Piping societies in the modern era – Part 2, the RSPS


In the second part of the 2017 College of Piping Lecture, ALAN FORBES talked about the Royal Scottish Pipers’ Society. At the start of Alan’s presentation, the audience was treated to a performance of Roddy Campbell’s Royal Scottish Pipers’ Society by Andrew Frater, Robert Frater and John Frater.

The Scottish Pipers’ Society, as it was first known, was founded on November 21, 1881. Queen Victoria was on throne and still had 20 years of her reign ahead of her. The First Boer War had ended at the start of the year and the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral took place just a few weeks earlier. The Society has been meeting without interruption since then. It is thought to be the oldest piping society in the world.

The original objectives of the Society were:

  • the encouragement of bagpipe playing among gentlemen
  • the general advancement of the study of the Great Highland Bagpipe and its appropriate music

The Society has always been a private club, new members being introduced by existing members and subjected to scrutiny as to their suitability. Although this may seem exclusive and somewhat arcane, it probably accounts for the long survival of the Society and for the cheerful, friendly, welcoming, considerate culture which always seems to have prevailed.

Members of the RSPS at the International Exhibition in Edinburgh in 1886.

There were originally 14 members, 11 of them active pipers. Five were lawyers, six army officers, a wine merchant, a banker and one other. All were thought to be fairly young at the time and most of them were still around on the Society’s 50th anniversary.

The membership has been predominantly professional people. Lawyers have always been prominent as were army officers for much of the time, but most other professions have also been represented, such as doctors, accountants, artists, engineers, even a couple of very distinguished actuaries.

The Society originally specified a uniform:

  • a rifle green cloth doublet
  • a kilt and full plaid of Hunting Stewart Tartan
  • a flat bonnet with ribbons behind and red tuft
  • a sporran of grey goatskin with three black tassels
  • clan hose to be worn in evening dress, green, red and black heather mixture hose on other occasions
  • shoes or brogues of any pattern, but not boots
  • crest and motto
  • a waist-belt of black leather with silver or plaited buckle

However, I haven’t been able to find any evidence that this was actually worn, the practice of wearing one’s own tartan seeming to have taken over at an early stage. We do have a tie, however, and official dress hose – which must be worn by anyone playing in the band at our biennial Ball.

Members form up at a Ball from the early 1900s.

The Society’s meetings were held, until 1914, at The Royal Patent Gymnasium between Eyre Place and Fettes Row on the north side of the New Town in Edinburgh. This was an absolutely incredible outdoor sports centre, built by a wealthy businessman to encourage physical activity amongst the masses. Its attractions included an enormous rowing machine for 147 rowers and many other monstrosities. Although I have studied, worked and lived in Edinburgh for five decades, it was only when I started researching our history that I even knew of the existence of this amazing Victorian venture. It obviously had indoor accommodation also, but by all accounts it was pretty cold and draughty in the winter.

In 1930, leased premises at 38 York Place were taken, with accommodation for a club steward cum caretaker, Danny Bryce, who lived there with his family for almost four decades until 1968. Danny Bryce was very highly regarded by the members, not least because one of his duties was to play each member’s pipes for five minutes every day to keep them in good condition for meetings!

Practice meetings were also held in various Drill Halls, of which there were many in these days of much greater military activity, and from 1952-67 the Drill Hall at 28 York Place, almost next door, was used.

In 1967 the Society purchased 127 Rose Street Lane South, which remains the Society’s home to this day. This purchase was a major undertaking for the Society, which raised money by issuing redeemable debentures of £1,000 each to various members willing to support the venture. So far as I am aware, none of them ever sought repayment. So far as I can recall, the premises cost something like £6,700 [the relative value of this today ranges from £102,800 to £311,400 – Editor].

The four-story building is in central Edinburgh, which makes it easily accessible. It contains on the third floor a lounge and bar and on the top floor, a piping hall. The two lower floors are let to commercial tenants who, however, have clauses within their leases requiring them to make their premises available several times each year as tuning rooms for competitions. This enables us to host the Piobaireachd Society’s annual Archie Kenneth Quaich competition for amateur piobaireachd players, which has become popular, as well as our own annual competition.

