Keep making good friends in your own ‘piping times’


After only two days, the National Piping Centre’s crowdfunder target for the project to digitise the Piping Times and Piping Today magazines has reached one third. It would appear that this campaign is clearly resonating with the piping world.

For younger readers, it may be instructive for us to take a look at the history of the magazine that itself became a piping institution … the Piping Times.

Not long before he died, the editor of National Geographic magazine said: “My monument is five miles high.” This would’ve been the height of the pile if every copy of the magazine had been piled one on top of the other. Seumas MacNeill, the Piping Times‘ longest and best editor, quoted this statement in 1990 and said that his monument was about four feet high at that time. Another nine inches or so had been added by the time he died.

Captain John A. MacLellan MBE once wrote: “There is more valuable material in the pages of the Piping Times than all the other books and magazines put together.”

The origins of the Piping Times go back to the beginning of 1947. A little magazine entitled Fiery Cross made its first appearance in January 1947 under the editorship of Hugh MacDonald. The cover bore the logo of the League of Young Scots (founded in 1940 as the Fianna na h’Alba), now more familiar as the College of Piping logo. Articles covered piping and the activities of the league. When asked in February 2008 how many issues of Fiery Cross there were, Hugh replied, “Just the one.”

Fiery Cross was followed by a news sheet entitled The Piping Times. The first of these was a single duplicated sheet edited by Terry MacDonough and came out early in 1948. The June 1948 edition was two sheets stapled together and had three pages of text. The fifth edition in August 1948 was still two sheets stapled together. It included an announcement that the next edition would be a printed magazine and readers were invited to send in the subscription form with payment of seven shillings for the next 12 copies.

This first printed Piping Times appeared in September 1948 under the direction of Terry MacDonough, printed by R. Kirkland and published by The League of Young Scots.

Left: the August 1948 news sheet. Right: Volume 1, Number 1 (October 1948).

The issue was numbered Volume 1, Number 1 and was actually dated October 1948 but an explanation for this was provided 40 years later on the anniversary. Seumas MacNeill wrote, “Of course we were pretty clever even in these days, for although it appeared in September we labelled the issue October, being pretty sure that over the years we would need that extra month’s grace to allow for delay in production; and how right we were. Not the least of our achievements has been our success in maintaining a monthly appearance, and only sliding back three weeks in 40 years.”

When asked about the early days of the Piping Times Seumas MacNeill said, “We were fortunate that from an early stage we attracted articles from the big names in piping, such as Archibald Campbell of Kilberry, J. P. Grant of Rothiemurchus, Dugald Graham Campbell, as well as many professional pipers. Rothiemurchus said once, ‘We used to talk about the Times (meaning the London Times) the Oban Times and the Piping Times. Now we say the Times, the London Times and the Oban Times.’”

Hugh MacDonald pictured in 1997.

The first issues had a plain cover with a central picture. Issue No. 1 showed the MacCrimmon cairn at Boreraig, Skye. On the Piping Times March 1951 (Vol. 3, No. 6), the wording around the College logo on the cover was changed from ‘League of Young Scots’ to ‘College of Piping’ and from April 1951 the cover became a tartan pattern of black and white with a red line. The price increased from 6d to 9d but the magazine increased in size from 16 to 28 pages although this was reduced the following month to 24 pages and then to 20 the month after.

From April 1952 onwards, the yellow and black MacLeod tartan in honour of the College’s Honorary President, Dame Flora MacLeod was used on the cover. The price was still 9d and the magazine had 20 pages. By October 1953 there were 30 pages but the price went up to one shilling. On the December 1959 issue, the red and green Cameron tartan was used for the first time and the covers alternated each month until April 1965 when the pink and grey Campbell of Cawdor tartan was introduced.

