This article first appeared in the Oban Times in January 1941 possibly repeated from an earlier edition to mark P/M Meldrum’s death that year. In it he makes some interesting points: mention of Joseph Macdonald’s ‘Treatise’, development of the bagpipe, Donald MacDonald, see 1824 for a wonderful display of wounded pride, and who could disagree with his concluding remarks re ceol mor v ceol beag? P/M Meldrum was born in 1851 and died in 1941. He served in the Cameron and 93rd Highlanders. He received tuition from P/Ms Willie Murray, Ronald MacKenzie and John Smith. He was employed as piper at Drummond Castle and after WW1 was instructor at Queen Victoria School, Dunblane. He won the Gold Medals at Oban and Inverness, the Clasp (1902) and many top ceol beag prizes. He composed a number of well known tunes, Bridge of Bogie, Thin Red Line and 93rd’s Farewell to Edinburgh among them.
Champion Pipers of the Past and Present
By P/M Robert Meldrum
It is impossible to say who was the best piper at any date in the past, just as it is impossible to say who is the best piper at the present day, but it must be interesting to many to know who were the winners of the pibroch competitions at the big gatherings, and here is the list from 1781, when the judges were screened off.
1781, at Falkirk, 1, Pat MacGregor, piper to Balnaves of Adradour, Mullin, Perthshire; 2, Charles Macarthur, piper to the Earl of Eglinton; 3, John MacGregor, senr., piper to Col. Campbell of Glenlyon.
1782, at Falkirk, 1, John Macalister, piper to the West Fencible Regiment; 2, John MacGregor, senr.; 3, John MacGregor, junr.
1783, at Falkirk, 1, Neil Mclean, piper to Major Campbell of Airds; 2, Archd. MacGregor, son of said John MacGregor; 3, John MacGregor, piper to the City Guard of Edinburgh.
In Angus MacKay’s account reference is also made to three competitions, and the winners are mentioned as MacGregor, Mcalister, piper to Mcalister of Loup, and Maclean. At a competition in Edinburgh, on their way home, the winners were–1, Don. MacIntyre, piper to Sir R. Menzies; 2, Colin Macnab, piper to the Laird of Macnab; 3, Donald Fisher, piper to Breadalbane, and Paul Macinnes, Fasnacloich. A set of pipes was presented to Professor John MacArthur as a testimony of the pipers’ appreciation; and Duncan Ban Macintyre, of the City Guard, the Gaelic poet, was duly rewarded for reciting his poem in praise of the Gaelic language.
1784 and onwards in Edinburgh, 1, John MacGregor, senr., Fortingal; 2, Donald Fisher; 3, Dugald Macdugald, piper to Macdougall of Gallanach.
1785, 1, Donald Macintyre, senr., Rannoch; 2, Colin Macnab; 3, Paul Macinnes, piper to Cameron of Callart.
1786, 1, Rod. Mackay, piper to Sir Hugh Dalrymple of North Berwick; 2, Dugald Macdugald; 3, Archd. Macdonald, Invera, of the 78th Regiment.
1787, 1, Archd. Macgregor, piper to Glenlyon; 2, Archd. Macdiarmot; 2, Rob. Macintyre, piper to Clanranald.
1788, 1, John Macgregor, Strathtay; 2, Rob. Macintyre; 3, Alex. Lamont.
1789, 1, Duncan Macnab, Lorne; 2, John Macdonald, Findynate, Strathtay; 3, John Macgregor, junr., Son of John, piper to Breadalbane.
1796 [sic], 1, Rob. Macintyre; 2, Alex. Macgregor, son of John; 3, Don. Maclean, Kintyre.
1791,1, Donald Macrae, Applecross; 2, John Macgregor, Breadalbane; 3, Duncan Stuart, piper to Lord Mountstuart.
1792,1, John Mackay, piper to Macleod of Raasay; 2, Allan Macdonald, piper to Robertson of Strowan; 3, John Macgregor, a boy, son of Pat Macgregor, piper to Edradour.
1793, 1, John Macgregor, piper to the Breadalbane Fencibles; 2, Angus Cameron, piper to Lochiel; 3, Donald Macearchar, piper to the Royal Scots.
1794, 1, Angus Cameron; 2, Dougald Macintyre, Lorne; 3, Peter Macgregor, son of Breadalbane’s piper.
1795, 1, Peter Macgregor; 2, Donald Maclean, Kintyre; 3, Peter Macneil, piper to Sir James Grant of Grant.
1796, 1, Donald Fisher, piper to the Earl of Breadalbane; 2, Donald Macearchar; 3, Don. Mackenzie, Pipe-Major to the Sutherland Fencibles.
