Two interesting prizes awarded to two brothers at Victorian-era Northern Meetings have been donated to the trustees of the Inverness-based piping competition.

The prizes are snuff mills, one presented to Duncan Ross for the “third best performance on the Great Highland Bagpipes” at the 1862 Northern Meeting, and the other to Duncan’s brother, Alexander, at the same competition in 1882. Alexander also came third.

The mills are on loan to the Northern Meeting Piping Trust and one will be awarded as a prize at one of its junior competitions with the other being displayed in the National Piping Centre’s Museum of Piping.

The mills belong to Robert Baker, a piper from Maclean in New South Wales, Australia. Robert purchased them recently from a Canadian in whose family they had been for generations.

This snuff mill awarded to Alexander Ross which will now be awarded at the Northern Meeting’s junior competitions.

Robert said: “As much as I enjoy my mulls, they should also be enjoyed by the general piping community and the people of Scotland, from where they came from. I also do not consider myself the owner; just the mere custodian.”

Interestingly, Robert’s great uncle was Murdo MacKenzie, the Inverness Gold Medallist in 1895. MacKenzie, a Ross-shire native, was piper to A. G. Butter of Fascally that year before working for a Mrs Phipps at Beaufort Castle, Beauly.

Finlay MacDonald, said: “We are delighted to receive this immaculate artefact on loan from the Northern Meeting Piping Trust. It gives a great insight into the prizes that were offered at piping competitions in the 19th century. Along with some other recent interesting articles, it will be a welcome addition to our museum.”

During the Victorian period pipers were regularly awarded prizes such as silver mounted pistols, dirks, snuff mills, sgian dubhs, quaichs in addition to cash. The most famous item would be the powder horn awarded to Donald Cameron in and immortalised in Donald MacLeod’s jig.

Snuff, a fine-ground smokeless tobacco product, was introduced around 1700, and ‘taking it’ was popular among the wealthy. Gentlemen, and sometimes ladies, sniffed pinches of snuff from the back of their hands which gave them a swift nicotine buzz and often made them sneeze.  

By the late 19th century, snuff taking had become less fashionable. This decline has been attributed to a generation of Victorians who considered snuff to be flamboyant, vulgar and offensive. Cigars had also become reasonably priced, so people were increasingly smoking their tobacco rather than sniffing it.  

Duncan Ross was born in 1844 in Achilty, Ross & Cromarty and in 1875 was appointed as the Duke of Argyll’s piper and valet. He took an active role in the development of Inveraray Pipe Band. It is not known where or when he died. His brother, Alexander was the butler at Kilberry Castle in the early 1880s.

It is believe that the brothers may also have been related in some way to John Bàn MacKenzie but church records in Ross-shire were not maintained well due to the Disruption of 1843 so it has so far proven difficult to verify this.

• A further twist to this story is that James Beaton, the NPC’s now retired Librarian and Co-Ordinator of the Higher National Certificate Music – Piping, has a family connection to Duncan and Alexander Ross.

royal national mod logo

The Royal National Mòd, which has just ended in Inverness, returns to Perth for 2022.

It will be the first time in 18 years since the Gaelic world’s leading cultural event has been in the Perthshire city.

Perth Provost, Dennis Melloy was handed the official Mòd banner as the 2021 event ended last weekend in Inverness (see photo, below).

The eight-day festival will provide a much-needed economic boost to businesses in Perth. It’s estimated the Mòd will bring around 7,500 visitors to the city with an impact estimated to be around £1 million.

The Mòd will take place from October 14-22, 2022. It will be the 11th time the event has taken place in Perthshire, with the city hosting ten times and Blairgowrie once.

Photo: Elaine Livingstone.

More than 200 competitions will take place during the eight-day festival, ranging from traditional instruments like accordion, fiddle, clarsach and bagpipes to Gaelic singing, storytelling, poetry, sport and choral competitions.

Renowned Scottish piper and multi-intrumentalist multi-instrumentalist Fraser Fifield releases his new album next Monday (25th).

Entitled Piobaireachd/Pipe Music, the recording features a collection of tracks recorded following Fifield’s deep re-examination, during lockdown, of what he calls “that ancient, slightly mysterious music associated with the Scottish bagpipe.”

In the recording, Fifield explores and re-imagines ceòl mòr pieces such as A Flame of Wrath for Squinting Patrick, MacDougall’s Gathering and Lament for the Old Sword.

He said: “I have a theory that improvisation is simply inherent to the human musical experience and I would posit an improvisatory route to the music we now call piobaireachd,“ he says. “I suppose it might be impossible to prove but it makes sense to me and I’m happiest when creating afresh – that interesting mix of performer and composer at the same time.”

Instruments such as soprano saxophone, clarinet and whistle are utilised in the pieces. A tribute to the late Nigel Richard is included.

Bagpipe.News has heard a preview of the album and can confirm it is quite superb and will be of interest to all who approach the ‘big music’ with an open mind. We applaud Mr. Fifield for his creativity. He has added an extra dimension to this wonderful music. We will carry a full review in due course.

Piobaireachd/Pipe Music will be available, priced from £8.00 next Monday.