More on the 1823 Competition

9207222160_843ecda116_oBy Keith Sanger

This is the report from the Edinburgh Evening News on the 1823 competition reported on earlier, but all the papers had exactly the same reports. They were ‘press releases’ from the Highland Society of Scotland. Certainly while Sir John Sinclair was in harness he also ensured that copies were sent out to all the Highland Regiments serving abroad.
These are also the source for Angus MacKay’s extracts but he not only shortened them but also at times tweaked
them a bit. For example a lot of military connections in the earlier reports were dropped in MacKay’s shorts. The report reads:
‘The Annual Competition for the Prizes given by the Highland Society of London to the best performers on the Bag-pipe, and for encouraging Highland Dancing, was held in the Theatre Royal here on Tuesday last.
The following Members of the Highland Society of Scotland were the Judges who attended the Competition, viz:
Right Hon. Sir John Sinclair, Bart. the Preses
Right Hon. Lord Strathaven
Hon. Gen. Duff
RG Macdonald Esq. of Clanranald MP
John Grant, Esq. Glenmoriston 
Colonel Macbean, 78th regiment
Alex. Young Esq. of Harburn
Coll Macdonald Esq. of Dalness
James Grant Esq. of Glenmoriston
Major Gordon, 2nd regiment
Joseph Gordon Esq. of Carroll
Captain Pennycuick of Solerie, 78th regiment
John Stewart Esq of Dalguise
George Robertson Esq. Albany Street
Captain G. MacDonald, Royal Scots
The Earl of Elgin and Lord Valletort were also observed in the Judges’ box; but, we believe, neither of these Noblemen took part in the decision of the prizes.
From an unusually great number of Pipers who came forward to the competition, the Judges at a previous Rehearsal, selected sixteen who were to compete for the Prizes; this was a duty of no little difficulty , from the general excellence of the whole as players. The Competition began precisely at 12 o’ clock and the Theatre soon after was crowded in every part. The boxes and the pit were occupied by a very fashionable company; and in the boxes particularly , there was a most elegant assemblage of Ladies, many of whom wore tartan bonnets, scarfs, or other ornaments appropriate to this national Exhibition. Most of the Judges were in Highland dress.

All the competitors were greatly applauded by the audience – The Highland Dancing particularly appeared to afford great delight; the Dancers, indeed, were generally good, some of them excellent, and they certainly did not spare exertion to give proper effect to their native reels and strathspeys in which they were generally encored.
The competition of the performers did not terminate till past three o’ clock. The Judges then retired, and remained in deliberation about half an hour; the audience being in the meanwhile amused by some select tunes, played by the competitor who won first prize last year, and by the Highland dancing, which was kept up with great spirit during the interval. On their return the Prizes were announced by their Preses, Sir John Sinclair, to have been awarded as follows, viz. –

The first Prize, inelegant and superbly mounted Bag-pipe, to John

560px-Sir_John_Sinclair
Sir John Sinclair

Mackenzie, piper to Duncan Davidson Esq. of Tulloch, who gained the 2nd prize in the Competition last year.

