History: St Fillans Games and Grumbling Pipers From 1821

Nothing Seems to Have Changed

by Piping Historian, Keith Sanger

The following extract is from a long letter reporting on the St Fillans Highland Games of 1821 which I came across last week and am still transcribing. The part quoted concerns the piping competition and needs little comment other than that nearly 200 years later, little seems to have changed regarding dissatisfaction with competition results.

The letter comes from the Drummond Castle papers and as it makes no mention of John MacKay, father of Angus MacKay, Raasay,  suggests that he had not yet been recruited there.

The extract reads: ‘It seems there was a keen contest for the prize pipe, value eight guineas, given by Lord Gwydyre, which was awarded to William McFarlane, Glenstria. It would appear that Pipers, like Poets, are rather of an irritable disposition, by their grumbling sadly at the preference given to the successful candidate.

‘The cognoscenti after hearing all the pipers with a gravity and importance fully equal to the Lord Chancellor, gave their decision, after weighing their performances maturely and dispassionately – viewing the Bagpipe, divested of any pretensions to a comparison with any musical instrument in Europe, it is still entitled to our highest regard.

Drummond Castle

‘It is an instrument with which magnificent and pathetic ideas are allied, it is the medium by which the hearts of the finest people [of] the world are warmed to deeds of arms and melted in to affections, the most tender & refined. The 2nd & 3rd prizes of a dirk & sporran mollach (a rough purse) were awarded to Donald Gunn and Alex Dewar.’

The Editor replies: Fascinating stuff Keith and I suppose given that eight guineas would be worth around £750 in today’s money and many times the average annual salary of the day, we can see why first prize would be hotly contested. Only a few piping competitions reach that level today.

Here’s an interesting extract I found on the internet regarding the average wage back then: ‘Female domestic servants earned less than men. Wages for eighteenth-century women could range from the £2 or so mentioned above to between £6 and £8 for a housemaid, and up to £15 per annum for a skilled housekeeper. By contrast a footman could expect £8 per year, and a coachman anywhere between £12 and £26. Because they had to provide their own food, lodging and clothing, independent artisans needed to earn substantially more than this. £15 to £20 per year was a low wage, and a figure closer to £40 was needed to keep a family. The middling sort required much more still and could not expect to live comfortably for under £100 per year, while the boundary between the ‘middling sort’ and the simply rich was in the region of £500. The First Lord of the Treasury enjoyed an annual salary of £4,000.’

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The money in today’s competitions is important. The cost of travel and accommodation make it so. Going to Inverness for a couple of days for the Northern Meeting will leave no change from £200 -unless the piper sleeps in the car and, like the seagulls at the Paisley Fair, takes his own sandwiches.

That said, it is honour and respect that is the prime driving force in competition these days. Win big and you have a place in the history books. However financial benefit can accrue indirectly. Build a reputation and you have the opportunity of making a career from piping. If we look at some of the top players: Angus MacColl, Stuart Liddell, Finlay Johnston, Calum Beaumont, they all make their living from piping and that is a living based on their ability as musicians. Until the advent of schools teaching in the 70s it was a rare thing for a piper to survive financially on the earnings from his music unless he was in the police or the Army.

It is one of the marks of progress in modern piping that so many make their bread from their music today, yet whilst arguments over results will continue for as long as bagpipe competitions are held, it is unlikely that the folding stuff will be the prime concern in any dispute.

The main picture with this article is from an engraving of a scene from the St Fillans Games of 1868. These games are no longer held, the nearest being seven miles to the west at Lochearnhead. Check out our Guide to the Games for more.

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