By Jeannie Campbell MBE

At the beginning of 1953, in an effort to extend the season, hoteliers in Oban asked the council to hold the Argyllshire Gathering a week later. However, the stewards of the Gathering decided against altering their arrangements.Competitors for the Open Piobaireachd in 1953 were required to submit their own list of 12 tunes. No requirements were issued for the Gold Medal although competitors for the medal at the Northern Meeting had to choose four tunes from a list of ten. 27 pipers entered for the Gold Medal. James MacColl of Shotts was awarded the medal with second place going to Pipe Major Pipe Major Donald MacLeod, Seaforth Highlanders.

The Piping Times report of the piobaireachd competitions that year was once again written by Archibald Campbell of Kilberry: “The entries were large, in the medal 26 played and in the open 18 played. The audience thinks, sometimes, that in a long competition those who play last or late are more favourably situated for places at the end of the prize list than those who play at the beginning. At the beginning the judges are fresh and note down remorselessly defects which may be minor. As the competition goes on they get sick of hearing these repeated, and let them pass. Towards the finish the tired judges become more genially easy-going with the end in sight. If this was so, there is a slight element of luck, about the third, fourth or fifth prizes.

The march to the games field in 1953.

“In the Gold Medal the first prize man was a surprise selection, James MacColl, Shotts. He was slow throughout The King’s Taxes until the Crunluath Doubling, and to the beautiful first variation he imparted a monotonous sing­ song flavour, being different from what we used to learn from MacDougall Gillies.

“The second, Pipe Major MacLeod with The Unjust Incarceration, was a clear winner, in the writer’s opinion. The first line of his ground was capable of better expression, but the rest was good. He interpolated an extra line from the Campbell Canntaireachd M.S., about which there may be room for two opinions. It might be argued, on the one hand, that its addition to the Variations is no improvement, and actually detracts from their even flow. And that the result is a tune of unfamiliar structure, which grates upon our ears. On the other hand, that the line is distinctly pleasing in the Ground, and well deserving of a hearing, and that there are many other departures from what we term orthodoxy in the Canntaireachd M.S.(‘Taviltich’ is an example, though possibly an extreme one) to which we ought to accustom ourselves, as a more enterprising generation perhaps will in days to come.

“… Mistakes, some great some small, were noticeable in the Shirvan Cup Open Competition, judged by Messrs. C. D. MacTaggart, J. A. Anderson, and D. Graham Campbell.

“On account of a mistake in the crunluath, Donald Macpherson was unfortunate in being excluded from the prize list after a tasteful rendering of The Big Spree, which was very popular with the audience. This error might well have been condoned, especially as the Crunluath is no part of the tune proper, but was tacked on by the present writer, on behalf of the Piobaireachd Society, in order that the beauties of the real tune, which ends with the second Variation, might be heard at competitions. Pipe Major Donald MacLeod, however, thoroughly deserved the first prize, and got it. He played The Lament for Patrick Og remarkably well … Pipe Major R. Mackay, third, went against the book in the Ground of Donald Duaghal MacKay, a mistake which the judges condoned, rather surprisingly in view of their treatment of Donald Macpherson. But it is a topsy-turvy irregular tune, which, though popular in competitions, is no true test, and should only be played in exhibitions.”

The Duke of Argyll with the stewards and 60 pipers marched of the clans to the games field the following day. The attendance at the field was c.10,000 and 600 people attended a Highland ball in the evening. The March to the Games field followed in the usual pattern. The huge crowd of people engulfed pipers struggling to get through to report themselves present, and after some rather futile preliminaries, each competitor answers to his Highlandname and receives a card “for which no one has ever been able to find any use”, as the unnamed Piping Times reporter put it. The line up of the pipers and the stewards took place in the normal fashion. In charge of the ‘band’ was Donald MacLeod, and ‘once more”, the reporter wrote, “the band, composed of all the best pipers in Scotland, produced music which would have been rated fairly average for a Grade 3 combination. However, no harm is done if we do not all play the same parts of Glendaruel Highlanders at the same time, and the crafty crew who get to the back of the parade seem to enjoy the cacophony. None of the pipes, incidentally, are tuned beforehand, but the blowing of them in this way probably saves some time tuning on the field.”

