Highland Dress: Time to Smarten Up and a Question for the Ladies

Highland dress, or a sloppy version of it, is exercising the mind of competing piper Brian Mulhearn……

Brian writes: ‘As someone who attends as many top piping competitions as I can, I am dismayed to see how some of the top pipers do not seem to care how they ‘turn out’.

Even at the major competitions it seems to be the fashion not to wear a jacket if you can get away with it and dress like a snooker player. If you find it awkward to play in a jacket you should practice with one on.

‘My pet hate is loose ties. All pipers get made to measure kilts but seem unable to buy made to measure shirts which would enable them to fasten their collar while playing. Made to measure shirts can be bought for £35 – £40 and some of the biggest culprits can well afford that from their prize money.

‘I would like to see some rules for female players. Some wear a jacket and tie while others seem to be able to dress as they like. If a male competitor was to appear to play at the Northern Meeting with a tee-shirt, no jacket or bonnet would he be allowed to play? I`m all for equality of the sexes in piping but let us have a sense of occasion at the major competitions. Same rules for all.’

The man by whom all standards of male dress could be set, the late John D Burgess


The Editor responds: ‘In my report on the Northern Meeting a couple of weeks back I made mention of a piper who appeared without a bonnet, contrary to the rules, yet he was allowed to play. My point then was that once dispensations are permitted we end up on a slippery slope. I’m not sure I agree with Brian’s point regarding lady pipers however. In my view appropriate lady’s wear, tartan skirt etc. should be encouraged rather than ill-fitting male attire.

No male dress for Anne Johnston, née Sinclair, winner of the 1980 Silver Medal at Inverness

‘In bands it is different of course, the ladies have to conform to the majority but in the solo world I see nothing wrong with how the likes of Anna Kummerlöw and Fiona Manson dress for competition. And in days gone by Anne Stewart (Spalding) and Ann Sinclair (Johnston) always dressed appropriately.’

Well what do readers think? Do women pipers have an advantage on dress? Are men getting sloppy? Does it matter so long as everyone plays well?

• Unclear about Highland dress? Check out our feature here.


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14 thoughts on “Highland Dress: Time to Smarten Up and a Question for the Ladies

  1. Andrea,

    I’m one of those anonymous commenters and a man too, but where on earth had I mentioned women pipers and how they should dress? Echoing David’s bafflement may I strongly suggest that you read CAREFULLY the comments here before attempting to bash? It’s unseemly for an open grade professional player like yourself whose playing I quite enjoy incidentally, worthy of such incendiary comments.

  2. I find it very interesting that all of the non-anonymous comments on this story come from men, postulating about what women should wear and how they should conform. These comments are particularly obtuse when they come from men who are not currently competing, and have never competed at a professional level. Perhaps if the organisers of competitions are interested in seeing a reform or standardisation to the dress code, they could actually consult with the females that compete in these competitions?

    1. Dear Andrea, may I point out that your post was somewhat misleading. I made comments about the element of theatre that is missing when competitors don’t dress well. I did not comment on what women should or should not wear, I was not condescending, nor was I making a political statement. I am indeed a man. I am not misogynistic and have competed for over fifty decades in the piping world and have witnessed a very sad decline in dress standards over that time. Respect is a two-way street.

  3. It seems to be a trend thats crawled its way into the piping world and its high time this was addressed. I may be old fashioned but I find it disrespectful to all those who have built up the fantastic competition culture that we enjoy today. When top bands have a rectital, where everyone fights for a ticket, they are usually well turned out (even if the majority have no head dress on) but when it comes to competition the standards drop. Sunglasses, baseball caps, flat caps socks down, ties undone… Why? I´m certainly not putting the blame entirely on the bands though, I´ve seen enough pictures of judges in baseball caps, bush hats no ties and sunglasses. Its fine for modern groups on stage entertaining wearing a dolly mixture of tartan but when it comes to competition, tradition and culture must be respected and protected. Maybe we should take a leaf out of the drum majors competition and be inspected before performing. I remember as a wee boy at an indoor solo competition in Bellahouston, the judge made a wee speech before the prize giving. It was all about why he had deducted points to the young boys with grubby finger nails and why I was sent away to get my glengarry on before I was allowed to play

  4. Frankly put it is really the fault of the organizers themselves who do not uphold standards. No ifs about it. The late Seumas MacNeill brought this very topic up once (and surely many times after that) in the PT back the late 80’s when he wondered if tee shirts and jeans will take over as order of the day as the jacket was beginning to be circumvented then and steadily discarded.

    I work in law and always wear a suit and tie to work so I am quite used to it. All I am saying is that if a jacket is difficult to play in the solution is to practice with one on for a couple of months before a competition or better yet, order a nice stylish tweed jacket with vest as this type of fabric holds the bag firmly under one’s oxter. Not hard really and will hopefully not only quell the naysayers but make us look pleasant for our audiences whether piper or public.

    Yours aye in piping

    NY Piper

  5. While more comfortable, it is very untidy to see a band in waistcoats and I include my own in this. Shirt sleeves and capes is just an unacceptable look. A proper ‘shirt sleeve’ order may be acceptable for a working event, but put a jacket on for the 10min competition performance.

