By Jeannie Campbell MBE
In February 1870 it was proposed to have a Highland Gathering at the Agricultural Hall in Islington. This building opened in 1862 with the Smithfield Club Cattle Show. Nothing appeared concerning this during the year but in 1871 a big event was held at the Crystal Palace to mark the centenary of Walter Scott’s birth. This included Highland Games and a piping competition.
A full account appeared in The Graphic on August 26: “The National Scottish Fete held at the Crystal Palace on August 15th, in commemoration of the centenary of Sir Walter Scott, had some features of interest which may be called novel to general experience south of the Tweed. The Competition of Pipers, although invariably a part of the true Highland gatherings, had never taken place in or near London before; for at the Scottish Fete held in Lord Holland’s Park, Kensington, in 1850, when the Prince Consort was chieftain, a performance of bagpipe music, not a competition of pipers, was announced. This meeting in 1850 was the first real attempt to hold Highland games near London. Such as have taken place since then have been more or less good, but more or less mere displays, not competitions.
“We are accustomed in England to hear regimental playing on the bagpipes, loud marches and powerful glaring music, and we hear, moreover, wretched street performers. We have, most of us, therefore formed an idea of the instrument and its capabilities, as generally inaccurate as it is depreciatory. But, besides the military pipers whom we have been accustomed to here, there are men famous in their own village, district, or clan who may go to the gathering at home but who never come south. Some of them came forward at Sydenham on Tuesday.
“These Gaelic performers play many traditional tunes of great antiquity, and of weird, beautiful character, some curious in the extreme. The meeting of these men to compete with the pipers of the regiments now in England was a point of great interest with those concerned. There are players of consummate skill with the pipe, and we should no more judge of the best by what we ordinarily hear in London, than it would be just to estimate the power of the violin in the hand of Joachim by what we hear scraped from it by the street fiddler. When the ear is accustomed to the tone of the pipes, there is plentiful variety in the playing, and in the curious music. One strange characteristic is the plaintiveness which much of this ancient music expresses. The highest class is the Pibroch. Each competitor had to hand to the judges a list of six ‘ancient tunes’ which he was prepared to play, and the judges selected one for him to compete with.
“Out of twenty-four ‘Piobaireachd’ so submitted by four performers, thirteen were ‘Laments,’ as – ‘Mclntosh’s Lament,’ ‘Lament for the Only Son,’ ‘Glengarry’s Lament,’ ‘Kinlochmuidart’s Lament,’ &c., and ‘The Prince Consort’s Lament,’ a modern composition produced by William Ross, the Queen’s piper, which appeared upon many of the lists. The other tunes were mostly salutes, as ‘Chisholm’s Salute,’ ‘Millbank’s,’ ‘The Princes,’ ‘Strowan Robertson’s Salute,’ &c. The first prize was won by W. Mackay, from Lanark, who is staff-sergeant of the 2nd Lanarkshire Militia, and the tune that he played was called ‘The Glen is my ain,’ full of wild picturesqueness. His playing was very skilful and full of light and shade, and here and there a delicacy of rendering that was like the wail of a Highland mother or sometimes the tears of a mountain lassie. Some of the martial strains were descriptive, most inspiriting, and firmly given. All this might be appreciated by those who listened with interest and attention, as many of the visitors did. One thing is certain, the pipers themselves cared nothing for the audience, and had no eyes or ears, or anxiety, save for the little band of their fellow-pipers, and the judges at the table.”
William MacKay (c1821-1885) was Pipe Major of the 74th Highlanders 1843-1856 then Pipe Major of the Lanarkshire Militia.
After the competition,all the competitors assembled and marched across the gardens to the cricket ground for the Highland Games. The pipers were divided into two bands. Around 10,000 persons swept across the gardens, following the pipes. There were 81 entries for the games competitions, of which 30 were for the piping. Among those present was Donald Dinnie, a stonemason at Aboyne. He did not compete but performed many feats, including tossing the caber before it had been cut and throw the hammer a distance of 125ft
The 1871 event was so successful that it was suggested that an annual Scottish Gathering might be found a permanently successful institution. Patronage was accorded of a number of Highland noblemen and clan chiefs and a committee was formed. In addition, another committee in Edinburgh was appointed to deal with entries. Entry was open and free to all comers and entries to be lodged with J. & R. Glen, bagpipe makers in Edinburgh. An interesting feature of the competition was that a preliminary examination of intending competitors for piping and dancing was held in Edinburgh on July 23 and those approved were to receive free railway passes to and from the Crystal Palace. The gathering was well advertised.
The Scottish Fete at the Crystal Palace was held on a Thursday on July 25, 1872 with 5,000 spectators present. Reports appeared in several London newspapers. “… there was a brilliant southern gathering of Northerners at the Crystal Palace on Thursday. Last year there was a gala day of a somewhat similar character, but, being tentative, its features were restricted, and the numbers who took part in it were only sufficient to warrant the making of another attempt. For Thursday’s fete extensive preparations had been made. Its organisers were a committee headed by Lieutenant General Sir Jas. Hope Grant and Lord Walter Campbell, and they were zealously assisted by leading members of the various Scotch Associations in London, while a number of noblemen and gentlemen lent their names as patrons.
