The history of the Argyllshire Gathering, part 23



By Jeannie Campbell MBE

In 1951, competitors for the Argyllshire Gathering’s Open Piobaireachd competition had to offer four tunes, MacDougalls’ Gathering, John GarveMacLeod of Raasay’s Lament, The Daughter’s Lament, Lachlan MacNeill Campbell of Kintarbert’s Fancy. The Gold Medal competitors were to submit six tunes of their own choice. John MacFadyen wrote the Piping Times’ (PT) report of the Gathering that year, with comments by the adjudicators in inverted commas. “As in previous years,” he wrote, “the first day of piping – Wednesday, 12th September – was held in the Drimvargie Drill Hall. The first competition for the Highland Society of London’s Gold Medal and £12 started at 9.30a.m. and attracted 29 entrants. To Ronald Lawrie, Oban, fell the unenviable task of setting the competition going with MacKay’s Banner, and an excellent job he made of it, considering the hour.

“The general standard of the competition was high and the tunes submitted showed considerable enterprise, including as they did such seldom heard tunes as Beinn a Ghriain and The MacLeod’s Short Tune.”

Pipe Major Donald MacLean, Isle of Lewis, gained the coveted medal with MacDonald’s Salute. “A stirring tune played in forceful style on an excellent instrument,” wrote MacFadyen. “An outstanding performance.” Second prize went to Pipe Major Donald MacLeod, who played The Battle of Waternish. “A musical rendering, marred by the drones going slightly off at the end of the tune. In spite of this, the general effect was very pleasing.”

James MacColl in later years.

Seumas MacNeill was third, with The Bells of Perth. “A steady performance of merit on a good-going instrument, but the taorluath-a-mach was not up to the high standard of execution shown in the rest of the tune.”

Pipe Major J. MacGrady was fourth, with The Big Spree and “would have deserved a higher place had his tune not been blemished by a serious choke in the doubling of the second variation. It was otherwise a very good performance on an excellent pipe.” Fifth was Charles D. Scott with The Earl of Seaforth’s Salute. “A sound performance on a sweet-toned instrument. The effect of the tune was slightly spoiled by a tendency to hurry in the doublings of the taorluath and crunluath variations.”

Such was the composition of the prize list and when it was announced was met with general approval. The following performances, however, “though not in the prize list, were specially worthy of comment and have been taken in the order of playing.

Tommy Pearston playing valiantly on the boards at the 1951 Argyllshire Gathering. The event that year was marred by the torrential rain. The rain was so heavy that as the pipers beat time with their foot they sent up sprays of water and the judges’ results were washed off the board as soon as they were written up.

Among the other competitors were L/Cpl. George Johnson, Willie MacDonald (Inverness), Donald MacGillivray, Tommy Pearston, Andrew Pitkeathly, James MacColl, John MacFadyen. The adjudicators were D. Graham­ Campbell, Shirvan, Archie Kenneth and. J. Maxwell MacDonald.

Willie Munro MacDonald, Inverness was born at Kingussie in 1918. Pre-war he served from 1935 with the TA 4th Camerons under Pipe Major William Young. He was taken prisoner in 1940 with the 51st Highland Division at St Valery and spent five years as a Prisoner of War before being released in 1945. He was a piper with the 11th Holding Batt. until 1946 and afterwards a civil engineer with Inverness County Council and Highland Regional Council for 40 years (Water Board). He retired in 1979. In 1955, the year he won the Gold Medal at the Argyllshire Gathering, he also won the Gold Medal at the Northern Meeting, following it with the Clasp in 1956. He played shinty and led the winning team in the final of Camanachd Cup, the only Clasp winner to do this. He also played football [soccer] for Inverness Caledonian. He died in Inverness in 2002.

Donald Paterson MacGillivray was born in 1923. He learned his piping during his schooldays at Ardvreck and Glenalmond before becoming a pupil of John MacDonald, Inverness. By profession he was a farmer and cattle breeder. He won the Northern Meeting Gold Medal in 1948 and was placed several times in the Clasp. He died in 2011.