1797, 1, Alex. Macgregor, piper to Glenlyon; 2, Don. Mackenzie; 3, Donald Macnab, piper to the 4th or Breadalbane Fencibles.
1798, 1, Donald Macearchar; 2, John Macgregor, son of Pat. Macgregor, piper to Edradour; 3, Don. Maclean, a boy, son of Don. Maclean, piper to the High. Soc. Of Scotland.
1799, 1, Dugald Macintyre; 2, George Graham, pipe-major to the Perthshire Militia; 3, Hugh Macgregor, piper to the Scots Royals. Madam Frederick of the Theatre Royal, gave an exhibition of strathspeys, jigs and other dances.
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1800, 1, George Graham; 2, Wm. Forbes, piper to the 42nd Regiment; 3, Adam Ross, piper to the Ross & Cromarty Rangers. 1801, 1, Wm. Forbes; 2, Donald Robertson, piper to the Royal Perthshire Militia; 3, Don. Macdonald, piper to the Caithness Highlanders. Special prize to John Macdonald, 80 years of age, piper to Glengarry.
1802, 1, John Buchanan, piper to the 42nd; 2, Murdoch Mackenzie, the 92nd; 3, Malcolm Macgregor from Glasgow.
1803, 1, Donald Robertson, piper to the Edinburgh Vols.; 2, Malcolm Macgregor; 3, John Macgregor, piper to Sir R. Menzies of Weem.
1804, 1, Malcolm Macgregor; 2, Finley Macleod, 79th Regiment; 3, John MacArthur, piper to Macdonald of Staffa. This meeting was noteworthy because it is recorded in Mackay’s book that the pipers were given copies of a treatise ‘On the Theory, Principal and Practice of the great Highland Bagpipe Music,’ said to be published by the Rev. Patrick Macdonald, Minister of Kilmore and Kilbride, Argyllshire, and to have been composed upwards of seventy years earlier by the minister’s brother, John, then an officer in the East India Company, and discovered in Bengal by Sir J. Macgregor Murray and sent by him to the publisher.
1805, 1, Duncan Macmaster, piper to the Laird of Coll; 2, Don. Macnab, piper to the Laird of Macnab; 3, Peter Forbes from Foss. Besides the dancing, the broadsword exercise was done for the first time. 1806, 1, John Macgregor, piper to the Highland Soc. Of London; 2, John MacArthur, who declined it, and it was given to Allan Maclean, piper to Maclean of Ardgour; 3, John McDonald, son of Donald, now pipe-maker in Edinburgh.
A special prize was given to Donald Macdonald for producing his famous book of pibrochs–the first pipe tunes ever written in staff notation. 1807, 1, Donald Macnab; 2, Alex. Bruce, piper to Macleod of Gesto; 3, John Macgregor, piper to Farquharson of Monaltry. A performance was also given on the Union pipes. 1808, 1, John Macgregor, piper of the 73rd; 2, Peter Forbes; 3, Alex. Macdonald from Skye. John, the son of Donald Macdonald, received a premium for continuing his father’s work of writing pibrochs.
1809, 1, Peter Forbes; 2, Norman Macpherson, Inverness-shire Militia; 3, Duncan Macgregor, pipe- major Perthshire Militia; 4, Donald Macgregor, son of Breadalbane’s piper; 5, James Balquhidder.
1810, 1, Allan McLean, Mull; 2, John Macgregor, piper to Monaltry; 3, Donald Macgregor; 4, John Mackay, from Sutherland; 5, James Monroe, from Sutherland.
1811, 1, John Macgregor; 2, Donald Macdonald, pipe-major Argyllshire Militia; 3, Adam Graham, pipe-major Rosshire Militia; 4, Wm. Mackay, Inverness-shire militia; 5, Alex. Sutherland, a boy piper, 25th Regiment. 1812, 1, Donald Macgregor; 2, Adam Graham; 3, John Mackay; 4, Alex.Mackay, 9th Royal Veteran Battalion; 5, Don. Scrumgeour, from Strathtay. A special prize was given to Malcolm Macgregor, piper to the High. Soc. of London, for improvements on the pipes and also on the Union and Northumberland pipes.
1813, 1, Finlay Macleod; 2, Robert Mackay, from Lord Reay’s country; 3, Kenneth Logan, Pipe-major 71st Regiment; 4, Alex. Macgregor, Fortingal; 5, Francis Macgregor, Scots Royals. There were fewer competitors, as the Highland Regiments were on foreign service. 1814, 1, Rob. Mackay, from Lord Reay’s country; 2. Ken. Logan; 3, Don. Scrumgeour, piper to Col. Kinloch of Kilrie; 4, Murdoch Maclean, Pipe maker, Glasgow; 5, Farquhar Macrae, piper to Hugh Innes, of Lochalsh, M.P.
