The solo piping competition organised by the Glasgow Uist and Barra Association normally kicks off the solo piping year. The 2020 competition was the 75th year of the contest. The competition didn’t take place in 2021 and it’s too early to say whether it will return in 2022. In the meantime, here is JEANNIE CAMPBELL on the history of this superb competition.

The Glasgow Uist and Barra Association was founded in 1888 to provide support and assistance to the people who had left the islands of North Uist, Benbecula, South Uist, Eriskay and Barra and moved to Glasgow.

A sub-committee had been formed in 1944 for the purpose of organising an annual solo piping competition, starting in 1945. Ten of the world’s top pipers were invited to compete and the event proved to be a great success. The competition was held under the joint auspices of the Association and the Pipe Band of the 3rd Dunbartonshire Batt., Home Guard. The judges were Pipe Majors William MacLean (Kilcreggan), George MacDonald (Dunoon) and Hector MacLean. Twenty leading pipers competed. The results were:

Ceòl Mòr – 1. Pipe Major John MacDonald, Glasgow Police; 2. John C. Johnston, Glasgow Police; 3. Pipe Cpl. Donald R. Stewart, 3rd Battalion Dunbartonshire Home Guard; 4. Pipe Major Nicol MacCallum, 8th Argylls; 5. Roderick MacDonald, Glasgow Police.
MSR – 1. Pipe Major John MacDonald; 2, Roderick MacDonald; 3, Pipe Major Charles D. Scott, 12th Battalion Glasgow Home Guard; 4. Pipe Major Nicol MacCallum; 5. John MacKinnon, Glasgow.

This was the second year of the Games but the first year of the piping competition.

John MacDonald of the Glasgow Police pictured in 1948.

The 1946 competition was held in the Highlanders’ Institute on the afternoon of Saturday, February 2. The prize money was: Ceòl Mòr £5 [roughly £185 today – Editor], £4, £3, £2, £1. MSR £4, £3, £2, £1.10, £1. Jig £3, £2.10, £2, £1.10, £1. The entry fee was 2/6d per event and admission for spectators was 3/-.

The afternoon began with Pipe Major Donald MacLeod of the Seaforth Highlanders playing Flowers of the Forest for those pipers who had not returned from the war. The judges were Pipe Major Willie Gray, late Glasgow Police, and Pipe Major William MacLean. The results were:

Ceòl Mòr – 1. Pipe Major John MacDonald, South Uist*; 2. Malcolm MacPherson Invershin; 3. Hugh Kennedy, Glasgow; 4. John Johnston; 5. Donald MacLean.
MSR. 1. Hugh Kennedy; 2. J. Johnston; 3. Malcolm MacPherson; 4. Pipe Major Donald MacLeod; 5. Tommy Pearston.
Jig – 1. Robert Hardie; 2. Pipe Major John MacDonald; 3. Donald MacLean; 4. Pipe Major Donald MacLeod; 5. Pipe Major MacLean.

* On the evening of May 10, Pipe Major John MacDonald gave a live performance on the Scottish Home Service radio of his winning tune, In Praise of Marion.

The 1948 competition was staged in the Highlanders’ Institute in Glasgow on February 28. In 1949 the contest was on April 9, again in the Highlanders’ Institute and the results appeared in the Piping Times. The Ceòl Mòr was won by John C. Johnston of the Glasgow Police, the March by John Garroway of the Glasgow Police and the Strathspey and Reel by Pipe Major Donald MacLeod, Seaforth Highlanders. From that year onwards the competition was reported every year in the Piping Times. There was no Jig event in 1949, 1950 or 1951 but from 1952 onwards it was held every year until 1982.

Entries were down for the 1950 competition. John Garroway won the Ceòl Mòr (and scored the highest aggregate marks) followed by Donald MacPherson, John D. Burgess and Donald MacLean (Lewis). In the Marches the winners were Peter Bain, John D. Burgess, Donald MacPherson and Peter MacFarquhar. John Garroway won the Strathspey and Reel followed by Peter Bain, John D. Burgess and Donald MacLean.

In 1951 the competition was held on February 10 in the Boys’ High School, where it remained for a number of years. The school was in Elmbank Street, just across from the Highlanders’ Institute. In 1959 the competition was held at the Highlanders’ Institute but returned to the Boys’ High School in 1960. That year there was an entry of 42 in the Ceòl Mòr. The light music was held in a second hall but the competition only just finished without running over into the Sabbath. To avoid this danger reoccurring, there were no short leets the following year, resulting in a 9.00pm finish. The omission of the short leets was not a popular move so they were restored in later years. In 1962 the competition did not finish until after 11.00pm.