Anyone who knows the rooms will be aware of our large collection of photographs of famous pipers, acquired and catalogued by James Burnet and others.

The rooms also contain a fine portrait in oil, by Alfred Grey, of Alexander MacDonald of Glenurquhart, father of the famous John Macdonald of Inverness, who himself was a great friend of the Society; and a display case containing the bagpipe made by one of our most highly regarded members, General Charles Thomason, compiler of Ceol Mor. Thomason’s army career was spent mostly in India and he actually made the pipes while on military service there with African Blackwood taken out from Scotland.

Formation of The Piobaireachd Society
The Piobaireachd Society was formed in January 1903 at the instigation of John Campbell, Kilberry and his brothers Angus and Archibald. Although the Scottish Pipers’ Society did not directly create it, most of the original members were also members of the Society. As well as the Campbells, these included J.P. Grant of Rothiemurchus, Somerled MacDonald (a great-grandson of Neil MacLeod of Gesto) and General Thomason, who was elected the First President. Thomason was a member of the Society for much of his adult life.

General Thomason and his pipes which he made himself while serving in India.

There have been close links with the Piobaireachd Society ever since, many members having also been office bearers, and that collaboration has, I’m sure, been much to the benefit of both Societies.

It is interesting to note also that the compilers and editors of some of the most significant piobaireachd collections since the late 19th century have been members of the Society – Thomason of Ceol Mor, Archibald Campbell, Kilberry of the Piobaireachd Society’s Books 1 to 10 and the Kilberry Book; J. P. Grant, who collaborated with Campbell on Book 1; Archie Kenneth who edited the Piobaireachd Society’s Books 11 to 15; and Roderick Ross of Binneas is Boreraig.

Becoming ‘The Royal Scottish Pipers’ Society’
In 1935 the Society received a visit from the then Prince of Wales, later to become King Edward XIII [pictured, below], to a practice meeting at 38 York Place, through the influence of Colonel C. M. Usher, one of the members. The Prince’s signature is in our visitors’ book. He was a competent piper himself, apparently having been taught by Pipe Major William Ross, and he had also composed the Slow Air, Mallorca.

At the meeting he played along with the members, his own suggestion of tunes including: The Green Hills of Tyrol, My Nut Brown Maiden and The Skye Boat Song. Eighteen months later his father King George V granted permission for the use of the word ‘Royal’ in our title and the present name came into being.

The Society has had many distinguished members over its long history.

Ordinary members included:

  • Major General Charles Simeon Thomason. Thomason, who was the subject of this lecture a few years ago, was a remarkable character. Most of his army career was spent in India, where he survived  many dangerous escapades during the Indian Mutiny and at other times. He was an engineer by profession and could turn his hand to anything, including making the set of bagpipes on display in our rooms.  His great work, of course, was compiling Ceol Mor, complete with his own system of abbreviations to enable all 270 tunes to be contained in a single volume.
  • Archibald Campbell, Kilberry (and his two brothers, Angus and Colin);
  • James Campbell, Kilberry, Archie’s son; who spent much of his life at Cambridge University and had an important influence on pipers in the South of England as well as being a highly respected judge at piping competitions;
  • John Bartholomew, who had the perception to recognise and acquire the Campbell Canntaireachd manuscripts of piobaireachd which might otherwise have been lost;
  • Archie Kenneth;
  • Sheriff J. P. Grant of Rothiemurchus, the Honorary Pipe Major for seven years in 1920s and the first post-war Piping Convener of the Northern Meeting; co-editor with Archibald Campbell of the Piobaireachd Society’s Book 1;
  • Major General Frank Richardson, who co-authored a book on piobaireachd with Seamus MacNeill (and was also an expert on the life of Napoleon);
  • Roderick Ross, author of Binneas is Boreraig; also, like Thomason, devising his own system of presenting piobaireachd on the printed page;
  • Brigadier General Ronald Cheape of Tiroran;
  • Brigadier General Lorne Campbell VC of Akarit (1943 Argylls/51st Highland Division) who won his Victoria Ccross at the Battle of Wadi Akarit during the desert campaign in 1943.
  • Brigadier Frank Coutts King’s Own Scottish Borderers (who later was a Scottish rugby internationalist then president of the Scottish Rugby Union);
  • Lt. Col. David J. S. Murray; an authority on piobaireachd and, indeed, all other aspects of piping; present at the defence of Kohima towards the end of World War 2; and over his lifetime contributed a huge amount to the study and understanding of piobaireachd; David passed away in January 2017 at the age of 93. Here he is photographed alongside the Queen at our centenary Ball in 1982. David was a keen competitor and prolific prize-winner in the Society’s competitions. I remember him coming to one not so many years ago at quite an advanced age. He didn’t win any major prizes but he played some pretty demanding tunes with great gusto.

