The history of the Argyllshire Gathering, part 24



By Jeannie Campbell MBE

In 1952 the newspapers reported that the Duchess of Argyll was indisposed at Inveraray Castle so the Duke was unable to attend the Gathering. There was an attendance of 600 at the ball on the first evening of the Gathering. Competitors entering the Open ceòl mòr competition were required to offer four tunes from a list of ten. These were: Hector MacLean’s Warning, You’re Welcome Ewen Lochiel, The Battle of Strome, Grain in Hides and Corn in Sacks, Nameless [from PS Book 5], I am Proud to Play a Pipe, MacLeod’s Short Tune, Lament for the Little Supper, Salute to Donald and The Rout of Glenfruin.

In the Piping Times Archibald Campbell of Kilberry, whose Kilberry Book of Ceol Mor had been published a few years previously, wrote about the ceòl mòr competitions that year: “The numbers [of pipers] which impressed me most were of the slow and dragged grounds played,” he wrote. “I would label as such, two-thirds of those played in the Oban Gold Medal Competition, and one-half of those played in the Inverness Gold Medal Competition.

Archie Campbell of Kilberry.
Archie Campbell of Kilberry.

“In the open competitions the figures would be worse. An explanation for these latter might be that the competitors were not interested in the Set Tunes and omitted to get them up until the last minute, and so, on the platform, were groping their ways. For, in spite of the tunes being short and simple, there were seven break­ downs in the Oban Open and nine in the Inverness Open, several by pipers of repute. But the dragged grounds in the Gold Medal Competitions, in tunes of the competitors’ own choices, suggest that there is a disease abroad which requires to be tackled.

“Of the three officials of the College of Piping who competed, two were among the guilty. The third – Pearston (who at Inverness played a nice first half of the Big Spree) – was not.

I call myself a ‘groundsman’ and I was not captivated by any ground player at either place. The nearest approaches, besides Pearston, already mentioned, were the two first-prize winners at Inverness; but not the two first-prize winners at Oban, although they and others could put matters right with a little thoughtful care. Pathos and expression could be put into a Lament without dragging it, but attempts to introduce a bit more expression into aslow ground cannot succeed by playing it still more slowly.

“A conspicuous victim of the dragging process is the middle note of a three-note cadence, e.g., E, C, A. I was taught to play the A the longest (and indeed never to play an A with a low G gracenote short), and the middle note about the same length as the E. Indeed, Sandy Cameron often played the middle note the shortest of the three. When I went to him I had already some piobaireachd experience. I tried to play the ground of MacCrimmon’s Sweetheart, and was stopped promptly and told not to drag it by pulling out the first C in the first barand the E in the second bar – notes which are cheerfully pulled out, sometimes to excess, by most, competitors of today.

“Another blemish (as it seemed to me) was atendency to play aslow ground and then to dart, with startling suddenness, into a very much quicker first variation. A display of this method in Grain in Hides and Corn in Sacks was given by the winner of the Oban Open. To me it spoilt the effect of his good fingering and admirable instrument, but obviously there were others who thought differently. Apart from this particular instance, why the very common practice of dashing hastily from ground to variation, and from variation to variation, hardly giving the last note of the former time to sound? What is the hurry? Why not make the transition smoothly and deliberately and, if the incoming variation is to be quicker, pick up your pace and time on the second bar or even the third? When the last note of a movement was written as a semi-quaver, Angus MacKay, in his MSS., often put a pause mark over it. Surely the different parts of a piobaireachd should be pinned together and not played as a collection of different tunes.

Donald MacLean photographed in 1952 at the Argyllshire Gathering.

“I noticed also some cases of slovenliness in playing grace-notes and conventional grace-note groups. The low G grace-note on low A is sounded inadequately far too often. In what General Thomason called the Eallach (Hiharin), the lower hand first finger should be lifted well and the D grace-note should be heard distinctly. My teachers used to sing the movement almost as if D were a full note. Again, in the B and D double echoes (Hihorodo and Hiharara)  the  first B or D written as a semi-quaver should sound distinctly, though short, before the strike with the lower  hand  fingers. And in the run to B, called in the canntaireachd ‘Darodo’ all three low G grace-notes should be heavy and distinct, and the first and the third (both of which Angus MacKay writes with two tails) should be of equal length. I heard a competitor at Inverness play an exaggerated long first low G and then scarcely allow the third one to be heard at all.

“In conclusion, perhaps I may be allowed a word about the Crunluath a-mach. This may not always be a necessary part of a tune, but if a competitor chooses to put it in he must play it correctly or take the consequences. It is the final impact on the judge’s mind. Too many Crunluaths a-mach are carelessly timed, carelessly executed jumbles. Their performers do not seem to realise that expression and accuracy are as essential here as in other previous movements, and that to a judge’s ear a weak finish of a piobaireachd may detract from its effect even more than a weak beginning.

“Thus the ‘groundsman’ cannot enthuse over the piobaireachd playing at Inverness and Oban. Yet the defects noticed (if they are defects, for fashions change and other opinions may prevail) could be corrected with very little trouble. There is nothing radically wrong with present-day piobaireachd playing. More decently played tunes are heard at competitions nowadays than were heard fifty years ago, and more good-sounding pipes. And the increased number of piobaireachd devotees is very encouraging.”