The pipers in the march to the games field in 1953. Pipe Major Donald MacLeod can be made out in the Pipe Major’s position.

In the play off in the March some very good piping was heard. “It should be appreciated,” the report continued, “that in each of these events the piper submits six tunes, and for the first time through one of the tunes is played (chosen by the judges) once through. In the short leet another tune, or in the Strathspey and Reel event, of course, two tunes are chosen, and this time each has to be played twice over. This becomes not only a test of ability to play a tune well, but it is a test of the piper’s ability to continue to play well over a fairly long period. It is true to say that nobody gets a prize who is not a really good performer. The eventual placings of the March were: 1. Ronald Lawrie; 2. Donald MacLeod; 3. John MacFadyen; 4. Arthur Gillies; 5. Peter Forbes.

Seumas MacNeill.

“In contrast to the predominance of younger pipers in the prize list of the March, the Strathspey and Reel places were entirely occupied by well-seasoned performers. The first prize was a clear win for Thomas Pearston, followed by 2. Donald MacLeod; 3. Seumas MacNeill; 4. John MacFadyen; and 5. Donald MacLean, Lewis. A feature commented upon by many was that the three College of Piping officials in this prize list displayed, playing   one after the other in the short leet, three entirely different styles of Strathspey and Reel playing. This at least means that College pupils will be receiving a broad education in the playing of this class of music, but it was a very surprising thing to notice, particularly when one considers that two of them, the two principals, were and are taught by the same man.”

“The March, Strathspey and Reel for former winners is undoubtedly the greatest test of this type of music. Each competitor submits six marches, six strathspeys and six reels, and one of each is chosen. There is no short leet as normally not more than ten compete …. The competitors this year were Donald MacLean (Lewis), Chas. D. Scott, Seumas MacNeill, Thomas Pearston, John Burgess, Donald MacPherson, and Donald MacLean (Glasgow). The standard of playing was exceedingly good, and in fact the standard of playing in this event has been increasing for the past three years. Two years ago any piper who got through without any fumble or slip was a serious contender for a prize, but such is not the case today.

“There were suggestions that John Burgess was slipping in his standard of playing, but there was no evidence of this when it came his turn on the boards, and he gave a demonstration of infinite care in his treatment of his tunes which has not been so noticeable on some occasions recently. He gained for the third year in succession the premier award. Seumas MacNeill, who, following his tour in Canada, has had a very successful tour of the Games this summer, won for the third year in succession the second prize. Third prize was won by Thomas Pearston.”


A large increase in tax was the subject in early 1954. “Many old-established Highland Games may have to be discontinued because of the burden of entertainment duty,” reported the Dundee Courier on January 28. “The secretary of the Argyllshire Gathering, Mr. Neil Mackinnon, Oban, has had letters from the secretaries of Highland games committees throughout Scotland promising full support in his efforts on behalf of the Argyllshire Gathering for exemption from entertainment duty.

“The Scottish Tourist Board has unanimously agreed to support the plea for the complete exemption from entertainment duty of Highland and Scottish games as well as piping and Highland dance festivals. The board has also asked that the Scottish Secretary and the Chancellor should receive a deputation.”

More followed in the same paper on March 15: ‘The Fiery Cross – 1954 version – will be carried over the border tomorrow night. Mr George Hally, Blackford, president of the Highland Games Association and Mr Neil Mackinnon, secretary of the Argyllshire Gathering, will present the case for relief from the entertainments duty levied on Highland games.

The Duke and Dichess of Argyll pictured at the Gathering in 1954.

“They are to meet Mr A Boyd-Carpenter, Financial Secretary to the Treasury, in the House of Commons on Wednesday. Support will come from the Highland Society of London.”

“… Last spring the Chancellor of the Exchequer raised the entertainment tax payable by organisers of Highland games from 2d to 4½d on a 2s admission charge. Owing to this increase, many of the smaller games suffered financial losses last year. If they recur it will mean the end of these annual events.