These three were used in turn until August 1967 (Vol. 19, No. 11) when the blue Hannay was first used. A fifth tartan, the red and green Gayre, first appeared on the cover of February 1968 surrounding the photograph of Colonel Gayre of Gayre and Nigg who had sponsored a composing contest that year. Two more tartans appeared; the red, yellow and green MacMillan on February 1969 and the green MacLean on April 1970. The names of the tartans were not given until 1977. From 1988 more new tartans were introduced as printing technological advances meant the covers could now be printed in all colours.

The first ever colour picture appeared in the October 1979 edition. It was a group photo of Seton Gordon, Angus Macpherson, Col. Jock MacDonald and Roderick MacDonald judging at Glenfinnan. The picture proved popular with readers so afterwards copies were offered for sale. Colour didn’t feature again for eight years when the October 1987 edition had the first colour picture on the cover – of John Hanning, New Zealand – and from then on colour was used, but only for occasional photos, as colour printing was still very expensive.

Terry MacDonough, pictued in 1993.

The Piping Times’ first editor was Terry MacDonough and the sub-editor was Iain Forrest. By 1957 the magazine was being run by an Editorial Committee with Seumas MacNeill as the convenor. The committee consisted of Seumas, Iain Dewar, Rosemary Currie and Hazel Currie. Iain Dewar, a “financial wizard” according to Seumas, was in charge of Sales and Distribution and the Currie sisters handled the Editorial side. Rosemary and Hazel were both College pupils and were members of the College juvenile band.

At the AGM in June 1958 the College officials, in addition to the Joint Principals, were John MacFadyen (Hon. Secretary), MacGregor Kennedy (Hon. Assistant Secretary), Iain Dewar (Hon. Treasurer) and Rosemary Currie (Piping Times Editor). The ‘Appointments to the Piping Times and other Publications Committee’ at the 1959 AGM were: Seumas MacNeill, Finlay MacNeill and Robert Bennett. From then until his death in 1996, Seumas MacNeill was the editor.

By 1970 Margaret Gray was dealing with Piping Times material and correspondence and she continued to be Seumas’ chief assistant throughout the subsequent years.

Seumas’ last editorial was in the April 1996 edition and was concerning the final break between the College of Piping and the Piping Trust. Seumas died on April 4.

From the first issue, the Piping Times was printed by R. Kirkland of Keppochhill Road, Glasgow, and later of St. Mungo Street, Bishopbriggs. Ayton Printers in Otago Street took over from the November 1980 edition then from April 1981, Hugh K. Clarkson, an old friend of Seumas’ took over the printing.

Hugh K. Clarkson wearing an Inverscotia Nomads chain.

From then until March 1985, Ayton and Clarkson printed the issues alternately. This was convenient in some ways as Ayton’s used the old printing methods and could print from the photographic blocks which had been made during the previous years. Once a block had been made the original photograph could be returned to the owner and the same picture could be used again and again. As Ayton’s was next door to the College, staff were able to run round with material before printing began and Mr Ayton could bring in the magazine a box at a time as they were ready. Clarkson used a different printing method and printed from a photograph without a block having to be made.

From the beginning, the Piping Times went to many parts the world, not only to subscribers but also to various shops at home and abroad. Seumas had his own methods of increasing sales. For example, when Archie MacNab’s photo appeared on the cover of October 1953, there was an addition to the caption at the foot of the Contents page stating: “An account of his piping career appeared in last month’s issue. This way we get Mrs MacNab to buy two copies.” Group photographs of competitors, especially at juvenile events were better than a single photo of a winner because that way all the parents bought copies for themselves and extra copies for the grannies. Similarly, group photographs of overseas summer schools increased the circulation dramatically. Seumas hated people to pass their copies on, especially when they wrote proudly to tell him how well used their copy was and listing the pipers it was passed on to.

Seoras Telfer and his creation, Donald Drone.

In May 1952 a crossword appeared in the Piping Times for the first time. From then, crosswords appeared occasionally before eventually appearing in every issue, courtesy of Jeannie Campbell. Donald Drone made his first appearance in October 1953 and from then onwards the humorous strip, drawn by Seoras Telfer, was a regular and popular feature. Indeed, on receiving their magazine, many readers said they’d turn to Donald Drone first. In the last few years, the strip was revived and drawn (in colour) by Iain Bell.

