Piping in the 1930s – Part 3

Piping-and-Dancing-journalOur latest look at piping 80 years ago is again taken from the ‘Piping and Dancing’ journal of 1935 and is headlined ‘LOOKING BACKWARD’ by ‘Highlander’.  Whomsoever he may be we know not, but he clearly has a good handle on contemporary standards….

‘WHEN the competitions of to-day are over, l am frequently
asked if the pipers of today are as good, or better than their vis-a-vis of 35 to 40 years ago. Competition is much keener now, but I do not think that, among the younger men, we could find, say, ten pipers who could be put in the same class as Pipe-Major John McDonald, Honorary Piper to H.M. The King, who is still (at least in my opinion) the finest pibroch player in the country.

Along with his greatest rival since this century came in, Pipe-Major Wm. Ross (late Scots Guards), I think he must have won somewhere in the neighbourhood of 3,000 prizes. Following Pipe-Majors McDonald and Ross, we have John MacColl, once of Oban, and now of Glasgow. He must have won 2,000 prizes for piping, and very nearly as many for dancing. Where among present day competitors can you find another John McColl?

Next, going a little further back, we have the great J . McDougall Gillies, who was not only a champion, he was also a teacher of champions, and if he had done nothing other than train Pipe-Major R. Reid, he would have passed into the limbo of time as one of the great masters of his day. Pipe-Major Reid is, undoubtedly, one of the foremost pibroch players attending the games to-day, one who has few, if any, equals.

That he excels in pibroch playing is due to the fact that he practices at all, and every, opportunity, on top of a foundation of eighteen years’ training that he received from Pipe-Major McDougall Gillies. who was not only a great piper, he was also a grand teacher, and, best of all, a fine man.

The older school of pipers will tell you that there never was a really great piper, particularly a great pibroch player, who could not speak and write in Gaelic. Pipe-Major Reid is a standing refutation of that claim. Born and brought up in the mining village of Slamannan in Stirlingshire, a place where Gaelic is now unknown, he went to work as a collier, alongside his father, during the day, and spent his evenings, literally at the feet of McDougall Gillies, working at the pipes.

Contemporary with McDougall Gillies was James Mclver, of Govan, a self-taught piper, who was also a most consistent player. He had a few lessons from Sandy Cameron, but he developed along his own lines, and showed his ability in competitions. One of James McIver’s  pupils is the present Pipe Major Robertson [JB] of the 2nd Scots Guards.

Roddy Campbell, Edinburgh, tutor of John Wilson
Roddy Campbell, Edinburgh, tutor of John Wilson

Among what I might term the Edinburgh school of pipers we have Roderick Campbell, a very successful player who has taught many pipers, among them John Wilson, Edinburgh, one of the best pipers that travels the Highland Games today. John Wilson’s greatest rival during the past three seasons, Malcolm McPherson, Invershin, has had the majority of the wins, but in the season now drawing to a close, John has a large winning margin over his rival.


Another notable piper of the past is Pipe Major William McLean, late of the Lochiel Camerons, who is known as a composer above the average as well as a piper. Then we had the late Pipe Major Wm. Robb, a splendid strathspey and reel player. Angus McPherson of lnvershin, (father of Malcolm), notable as a march player and dancer, Angus McRae, better known as of Callander, one of the best pipers and dancers travelling the games of yesteryear; Pipe-Major Alex. Matheson, who played with the drones on his right shoulder; the late Wm. Lawrie, of Ballachulish [pictured top in a rare photograph] who was killed in the Great War, an excellent exponent cut off before his prime. Among others who have crossed the bourne was George S. MacLennan, considered by many to be the best piper of all, who was equally noted as a composer, one who will live for ever in his ‘Lochaber Gathering’; and the late James Center of Grove Street, Edinburgh, who went to Australia 30 years ago.

I must not close this instalment without mentioning Pipe-Major Meldrum, still active at 85 years of age. He was a competitor at Braemar three years ago, and was succesful in getting into the prize list; and the late John McPherson [Jockan] of Newtonmore, who was among the best that and ever won the pibroch championship at. Oban and Inverness.

While we have capable young men today, some such as John MacDonald of the Glasgow Police, Roderick MacDonald also of the Glasgow Police, Owen MacNiven of Paisley, Pipers Nichol [sic] and Brown of Balmoral, Pipe Major Geo. Greenfield of the Royal Scots, and Pipe-Major Forrest of Torphichen, yet I do not think that their most enthusiastic friends would claim that they are as good as some of the giants of the past. Time, of course, will improve them, and it may be that our sons will be able to say in the decade that is to come, that among this younger generation has appeared some that are the equal of any that have gone before them.[wds id=”10″]

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