“Mr Hally’s organisation represents 44 athletic events in Scotland. It is contended that the games are a traditional feature of the life of the people and as such a tourist attraction. Attention has also been drawn to the unfair treatment of the Highland games as compared with amateur athletics and county cricket.”

Over the following months and years the subject was aired in the Piping Times which supported the campaign. The editor wrote that several games had been lost already and more were feeling the pinch. The Cowal Games had attempted to solve the problem by giving prizes in kind instead of cash but this was not popular with the non smokers who received cigarette lighters, the bachelors who received cutlery or those who were more than a little thin on top who received hair brushes. MacGregor Kennedy wrote: “Cricket was exempt from the iniquitous tax but someone put this down to the fact that in no way could cricket be described as entertainment.”

 In April 1955 the College of Piping presented an appeal stating the arguments to the Chancellor. This was printed in full in the Piping Times. A change in Chancellors in 1956 gave hope but the fight continued. Cricket had made hugh profits from test matches without paying even a penny in tax. The sum received from the Highland Gatherings was trifling in comparison but the tax had been the end for many gatherings. The tax was eventually removed before the 1959 season.

In 1954 the Piping Times report on that year’s Argyllshire Gathering was not attributed to any author: “Undoubtedly the outstanding performer was once more Donald MacPherson. The achievement which, no doubt, gave him greatest pleasure was the winning of the Gold Medal at Inverness. This is the honour which has eluded him in past years, but he made very sure of it this time. His second great achievement was to repeat his performance at Oban in 1948, of winning the two Piobaireachds at one meeting, this time at Inverness. As far as our records go, John MacDonald of South Uist, and the Glasgow Police was the only man to achieve the double at Oban previously. We can find no record of anyone having repeated the performance at Inverness.

Donald MacPherson … the outstanding piper of 1954. Donald won the Open Piobaireachd at Oban that year.

“In addition to this, Donald won the Open Piobaireachd at Oban, and so the Shirvan Cup passed into his permanent possession. The fact that he also won the Marches at Inverness and was placed for almost every other event seems, by comparison, to be almost unimportant. For those interested in records, Donald MacPherson won at the two Meetings the sum of £49 which exactly equals the amount won by John MacDonald of the Glasgow Police when he made his grand slam in 1926. It is of interest to note that John MacDonald won on that occasion the Gold Medal and the Open Piobaireachd at Oban and the Gold Medal at Inverness. He was first for Strathspey and Reels at both places, first for Marches at Inverness and second for March, Strathspey and Reel at Oban The only reason he did not win the March at Oban presumably, was that he won it the previous year and was ineligible to compete. To the pessimists who are always of the opinion that the pipers of today are not what they were the record book would seem to answer that at least modern piping is not any worse than it was.”

28 pipers had entered for the Gold Medal competition at Oban, each submitting six tunes of his own choice. Of these, 23 actually competed, and although the standard was reportedly very high there was no single outstanding performance. The medal was won by Pipe Major Donald MacLeod of the Seaforths playing Lament for Patrick Òg MacCrimmon. The second prize went to Ronald Lawrie of Oban, now with the Glasgow Police Band. He played MacIntosh’s Lament. Third place went to Willie Connell who played The Big Spree and Iain MacFadyen placed fourth with MacCrimmon’s Sweetheart “played with a style and confidence in excess of his years.”

It was interesting to hear once again Donald R. MacLennan playing in this competition. He was, undoubtedly, the veteran of the event and gave a good performance of the Desperate Battle. The Judges in this event were D. Campbell of Shirvan, Dr. Simpson and Mr. C. D. MacTaggart.

