By Jeannie Campbell MBE
After the success of the Highland Gatherings of 1871 and the Scottish Fete of 1872, another gathering was planned for 1873. It took place on Saturday, June 28 at Alexandra Park, with upwards of 10,000 people present. The proceedings commenced at one o’clock with a procession from Alexandra Palace down the hill to the arena. The event programme noted that a band of pipers headed the procession, including amongst them the pipers to Lord MacDuff, the Marquis of Huntly, Sir James Matheson, Bart., the Duke of Argyll, the Duke of Edinburgh plus the Pipe Majors of the Royal Caledonian Asylum, the Glasgow Highland Volunteers, the 79th Cameron Highlanders, the 93rd Sutherland Highlanders, the 78th Highlanders and many others.
In the first competition for “best dressed Highlanders” there were 12 competitors, and Colin Cameron, piper to Lord Macduff, was awarded first prize. His brother, Sandy, piper to the Marquis of Huntly, came second.
Thirteen competitors played in the ceòl mòr contest with the first prize – and a gold medal – being awarded also to Colin Cameron. Ronald Mackenzie, Pipe Major of the 78th Highlanders came second. For reel playing, 16 entries were made, with first prize – another gold medal – going to Donald McPhee, with John Smith, Pipe Major of the 93rd Sutherland Highlanders, second.
In the competition for playing marches 17 pipers entered, and the first prize went to Ronald Mackenzie.
Colin Cameron, 1843-1916, was the eldest son of Donald Cameron. He won the Northern Meeting Prize Pipe in 1861 when piper to Keith W. Stewart MacKenzie of Seaforth. In 1864 he was piper to William Malcolm of Glenmorag, Dunoon. In 1865 he won the Former Winners’ Gold Medal at the Northern Meeting. In 1866 he was appointed piper to Prince Alfred but did not stay long in the Royal service. In 1867 he was piper to G. F. W. Callander, and in 1868 piper to George B. Forbes then in 1870 piper to Lord MacDuff, later Earl and then Duke of Fife. From then until 1891 he lived in London, afterwards returning to live at Maryburgh near Dingwall.
Alexander – Sandy – Cameron (1848-1923) was the second son of Donald Cameron. In 1867 he was piper to Mr Malcolm, Dunoon, and from 1870 to 1880 piper to the Marquis of Huntly. Afterwards he was employed in Glasgow’s Lord Provost’s office (c.1890) and tested chanters for Peter Henderson and the Glens. By 1898 he was piper to Cameron of Locheil. Sandy won the Prize Pipe at the Northern Meeting in1867 and the Former Winners’ Medal in 1870.
John Smith (1840-1877) served as Pipe Major with the 72nd and the 93rd between 1858 and 1873. He won the Prize Pipe at the Northern Meeting in 1871 and the Former Winners’ Gold Medal in 1874.
Robert MacKinnon was born at Skipness in 1834/35. He was Pipe Major 105th Glasgow Highlanders and from 1875 until his death he was a bagpipe maker in Glasgow. He published a tutor and mollection of music in 1884. He died in Glasgow in 1902.
Thomas MacKay (1816-1891) was appointed piper to Sir James Matheson in 1844. He was the first owner of a bagpipe made in 1843 in London by Donald MacKay, Piper to the Duke of Sussex. Thus, the bagpipe he played that day had returned to the city where it was made. This bagpipe passed into the possession of his grandson, John Morrison of Assynt House and is now owned by Tabby Angier.
James Cameron Paton was born in Perth in April 1838 and died at Cranford, Middlesex in September 1926. He attended the Caledonian Schools until the age of 14 and was taught there by Angus MacKay. He joined the Cameron Highlanders in December 1855, rising to serve as Pipe Major of the 79th Cameron Highlanders (1868-1873) then Pipe Major of the 1st Batt. Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders 1873-1877. He served in India 1857-1864 and was discharged in September 1877. After leaving the army he was piper to the Duke of Richmond and Gordon. He returned to the Caledonian Schools as Pipe Major in 1884 and held the position for three or four years. During the 1914-18 war he recruited for the Hounslow Volunteers.
No reports have been found for 1874 but in 1875 there were two gatherings, one following soon after the other.
On July 24 a newspaper report on a ‘Southern Gathering’ held again in the grounds of the Alexandra Palace. “The competitors and those of the visitors who in spite of the weather received a pitiless drenching before they reached the beautiful grounds in which the Alexandra Palace stands. It was originally intended to have the whole of the sports in the cricket grounds, but owing to the weather the pipe and dance competitions were carried on inside the magnificent hall in which the organ stands, a platform being erected for the use of the competitors. Shortly before 1 o’clock the pipers came to the fore. There were 11 competitors for the pibrochs, and a very close and spirited competition took place, the fingering being excellent with all; and it must have been a most difficult matter for the judges to decide, the additional gracenotes and little delicacies of touch of the master-hands being the only appreciable difference between the performers.
“The gold medal was awarded to Sandy Cameron, piper to the Marquis of Huntly; the 2nd prize (£2) to Ronald Mackenzie, Pipe Major 78th Highlanders; the 3rd to John Mackenzie, piper to the Royal Caledonian Asylum and the Club of True Highlanders. For the reels, 16 competitors played in the same careful manner than distinguished the first competition. The gold medal in this competition was awarded to Ronald Mackenzie, the 2nd prize (£2) to Sandy Cameron, and the 3rd to Murdoch Mackinnon of the 93rd Highlanders. Piper Shaw of the 91st Highlanders, and Boyd of the 2nd Battalion Scots Fusilier Guards, both formerly belonging to the Caledonian Asylum, gave great promise of future excellence; and J. J. Connan, a lad at present at the same school, highly delighted the audience with the careful and collected manner in which he played.