Honorary Members of the RSPS included Captain John MacLellan, Walter Drysdale, Iain MacFadyen, Malcolm McRae, Jack Taylor, Donald MacPherson, Dugald MacNeill and Andrew Wright – the last two are regular attendees at our meetings and are always willing to play a tune.

A feature of the Society virtually throughout its existence has been The Biennial Ball, once considered the Edinburgh social occasion of the year. In 1909 Roderick Campbell and Pipe Major John MacDougall Gillies played for the reels.

1972 was the year of the Ball that nearly never happened. It was at the time of the miners’ strike and the ‘winter of discontent’ which eventually brought the downfall of the Heath government. Sir James Morrison-Low, however had other ideas. An electrical engineer by profession, he arranged for two generators to be placed in the yard next to the Assembly rooms and, with the help of spotlights and bulbs hanging from wires throughout the building provided enough light for the Ball to continue. ‘Health and Safety’ had not yet been thought about!

Ten years later, in 1982, James was Honorary Pipe Major and here he is escorting the Queen [pictured] at our centenary Ball. 600 guests attended and the RSPS band numbered over 40 on that magnificent occasion.

Support and external activities:
The Society is also outward looking and supports piping in many ways, for example:

  • We present Silver and Bronze Stars as prizes at the Northern Meeting and Argyllshire Gathering and our members are enthusiastic attendees at these competitions;
  • We run public recitals by top professional pipers, the most recent featuring Stuart Liddell, Fred Morrison and a quartet from Dollar Academy;
  • We hold a recital by our own members each year in the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. This is frequently the only piping event in the festival other than the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo. It usually attracts an audience of between 40 and 70 visitors and is fairly unique in inviting the audience back stage for a dram at the end;
  • We hold a schools evening each year to encourage young pipers – and hopefully to attract some as future new members;
  • We have appeared at the General Assembly functions at Holyrood since 1979 and we provide entertainment at the Royal Garden Party, also at Holyrood.

While we have had over 400 members at times in the past, and around 330 as recently as the mid-1980s, we now have just over 200 fully paid-up members. The number of regularly participating members, however, is higher than at any time since I joined almost 40 years ago. 25 to 30 attend practically every meeting and, I guess, 50 or 60 attend at least one meeting or function each year.

In 1972 a resolution to admit ladies to the Society was rejected, and similar resolutions followed periodically until 2015 when the proposal was finally approved. As yet, there are still only a very few lady members.

The Society is led by the Honorary Pipe Major, who is elected for a period of two years only. This a good thing as each new Pipe Major brings fresh enthusiasm and new ideas.

Meeting dates have changed from time to time, but the normal pattern of activities has changed little over the years. Nowadays, normal practice meetings are held every second Friday from the beginning of October to the end of May. We start off playing as a band upstairs and this is always followed by a piobaireachd played by one of our members or visitors and then by other solo playing. The meetings finish between 11.00 and 12.00pm although, in the past, they have been known to go on until 2.00 or 3.00 o’clock in the morning. Everyone is encouraged to get up and play, irrespective of ability.