“At the head of these latter were the Dukes of Argyle, Athole and Sutherland; the Marquis of Huntly, and Lords Reay and Elcho. Then there were Cameron of Lochiel, Chisholm of Chisholm, MacKenzie of Seaforth, MacLeod of MacLeod, Cluny Macpherson, Macpherson of Glentruim, Sir Jas. Colquhoun of Luss, Farquharson of Invercauld, Macintosh of Macintosh, and Sir Robert Menzies of that Ilk. Only a very few, however, of those mentioned were present in person. The committee were represented by Lord Walter Campbell (with whom was Mr Campbell of Islay), Colonel S. H. Moncrieff, Major Macpherson, Captain George Mackenzie, Captain Flood Page, Mr A. Macpherson Campbell, and Dr A. C. Ross. There were also one or two members of the Edinburgh committee. Competitors were required, and male visitors were requested, to appear in either Highland garb or regimental uniform, and almost every variety of tartan was represented.
“The fete took the form of Highland games and competitions of pipers. Pibrochs formed the first item on the programme. This contest came off in the Central Transept, and began as early as eleven in the forenoon. There were fourteen entries and only two competitors failed to put in an appearance. It is superfluous to state that the performances of the different pipers were all of a high class. Had the audience been the judges, the verdicts would probably have been so varied, that prizes would have required to have been given all round; but the gentlemen chosen to adjudicate were known to be well qualified, and there was consequently an almost unanimous concurrence in their decisions.
“The first place they gave to Ronald Mackenzie, the Pipe Major of the 78th Highlanders, who had come from Belfast, where his regiment is now stationed, to take part in the proceedings. The second prize was awarded to William Macdonald, piper to H.R.H. the Prince of Wales, and the third to John Mackenzie, Pipe Major of the Royal Caledonian Asylum. Among the others who took part in the competition were the pipers to MacCallum More and Macpherson of Glentruim, two pipers of the 72nd Highlanders, and three pipers from Edinburgh. The prizes were respectively £10, £5, and £2.10s. Marches were played next, the competitors being the same as in the pibroch contest, with the addition of two juvenile pipers from the Caledonian Asylum. The first prize of £5 was taken by Alexander Macdonald, piper to Macpherson of Glentruim; the second of £2.10s., by John Mackenzie, Royal Caledonian Asylum; and the third of £1.10s. by James Paton, Pipe Major to the 79th Highlanders. The prize of £3 for the best dressed Highlander at his own expense – ornaments not considered, and home-made tartan preferred – was awarded to Duncan Scott, of the London Club of True Highlanders. A second prize was given to James Robertson, who wore the tartan of his clan. There were eight other entries, all of them being from Edinburgh.”
Alexander MacDonald (1836-1883), pictured, was piper to Robert MacPherson of Glentruim, then piper to the 5th Earl of Fife 1835-1883. At the Northern Meeting he won the Prize Pipe in 1860 and the Former Winners’ Gold Medal in 1864.
William MacDonald, born 1842, was a younger brother of the above Alexander MacDonald. William was Piper to Macpherson of Glentruim for two years then to John Fisher, Balavil, Kingussie for two and a half years then Piper to the Prince of Wales from 1866. He won the Northern Meeting Prize Pipe in 1868 and the Former Winners Gold Medal in 1869.
John MacKenzie (1827-1904) was the son of Alexander MacKenzie, brother of John Bàn MacKenzie. He was a piper with the 2nd Battalion Scots Fusiliers Guards. In 1861 the Battalion was sent to Canada but on his return to Britain in 1864 he recommenced his role as instructor to the London Scottish and on retirement from the army he became Pipe Major at the Royal Caledonian Asylum. He won the Prize Pipe at the Northern Meeting in 1874 and the Gold Medal for Former Winners in 1876. He was also Piper to the Club of True Highlanders.
Ronald MacKenzie (1841/2- 1916) was another son of Alexander MacKenzie, and the brother of the above John MacKenzie. He enlisted in 1860 and was Pipe Major of the 78th Highlanders then Pipe Major of the Ross-shire Militia. From 1893 to 1916 he was Piper to the Duke of Richmond and Gordon at Gordon Castle. At the Northern Meeting he won the Prize Pipe in 1859, the Former Winners Gold Medal in1863 and the Champion of Champions Gold Medal for Gold Medal Winners in 1873.
Norman MacSwayed (1845-1906) was the son of Angus MacSwayed, Pipe Major of the 78th. Norman served with the Highland Rifle Militia then in 1872 transferred to be Pipe Major of the Stirlingshire Militia and in 1873 attested for permanent staff with the regiment. He went to Canada in 1891 and in 1896 was Pipe Major of the Toronto Highlanders but had returned to Scotland by 1901.