Andrew Pitkeathly was born in Perthshire in 1928. After early tuition from his father he enlisted in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders in 1946. He was appointed Pipe Major in 1952 and from 1966 to 1973 he was the Queen’s Piper. He was commissioned in 1973 at Dreghorn and was Captain and Director of the Army School of Bagpipe Music from 1976 until he retired in 1981. He won the Northern Meeting Gold Medal in i1949 and the Strathspey and Reel in 1956. He died in 1994.

The Open Piobaireachd Competition commenced at 6.00p.m. and of the 13 pipers who played, five broke down. In this competition there was reportedly some excellent playing, but the general standard was poor. This is however, no reflection on the playing of Donald MacPherson, whose impeccable rendering of MacDougalls’ Gathering was a delight to listen to and which gained him first prize, the Shirvan Cup (for the second time) and £12. James MacColl was second with The Daughter’s Lament. This was a worthy performance, although it tended at times to be purely mechanical.

Third place went to John D. Burgess with Lachlan MacNeill of Kintarbert’s Fancy. In this competition the adjudicators were J. Graham-Campbell, Jr. of Shirvan, Alistair Anderson and an unknown third.

The jig competition was next on the list and was more in the nature of relaxation after the strenuous day of ceòl mòr. Results – 1. Pipe Major Donald MacLeod, Tenpenny Bit; 2. John D. Burgess, Cork Hill; 3. Thomas Pearston, Center’s Bonnet.

Willie Connell.

The competitions on Thursday were carried out in typical Games weather … rain bouncing off the platform and soaking the players and making everyone miserable. However, the playing was, considering the elements, very good and the results were as follows:

Marches (short leet) – William Connell, Glengarry Gathering; Donald MacPherson, Pap of Glencoe; James MacColl, Charles Edward Hope de Vere; Thomas Pearston, Lochaber Gathering; Robert Henderson, MacLean of Pennycross; Pipe Major J. MacKenzie, Mrs John MacColl.

Final – 1. Donald MacPherson, Abercairney Highlanders; 2. Tommy Pearston, John MacDonald of Glencoe; 3. James MacColl, MacLean of Pennycross; 4. R. Henderson, Southall; 5. J. MacKenzie, 71st Highlanders.

Strathspey and Reel (short leet) – John D. Burgess, Delvinside, Lochiel’s Away to France; John MacFadyen, Maggie Cameron, Smith of Chilliechassie; Donald MacPherson, Blair Drummond, Rejected Suitor; Pipe Major John MacKenzie, Shepherd’s Crook, Flagon; Seumas MacNeill, Delvinside, Grey Bob; Thomas Pearston, Caledonian Society, John MacKechnie.

Final – John D. Burgess, Arniston Castle, John Morrison; 2. Thomas Pearston, MacBeth’s Strathspey, Captain Duff; 3. Seumas MacNeill, Lady Louden, Rejected Suitor; 4. J. MacKenzie, Highland Harry, Man from Glengarry; 5. John MacFadyen, Tulloch Gorm, Lochcarron.

The adjudicators were J. Graham-Campbell, Shirvan; D. Graham-Campbell, Shirvan; Col. MacDonald, Skye; Archie Kenneth, and Charles D. MacTaggart. The first three judged the marches first time over and made the final places in the Strathspey and Reel.

The March, Strathspey and Reel competition for former first prize-winners was won by John D. Burgess, who played Edinburgh Volunteers, Ewe wi’ the Crookit Horn and Pretty Marion. Second was Seumas MacNeill while James MacColl was third. The adjudicators in this competition were James Campbell of Kilberry, Col. MacDonald and Charles D. MacTaggart.’

An entertaining article was written by MacGregor Kennedy for the PT, entitled ‘Impressions of Oban, 1951’: “The most cursory glance round the Games Field at Oban will convey to anyone that this is a Campbell ‘do’, he wrote. “They are everywhere, so is their tartan. In fact, some of them even spill out into the area set aside for ordinary mortals.

MacGregor Kennedy.

