History of The Scottish Piping Society of London: The Post War Years

london-logoWe continue with our detailed look at one of the world’s most important piping societies. The SPSL has been a beacon of piping excellence since the 1930s with a long history of attracting the very best pipers to perform at its recitals, competitions and meetings. This history was compiled by former President of the Society, Adam Sanderson, and we are grateful to him for making it available to readers of Piping Press. The Society hold their annual competition in the Kensington Conference Centre on Saturday, November 5th commencing 9am. There is a large entry of world-class pipers and we would urge all enthusiasts in the south to go along and support this day of great music and fingering fireworks.

SPSL recitals re-commenced in the Winter of 1945. They were held every Friday in a room at the London Scottish Regimental HQ. In 1946 the SPSL committee decided it was time for a full return to business and a reunion dance was held in March with over 400 attendees. In the same month J.B. Robertson began holding chanter classes again.

This time he reported that there was a ‘satisfactory attendance of pupils’. Sadly, President Lewis Beaton, former Pipe Major of the 7th Cameronians, had died during the war years. A new one-off prize was to be given, the Lewis Beaton Memorial Pipes. I have the silver shield engraved with this title that was affixed to the bass drone, but, sadly, the actual pipes have disappeared somewhere along the timeline. Apparently they were actually Lewis Beaton’s silver mounted MacDougalls. Where are they now?

Lewis Beaton
Lewis Beaton

The new President was Dr W. MacPhail, and the familiar names of J.B. Robertson, G.F. Ross, R.A. Gillies were among those acting as Vice Presidents with Angus MacAulay (later to emigrate to New Zealand) as Pipe Major to the Society. By April, the SPSL committee were in contact with Mr Thomas Nicol, the owner of Beech Hyde Farm near St Albans, with the idea of holding a Highland Games in the south-east of England. This was to be the forerunner of the Harpenden Games run today. The committee was also pleased to report that all SPSL trophies had survived the war intact.

In 1947 the chanter classes were going strong, with the tutors being J.B Robertson and P/M MacKintosh of the Scots Guards. The classes were now hugely popular, perhaps due to the relocation to the Rose and Crown Pub in Lower Sloane Street. It’s reported that the move was very popular, with the pub providing ‘less noise and more comfort’. You can read into that what you may. The minutes show that the first Highland gathering near St Albans had been deemed a success, with over 1,500 attending. We have to remember that petrol was still rationed, not many people owned cars, and Beech Hyde Farm was not near any train station, so this is quite a remarkable figure.

The society also was given its first lecture by Seton Gordon, entitled ‘Ceol Mhor’, with J.B. Robertson, P/M Angus MacAulay, Andrew Bain and David Ross providing the tunes. The 1947 competition was remarked on for the incredible cold. This didn’t seem to put off P/M Robert Reid, who won both the Bratach Gorm and the Gillies Cup for piobaireachd.

The Society now seemed to be back up and running, except for J.B. Robertson’s ill-fated chanter classes which again dwindled in attendees. They were eventually cancelled. Annual Highland games were now also being held in Chiswick, with Col. J.P. Grant of Rothiemurchus and James Campbell of Kilberry judging the piping. G. F. Ross continued to give an annual lecture on piobaireachd, but Robert Reid joins the list of occasional guest lecturers on subjects such as ‘Amateur Piobaireachd Competitions’. Reid is also noted as helping out SPSL competitions.

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The Society continued to prosper, and by 1952 the London competition had a dedicated page in the Scotsman newspaper. If only solo piping competitions got the same kind of coverage nowadays! In the winter of that year the country was hit by a massive blizzard which prevented many competitors from travelling, but seven pipers made the long trip from Scotland. JB repeated another Bratach win with P/M Donald MacLeod, then at Fort George, second. The Gillies was taken by Angus MacAulay, with ‘wee’ Donald coming second again. P/M John MacLellan came first in the MSR, Donald MacLeod second for a third time, with John D. Burgess in third place. Willie Ross, and Calum MacCrimmon both commentated on the extremely high level of piping for the competition.

Angus MacAulay who won the Gillies Cup in 1952
Angus MacAulay who won the Gillies Cup in 1952

On the same page of the Scotsman it’s reported that J.B. Robertson’s pipe band, the Robertson Highland Pipe Band ‘will be appearing at both of the big Highland games in the South’ that summer, the London Caledonian Games at Chiswick and at the Hertfordshire Highland Games in Harpenden. The band is reported as having 30 members, the majority being former Army pipe majors. They are listed as winning the Forth Bridge Trophy in London and first prize at Harpenden in 1950 and 1951.