New members are expected to ‘play themselves in’. As described in an early minute of the Society this was to show “satisfactory evidence of their ability to play the pipes”. I suspect a few who didn’t meet this criterion occasionally slipped through, though!

We have joint meetings every year with the Army School of Piping, the Glasgow Highland Club and the Eagle Pipers’ Society, who glance enviously at this magnificent beast displayed on our top floor. Contrary to some stories put about, this was not acquired by a raiding party on the West End Hotel when the Eagle Pipers stopped meeting in the late 1970s, but was purchased by one of our members and presented by him to the Society.

Playing standards have always been variable, with some excellent players over the years and some rather less so. There is an amusing entry in our centenary history from the pre-1914 period, and I quote:

“There was a tradition that members did not achieve a high level of piping and had little regard for such trivia as ‘grace’ notes though a high G was allowed on occasion if not vulgarly overdone.”     

 It goes on:

“… we had two gentlemen whose genes were lacking for the inheritance of piping skills. One professed cheerfully to be the worst piper on earth, the other, more modestly, only claimed not to be in the top flight. There was ample evidence to support the claims of both.”

 It goes on:

“They were great enthusiasts, prominent and popular members, who helped the Society in many ways and so their standard of play mattered little, indeed it came to be regarded with affection and even as something of an accomplishment.  When one of them was placed third in a march competition the storm of applause was memorable and could have rivalled that for a Scottish victory at Murrayfield.”

Roderick Campbell.

Nevertheless, standards have always been important. This can be seen from the fact that, ever since its inception, the Society appointed professional pipers to assist in improving technique and musicality. From 1881-89 James Mauchline was the first tutor. James was regarded very highly by the members and was committed to the Society. He also composed a 2/4 march and a reel, both called The Scottish Pipers’ Society.

In 1914  John MacDonald, Inverness, who was planning to move to Edinburgh, was appointed as tutor, but never took up the position due to the outbreak of the first World War. Nevertheless, he had a long association with the Society and it is thought that it was he who gifted us the portrait of his father which hangs in our rooms.

In the 1920s the ‘Society’s Piper’ was Roderick Campbell, famous for his work with the Piobaireachd Society and for his excellent 2/4 March compositions – The Royal Scottish Pipers’ Society, Edinburgh City Police Pipe Band and Colin Thomson – as well as many other fine tunes.

From 1974 until 1983 John Percival, formerly Pipe Sergeant of the famous Edinburgh City Police Pipe Band held the position. Under John’s good-natured instruction our quartet performed before the paying public at the Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh at our Centenary Concert in 1982, playing The Royal Scottish Pipers’ Society, Inveraray Castle and The Little Cascade.

George Lumsden, Willie McBride, Bruce Hitchings, Robert Burns, Jimmy Banks – all possessors of the essential qualities of patience, tolerance and good humour – have also been the Society’s tutors. Since Jimmy Banks’ retiral months ago, unbowed after five years trying to get us to play together at appropriate tempos, the post has been held by John Fraser, an excellent solo player, former Army Pipe Major and piper with the Lothian and Border Police Pipe Band.  

Help and advice has also been given over the years by many other top pipers including D. R. MacLennan; Hugh MacRae, Pipe Major William Ross; Pipe Major Robert Reid; George Stoddart; and Captain John MacLellan.

Nowadays, Andrew Wright, who is one of our Honorary Members, comes to just about all of our meetings. For the past 20 years Andrew has held an annual piobaireachd seminar which attracts around 20 enthusiastic members and has improved both the playing and understanding among the members immensely.

MacNeills Finlay, Seumas and Dugald.

Dugald MacNeill, another honorary member and regular attendee at meetings, also runs a spin-off group called ‘Piobaireachd for Pleasure’ for less experienced players who are just keen to play a tune and learn a bit more about it in a relaxed atmosphere.

The support of all of these people has been greatly appreciated and, I believe, they have all enjoyed their involvement with the Society.