1815, 1, John Mackay, from Lord Reay’s country; 2, Murdoch Maclean; 3, Donald Gunn, piper to the Perthshire Militia; 4, John Campbell, Nether Lorn, formerly piper to W. F. Campbell of Islay, M. P.; 5, Donald Campbell, a boy from Breadalbane. George Clark, pipe-major of the 71st, who had previously received a set of pipes from the Highland Society of Scotland, for having at the battle of Vimiera, continued playing after he had been wounded, and it was resolved not to consider him as a competitor, but to give him a special gold medal.
1816, 1. Donald Mackay, piper to the Highland Society of Glasgow; 2, Wm. Mackay; 3, John Campbell; 4, John Gordon, from Fincastle; 5, James Kennedy, from Strathtay. Sir John Macgregor Murray addressed the gathering in Gaelic.
1817, 1, Don. Macdonald, Argyllshire Militia; 2, Don. Gunn, Perthshire Militia; 3, Duncan Mactavish, Pipe-major 42nd Regiment; 4, Peter Mackenzie, Breadalbane; 5, John Macpherson, piper to Macpherson of Cluny.
1818, 1, Allan Macdonald; 2, John Campbell; 3, John Gordon; 4, John Forbes, from Killichassie; 5, Alex.Sutherland, Pipe-major 79th. Sir J. Macgregor Murray, in addressing the gathering, pointed out that the piper’s post was in front of his comrades in the day of danger.
1819, 1, John Campbell; 2, Duncan Mactavish; 3, John Forbes; 4, Duncan Smith, 92nd Regiment; 5, Alex Dewar, from the estate of Sir John Macgregor Murray; 6, Kenneth Logan.
1820, 1, Wm. Mackay, piper to the Celtic Society; 2, Donald Scrumgeour; 3, Don. Mackay, piper to James Macleod of Raasay; 4, John Mackenzie, piper to Mackenzie of Allangrange; 5, James Macdonald, son of Don. Macdonald, Edinburgh; 6, Adam Graham.
1821, 1, Adam Graham; 2, Don. Mackay, piper to Clanranald, and afterwards to the Duke of Sussex, Earl of Inverness; 3, John Mackenzie, piper to Davidson of Tulloch, afterwards to Breadalbane; 4, John Cameron, 5th Lanarkshire Militia; 5, Donald Macdonald, son of Donald Macdonald, Edinburgh; 6, Duncan Mactavish.
1822, 1, Donald Mackay; 2, John Mackenzie; 3, Kenneth Macrae, piper to the Hon. James Sinclair, afterwards to the Earl of Caithness; 4, Alex. Dewar; 5, John Smith, piper to Col. Grant of Grant; 6, Donald Scrumgeour.
1823, 1, John Mackenzie; 2, Kenneth Macrae; 3, John Cameron; 4, Donald Macdonald; 5, Wm. Fraser, from Breadalbane.
1824, 1, Donald Scrumgeour; 2, Donald Stewart, 79; 3, Donald Macdonald; 4, John Smith; 5, Wm. Gunn, from Glasgow; 6, Kenneth Macrae, who declined it, holding that he had won first. It was then awarded to Alex.Dewar.
1825, 1, Donald Stewart; 2, John Gordon, Atholl Club; 3, Ronald Mackenzie, from Ross-Shire; 4, Wm. Smith, Inverness-Shire Militia; 5, John Macdonald, Fortingall, a boy.
1826, 1, John Gordon; 2, Don. Macdonald, 72nd; 3, James Macdonald, his brother; 4, John Mackay, piper to Lord Gwydyr; 5, Don. Farquhar, from Breadalbane, also a boy. The pipers played strathspeys and reels between the competitions.
1829, these competitions had now become triennial, 1, John Macnab, 92nd Highlanders; 2, Adam Macpherson, Stirling and Bannockburn Caledonian Socy.; 3, John Macdonald, Fortingall; 4, Roderick Macdonald, piper to Macdonell of Glengarry; 5, John Scott, piper to Butter of Fascally.
- The proceedings were commenced with a tune by John Mackenzie, piper to the Earl of Ormelie, 1, Roderick Mackenzie, piper to Moray of Abercairny; 2, Donald Macinnes, piper to Macneil of Barra; 3, John McBeth, piper to the High. Soc. of London; 4, John Scott; 5, George Murchison, piper to Davidson of Tulloch.