By the early 50s SPSL meetings had moved wholesale to the Rose and Crown pub, no doubt for the same reasons of ‘comfort’ that the pipe majors had preferred. James Campbell, son of Archibald, seems to have chaired the majority of meetings. Although his father’s piping ability is a controversial subject for some, people who knew James, and have commented on his piping ability, have all said the same thing, that he was a good player, with strong, solid fingering. [Listen to James on the Piobaireachd Society website]. Several have remarked that it’s a great shame that he didn’t compete as he would have done well. He did give piobaireachd tuition to SPSL members, several of whom went on to take prizes. From a piping point of view, most of the business conducted in the early part of the 1950s was quite mundane, mainly centering around the dancing competitions, although it was decided in 1953 that the Scottish Piping Society of London would take out two adverts per year in the Piping Times, of one-quarter page each.

The 1954 competition saw the first ever competitive visit to London by Seumas MacNeill of the College of Piping in Glasgow. He was placed third with his MSR of Stirlingshire Militia, Islay Ball and Sandy Cameron. J.B. Robertson was first in the MSR with Lochaber Gathering, Arniston Castle and The Man from Glengarry. Fourth place went to John Burgess. His reel, Pretty Marion, was noted as ‘the best tune in the whole competition’, but his march and strathspey were not considered up to standard.  Donald MacLeod took the Bratach with Lament for Patrick Og MacCrimmon, and the Open Piobaireachd with the Old Men of the Shells. Seamus MacNeill wasn’t placed with his interpretation of Lament for the Only Son. It’s quite a jolt to see, ‘He should try to enlarge his repertoire of tunes which he offers for competition’ written next to his name, considering Seumas went on to enjoy a reputation as an authority on piobaireachd. The reviewer uses the pen name, ‘Thal agus a bhos’. Special mention is also made of the winner of the amateur piobaireachd, George Blyth, a boy who, ‘in spite of shaking from head to foot, gave a well timed and well fingered rendering of The Carles wi’ the Breeks’. 

Seumas MacNeill, 'of limited repertoire' according to the Society minutes
Seumas MacNeill, needed to enlarge his competition repertoire according to the Society minutes

In 1955 it was decided that there should also be competitions for ‘miniature bands’. This appears to have been narrowly scraped through as the committee wanted to concentrate on piobaireachd and solo MSRs. In the end, the whole idea of band competitions was handed over to a sub-committee ‘on the understanding that the Society would not be involved in any financial liability’. The competition was by invite only and the following bands were invited: Scots Guards, London Scottish, London Irish, R.A.M.C, Royal Canadian Air Force, Robertson Highland, Old Caledonians, London Pipe Band and the Royal Caledonian Schools.

In the same year, it was decided that the chanter classes be given another go, and adverts were placed in the Scotsman and the Oban Times, saying: ‘The Scottish Piping Society of London, For young Men or Boys Desiring to Learn to Play the Pipes, or for pipers desiring expert tuition, the society can recommend approved instructors. Apply….
The instructors for the classes were Robert Hill, Peter Quinn, Andrew Bain, M MacMillan, Jim Caution and J.B. Robertson MBE.

By 1955 James Campbell of Kilberry was President of the Society, with R.A. Gillies as Vice President and David Ross as P/M. It may be coincidence, but at the moment that James Campbell becomes properly involved the Society minutes become bound rather than loose leaf, the minutes become less descriptive and more concise, and notes refer to ‘loitering,….interfering stewards’ at competitions.

Recitals continued throughout the 50s, but, sadly, records were not kept as to who these pipers were apart from in 1955. There was a strong leaning toward piobaireachd at these recitals, with tunes such as The Battle of Waternish, and The Red Hand in the MacDonald’s Arms, being played by the likes of Donald Maclean, George MacRae, Jim Caution and James Campbell himself.

A letter dated 21st February 1957 from the Hon. Secretary concerns the possible donation of a collection of piping books once belonging to the late Angus MacNaughton of the Gaelic Society. The collection includes Thomason’s Ceol Mor and William Ross’s collection. I have no idea what happened to these book but they certainly did not exist in the Society’s collection at the time of writing. Other topics that were being debated toward the tail end of the 50s would be considered inflammatory today, including negative views on women pipers, the wearing of the kilt by women, and a general aversion to pipe bands in general.  

To be concluded.