The Scottish Piping Society of London – A History 

london-logoBy Adam Sanderson, former President

Scotland Yard, Caledonian Road, the Highland Society of London, the Caledonian Society of Scotland, the Caledonian Club, The London Scottish, (the regiment, the bank, the golf club and the rugby team), the Gaelic Society of London, (founded in 1777, it is the oldest Gaelic Society in existence) –  where ever you look in England’s capital city, there seems to be a Scottish connection somewhere.

The Scottish Piping Society of London joined this list of organisations of exiled Scots in 1932. Founders included President Lewis Beaton, former pipe major of the 7th Cameronians, David Ross, winner of the Gold Medal at the Northern Meeting in 1929, Andrew Bain of the Metropolitan Police, Pipe Major J.B. Robertson, Scots Guards, and Dr William MacPhail.

Although various meetings were held in 1932, no recorded minutes exist in the SPSL archives. I’m presuming they are lost to us. The Society’s first annual competition was held on 12th November 1932. There were three piping events, as well as dancing competitions for the Highland Fling and Foursome Reel. Most of the pipers competing were either serving with the Black Watch or Scots Guards. Prizes were presented by Margaret Duncan, a member of the London Gaelic Choir and a Mod gold medallist.

At a meeting held on the 8th July 1933, officers of the society were appointed, Charles Stewart was made Pipe Major to the Society, Pipe Major D.K. Pullar and R Gillies were made Vice Presidents, annual subscriptions were set at five shillings (25p), and by laws were drawn up. It sounds as though initial membership was quite large, as by the 7th October 1933 the balance in the bank account was £22 15/- 5p. Certainly there was enough interest and members to have a weekly recital every Friday night at the Royal Scottish Corporation Hall in Fetters Lane.

The 1933 records refer to running the Annual competition 'along the same lines as last year’s', including an open piobaireachd competition with a trophy presented by Messrs R & W Gillies. As some readers will recognise, this is the origin of the Gillies Cup piobaireachd competition of today. Another long-standing link began in 1933, when Major Bennet of the London Scottish regiment offered the society the use of the London Scottish Hall, an arrangement that continues to this day with our spring SPSL member’s competition. Pipe Major J. B. 'Robbie' Robertson suggested that the girls of the Royal Caledonian School give a display of dancing at the competition. Incredibly, dancing competitions were part of the SPSL annual competition until 1961. The London Scottish Hall was not available for Society use in 1933, so the next competition was delayed until 1934. J.B. Robertson began giving chanter classes every Friday night between 7 and 8 o’clock, for the fee of 1/6d.

On the 10th of February, the next SPSL annual competition took place in the London Scottish Hall, and the first Gillies Trophy Open Piobaireachd was fought for and won by J.B Robertson. Although deemed a social success, the competition lost money and it was decided that for the 1935 competition, there would be the 'introduction of popular items that would induce people to come along'. According to the records, there were 170 entries for competition, but I’m assuming that also includes the dancing comps. Obviously the members of the Society were not too downhearted, because they still managed to organise a dinner for themselves, with entertainments from the pipers of the Scots Guards, several other pipers and singers and guest-of-honour, John MacDonald M.B.E. of Inverness, who was now a member of the Society, (as was P/M Willie Ross).

P/M JB Robertson first winner of the Gillies Cup

Sadly, J.B Robertson decided to discontinue his chanter classes in May 1935, as his class was too small to deem it worth his continuing, with only two to five pupils at a time turning up. The classes were taken over by Donald Munro. The Secretary, John MacLennan, resigned as he felt that, being a non-piper, his position was 'incompatible with the size to which the Society was growing'. Certainly the number of entrants for the competitions had increased, records for 1935 show a staggering 190 entrants, including a 15-year-old William Ramsey who travelled down from Dundee to compete. The Gillies Cup was won in 1935 by P/M Robert Reid of the HLI, a feat he was to repeat in 1936. A second piobaireachd trophy was introduced in 1935, the London Highland Club Challenge Cup for Amateur Piobaireachd.

