Robert Wallace: This article was prompted by the letter from Alan MacColl regarding a client of his whose grandfather was a James Robertson, Edinburgh – not to be confused with the other famous pipers of that ilk, he of Banff, and the pipemakers, father and son, also Edinburgh. In it she stated that her grandfather was piper to the Earl of Breadalbane whose seat was Taymouth Castle in Perthshire, long a hotbed of piping interest and talent. Clearly Robertson was a very successful piper, winning a prize at the Northern Meeting in 1874. If we search the huge British Newspaper Archive, we can (for a small fee) turn up some interesting stuff about Perthshire piping but not, unfortunately, about our piper Robertson.
This is from the Ladies Column of the Dundee Evening Telegraph of the 1st of September 1893:
‘The other evening there was a very successful concert in the Town Hall, Aberfeldy, at which a number of artistes were present. The first item on the programme was a selection on the bagpipes – a characteristic performance which must have given Sassenach visitors a turn. I must confess that when I saw half a dozen stalwart pipers filling their chanters [sic] and preparing to blow away with ‘lungs like leather’ I rather regretted that I had omitted to provide myself with a supply of cotton wool, but once with a preliminary drone and shriek they had fairly launched out into the familiar Mason’s March [Apron?], followed by a tuneful pibroch, I forgot ‘my squeamish ear’, and listened not only with equanimity, but with positive pleasure to the martial strains. The pipers were under the direction of Pipe-Major McDougall, a well-known and accomplished performer, who not only can play the pipes but makes them as well, being bagpipe maker to the Prince of Wales, and whose solo later on was one of the features of the evening.
‘Madame Annie Grey was in fine voice, and had a grand reception. Her rendering of the beautiful Jacobite air ‘Sound the Pibroch’, was full of spirit. She was dressed in pale blue satin….’
Was James Robertson one of the pipers at this town hall concert? The pipe major in question was probably Duncan MacDougall of MacDougall of Aberfeldy bagpipemaker fame. He’s pictured here (far left) with the Perthshire Fencibles in 1896:
From the Dundee Courier, 1882, headlined ‘Breadalbane Gathering’
‘The annual Highland Games were held in a park east of Aberfeldy on Wednesday. The day was showery, but the attendance was large and the contests in the various competitions were eagerly contested. Among those in attendance were the Earl and Countess of Breadalbane….
‘The following is the prizelist:
Pibrochs: 1 Wm McLennan, Edinburgh 2 J Macdougall Gillies, Aberdeen 3 John MacColl, Oban 4 Wm Sutherland, Airdrie.
Marches: 1 Wm Sutherland 2 William McLennan 3 John MacColl 4 John Cameron, Glasgow
Reels and Strathspeys: 1 Wm Murray, Dundee 2 John MacColl, Oban 3 Wm McLennan 4 Wm Sutherland
Special prize for best piece of unpublished piobaireachd music: John MacColl.
Special Prize for Best Old Unpublished Quickstep: Wm Sutherland.’
A number of points re the above. Was James Robertson an unsuccessful competitor that day? John Macdougall Gillies didn’t feature in the light music, yet he was a noted player of all branches of piping. Is the winner of the ‘Reels and Strathspeys’ the Willie Murray of the well-known reel? Finally, what happened to John MacColl’s unpublished piobaireachd? Is this the forerunner of either that appear in his book, Lament for Neil MacLeod MacDonald of Dunach or Lament for Neil MacEachern of Conespie, Islay?
Another occasion when Robertson could have been playing occurred at Taymouth Castle. According to The People’s Journal of 1893: ‘When his Royal Highness the Duke of Cambridge visited Taymouth Castle in 1882, the Breadalbane Pipe Band of 16 pipers, under the leadership of Pipe Major Duncan MacDougall, entertained H.R.H. and the distinguished company who were present, every evening during dinner and after, to choice selections of pipe music, and so highly delighted was His Royal Highness with the performance of the pipe band that he sent for Pipe Major MacDougall to the drawing room, and in a short speech complimented the pipe band on their playing, at the same time asking Pipe Major MacDougall to convey to the members of the pipe band that he (H.R.H.) had heard all the pipe bands of the British Army, but had never before listened to such grand pipe music as had been rendered by the Breadalbane Pipe Band.’