Archie MacNeill.
Archie MacNeill.

At the pipers’ pub in the Townhead, all these pipers – Danny A. Campbell of Glendale [Skye], Willie Robb, Michael MacNeill – and others would take turn about to play on the practice chanter. By this time, MacDougall Gillies, who was the manager in Peter Henderson’s shop, had agreed to give me lessons on piobaireachd on Saturday afternoons but I was also anxious to improve my playing of marches, strathspeys and reels, so I would listen very carefully to what these pipers played on the practice chanter. D. A. Campbell was a famous strathspey and reel player and I can still remember him playing the reel, Pretty Marion, and using a G gracenote at the back on to B from F in the fourth bar. Robb had very strong fingers. Michael MacNeill must have been a very fine player in his day but when I first knew him he was getting on in years then. I was grateful to Neil Sutherland who got me several engagements playing at the Sutherlandshire Gatherings held in the St. Andrews large halls, and various other engagements.

The Waterloo Rooms was a great meeting place for highland gatherings. It had been an old church and stood at the corner of Waterloo Street and Wellington Street. It had plenty of small rooms for tuning as well as good halls. Today, the Alhambra Music Hall stands on the site of these old rooms and I think it was the greatest mistake that the Highlanders Institute did not build their hall there.

At that time there were held amateur, semi-amateur and professional competitions. If a piper happened to win a prize in the professional competition this barred him from playing in the semi-amateur or amateur competitions. The entry money in 1903 was the sum of 1/6d each event, so pipers have no complaint to make in 1954 since event money has scarcely increased at all.

Are either of these the “pipers’ pub” referred to by Archie? Since Archie’s day, the Townhead area of Glasgow has been completely transformed and much of it is now gone. The pub on the left is Glebe Bar, known latterly as Broon’s Bar. It stood at the corner of Albert Street and McAslin Street. The pub on the right is the Royal Bar and it stood at the corner of Glebe Street and Stirling Road. There were other pubs in the area, of course.

There would be about three competitions held during the winter, playing in the Waterloo Rooms. This started about eight o’clock in the morning. The events would include highland dancing competitions and sometimes a tug-of-war.

I was very shy to compete at these competitions owing to not being able to march straight due to the failure of my sight. Neil Sutherland offered to pay my entry money if I would play in the semi-amateur events. The first time I played I got second for Marches and third for Strathspey and Reel out of 30 competitors. A friend of mine in the hall told me afterwards about the remarks being passed by some of the audience such as how could I play when I could not read music. One of the judges at this competition was the late John Macpherson of Badenoch.

The Alhambra Theatre was built on the site of the Waterloo Rooms in Glasgow’s Wellington Street (near Central Station).

I remember James A. Center playing The Little Spree at one of these competitions. I was greatly carried away by the fine tone he got from his pipes and I asked him if they were very hard to blow. He told me to try them and I was greatly surprised how easy they were to blow.

I used to go down to Rhu occasionally for the weekends to practice the fiddle with a gardener friend called David Davidson. I had met him shortly after losing my sight and he suggested that it would be more remunerative playing the violin instead of the pipes and offered to teach me the fiddle in exchange for me to teach him to be a piper. He would be about 32 years of age at that time, which is a bit late in life to make a good piper but I must say he did remarkably well. The biggest trouble he had was in keeping a steady pressure on the bag when taking a breath.

He also composed several pipe tunes, including one tune called Diana Farquharson, a reel, which gained him first prize and a gold medal and two guineas in a competition. This tune was also published in the Cowal Collection.

Davidson taught me all he knew about the violin scales and so I got a good understanding of musical theory. His chief interest lay in playing strathspeys and reels on the fiddle and he would read over to me Honeyman’s book on how to play strathspeys and reels. Honeyman seemed to be an authority on Scottish fiddling and he had a column called the ‘Love Darg’ in the Peoples Friend, a weekly magazine which still goes on I believe. Anyone who had a violin and wanted it valued, for a small fee he would send them an answer back about their particular violin and the money was put into this charitable Love Darg. I believe Honeyman published a book, How to Play a Violin and Master It.

The chief difficulty I found was trying to bow straight, although one can get a gadget fitted across the strings to prevent the bow from slipping up or down.

Some Glasgow at the formation of the Scottish Pipers Association (1920).

David Davidson got quite a number of engagements during the winter playing at dances, chiefly waltzes, lancers and quadrilles and so on. He used to ask me to bring down to Rhu with me a pianist, and piccolo, cornet or concertina players to make up a small band. I also got a Reel set of bagpipes on loan from a friend, a set of the former mentioned Frasers of Greenock, They blended very well with the various instruments and it was a very fine toned chanter and did not drown the rest of the instruments which were playing

I do not know what became of this reel set of pipes as the owner was killed at the battle of Gallipoli.

James A. Center.

 After being several years in Glasgow I was engaged to play at what was known then as the Pony Readings, held on Thursday and Saturday nights. Three highlanders ran these dances. They charged 1/- per night using cloakroom tickets as entry tickets. I remember one snowy winter night they had a dram or two and had got mixed up with regards to the numbers of the tickets sold. While they were trying to get this sorted out outside the hall, one of them who had an artificial leg slipped on the snow and the leg became loose. The mix up regarding the tickets was forgotten in the effort to make the man mobile again.

The main reason for playing at these functions I suppose was to augment the rather small wage which I had, but I also enjoyed being able to do something and to meet other people and especially other musicians, I played later on in the Freemasons Hall in West Regent Street, the Adult School in Portland Street and in a hall at Parkhead Cross. Also in what was known as the Tripe Hall in Gloucester Street. This was rather a rough quarter, as sometimes the beer bottles would come hurtling through the window.

Neil Sutherland.

There were many clever musicians in the blind workshops and one was a concertina player. When I got acquainted with him we would practice together tunes that suited both instruments and we entered the go-as-you-please competitions in the picture halls. The chief difficulty I had was getting the pitch of the tonic A on the pipe chanter to be sharp enough to suit the A on the concertina.

There was a blind man from Kilsyth who worked beside me, James Goodwin. He had been born without eyes and was a great player of the piccolo and the concert flute. He had a wonderful memory and could memorise a set of quadrilles in a very short time. When he heard me playing the chanter he told me he had acted as one of the judges at a piping contest in the Waterloo Rooms, and in his opinion John MacColl of Oban was the outstanding player. A theatre company heard about his wonderful memory and took him to London to answer questions put to him by the audience. Some years later I heard he had died in London.

At these Waterloo Rooms competitions I must have heard all the good pipers in the City of Glasgow, and sometimes what we called the Edinburgh Quartet used to come through – J. A. Center, G. S. Allan, John Wallace and G. S. MacLennan, and this added extra interest and enjoyment.

• To be continued.

• Part 1
• Part 2
• Part 3