 3. John MacColl.
Strathspeys and Reels – 1. John MacColl; 2. Pipe Major William Robb (93rd Highlanders);  3.= D. C. Mather and Angus MacRae.
March, Strathspey and Reel (Local) – 1. J. Campbell (Ardrishaig); 2. John Wilson (Ronancam, Callander); 3.= Norman Macpherson and Sgt. D. Robb (A and SH).

Lady Archibald Campbell presented the prizes. The ball followed in the evening as usual.

John MacPherson was born in Greenock in 1863, son of Calum Piobair MacPherson. He was Piper to Cluny then to Breadalbane, followed by Campbell of Kilberry then the industrialist and philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie. He was then appointed as valet and piper to Lord Willoughby (later Earl of Ancaster) in London, Drummond Castle. He won the Gold Medal at the Northern Meeting in 1920. John died in Newtonmore in 1933.

1890 saw the Games move to the venue they are still held today. The public park at Mossfield had been acquired by the burgh “for recreative purposes” in 1888 and the Games in 1890 would now be held there. There were stands on either side of the park, with seating for around 2,000 people. The Glasgow Herald on September 11 reported: “The games in connection with the Argyllshire Gathering were held at Oban yesterday. The weather, though dull and threatening, was favourable. The sports this year were held in a park belonging to the Town Council, picturesquely situated in Glencruitten and the arrangements were altogether an improvement upon those of former years.

Mossfield Park, Oban.

“A steep slope on the north side was seated to accommodate about 1,000 persons, and during, the greater part of the day every available seat was occupied, while round the ropes there was a greater concourse of people than there has been at any of the previous gatherings. The competitors, as usual, mustered at 11 o’clock before the office of the secretary, Mr Shairp, in George Street, and proceded by the stewards and pipers, marched to the field, the proceedings being commenced immediately thereafter.”

The piping judges were Mr Campbell of lnverneil, Captain Allanby of Altnacraig, Captain Stewart (A. and S. H.) with Pipe Major Ronald MacKenzie as professional judge.

The results were:

Gold Medal (£5, £3, £2) – 1. Norman Macpherson (Piper to H. W. H. Dunsmure, Loch Lomond); 2. D. C. Mather (Piper to Charles Murray Esq. of Lochcarron); 3.= Danny Campbell (Glendale, Skye) and Farquhar MacRae (Portree).
Marches – 1. John MacColl; 2. Angus MacRae (Callander); 3. Pipe Major John Connon.
Strathspeys and Reels – 1. Angus MacRae; 2. John MacColl; 3.= D. C. Mather and John Wilson (Kingussie).
March, Strathspey and Reel (Local) – 1. Danny Campbell; 2. John Wilson:  3. Murdo MacKenzie (Inverness).

Colonel Malcolm M.P. presented the prizes. The ball took place that evening with over 400 people attending. The regatta and the second ball followed as usual.

• To be continued.

• Part 1
• Part 2
• Part 3