- Competition for those who had won formerly the first prize. This was won by John Mackenzie, piper to Breadalbane. A special prize was given to Donald Macrae, from Kintail, who had won in 1791, and was now in his 80th year. Ordinary competition–1, Angus Mackay, son of John Mackay, piper to Lord Willoughby de Eresby; 2, John Stewart of the 79th; 3, Archd. Munro, Oban; 4, John MacKay, piper to Sir Robert Gordon of Balmorell [sic]; 5, James Macpherson, previously piper to Macpherson of Cluny. A special prize was given to John Macdonald, 14 years of age, piper to Macdonald Seton of Staffa.
1838, 1, John Macbeth, High. Soc. of London; 2, Donald Cameron, piper to Mackenzie of Scatwell; 3, Duncan Campbell, Foss; 4, Peter Bruce, Glenelg; 5, Duncan Mackay, piper to Cluny Macpherson. In 1835 and in 1838 eliminating trials were held on the day before the competition.
1841, Don. Macinnes, Barra. 1844, Don. Cameron, Scatwell.
1850 and onwards at Inverness Northern Meeting, Don. Cameron, piper to Seaforth.
1860, Alex.Maclennan, Inverness. 1861, Don.Mackenzie, 25th K.O.S.B. 1802, Alex.Cameron, Greenock. 1863, Ron.Mackenzie, 78 Highlanders. 1864, Alex.Macdonald, Glentruim. 1865, Colin Cameron, Glenmasog. 1866, Wm. Mackinnon, 74th Highlanders. 1867, John Maclennan, Braemar. 1868, And. Gordon, Castle Grant. 1869, Wm. Macdonald, Abergeldie. 1870, Alex Cameron, Aboyne. 1871, Mal. Macpherson, Cluny. 1872, Don. Mackay, Ballindalloch. 1873, Dun. Macdougall, Breadalbane. 1874, John Smith, 93rd Highlanders. 1875, Ronald Mackenzie, Dunach. 1876, John Mackenzie, London. 1877, John Maclean, Applecross. 1878, Lewis Grant, Castle Grant. 1879, Wm. Maclennan, Edinburgh.
1880, John Connon, Inveran. 1881, Angus Macrae, Raasay.
1882, And. Longair, 93rd Highlanders. 1883, Angus Macdonald, Morar. 1884, John MacColl, Oban. 1885, J. Macdougall Gillies, Aberdeen. 1886, Robt. Meldrum, 93rd Highlanders.
1887, Alex.Fletcher, Invermoriston. 1888, Wm. B. Macrae.
1889, John Mackay, Paisley. 1890, John Macdonald, Glentromie.
1891, Colin Thomson, Inverness. 1892, John Cameron, Inverness.
1893, Don.Mathieson, Hamilton. 1894, Donald Campbell, Hamilton.
1895, Murdo Mackenzie, Fascally. 1896, Alick Mackenzie, Resolis.
1897, Wm. Campbell, Balmoral. 1898, Murdo Mackenzie, Inverness.
1899, David Mather, Lochcarron. 1900, Wm. Meldrum, Moy Hall.
1901, Wm. Maclean, Benbecula. 1902, Jas. A. Center, Edinburgh.
1903, Don. Mackay, London. 1904, Wm. Ross, Scots Guards.
1905, George S. Maclennan, Aberdeen. 1906, George S. Allan, Peterhead.
1907, J. P. Macleod, Tain. 1908, Thos. Clark, 42nd Highlanders.
1909, W. C. K. Mackie, Seaforth Highlanders. 1910, Wm. Lawrie, Ballachulish. 1911, George Yardley, Cambuslang.
1912, Don. J. Mackenzie, Tongue. 1913, J. M. Lawrie, 93rd Highlanders. 1919, Wm. Gray, Glasgow.1920, John Macpherson, Newtonmore. 1921, Robert Reid, Glasgow. 1922, D. Chisholm, Hamilton. 1923, Angus Macpherson, Invershin.
1924, Allan Calder, Edinburgh. 1925, John Wilson, Edinburgh.
1926, John Macdonald, Glasgow. 1927, Mal. Macpherson, Invershin.
1928, Robert Brown, Balmoral. 1929, David Ross, Rose Hall.
1930, R. B. Nicol, Balmoral. 1931, D. Maclean, Glasgow.
1932, C. Smith, 42nd Highlanders. 1933, J. Robertson, Scots Guards.
1934, Peter Bain, Scots Guards. 1935, J. Macgrady, H.L.I. 1936, P. Melville, Glasgow Police. 1937, H.R. Macrae, Achnasheen. 1938, A. Macnab, Glasgow Police.
