Findings from Our Poll on the Standards of Highland Dress Among Solo Pipers

The Editor writes……For our poll on the current attitudes to Highland dress we asked the following question: ‘Is it time for our solo pipers to smarten up?’

Here is a graph of the responses:

You can see from that that there is a significant amount of concern out there. 

Those who were more non-committal clearly want contest promoters to apply their dress code with more vigour.

Those on the trouser side of the argument are in a clear minority though with more than 25% of all votes cast you could be forgiven for taking the view that there is some momentum with the dressing down brigade – and they may have received a boost by the recent appearance of an adjudicator at a major event here in Scotland dressed just so, in casual trousers, open neck shirt.

As far as singling out lady pipers for special treatment as was suggested in the earlier article by Brian Mulhearn, very few seem to have an appetite for this. In my view ladies are free to dress as they please – though my preference is for them not to compete in menswear.

There’s always something worth reading at – made free for the worldwide piping and pipe band community by your support for our advertisers and the ppresshop….

I think the Northern Meeting’s dress code for competitors is one other promoters could adopt. Here it is:

‘Male competitors must wear Highland Dress including jacket, tie, bonnet or Glengarry and appropriate shoes. Female competitors must wear suitable Highland dress including tartan skirt and appropriately cut jacket.

‘Competitors will not be allowed to compete unless dressed to the satisfaction of the committee. Shirt sleeve order is not permitted while competing. Pipe bags must be complete with covers. The wearing of formal dress is encouraged.’

Now what is wrong with that? At the Argyllshire Gathering and many other contests they allow shirt sleeve order. Oban’s reasoning is that it gets very warm in late August in some of the rooms. This is true, but I have to say it never bothered pipers in my day.

Tweed was dropped, linings adjusted and you just got on with it. And as Brian rightly points out, if pipers find it difficult competing in a jacket then they should do more practice with it on in the house. I know Donald MacPherson used to.

The trouble with shirtsleeve order is that it quickly degenerates into short sleeve order; tie undone order; sweat stain order; open collar order; untucked waistline order. 

If shirt sleeve order meant that pipers paraded as the bands do with smart waistcoats (vests) and cufflinks, ties properly knotted, top buttons buttoned, then I could see higher levels of audience approval.

Inveraray PB head for the circle. Shirtsleeves yes, but with ties well knotted, waistcoats, cufflinks, dress sporrans and chain

Promoters who do not want to follow the example of the Northern Meeting could rewrite their rules to make it clear that those not wearing jackets must be attired as per the preceding paragraph.

I don’t think that is asking too much. These are professional musicians after all, playing for big prizes and a place in posterity.

The public’s perception of piping matters. We all want parity of esteem for our music and we will not get that unless competitors look the part.

Pipers in the Victorian and Edwardian eras get a lot of stick for their starchy manners and showy dress but isn’t there something to be said for the smartness of that bygone era? There was pride in the medals won and pride….well they were just proud to be pipers playing for the top awards and dressed themselves accordingly.

And we don’t have to go back that far to discover this pride in appearance…..

Properly dressed….the march to the games at Oban in 1979. Pipers from left to right: Angus John MacLellan, Bill Livingstone, Robert Wallace, Evan MacRae, John D. Burgess, Kenny MacDonald, Iain MacFadyen, Malcolm McRae, John Wilson

Piping and pipers deserve respect, but that needs to be earned. Our dress should reflect the importance of the music, the occasion, and our concern that those watching and listening are not turned off by how we look.

The audience is paying good money after all. What they want is a John Burgess, pipes gleaming, picture perfect, or a Pipe Major Angus (pictured top) commanding the boards visually and musically. Sadly these two giants are no longer around to set an example.

Perhaps we need more Dress & Deportment prizes. They used to have them at Inverness for the seniors not so long ago when the late Bill Blacklaw was the judge.

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5 thoughts on “Findings from Our Poll on the Standards of Highland Dress Among Solo Pipers

  1. Whilst it cannot be disputed that modern highland attire “draws from Victorian tartanism,” but is not the entire picture. Our traditions of Scottish highland or traditional dress is drawn from a much more extended period other than just Victorianalia. Lets not cherry pick what we appear to despise, the Victorians were particularly well known for many things that were indisputably good of even excellent. What is good and tasteful, is simply good and tasteful in any era!

  2. Another way to look at this poll is 60% of respondents do NOT feel things are getting out of hand.

    Mr Watson is right: presentation is important. Yet, let’s keep in mind that “highland attire” draws from Victorian tartanism. Dressing well needn’t be limited to it, or to its military variations.

    I think it is important to keep in mind: we play music.

  3. Personally I don’t see anything wrong with waist coat instead of jacket it’s just as smart and much more comfortable to play in.
    If you asked 100 competing pipers jacket or waistcoat I would bet 90 would say waistcoat

  4. Getting dressed for an occasion is all part of the occasion. As indicated before, I am not made to look very smart no matter what I wear. I have a preference currently to wear the tartan trews garb rather than a kilt and rightly or wrongly wear a jacket and waistcoat which doubles as useful when wearing my kilt. I feel there is a difference between tartan trews and a pair of odd troosers! Audience respect is a factor in this, also the art needs and appreciates the effort of sponsors and organisers, without whom a lot of the occasions such as competitions would not be sustained. It is plain bad manners not to at least attempt to dress for an occasion. There is an entry in the Pipers Companion by the late Lt David Murray which from recall he did attend the games in South Uist. The pipers attended and it seemed to be an very informal affair with some wearing wellington boots and dungarees and they shared a few sets of pipes. Doubtless there was a fun element to this, however in general it is not an image which would attract sponsors to contribute their money to. Pipers and indeed judges have a responsibility to present themselves appropriately dressed. I doubt if it would suit the likes of the sponsors at the Blair Castle for pipers and/or judges to appear dressed ropuchly (spelling)
    Duncan Watson

    1. Duncan

      I found your comments re; South Uist and the late Colonel Murray very interesting, alas incorrect (I always called him the Colonel over thirty years never could bring myself to addressing him David!)
      My late mother hailed from South Uist, and she told me that the local folk didn’t have money and hence the kilt was rather rare unless you worked on the mainland like our relative John MacDonald, Glasgow Police, or his brother Roderick who never forget their people of the island when visiting yearly and helped the local deserving pipers with pipes or what have you. I hope you didn’t misunderstand the reason for their rather ordinary attire.
      Incidentally the attire of the kilt is a mainland phenomenon and was not worn much on the islands, particularly South Uist and Benbucula. I would think a lot of islanders who are still alive and contemporaries of my late mother (she was born in 1931) would agree with this. I think if you could recall the photo of young Lachlan Ban MacCormick playing his pipes barefoot in locally made homespun outside his croft in the early 20th century you’ll certainly see what I mean.
      I have a photo lifted from Calum MacLean website showing him in his adult years decked out in attire one would associate with John MacDonald of Inverness. Yes it was poverty of the islanders and their struggles to survive the harsh non productive island to earn their living rather than being informal. As an aside, to this day due to the lack of money, many of deserving boys and girls on the islands still cannot afford their first set of pipes which I hope one day in the near future to put right.

      Yours aye in piping.

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