The Boys High School in Elmbank Street, Glasgow.

In 1963 there was a compromise with a short leet in the March but not in the Strathspey and Reel. The competition was held on February 9 in the Boys’ High School. It was a cold, wintry day. One competitor, James MacGregor from Glen Isla, had a long and difficult journey. In his report for the Piping Times, Seumas MacNeill wrote:

“To reach Glasgow for Saturday morning James had to leave home on Thursday. The glen was completely snowed in so for the first five and a half miles he struggled through a trackless waste, pulling a sledge behind him. On the sledge were the great pipe and a trophy to be returned. Eventually, he reached a hostelry where he was able to hire a car to take him on to more mundane means of transport. After a long, weary, awkward inconvenient journey he arrived in good order.

“Some might interpret this as just further evidence that some pipers would join anything – even the Hudson Bay Company (as a lead dog) – to get playing in a competition. I prefer to see the picture of the young MacGregor hero ploughing happily through the snow, and to salute him, for truly royal is his race.”

Hector MacFadyen and Jimmy MacGregor.

After the 1964 competition, Hector MacFadyen, Pennyghael wrote a letter of complaint that was published in the Piping Times, Vol 16/6. Despite a tenor drone stopping in the first line of the ground and a C note missed completely in the second line of the taorluath, a competitor had been awarded a prize despite many others who had completed their tunes with three drones in tune and no errors.

The following month, Ronald Morrison, Hon. Secretary of the Uist and Barra Association sent a long letter in reply. He had not heard the player in question so could not accept or deny this but was sure the writer would never make wild accusations without some justification. He stated that, “The Uist and Barra Association appoint judges from the Royal Scottish Pipers’ Society and these gentlemen, as far as the Association is concerned, have always acted in good faith.” In 1965 the Piping Times report of the competition included the statement, “A departure from recent practice was the appointment of professional judges, and the professional pipers now can rest assured that the big two of the winter season, the SPA [Scottish Pipers’ Association] and the Uist and Barra, have apparently taken to heart their recommendations.” Ronald Lawrie and Hector MacFadyen shared the trophy for the most successful piper. An award to the most promising younger piper was given to John Wilson, Campbeltown.

Left. The Highlanders’ institute in Berkeley Street. Right: Kingston Halls, situated on Paisley Road West near the M8 motorway at Tradeston. It was originally an Andrew Carnegie-funded public library and police office. These days it is used by the Talbot Association charity as a refuge for the homeless.

The 1968 and 1969 competitions were at the South Govan Town Hall and from 1970 onwards at the Kingston Halls, before moving to the Highlanders’ Institute in 1976. The old building in Elmbank St had closed and the Institute had moved to larger premises in Berkeley Street in 1961. This building was a maze of staircases, corridors and rooms on different levels and had a bar and restaurant. To access some parts it was necessary to go up one stair, through corridors and doors and down another stair. Finding pipers must have been a problem for the stewards. The Ceòl Mòr competition took place in one hall and the March and the Strathspey and Reel in another hall. There was a break at lunchtime for a sandwich in the bar, another break at teatime which for some meant an hour in the bar and for others, High Tea in the restaurant. After tea, there would be the short leets and the jigs until late in the evening, with the vocal bar crowd at the back of the hall cheering on the pipers.

On a pesonal note, I first attended the competition in 1977 and have been at every one since. The SPA competitions were also held in the Highlanders’ Institute at this time. Maybe nostalgia has something to do with it, but for me no competition venue has ever equalled the atmosphere of those late evenings in the Highlanders’.

The enormous numbers in the light music gave rise to comments in the Piping Times. In one report Seumas MacNeill wrote that he didn’t know how many had played but it seemed like a thousand. Very wisely, they decided to have short leets so we could listen to the best players over again. In another report he wrote that the standard ranged from excellent to appalling and in another it ranged through the good, the bad and the god-awful.

In 1978 the piobaireachd was split into two classes, Class I and Class II, with a third hall being used. The Class I winner was Iain MacFadyen and the first Class II winner was Dr Angus MacDonald who thereby qualified for the Class I event the following year.