“After a short interval for lunch, the judges, Aeneas Macintosh of Daviot, J.C. Macphee of the Gaelic Society, and Donald MacKay, piper to the Prince of Wales, to infuse a variety in the programme, decided in calling the competitors for the Ghillie Callum, toujours ‘piobair’ being as unsatisfactory as the celebrated ‘pordrix’. Eight of the competitors answered their names, Fleming leading the way with a very careful and accurate performance, then came Donald Macphee of Glasgow, who thoroughly deserved his reputation, followed by Hugh Forfar Craig.
“The performance of the latter was most remarkable; with the agility of the deer , and a thorough respect for the swords, he capered about and shouted to his own content and the high delight of the audience; and with hands waving about in a manner highly suggestive of the ‘Kiss my hand to the first floor window style’ adopted in the London streets, infected judges and everybody with his spirit if he did not satisfy them by the correctness of his dancing.
“Four careful dancers followed of whom Murdoch Mackinnon, North, and R. Mackenzie had to acknowledge touching the sword. Macneil, who followed with a fine display of cutting and step dancing, was awarded the 1st prize (£4); Donald Macphee the second (£2); and Craig, we suppose, as the representative of the athletic school of dancing, was awarded the 3rd prize. The reels were danced in three sets, Messrs Dinnie, Fleming, Macphee, and Craig in the first; North, R. Mackenzie, Meffin, and Macleish in the 2nd; Mackinnon, Gilroy, A. Cameron, and Macneil in the 3rd. In this Macphee was awarded the 1st prize, Macneil the 2nd, and A. Cameron the 3rd. For Highland Fling the first prize of £4 was awarded to John Macneil, the 2nd to A. Cameron, and the 3rd to R. Mackenzie – the dancing for this was very good.
“Murdoch Mackinnon, a smart specimen of a Highlander, after some pretty dancing had to retire owing to the fastening of his shoe breaking. After the dancing, the piping was resumed. The first prize for marches (gold medal) was awarded to Pipe Major J. C. Paton, 79th Cameron Highlanders; the 2nd (£2) to John Mackenzie, and the 3rd to A. Cameron. The 1st prize for the best dressed Highlander was awarded to J. Chalmers, Chief of the Club of True Highlanders, this being the third time in succession an officer of the Club has carried off this prize at the Southern Gatherings. About six o’clock the outdoor sports commenced, the sodden and slushy state of the ground rendering it almost impossible to get a proper footing.”
Donald MacKay (1845-1893), pictured above, was born at Kensington Palace, son of Donald MacKay, piper to the Duke of Sussex. He was educated at the Caledonian Asylum and after brief army service with the 78th he won the Prize Pipe at the Northern Meeting in 1863. In 1866 he was piper to Sir George MacPherson Grant of Ballindalloch and in 1872 he won the Northern Meeting Champion’s Gold Medal. In late 1873 he was appointed Piper to the Prince of Wales and remained in his service for the remainder of his life.
According to another report the judges were Aeneas McIntosh, D. MacKay, piper to the Prince of Wales, J. Cameron, piper to the Marquis of Lorne and J. C. MacPhee, president of the Gaelic Society.
Another report was even more scathing about the acoustics: “For dancing the central hall may be a tolerable place in such weather, but its acoustics have not been arranged for the bagpipes, which stirred quite a Babel of jarring notes and reverberations about the ears of near listeners, and to the sounds of which the distance of the remotest corners failed to lend much enchantment.
“Then there was the inconvenience of a number of the Highlanders who were entered for the competitions inside being also entered for the contests outside. That need not have proved a great inconvenience if matters had been properly managed; but it so happened that the competitions inside, instead of being over by two o’clock, when the others should have commenced were then scarcely begun. The consequence was more confusion to the spectators as well as to the competitors than we care to describe. The competitions did not present any unusual features. Between twenty and thirty competitors, of whom a considerable proportion represented the Highland regiments, came forward in Highland costume and took their turns at the bagpipes or in the dances., These took place on a platform placed at some distance in front of the orchestra, where appeared, on a tartan ground, the inscription ‘Cothram na feine,’ which the Highlanders said was cockney Gaelic for ‘Fair play.’ The orchestra sittings and the reserved seats around the arena were occupied by people who chose to pay for them, while others contented themselves with what view they could obtain of the proceedings from more distance standing space.”
A few days later came reports of the second even In the light music, Donald MacPhee was awarded the first prize. He also took first prize for a “very careful and spirited Sword Dance, excellent time being kept throughout.”
Another report had the additional information that two gold medals were offered for a Gaelic poem, but no competitor put in an appearance.
In 1876 the gathering was advertised in the newspapers throughout June and took place on July 1, again at Alexandra Palace. It was held in fine weather with a vast concourse of spectators. The first prize for pibroch playing was awarded to Ronald MacKenzie, who also carried off the gold medal for reel playing and march playing. The Mackintosh delivered the prizes, and declared that the pipe music was the best that he had ever heard during 20 years’ experience.
In the evening the band of the Royal Horse Guards (Blue) and the military band of the company were in attendance.
Over the next two years no reports of a gathering have been found.