Piping 200 years ago: 1824 part two



Early in April the seventh anniversary meeting of the friends and supporters of the Caledonian Asylum was held in London. After a dinner and speeches: “the children made their appearance, ushered into the room by a Highland Piper, habited in the costume of his country. They were all, forty in number, dressed in jackets and kilts of Royal Tartan, and bore the appearance of the most perfect health. They drew up in the form of a crescent, at the upper end of the room, and sang the air of Scots Wha Ha’e Wi’ Wallace bled with great taste; and after thrice parading the room, withdrew amidst the most enthusiastic applause.”

Two excellent pipers of Gateshead

On 27th April a number of officials, churchmen and gentlemen perambulated the boundaries of the parish of Gateshead. “They commenced at the blue stone of the bridge, at nine o’clock, attended by two constables with flags, and two excellent pipers, and were greeted at their departure by a salute of guns from Mr Price’s glass-works, and a peal of bells from St Mary’s church.” As the parade continued a band of music joined them at Chowden and at Wreckinton they partook of bread, cheese and ale provided by the church wardens. Later in their progress the constables with the flags, and accompanied by the pipers, proceeded from Friar’s Goose to Tyne Bridge in a boat, at which place they and the other part of the procession arrived at 20 minutes before five o’clock. The day ended with forty-eight gentlemen sitting down to dinner at the Black Bull.

Genuine Scotchmen in the tartan

On 10th June the last masquerade of the season was held at the Argyll Rooms, London. The various performances were reported, including this item: “There were some genuine Scotchmen in the tartan, who gave the Highland Fling most excellently, and made the piper play with double glee; their dancing was really amusing.”

The Club of True Highlanders with controversial piping results

On 4th June the Inverness Journal and Advertiser announced: “The Club of True Highlanders will hold their Anniversary Meeting at Inverlochy, on Thursday the 10th June next; and it is requested that such Pipers as intend to compete for the Prizes to be awarded that day, may give in their names to Mr Stewart of Achnacone, at Fort William, the evening preceding.”

A report of the results of the competition has not been found but it seems that the result was somewhat controversial. An advertisement appeared in the Inverness Journal and Advertiser on June 18th.  This stated: “At the Competition of Pipers held at Inverlochy on 10th June curt the Prize Pipe was adjudged to Donald McInnes, who, in the opinion of every disinterested Judge, was the worst Piper that competed. The consequence of this decision will be that no good Pipers will in future take the trouble of preparing for the said Competition; a number of that description having attended on this occasion; the Subscribers, among others, have formed the resolution; not wishing to give offence, they do not mention the names of the Judges. Signed: Donald McKay, formerly Piper to Clanranald. John McKenzie, Piper to Mr Davidson of Tulloch. Archd Munroe, Piper to Glengarry. John Smith, Piper to the Hon Col Grant of Grant.”

The writers were Donald Mackay who in 1834 became piper to the Duke of Sussex, John Ban MacKenzie, later piper to the Marquis of Breadalbane, Archibald Munro, composer of Glengarry’s Lament, and John Smith, later a bagpipe maker in Inverness.

Caledonian Ball in London

The Morning Post reported on the Caledonian Ball in London, held at Almack’s Assembly Rooms on Friday 25th June, with a Royal Party among those attending: “The Duke of Argyll, as the head of the Highland Chiefs, attended the Royal Ladies, preceded by the ancient and renowned piper, who came all the way from Gordon Castle to preside on this occasion; he marched up the stairs playing the reel of Tullochgorum, with that degree of animation so peculiar to himself and the Highlands; all the Ladies of rank followed, together with the Gentlemen.”