  6. What worries me about the concern about dress is that it is a symptom of a larger problem, that, for the non-piping public, bagpiping is just a tourist attraction or almost a historical re-enactment rather than an art form. I know very few non-bagpipers that listen to or appreciate bagpipe music in and of itself, but I do know quite a few non-pipers who do like it because they like Scottish culture or other things like that. Since bagpiping is so dependent on maintaining tradition to gain interest from the public we fall into a trap of not innovating.

    The older generations of any kind of art have always been complaining about how the younger ones don’t respect tradition, but young bagpipers actually listen to them for some reason instead of innovating for themselves.

    This is probably because in bagpiping success is almost completely defined by placing well in competitions, which are judged by the older pipers. Imagine how the music industry would be if parents said to their kids ‘stop listening to that garbage, back in my day music was…’ and then the kids all stopped listening to what their parents want them to. It would be bizarre, art would never move forward.

    I know that this got a little off topic from people not wearing their jackets while piping, but something needs to change because honestly watching piping contests, especially solo contests, are extremely boring for most people.

  7. Many bands seem to be going for either a fleece or windcheater style jacket with their bands crest instead of a proper jacket which i dont think looks the part. Maybe the bad habits in wearing the garb in solos has its origins in the band scene.

  8. I once was watching a YouTube highly prized competition here in the U.S. One of the competitors wore trews [that’s ok] but his shirt was open collar with a tie and his long sleeve shirt had rolled up sleeves, and his shoes looked like he walked across the country to get to the event. To see it begged the question are you playing the Great Highland Bagpipe or are you in the basement playing the hot, cold and great waste pipe. Neatness gentlemen! Remember you always want to look your best as players we are really ambassadors for the instrument.

  9. I couldn’t agree more with critical remarks made about competing pipers dress!! Why do our beautiful piping ladies dress as men? Why do some of our competing male pipers, directly they have completed on the competition board, dissapear and change into ‘mufti’. Are they ashamed of the kilt? Surely not……… but why? Please let’s all aim for the highest standards of dress…..shoes highly polished, ties neatly and tightly worn and the kilt NOT worn so that it falls below the knee!!

    John H Shone

  10. There has been much discussion recently on poor audience attendance at several meetings. I wonder just how much the lack of “theatre” is responsible? A competition, whether pipe band or solo, has a strong theatrical element and those who provide the “entertainment” are surely duty bound to consider how they present themselves. Sadly, the spectacle of full military style highland dress is long out of favour (with the exception of the military tattoos – who get large audiences), but it is not beyond any performer to be as smart and well presented as he or she can. With a plethora of sagging kilts, football socks, open knecks, colourless uniforms, etc., the whole idea of wearing highland dress may be slipping towards the ludicrous. Much can be achieved to create a true “sense of occasion” for the audience if performers crank up their knowledge of how to wear what is “good” highland dress and take pride in the heritage of our nation and its traditions.

  11. Of course it is nice to see pipers dressed nicely, but that is about it. I could spend a fortune on highland dress in way of kilts and good fitting ‘jjeckets’ and I would and can still look like a sack of tatties. Maybe it is the way I am made. By a misfortune I won’t go into, I purchased a made to measure pair of tartan trews and for travel etc they are certainly more comfortable and convenient and occasionally for a bit of fun I have a shot of playing at the games, particularly if there is a dearth of the competing fraternity at games that I attend. The dearth of attenders is much more important that how the missing competitors might be dressed. In the past couple of years it has been the tartan trews that has covered my lower part ugliness when attending highland games etc. The most critical person of my attire has been my brother and not the organisers of the events. To reiterate, it is nice to see pipers dressed well for the occasions and it shows respect for an audience who might be there. Digressing, I was at a piping recital some years ago and the recitalist turned up in jeans and what looked maybe like breakfast stained shirt. The fingers were flying, but the efforts he made in his attire was not respectful of audience who were all better turned out than the entertainer. There were a few of the audience who stated they would not return to such an occasion and one said that buskers were better dressed! As regards female pipers, I am at ease with how they dress. I don’t think it should be imposed on ladies to dress anything like a male, unless they desire for some reason to do so. I recall Donald MacLean, the wee guy, not big Donald telling of when in the 1930’s he and a few others started to wear the type of garb we are now used to; Tweed jacket kilt and sporran and of course a hat of some kind. Prior to that they wore kilt, black jackets with sometimes bow ties , hair sporran, flyplaid , buckled shoes etc. This can be seen in old photographs. In that era the dress we now wear was regarded as a type pf day wear and apparently the more affluent members of society wore it and this can be seen in the book produced by Angus Fairy (spelling) on the history of the the Northern Meeting. However wee Donald and his associates started to wear this day dress and some of them were challenged as the day dress was not appropriate to competing pipers! Black jackets, hair sporrans, flyplaids,, tartan hose, buckled shoes was then the norm. Wee Donald was more or less told that he was getting above his station wearing what the ‘toffs’ were attired in. The competing pipers whether male or female should dress nicely and tun out in greater numbers at some of smaller games to ensure their future and give some relief to the over subscribed graded competitions which already is having a deleterious effect on solo competitive piping. Using John Davie ‘Birgess’ as an example of sartorial elegance is unfair on the likes of me and people of my shape as inferiority will have a forever damaging effect. Ii am already considering employing a batman!

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