Memoirs of Archie MacNeill, part 5

Archie MacNeill.

Some years later the Scottish Pipers and Dancers Association formed and I was put forward as one of the committee. Also included were Pipe Major John MacKenzie (Big John), James Mclvor, Pipe Major George Ross and others. I forget the names of the dancers who were also on the committee but I remember being called to a meeting to help select the short leet of tunes for one of the publications of the Cowal books. This meeting was held in Mr Kay’s in Bellgrove Street, who was one of the dancers on the committee. After our selections the tunes were sent to John MacColl and Willie Ross for a final adjudication.

Pipe Major George Ross was the only piper who could play the tunes reading at first sight. There are one or two people alive yet who attended the meeting in Kay’s house.

Some years later this association burst up owing to the dancers not taking enough interest in the association and in fact not paying their subscriptions. After this the present Scottish Pipers’ Association was formed and as far as I can remember I think the meeting place was the Templars Hall in Ingram Street. Several piping competitions were held in the above mentioned hall and L believe now what is called the present Veterans Competition was first held in Ingram Street. You had to be over 40 years of age to compete.

Incidentally, I won the first prize in this, a black silver and ebony walking stick. The judge was a Pipe Major from Australia. I can’t recall his name.

Robert Reid.

I did not play at many competitions owing to the lack of finances, as I had to pay the expenses of a guide who had to lead me. I was always a great believer of the judges being undercover, as I was more successful when the judges couldn’t see who was playing. Here are two instances. Again at Renfrew, at a competition held after the First World War, the judges were undercover. They were Pipe Major John Mackenzie, John Mclvor and another. I got third prize in this open competition for Marches. Incidentally, this was where Pipe Major Robert Reid came out with Highland Wedding. Pipe Major Willie Gray and Robert Reid had to play over again for first place. Robert Reid played Abercairney Highlanders and Highland Wedding. One of my sons marched me round the platform. He was wearing a pair of sandshoes so the judges did not know who was playing.

I had a Boys’ Brigade band at this contest and they won the first prize. I cannot understand why judges are afraid to go undercover, as the judge adjudicating the brass bands has to judge undercover at the Crystal Palace and he has to select out the winning band, the best cornet, the best euphonium and the best horn player. This takes a very keen ear to pick these players out.

I believe the judging of solo piping at present is much better now than it was 50 years ago [Remember, Archie dictated these memoirs in the 1950s – Editor]. Some years ago the men who were subscribers to the games generally judged the piping, whether they were pipers or not, although Dr. James Bett seemed to have a good knowledge of piping. Nowadays, the young piper, if he can play well, has a good chance of winning a prize as an established competitor.

Tommy Pearston
Tommy Pearston. He was a champion piper in the 139 BB for four years

I will now turn to the teaching side. Not long after I came to Glasgow a friend of mine suggested that he would try and get me a few pupils, but blindness was looked on as a handicap, although I had already taught some people. My attention was drawn to an advert in the evening paper, that an instructor was wanted for a boys club that met in a little street off the Gallowgate. The man in charge was a Dr. Cossar and I had an interview with him but I was turned down as not being suitable.

In 1917, another friend, Donald Cameron, who was employed with R. G. Lawrie the bagpipe makers, had been teaching the 139 Boys’ Brigade band. He asked me if I would take over as he had too much work to do. I was reluctant to do so but instructors were scarce owing to the war. I had an interview with Captain Baird and he agreed to give me a trial. As a rule there was just an honorarium paid but I received ten shillings per month for one night’s teaching per week. I had been teaching my own two boys, aged 13 and 11 years of age, so they joined the band. I carried on with this band with some success

I played at a competition in the Calderwood Estate, Lanarkshire, the judge being Pipe Major Stewart from Hamilton Barracks. He was puzzled by hearing me beating time and not marching round so he came out of the tent where he was adjudicating.

for 17 years and finished up with a salary of £1.2.6d per month, The reason I gave it up after those years was owing to the pension scheme of the blind workshops. The blind pension was at that time ten shillings (50p) per week and you were not allowed to earn any money otherwise your pension was cut. The age limit for retiral was fixed at 55 years.

The 139 G.C. BB band at Cowal in 1930. Extreme left is Archie MacNeill, extreme right James Broadway, The officer in charge is Mr. Louden (known to the boys as ‘Lord Louden’). The Staff Sergeant is Tommy Hay. Next to hint is Alex MacNeill; two along is the bass drummer (Big Matt), then Donald MacNeill, then George Buchanan (well known later in Ontario piping circles). Extreme right of front row is James C. Morrison, who eventually become band officer. Next to him is George Wilkie who supplied this photograph, then Alex Buchanan, brother of George. If anyone can supply the missing names we would be very grateful.

During this period of teaching the BB band, it won every juvenile championship, including the Corporation, the Highland Club Shield (which was held in Kelvingrove Park), Cowal Highland Games and many others. Some of the well known pipers of today were boys in the band: John Allan McGee who is now in New Zealand, Alex McKechnie of Govan, Sydney and Walter Rose, Willie Bryson, Donald MacLean, Seumas MacNeill, Thomas Pearston and Donald and Alex MacNeill. Their father was from Edinbane in Skye, so they were no relatives of mine. Their names can be seen on the Cameron and Chisholm cups and other trophies presented by the SPA.

I had scores of boys through my hands during those 17 years. It is no job teaching a juvenile band, as you have to keep filling up replacements owing to the age limit of the boys from 12 to 17 on joining and terminating. I used to have them up to my house on other nights of the week to help them along and fix up their pipes.

I had a good drum instructor called James Broadway and after him came Dan Turrent who played with the MacLean Pipe Band. There was great rivalry amongst the juvenile bands at that time, the 102nd BB from Govan, 40th from Springburn, the 46th, the 69th and many others.

They were all keen to win the competitions, especially the one hold in the Winter Gardens on the Glasgow Green. Every BB band seemed to require funds to keep them going and the prizes were engagements playing in the public parks. The number of park engagements allotted was according to your victories on the prize list of the competition.

In addition, the Boys Brigade ran what was known as the Battalion Competition for junior and senior individual playing. This was open to all the BB bands in Glasgow. One year four members of the 139 BB captured all the prizes. Incidentally, Tom Pearston, who joined the band at nine years of age, was champion piper for four years, twice junior and twice senior.

• To be continued.

• Part 1
• Part 2
• Part 3
• Part 4