The Annual Competition of the Highland Society of London

On 21st June the Caledonian Mercury published the arrangements for intending competitors at the Edinburgh competition: “The Annual Competition for Prizes given by the Highland Society of London, to the Five Best Performers on the Great Highland Bagpipe, is to be held in the Theatre Royal at Edinburgh, on Wednesday the 28th July next, in presence of a Committee of Judges and Directors, appointed by the Highland Society of Scotland. At the same time the Committee will decide an Extra Prize, instituted through the liberality of Mrs H Siddons, with reference to the success of the National Play of Rob Roy, and as a mark of her sense of the Public Patronage afforded to the Theatre.

“Competitors must be in Edinburgh on or before Friday 23rd July and immediately give in their names at the Royal Exchange Coffee House; each competitor must then likewise lodge a list of not fewer than twelve ancient Pipe Tunes, any one or more of which he may be called upon to perform in presence of the Judges, at the previous Rehearsal or at the Public Exhibition. Such of the Competitors as may produce Pipe Tunes, set to music by themselves, or sing, or recite Ancient Poetry or Airs, not generally known or published, will be suitably rewarded. Encouragement will also be given for the Notation or Writing of Pipe Music, as a means of fixing the same, and of facilitating the instruction of Performers. Prizes will be given to the best Dancers of Highland Reels or other approved Highland Dances. Good Dancers from the Highlands will have an allowance made from the receipts at the Theatre, corresponding to the distances they may have travelled. The Dancers to give in their names as above. The Highland Society of London have also voted a sum to be applied by the Committee in Premiums to the Three Best Dressed Highlanders; and all competitors are specially desired to take notice, that they must be properly equipped in the Highland garb made of the tartan of their respective clans. Charles Gordon, Dep. Sec. Highland Society Chambers, Edinburgh, June 19 1824.”

Another advertisement concerning the arrangements for the competition day appeared on 26th July: “Competition of Pipers etc. On Wednesday 28th July current, (to commence at 12 o’clock precisely) there is to be, in the Theatre Royal, An Exhibition of the Ancient Martial Music of Scotland, being the Annual Competition for Prizes given by the Highland Society of London, To the Five best Performers on the Great Highland Bagpipe, In presence of a Committee of Judges and Directors, appointed by the Highland Society of Scotland, by whom the Prize Pipe, properly ornamented, and the other Prizes, will be delivered to the preferred Competitors, in presence of the Audience.

“Between the Acts there will also be Dancing of Highland Reels, etc. A Band will attend.

“All Competitors to be equipped in the Highland Garb, and Premiums are to be given to the Three who shall appear at the Competition most correctly and neatly dressed.

Tickets and places for the Boxes, with Plans of the performance, to be had of Mr Garbutt at the Box Office. On Wednesday, Tickets and Plans to be had at the several doors of the Theatre. Doors to be opened at eleven a.m. Boxes 5s. – Pit 3s. – Lower Gallery 2s. – Upper Gallery 1s.

“The money arising from the Sale of Tickets to be divided, as usual, among the Pipers who do not get Prizes, (many of whom have this year come a great distance) to encourage them to farther improvement in this Ancient, Warlike, and National Music, the effect of which on the minds of true Highlanders is well known. The Dancers also receive a share of the money.”

The Edinburgh competition had begun in 1783 and was held annually until 1826 and then triennially until 1844. A feature of the competition was that pipers were only eligible for a higher prize than they had won previously. This excluded first prize winners and ensured that new names entered the prize lists. Numbers were kept manageable by holding a rehearsal at which all the prospective competitors played and only a dozen or so were selected for the competition proper. Judging was carried out by a large committee.

The competition was reported in several papers: “The Annual Competition for the Prizes given by the Highland Society of London to the best performers on the Highland Bagpipe, was held on Wednesday last, in the Theatre Royal here, in presence of the Committee of judges, and a very numerous and fashionable audience. A great number of competitors attended from the most remote districts of the Highlands, and the general merit of the whole performers may be pronounced peculiarly excellent.