Seumas’ office at the College of Piping.

Seumas MacNeill said humour was the hardest thing to come by but in addition to Donald Drone, the Piping Times was lucky to have Tony Fisher’s articles on Duff Reid (which were reprinted again in later years) and occasional articles by Ian K. Murray. Seumas, while often controversial and acerbic, could be very funny as well and some of his editorials and articles were classics.

The cover of the May 1996 Piping Times.

Seumas also had his own style of advertising and would often put a page in every November issue with a list of gift ideas for Christmas. This would read something like, ‘Don’t be content to settle for the usual tie, socks and slippers for Christmas. Leave this page lying around, suitably marked, and you never know your luck.’ The scheme certainly worked as many family members of pipers would phone in to order items from the page.

The May 1996 edition of the Piping Times – with a cover that had none of the usual ‘furniture’, something that had only ever happened once previously, with the death of John MacFadyden – with its tributes to Seumas, sold out completely within a short time of publication. So many requests for copies were received that it was reprinted with copies made available at the normal price.

Dugald MacNeill then became the editor but, in answer to a question from a reader, said he was the stand-in editor and that Margaret Gray and Rona MacDonald did the hard work. It was typically self-effacing response from Dugald, who in reality did a very good job as editor during his brief tenure. His committment to the magazine – and to the College itself – was unwavering and total.

The September 1999 edition was the last to be edited by Dugald. He had never considered himself to be anything but a temporary editor until another could be found. Margaret Gray retired at the same time as Dugald. The new incumbent, Robert Wallace, edited the magazine until August 2014 when Stuart Letford was asked to take over the reins. Mr. Letford told us: “It was an honour to edit the magazine for the last seven years. I met and corresponded with so many good people around the world.

Margaret Gray.

“I have so many great memories of this time. For example, I remember one day in the autumn of 2014, Lt. Col. David Murray phoned the College in high dudgeon about something or other, and demanded his subscription be cancelled, only to be told by one of the staff: ‘David, we can’t cancel your subscription … you don’t have one.’

“However, it was obvious to me from the outset that the magazine’s heyday was well over – and had been for some time – and that running it was going to be about managing decline. Taking a leaf out of Seumas’ and Dugald’s book, I never took a penny in payment until after a year of persuasion from the College Directors, I reluctantly agreed a nominal remuneration with them. Like Seumas, I edited the magazine whilst holding down a full time job elsewhere.

“I didn’t view editing the PT as work. As I said, it was an honour and something I enjoyed greatly. The piping world is a great world and sometimes I think we don’t appreciate that as much as we should. The Piping Times contributed so much to piping. Good grief, piping globally wouldn’t be in the healthy state it is today if it wasn’t for the PT fighting our corner for all that time.


“All magazines are nothing without the loyalty of their readers, contributors and advertisers. One hesitates to single anyone out but one contributor in particular should be mentioned in despatches: Jeannie Campbell MBE. She was an indispensable help not just to me but to every editor of the PT since 1980. A meticulous researcher with an eye for detail, all of the magazine’s editors would have put out an inferior product regularly without her input, of this I am certain. I am glad she is now an occasional contributor to Bagpipe.News.”

The Skirl o’ the Pipes

The skirl o’ the pipes, the drums on the beat,
Bring joy to our hearts, and dancing to feet.

The skirl o’ the pipes, o’er mountain and dunes,
Give courage and strength to march to their tunes.

The skirl o’ the pipes, ’tis ever the same,
In peace-time or war, they’re a prelude to fame.

The skirl o’ the pipes, from land of the heather,
‘Tis the call that makes all fine Scots get together.

The skirl o’ the pipes – Keep playing your rhymes,
And keep making good friends in your own ‘piping times’.

J. M. Meldrum, Piping Times, July 1958.

• Jeannie’s memories of the Piping Times will appear here next week.

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