The Open competition required competitors to submit four from a list of seven set tunes. 12 pipers entered and eight competed, but of these eight only five avoided making serious mistakes. “It would appear,” reported the Piping Times, “from these statistics that only a small proportion of the pipers considered the tunes worth learning for this competition… The attitude of most seemed to be that they did not consider it worth their while to spend a year learning four tunes, not more than one of which they would ever play again. At any rate the playing of two of the competitors probably justified the competition. These two were Donald MacPherson and Donald MacLeod both of whom were asked to play the Lament for the Union. Each man treated the tune in his own distinctive style. Donald MacLeod made a sweet song from the Ground and then expressed indignation at the shameful betrayal of Scotland. Donald MacPherson showed his annoyance to begin with and then became a fatalistic Highlander mourning our lost glories. These two were easily first and second. Willie MacDonald from Inverness, playing better than we have heard him before, won third prize with the Lament for the Duke of Hamilton. Fourth prize went to Stewart Salmond who played Menzies’ Salute.”

The Judges for this event were Archie Kenneth of Stronachullin, Colonel J. P. Grant of Rothiemurchus and J. Maxwell MacDonald of Largie.

Weather conditions on the second day turned out to be one of the worst the event had ever experienced. The competitors had to contend with heavy showers of rain and strong winds. As usual, the March, and the Strathspey and Reel competitions were run simultaneously at different ends of the field. The result in the Marches was: 1. Walter Drysdale (Lord Alexander Kennedy and Arthur Bignold); 2. Iain MacPherson; 3. Pipe Major Donald MacLeod; 4. Iain MacFadyen; 5. Angus MacDonald.

Oban 1954. Donald MacLeod, John Burgess and Donald MacLean.

In the Strathspeys and Reels the result was: 1. Seumas MacNeill (Caledonian Society and Malcolm Johnston); 2. Pipe Major Donald MacLeod; 3. John MacFadyen; 4. Walter   Drysdale; 5. Iain MacPherson.

In the March, or the Strathspey and Reel competition for former winners – with each competitor played twice of each, making it one of the most severe tests of piping –

first prize went to Ronald MacCallum who played John MacFadyen of Melfort, The Ewe with the Crooked Horn and the Grey Bob. Second was Donald MacPherson and third John Burgess.

Iain MacFadyen was born in Govan in 1935 and was the youngest of the MacFadyen brothers. He served with the Cameron Highlanders for his National Service 1957-59. At the Northern Meeting he won the Gold Medal in GM 1957 and the Clasp in 1986. He was the Schools Instructor in the Kyle of Lochalsh area until he retired in 2001 although he still teaches at the National Centre of Excellence in Traditional Music in Plockton.

Donald Ross MacLennan was born in 1901 in Edinburgh and was the youngest half brother of G. S. MacLennan. He enlisted in 1919 in the Scots Guards then was Pipe Major of the Seaforth Highlanders in 1924, Sgt Major in 1939, RSM in 1941 then Captain and Quartermaster in 1944. After his retirement in around 1947 he was the Steward of Tantallon Golf Club in North Berwick for five years then became a full time reed maker. After a long gap he returned to competing and won both Gold Medals in 1956, the oldest piper to achieve this double. He died at North Berwick in 1984.

Iain MacPherson, pictured, was born in Glasgow in 1920, the older brother of Donald MacPherson. After tuition from his father he joined the Highland Light Infantry TA before the war and continued to serve during the war, being awarded the Military Medal. After the war he served with the Parachute Regiment. as Pipe Sergeant under Pipe Major George Stoddart. He was the Schools Instructor in Glasgow for many years until 1985 when he went to teach in Alaska and later moved to Tulsa where he died in 1995.

Apart from 1954 Iain did not compete again at the Argyllshire Gathering or Northern Meeting until 1971 when his brother, Alister, persuaded him to play in the light music at Oban and that year placed fifth in the March. Donald MacPherson, his father and his brother Iain made a tour of the Highland Games together in the summer of 1954. This was the only year that Iain competed seriously but he was persuaded to join the family outing. Both brothers won prizes at the Argyllshire Gathering as shown above. At the Northern Meeting Donald won the Gold Medal, the Clasp and the March and took third place in the Strathspey and Reel and the Jig, while Iain took fourth place in the Gold Medal and third in the March. The three MacPhersons were pictured together at the Northern Meeting. To end that successful year Iain senior entered the SPA Veterans’ competition and won.

• 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
• Part 24