“Indeed a very marked improvement may be noticed annually in the skill of the pipers, from the emulation excited by this general competition, even by those unaccustomed to distinguish the nicer shades of merit in playing the peculiar music of the piobaireachd; for although the rapidity of execution is astonishing in some of the more animated and complicated variations of “the gatherings,” it is surprising how readily the audience will detect a slip or a false note, and withhold their approbation accordingly. But very little of this was perceptible in the exertions of the performers, who were selected to compete in public on Wednesday, and they were accordingly very generally and deservedly applauded.

“The Highland dancing too, as usual, gave great satisfaction. The reels and strathspeys were excellently danced, and when they are so, they seldom fail to give animation to the scene. Some of the reels were so admirably tripped, that the audience were naturally, but almost insensibly impelled to stand up, in the same feeling of enthusiasm which animated the dancers, on the stage before them. The dancers in several reels were encored, until at length Lord Strathavon, as Preses of the Judges, was under the necessity of reminding the audience that it would be necessary to dispense with the encore, as otherwise the performance could not be concluded before dinner. The dancing of John Grant, from Strathspey, was noticed as particularly excellent. It is impossible to overlook the decided improvement which the premiums that have of late years been given to the best dressed competitors have produced in the general neatness of the costume, and also in the correct and pleasing variety of the tartans; each competitor being equipped in the characteristic tartan of his Chief or Clan. Probably the fault chiefly to be guarded against is a tendency to gaudy appendages, which is sometimes apt to show itself. This elegant dress does not need superfluous ornament, and we have observed with satisfaction, that the Judges, in voting the premiums for dress, have usually encouraged the country tartan, the real Highland bonnet, and homemade hose and brogues, as they were formerly worn in the country.

“The following Members of the Highland Society of Scotland, who were named to act as Judges for the Highland Society of London, by which last Society the premiums at this competition are given, attended at the Theatre, viz.: The Right Honourable Lord Strathavon; the Right Hon. Lord Macdonald; the Honourable Major General Duff, Colonel of the 92nd Highland Regiment’ Lieutenant General Sir John Hope, Colonel of the 72nd Highland regiment; Lieutenant General James Stirling, late 42nd or Royla Highland regiment; Norman Lockhart esq of Greenaton; Alex Young esq of Harburn; Lieut Colonel Macdonald of Lyndale; Lieut Colonel Macbean, late 78th regiment; Duncan Matheson esq, Advocate; Coll Macdonald esq of Delness; James Grant esq of Glenmoriston, WS; Major John Gordon, 2nd regiment; Geo Robertson esq, Albany Street; Captain G Macdonell of the Royals.

“About three o’clock the competition finished, and the judges retired to determine the prizes. In their absence the audience were amused by an exhibition of the broadsword exercise by Macdonald and Durward, two swordsmen, whose performance in this way displayed great proficiency. On return of the Judges, Lord Strathavon, the Preses of the committee, addressed the audience in the following terms: ‘Ladies and Gentlemen I have the honour of being deputed by the Committee of Judges of this Competition, to express to you the satisfaction they feel at witnessing so brilliant and so numerous an assemble. It is possible that individuals may think that some of the prizes should be differently awarded from what they are, but the difficulty of deciding among such a number of good performers, must plead our excuse with those, if there are any, who may not concur in opinion with us. By your liberality in coming forward to patronise and support this competition, which has for its object the cultivation and encouragement of the ancient warlike music of our native mountains, you will enable the committee to send home, with substantial proofs of your regard, those highly meritorious rising candidates for your favour, who have this day been unable publicly to appear before you. I am desired by the Committee also to mention to you, that I have lately received from the Secretary of the Highland Society of London, a letter regarding a Piece of Plate voted by the Society, on the recommendation of this Committee, to Mrs Henry Siddons, in acknowledgement of her liberality in having given the gratuitous use of the Theatre for this Competition for several years. The plate voted is an elegant silver vase, with an appropriate inscription, expressive of the purpose of presenting it; and but for the illness of the artist employed to finish the vase, it would have been received in time to be delivered on this occasion. The Secretary mentions that no exertion shall be wanting on his part to have it sent soon as possible.’