By 1936 the SPSL had moved it’s meetings to the Hall of the Westminster Dragons. This was due to the increase in the amount of Society members. Adverts in The Oban Times and Piping & Dancing magazine had produced a good result, as had advertising handbills and deals with the L.N.E.R and L.M.S. railways for reduced fares for SPSL members! Sadly the minutes for 1936 also include the death notices of Major Norman MacLeod and Donald Munro, who had taken over as the Society’s tutor. Obviously there had been some rankling among members, because it was avowed to 'stamp out' a 'certain amount of snobbery in a small section of the Society'. For the first time, it was decided to hold a Society Lecture. The lecture for 1936 was on piobaireachd composition, and given by G.F. Ross, author of the books 'MacCrimmon and Other Piobaireachd' and 'Some Piobaireachd Studies'. This was deemed a great success, and it was hoped to be the forerunner of many.

Some Piobaireachd Studies by GF Ross
Some Piobaireachd Studies by GF Ross

After Donald Munro’s death, chanter classes had been taken over by P/M Charles Stewart and P/M Angus MacAulay, but the turn out was still poor, fluctuating between three and seven pupils. Entertainment at the Annual Dinner was provided by the noted pipe music composer, P/M Willie Fergusson. G.F. Ross and J.B. Robertson were by now two of the six Vice Presidents of the Society. In the same year Charles Stewart resigned as the Society’s Pipe Major.

By 1937 the society had moved back to the Royal Scottish Corporation, and it was decided that another prize be awarded for piobaireachd in the future competitions. This was to be in the form of a pipe banner, and was to be presented by Dr Calum MacCrimmon of Portree. Mrs Flora MacLeod of MacLeod of Dunvegan had allowed an image of Dunvegan Castle to be portrayed on the banner. The Gilles Cup was reclaimed by J.B. Robertson, and the after dinner entertainments were provided by Pipe Major Willie Ross of Edinburgh Castle late of the Scots Guards. J.B Robertson later left with his battalion for Palestine, and was presented with a practice chanter to mark the occasion. I believe that this chanter was later gifted to John Shone.

Editor Robert Wallace winner of the Gillies Cup (far left) and the Bratach Gorm in 1989
Editor Robert Wallace, winner of both the Gillies Cup (far left) and the Bratach Gorm (Blue Banner) in 1989

At a later meeting P/M Angus MacAulay was made pipe major to the Society, and G. F. Ross delivered another lecture on piobaireachd. The MacCrimmon Banner, as it was then known, was again discussed, and Mrs Flora MacLeod of Dunvegan consented to 'a well known piper’s device' on the reverse of the banner. As of yet, there was no name or definite competition fixed for the banner. I believe that the 'piper’s device' was the image of a hand holding a chanter with the motto ‘Cogadh na Sith’ - War or Peace. This was purported to be the emblem of the MacCrimmons, but there is reason to believe that it was a Victorian re-invention from a design by James Logan of Aberdeen, a writer of romanticised 'Celticism'. The introduction of the MacCrimmon Banner now meant that there were three piobaireachd contests taking place in one day as part of the annual competition.

I don’t have any minutes for 1938 or 39, but from the prize list in the Scotsman newspaper we can see that the banner had been named the Calum MacCrimmon Bratach Gorm, (Blue Banner), and the first person to win it was the redoubtable J.B. Robertson. Winner of the Gillies Cup for 1938 was Bob Nicol, noted as 'R.B. Nicol , Piper to H.M. the King'. In 1939 the other Bob of Balmoral, 'R.U. Brown Piper to H.M. the King', took the Gillies cup, while Bob Nicol won the Bratach.

The Society then dissolved for the duration of the war, and was not to meet again until 1945.

• Read the second instalment here and the third here.