The Highlanders’ Institute closed later in 1979 so the venue in 1980 was Bellahouston Academy then from 1981 to 1989 Smithycroft School. This was a circular building, with a hall in the centre and around it on two levels a corridor with classrooms. Here the stewards literally ran round in circles. The light music was split into two in 1982, with 23 entered for Class I in which Hugh MacInnes won the March and Alasdair Gillies the Strathspey and Reel, and 29 for Class II, in which Brian Donaldson won both events. This grading continued over the following years.

1988 was the centenary of the Association, but apart from a mention of this on the programme the competition was the same as before. 1990 was the Glasgow Year of Culture and instead of the usual competition there was an invitational competition that was held at St. Gerard’s Secondary School in Govan. Pipers had to submit seven piobaireachds and four each of their marches, strathspeys and reels. Dress was to be formal, military uniform or black jacket with a glengarry or Balmoral bonnet.

In 1991 there was an invitational competition in the Henry Wood Hall on March 9. The event was sponsored by Scottish Television (STV) and filmed for a programme that was broadcast very late in the evening on March 24. This was one of the most memorable competitions but not for the right reasons. My report, Seumas MacNeill’s editorial and several letters from other spectators filled many pages of the May edition of the Piping Times. The camera crew were on stage all the time with the piper, circling around him as he played. The talk in the bar and tearoom was not about the playing but about the antics of the camera crew. Gwen MacPherson, Donald’s wife, said it was just like a circus; Ian K. Murray described it as grotesque and placed the blame firmly on the organisers. Andrew Wright said that at one point the camera actually touched his left pinkie while he was playing. Another piper said he felt the camera was intrusive, particularly when they did the shot of the sweat running down the inside of his leg.

On camera but not in camera. Andrew Wright tries to concentrate at the 1991 Uist and Barra.

At the prize-giving, the sight of the three cameras and sound crew trotting backwards down the aisle filming the faces of each prize winner, then running full speed to catch the next man coming out provoked spontaneous laughter and didn’t add to the dignity of the proceedings. The following month, Seoras Telfer’s ‘Donald Drone’ cartoon strip showed how to deal with the camera. In the same issue Seumas MacNeill wrote, “It was reported that someone was going round the Glasgow shops buying up copies of our May issue. If as a result any regular reader failed to secure the PT we will be happy to supply one free.”

Piping Convenor’s Ronnie Morrison, Jim MacLean and John-Angus Smith.

The following month, on April 20, another competition was held in St Gerard’s, this time for A and B graded pipers. On arrival, I was greeted with the full force of piping convenor Ronald Morrison’s anger for my report of the invitational competition. However, friendly relations were restored later when he took me into the committee room for a drink and admitted that the STV involvement had not been as successful as he had hoped. The invitational competition was held again in 1992 in the Henry Wood Hall but the televising of the event was not repeated. The A and B graded competition was not held again after 1991. In 1993 due to the judging dispute no competition was held but the invitational event returned to the Henry Wood Hall for the 1994, 1995 and 1996 competitions.

From 1997 the venue was the Piping Centre, then in 2009 the College of Piping where it has remained ever since, although the building has now become part of the National Piping Centre. In 2006 the Jig event was added and in 2012 this became a Hornpipe and Jig event. In 2003 when James MacLean became Piping Convenor he asked me to be a steward and I continued as such for the next 12 years until John-Angus Smith took over as Convenor in 2015.

This story from the Falkirk Herald on February 15, 1947 raises a question about whether the Uist and Barra ever held competitions for juveniles:

“A promising future appears to be in store for 16-years-old Sheila Macdonald, daughter of Mr and Mrs James Macdonald, whose home is at Plantation Cottages. Sheila, you may like to know goes in for piping as a hobby, and started winning prizes when was twelve. Last July, she captured the Cameron Cup at the Highlanders’ Institute in Elmbank Street, Glasgow, and on Saturday she again hit the high spots by taking first place in the pibroch section of a contest arranged by the Uist and Barra Association.”

Falkirk Herald, February 15, 1947

However, the report is not accurate in that the Uist & Barra has never been known to have ran a competition for juveniles. Sheila MacDonald won the Cameron Cup for the March at the Scottish Pipers’ Association’s Juvenile/Amateur competition in 1946 so this part of the report is true.

• From the April 2020 Piping Times.