An equally important contest is that for the gold medal of the Highland Society of London, at the Argyleshire [sic] Gathering at Oban, for pibroch playing. The following are the winners:–
1875, John Macbean, Applecross. 1876, Mal. Macpherson, Cluny Castle. 1877, John Macbean, Applecross. 1878, Wm. Maclennan, Edinburgh. 1879, George Macdonald, South Morar. 1880, Robert Mackinnon, Glasgow. 1881, John MacColl, Oban. 1882, Angus Macdonald, South Morar. 1883, Angus Macrae, Raasay.
1884, J.M. Gillies, Aberdeen. 1885, John Cameron, H. L. I.
1886, Robert Meldrum, Isle of Wight. 1887, John Mackay, Paisley.
1888, Kenneth Macdonald, Inverness. 1889, John Macpherson, Kingussie. 1890, Norman Macpherson, Kingussie.
1891, Donald Mather, Lochcarron. 1892, A. R. MacColl, Oban.
1893, Wm. Robb, Edinburgh. 1894, George Ross, 42nd Highlanders.
1895, John Mackenzie, Glasgow. 1896, Gavin MacDougall, Aberfeldy. 1897, John Macdonald, Kingussie. 1898, Farquhar Macrae, Glasgow. 1899 Murdo Mackenzie, Inverness.
1901, John Wilson [sic – should be John Wallace], Empress Ship.
1902, Wm. Ross, Hamilton. 1903, Don. Matheson, Hamilton.
1904, George D. Maclennan, Gordon Highlanders. 1905, G. D. Allan, Peterhead. 1906, J. A. Center, Edinburgh. 1907, Wm. Ross, Scots Guards. 1908, Brought. Campbell, Inverness. 1909, Wm. Gray, Govan. 1910, Wm. Lawrie, Ballachulish. 1911, George Yardley, Cambuslang, 1912, Wm. Maclean, Glasgow.1913, James Taylor, Hamilton.
1919, Alex. Gray, Perth. 1920, Wm. Taylor, Dunblane. 1921, D. M. Matheson, Fort George. 1922, Robert Reid, Glasgow. 1923, Allan Calder, Edinburgh. 1924, D. Chisholm, Hamilton. 1925, David Ross, Rosehall. 1926, John Macdonald, Glasgow. 1927, John Wilson, Edinburgh. 1928, Hugh Kennedy, Tiree. 1929, John Macdonald, London. 1930, Robert Nicol, Balmoral. 1931, Robert Brown, Strathconnon. 1932, James Robertson, London. 1933, Mal. Macpherson, Invershin. 1934, Chas. Smith, Glasgow. 1935, Nicol MacCallum, 8th Argylls. 1936, D. J. Mackenzie, Tongue. 1937, Donald F. Ross, Lochgilphead. 1938, Roderick Macdonald, Glasgow Police.
Perhaps the most important competition of all is that for the gold clasp at Inverness, open to previous winners of the ordinary championship at Inverness. It was not established until 1896. This is the list of the winners:
1896, J. M. Gillies.
1897, Alex. Mackenzie, Resolis.
1898, Angus Macrae.
1899, John Cameron.
1900, John MacColl.
1901, Donald Matheson.
1902, Robert Meldrum.
1903, John Macdonald, Inverness.
1904, J. A. Center.
1905, 6, and 7, Wm. Ross.
1908, John Macdonald.
1909, G. S. Maclennan.
1910, Wm. Ross.
1911, Wm. Lawrie.
1912, W. Ross.
1913, Wm. Maclean.
1919, W. Ross.
1920-1, G. S. Maclennan.
1922, Robert Reid.
1923, W. Ross.
1924, John Macdonald.
1925-6, Robt. Reid.
1927, John Macdonald.
1928, W. Ross.
1929, John Macdonald.
1930, Mal. Macpherson.
1932, R. Nicol.
1933-4, J. Macdonald.
1935, Robt. Reid.
1936, John Wilson.
1937, Mal. Macpherson.
1938, James Robertson.
Those are the winners in the big music–the pibroch competitions. I consider the light music just as severe a test of the piper; and my reason for not recording the winners in that department is that I have not kept a note of them, and that the same importance is not attached to them because the prizes are smaller. I would not say that the player of pibroch is necessarily the better piper, in fact, I know that many pibroch winners could make but a poor shape at the light music; though perhaps I wouldn’t go so far as one of the best and most famous of our pipers in all departments, who said that as far as fingering his concern, anyone who took the care and the time, could play a pibroch; but a degree of nimbleness is required for perfection in the light music, that very few can hope to attain.