“His Lordship’s address and the intimation it conveyed regarding the plate to Mrs Siddons, were received with much applause. Lord Strathavon then proceeded to deliver the prizes as they had been awarded, as follows: The first a Highland Bagpipe, elegantly ornamented and furnished with a silver plate for an appropriate inscription, to Donald Scrymgeour, piper to the Centre Regiment of Forfarshire Local Militia, who had several years ago won the Second Prize, the extra Prize, and several subordinate prizes. The second, to Donald Stewart, Piper to the 79th regiment or Cameron Highlanders. The third, to Donald Macdonald, son of Donald Macdonald pipemaker to the Highland Society of London. The fourth, to John Smith, piper to the Hon Colonel Grant of Grant. The fifth to William Gunn from Glasgow. The extra prize of a superbly mounted Highland Powder Horn, afforded by the liberality of Mrs H Siddons, in declining any allowance for use of the Theatre, was awarded to Kenneth McRa, Piper to the Hon James Sinclair. This is the only prize which Pipers who had already gained a second prize can receive, until they obtain the prize pipe, and in this situation it had been awarded to Kenneth McRa, who obtained the second prize last year. On McRa being called forward to receive the prize, he declined it, conceiving, as he said, that he should have obtained the Pipe.

“Considerable disapprobation was manifested by the audience at the unbecoming conduct of this person, who appeared sufficiently self-conceited. The committee again retired, and voted this extra prize to Alexander Dewar, Piper to Sir Neil Menzies of Menzies, Bart. Lord Strathavon then intimated that the Committee were unanimously of opinion, that, in regard to Kenneth McRa, a regulation of the Highland Society of London, made to meet any such occurrence as had just taken place, must be carried into effect; and which declares, that candidates who might so behave, ‘shall be inadmissible as competitors thereafter’.

“The first and second prizes for the best dressed Competitors were voted to Alexander Farquharson, from Breadalbane, and Angus Cameron, from Rannoch. The third prize for dress, was delivered to a very promising young piper, John Macdonald, a boy under 12 years of age, from the estate of Colonel Stewart of Garth. The bills announced that this boy is the grandson of Macgregor, the piper who won the prize pipe at the first general competition in 1783. The audience seemed much interested in the young Highlander, who played his tune on the stage with much apparent ease, and in a manner remarkably correct for so young a performer.”

A new rule had been added in 1823 stating that: “Any competitor expressing dissatisfaction on any point connected with the competition shall be held incapable of competing thereafter.”

When Kenneth MacRae who was piper to the Earl of Caithness refused to accept an extra prize and protested that he should have had the first prize the new rule added in 1823 was invoked but as an act of grace the committee offered to give him an allowance for his travelling expenses provided he would express contrition for his improper conduct, but MacRae declined to express regret for his conduct and stated that he considered he had been shamefully used and was not sorry that he should not be allowed to compete hereafter. In consequence the Committee were unanimously of the opinion that no allowance should be made to him.

The practice of paying travelling expenses was open to abuse also. In 1824 Norman McCrummen entered as from MacLeod’s Estate in Skye. At the rehearsal he played The Rout of Glenfruin but apparently this was not the tune he had been called upon to play. He was not selected for the competition proper and indeed only one of the thirteen judges voted that he should be. On 13th June the following year a letter was sent from someone in Edinburgh to Mr Gordon the Secretary of the Highland Society saying: “Sir, In consequence of a general imposition on the Highland Society of Scotland every year at the competition of pipers it is customary by many to state that they travelled a long distance and have to return, no doubt some of them, but I beg leave to mention one Norman McCrummen from Skye stated last year that he came from Skye on purpose to compete and immediately to return, but instead of that he has been in Edinburgh this three years or nearly and never was north once, and is generally employed as a labourer with Mr Raeburn, about Stockbridge.” The signature is an illegible scrawl and probably meant to be anonymous.