Ronald MacCallum.

The results were:

Gold Medal – 1. Pipe Major Ronald MacCallum (Mackintosh’s Lament); 2. Pipe Major Donald MacLeod (Lament for the Children); 3. Ronnie Lawrie (Clan MacNab’s Salute); 4. Donald P. MacGillivray (Lament for Donald Duaghal MacKay); 5. James MacColl (The King’s Taxes).
Judges: J. Graham-Campbell, J. Maxwell MacDonald and Dr. MacKay

Open – 1. Robert G. Hardie (Grain in Hides); 2, Pipe Major Donald MacLeod (Rout of Glenfruin); 3, Donald MacPherson (Nameless);4,.Willie Connell (You’re Welcome, Ewen).
Judges: Col. J. P. Grant, J. Campbell and Archie G. Kenneth.

On Day 2:

March, Strathspey and Reel (for former winners) – 1. John D. Burgess (Cameron Highlanders); 2. Seumas MacNeill (Glasgow); 3. Pipe Major R. MacCallum (Inveraray).

Marches (The Argyllshire Gathering Silver Medal) – 1. Tommy Pearston (Glasgow); 2. James MacColl (Shotts); 3. Ronald Lawrie (8th A. & S.H.); 4. Pipe Major Donald MacLeod (Seaforth Highlanders); 5. Walter Drysdale (Methil).

Strathspeys and Reels (The Royal Scottish Pipers’ Society’s Star) – 1. Donald MacPherson (Clydebank); 2. Donald MacLean (Glasgow); 3. Pipe Major John M. MacKenzie (Campbeltown); 4. Andrew Pitkeathly (A. & S.H.); 5. Ronald  Lawrie.        

Marches (Local) – 1.  Arch. MacCallum (Inveraray); 2. A. Wilson (8th Bn. A. & S.H.); 3. John Morrans (Campbeltown).

Strathspeys and Reels (Local; The Royal Scottish Pipers’ Society’s Star) – 1. A. Wilson; 2. John Morrans; 3. Angus J. MacNeill (Oban).

Walter Drysdale was born in Fife in 1926 and began piping as a boy with the Methilhill pipe band, later having tuition from James Russell, Robert Reid, Robert U. Brown and Robert B. Nicol. By profession he worked in plant and engineering management. He died in 2009.

Dr. Kenneth A. MacKay was born at Alness and died at Newtonmore in 1988 aged 88. During the First World War he served with the Seaforth Highlanders and Fife and Forfarshire Yeomanry as musketry instructor. After the war he graduated as a doctor, then attended the Free Church College (1925-26) before becoming a Medical Missionary in Peru. In 1938 he was a General Practitioner in Glasgow then later moved to Laggan where he taught many pupils. He set up the certification system for College of Piping and Institute of Piping. Dr. MacKay retired to Newtonmore.

Niall Graham-Campbell, a cousin of John (Jock) Graham-Campbell, was one of the boys who acted as stewards at the Gathering and he has contributed some memories: “My grandfather and Jock’s father, who were brothers went out to the hospital in France to see Jock, as he was not expected to live, which I find remarkable as it would not be possible now. During the First War, the front line was more or less stationary, but I would have thought that stray visitors would not be much help.


“I do not think I met Jock till I was about 14. My father was a Doctor in the south but we used to go up to Argyllshire for summer holidays. I was rather in awe of Jock as he had an old fashioned wooden leg that presumably had leather straps, as it squeaked when he walked. He also had piercing blue eyes and I could not work out which was the real one and which the glass!

“When he was judging at Oban I got roped in to act as a ‘runner’ on the games field, to get the pipers out of the beer tent to compete. At that time I first met big Ronnie Lawrie, who having established that I was learning, asked who was teaching me. I replied Pipe Major J. B. Robertson. I had not been in the tent for more than a moment trying to get the next competitor out, when I found myself with a whisky in each hand. As far as I can recall it all went very well!

“I only did the ‘running’ for about three years between 1952 and 1956 and I cannot remember which. I am afraid it is all rather a long time ago and I was to an extent an outsider, having been brought up in the south, where my father was a Doctor.

“The billiard room was inside the front door at Shirvan and was covered in pipes, pieces of pipes, piles of music reeds etc., and quite clearly never used for billiards. Much the same occurred at Stronachullin where it was the long dining room table that was end to end with pipe music and pipes. Archie Kenneth’s mother was Jock’s sister. I only met my cousin Dougie Graham-Campbell on a handful of occasions. He died in the mid-1960’s before his father, Jock Shirvan.

“Ronnie Lawrie was a lovely guy and I later acted as a timekeeper for him at the Northern Meeting where he was judging and I was on the Committee for 30+ (?) years. One day the other judges were late coming back after lunch, so he stood up and said to the audience: ‘Well you lot have paid to come here to be amused, so I suppose I had better amuse you …’ and proceeded to tell them a lot of funny stories.”

James Campbell, Kilberry and Archie Kenneth in 1962.

• 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
• Part 23