“As history proves, the Campbells get by. It is no different at the Argyllshire Gathering. They are monarchs of all they survey from their strictly exclusive grandstand and enclosure. The shutters are only to keep the lesser tribes of Scotland out, for – believe me – they don’t mind being stared at! Actually, it appears that the stand was built, not so that they could see, but so that they could be seen. This grandstand intrigued me, I confess. It must have intrigued many others who stood in this years’ downpour and got a good old-fashioned soaking. No amount of money, it seems, can buy a seat in this celestial hall. You have to be one of the ‘County’ or a Lord Provost.”

“This sounds like sour grapes, perhaps. Nevertheless, that shrewd observer of his fellow Scots, James Barke, took one look at Oban Games and gave it what in some circles is its current title – The Feudal Revival. “A more appropriate title by far than ‘The Argyllshire Gathering’, he wrote. “Why the Anglo-Saxon ‘shire’ anyway?

“The Campbells and their friends can be very comfortable in the most inclement weather. How about the cream of Scotland’s pipers? I was appalled to see many famous pipers huddled under ‘mess’ tents’ flaps, sheltering as best they could from the incessant downpour and trying to keep their hands reasonably warm in order to play. Some had gloves and some had hands buried in pockets, hoping for the best.

“There is a competitors’ tent, you must know – a single tent for all competitors, pole-vaulters, caber tossers, weightputters, tug-o’-war merchants and what-have-you. The stench of embrocation and sweaty bodies is hardly conducive to a skillful piping performance from a sensitive artiste.

“No offence is meant to the athletes here. They are bound to use embrocation and to perspire a bit. They are probably of the opinion that the pipers in the tent are liable to cramp their style. A separate tent, a good big one with a private tuning enclosure adjacent, is the least that the pipers should have to themselves. There should be adequate facilities for washing the hands in warm, clean water.

“Were these facilities available to the pipers, it would save a lot of running about on the part of those nonentities who hail the best pipers in Scotland by their second names and in haughty English accents. Obviously, these comedians do not realise that it is the compliment supreme In Gaeldom to address a Gael by his honoured surname.

“One of the rules at Oban is that pipers must compete correctly dressed in the national garb. It is a good job this rule does not apply to some of the stewards and various other displaced persons who wander about on the field proper. I thought lhad seen everything having observed one fellow in canary yellow hose, another in vermilion hose, and yet another sporting a ‘go to hell’ bonnet or deer stalker. I was oh so wrong! To further astound the senses, two more ill-advised youths walked out where everybody, including the blind, could see them in brilliant yellow flannel Argyll jackets. What horror!

“It is my earnest prayer that the many visitors from overseas who were present do not go home with the mistaken impression that these get-ups are the traditional Scottish wear.

What of the credit side? Naturally, the piping is worth listening to. This is not provided by the members of the gathering, of course. The judging is, however, and I am of the opinion that it is sound, fair and of a high standard. One or two of the competitors I spoke to were of the feeling that in a tight thing there is always a wee edge in favour of the army piper, if one is involved. I don’t agree.

“Prize money is good. One is almost tempted to say excellent, when comparing it with the offerings at some of the Games.

“Out of the welter of characters who have an interest in running the Oban Games, it seems to me that very, very few have any real interest in genuine Scottish culture. Make no mistake; the cultural aspect of the meeting is the most important thing about it. This is provided by the piping contests.

“Nevertheless, I can think of a handful of sterling types who emerge from the dross of their fellows, in step with the contemporary Scottish Renaissance. This is a phenomenon which must remain unexplained in view of the baneful influence they are subject to. These shall be nameless for the present, but I believe that in due course they will manage to whip the Gathering into a semblance of the true order of value. It would be just if they won through-and I think they can.

“Meantime, the Oban Games? – Phew!”

• To be continued.

• Part 1
• Part 2
• Part 3
• Part 4
• Part 5
• Part 6
• Part 7
• Part 8
• Part 9
• Part 10
• Part 11
• Part 12
• Part 13
• Part 14
• Part 15
• Part 16
• Part 17
• Part 18
• Part 19
• Part 20

• Part 21
• Part 22