Over the time since I joined, the standard of bagpipes, which could be fairly distressing at times, has improved out of all recognition. Improvements in bagpipe technology have undoubtedly helped, but great credit for it goes to the help and advice of our piping tutors and to the expert reed-making skills and generosity of Andrew Frater.

Started 1887, the Society’s annual competition has been an important and popular occasion ever since. It comprises events to suit all abilities, run over two weekends and members compete for a large selection of trophies. Up until the 1950s, money prizes were also awarded … a fine thing for an amateur society! Nowadays there are two piobaireachd competitions, due to the large number of entries. Even back in 1968 there were 18 in the piobaireachd competition.

Trophies include the Strathcona Cup for piobaireachd, the Challenge Cup for March Strathspey and Reel and the Pipe Major William Ross Cup for the overall winner. Winners of Strathcona Cup include the wonderfully named Somerled MacDonald (1901) Charles MacTaggart (six times) D. J. S. Murray (seven times) and Dr Bob Frater.

Members who have not previously won a first prize in any competition may enter for the Confined March, the trophy for which, the enormous Allan Gilmour Quaich, is affectionately known as the Duffers’ Cup.

There is a Senior Members’ March for members over 65. One of our much loved members, the late Dr Jimmy Campbell, on noticing how the older members crept slowly around the platform, curled around their pipes emitting strange sounds, re-christened it ‘The Auld Buggers’ Creep’ and ‘The Auld Buggers’ Creep’ it still is today!

We have always had professional judges of high standing including Willie Ross; Angus MacPherson, Invershin, shown below judging together in 1960 with a combined age of 165!, Ian C. Cameron, D. R. MacLennan, John MacFadyen, Pipe Major Donald MacLeod, Duncan Johnstone, John D. Burgess, Andrew MacNeill, Dr John MacAskill as well as many still judging today.

Angus MacPherson with Willie Ross.

I am grateful to Nigel Malcolm-Smith, one of our longer standing members who edited our centenary history in 1982 and from which I have used much material for this lecture. It remains a good read for anyone involved in piping.

I should like to conclude with a short extract from Angus MacPherson’s charming book A Highlander Looks Back. Angus MacPherson, Invershin, was, of course, the son of Malcolm MacPherson (Calum Piobair). Angus’s friendship with G.S. MacLennan led to such wonderful compositions as the 2/4 March Inveran and the famous reel Mrs MacPherson of Inveran. Angus’s son, also Calum, the inspiration for Roddy Ross’s Binneas is Borreraig, also lived in Edinburgh for a time and made close friendships with one or two members of the Society. Angus writes as follows, I think in 1952, when he would have been 75 years old:

“Besides judging at the various Highland Games I had a few years ago the honour and pleasure of judging at the Royal Scottish Pipers’ Society competition in Edinburgh. I had with me as colleagues Calum Johnston from Barra and Donald MacPherson from Glasgow, and no two better qualified gentlemen could one wish to have. The Royal Scottish Pipers’ Society is a very old amateur institution and has done much to perpetuate our traditional music and dancing; even in my boyhood days it was going strong. I got to know many of the older members including the late Somerled MacDonald and Sir Alfred Macauley.

“Today the Society is still flourishing with a most energetic secretary in the person of Mr Hector Ross, BL., and to spend an evening in his company is indeed a very great treat. On the occasion when I judged the annual competition the piping was most commendable. In the Ceol Mor competition Mr Dugald Graham-Campbell of Shirvan won with a first class rendering of ‘The MacGregors’ Gathering’. His expression was none of the dawdling, meaningless type that is too often heard, and he must have inherited his good playing from his respected father. It would be unfair to make comparisons in such a competition, when we have gentlemen giving of their best not for the sake of winning a prize but in order that the glorious inheritance of our race may be carried on to succeeding generations. I would like, however, to record the pleasure I got from Sir Douglas Ramsay’s performance, to me, memories of bye-gone days.” 

So, in a nutshell, that’s what we are all about: “carrying on the glorious inheritance of our race to succeeding generations.”

• Part 1 – The Eagle Pipers