The Second to Kenneth McRa, piper to the honourable James Sinclair.
The Third to John Cameron, piper to the 5th Lanarkshire Local Militia
The Fourth to Donald Macdonald , son of Donald MacDonald, pipe-maker to the Highland Society of London – and
The Fifth to William Fraser from Breadalbane.
The liberality of Mrs H Siddons, in declining the allowance formerly made for the use of the Theatre, has for several years afforded the opportunity of giving an extra prize. On this occasion she presented the Committee with a handsome Highland Claymore, which was awarded to John Gordon, Piper to the Atholl Club, who had formerly gained 3d and 4th prizes.
Previous to delivering the Prizes, Sir John Sinclair, as Preses of the Committee of Judges, addressed the audience, so far as could be collected, in nearly the following terms: ‘It is, in the highest degree gratifying to the committee of Judges, appointed to decide the premiums on the present occasion, to see this competition attended by so numerous and respectable an audience. There is no period, since these competitions were first established, that the natives of Scotland have had so much reason to be proud of their national distinctions of dress, of music, and of dancing, or ought to be more anxious to preserve them, than since the fortunate era, when our Gracious Sovereign favoured his northern dominions with his presence. 
He came here to do honour to do honour to the peculiar characteristics of the Scottish nation – he came here to listen to our Scottish music – to encourage by his royal approbation our Scottish mode of dancing – to wear the Highland garb – to partake of our Scottish banquets – to attend the Scottish kirk – and to do justice to the Scottish character for loyalty and genuine patriotism. It is a singular circumstance, to which I am happy in this opportunity of publicly adverting, that where a number of Sovereigns are known by the same appellation, as George, or James or Henry – the Fourth of the name has, in general, been distinguished by superior qualities.
For instance Henry the Fourth of France was one of the ablest and certainly the most popular Prince that ever sat upon the throne. Henry the Fourth of England was remarkable fo possessing, in the words of Hume, ‘which fitted him for his high station’. James the Fourth of Scotland is described, by our Scottish historians, as being the most accomplished Prince of the age in which he lived, as naturally generous and brave, as having magnificence and as eager to obtain fame. And, added Sir John emphatically, ‘is not this an exact description of his descendent George the Fourth of England, Scotland and Ireland? (Cheers). ‘Is not he the most accomplished Prince of the age in which he lives, naturally brave and generous, loving magnificence (as becomes the Monarch of a great empire), and eager to obtain fame; and has he not already acquired that fame to which he so anxiously aspired?’ (Cheers) Sir John then alluded particularly to the glorious achievements which have distinguished the Regency and reign of his present Majesty, adding that ‘it is under the auspices of such a Sovereign that the Scots are now called upon to maintain the Scottish character, and to hand down to their posterity the true national spirit inherited from our ancestors. That spirit which is so desirable to maintain, must greatly depend upon our preserving those manly and athletic dances – that martial and inspiring species of music – and that elegant and warlike dress by which Scotland was so long distinguished.’ In conclusion Sir John said ‘These competitions for dress, for music and for dancing cannot fail to prosper, so long as we can assemble within these walls such crowds of Scottish patriots, and such specimens of Scottish beauty, as have honoured this meeting with their attendance.’

The Prizes to the best dressed competitors were awarded, the first to John McPherson from Breadalbane; the second to John McNab, a boy, son of Duncan McNab, late piper to the Royal Scots; and the third to Angus Cameron from Rannoch, all in the list of pipers. On no previous occasion was the effect of the premiums for dress, which have lately been instituted by the Highland Society of London, more conspicuous than at this competition. When the whole competitors, about sixty in number, were drawn up round the stage, at the beginning and at the conclusion of the performance, it may be said, with great justice, that there was not an ill-dressed Highlander among them.
The large receipts at the Theatre enabled the Judges to make a liberal distribution among the whole competitors, which will defray their travelling charges. This was very gratifying to the Committee, as many of the pipers had come from the most remote districts of the Highlands.’

Robert Wallace comments: It is unlikely any MC would get away with such royal fawning today, but this report gives us an interesting insight into the social and political mores of the early 19th century. Upper class Edinburgh was still in thrall (obviously) of the visit of King George IV the previous year.

What is important for us is that these same people clearly realised there was something of worth in our music and traditions. And for whatever reason, most of them probably specious, they had the money, the power and the influence to do something about repairing the damage wrought by the aftermath of the ’45 and the Act of Proscription. We should not underestimate the benefit to piping of having them onside.
As to the competition itself, clearly there was no standing on ceremony regarding tuning. It just didn’t happen. Check out the earlier report and you will see the piobaireachd that were played – and they fitted in the dancing too; all completed within three hours. We wonder sometimes today why we cannot fill a room for a piobaireachd contest the way they did in 1823.
Much more than the Theatre Royal being the place to be seen, the audience would not have to endure those noisome gaps we have to put up with today. Once on stage you played your tune, bowed and exited, the next man waiting in the wings. Allan MacDonald ran a similarly slick event in Edinburgh a few years back and the large hall was packed. With our synthetic reeds etc, we’ve even less of an excuse for tuning these days, yet the disease is as rife as ever. How many times have you heard a piper strike up with a perfectly tuned instrument only for him to spend the next several minutes putting it out and never getting it back?

2 thoughts on “More on the 1823 Competition”

  1. We certainly have something to learn from this account. How to capture that kind of atmosphere is a huge if not impossible challenge.It seems that the attire was an important part of the affair. Such grand clothing would have been expensive for individuals unless they had sponsorship from employers etc. As to the tuning,we have to address that sooner or later. I might have been as bad offender as anybody, but there are a lot of guilty pipers re the interminable tuning and they are often among the most successful players. It can be nice to hear a brief preamble to a performance and it can settle the audience,the bagpipe and indeed the player.but the pursuit for a particular sound in the hope that it will sustain throughout a 15 to 18 minute performance or maybe more, in the pursuit of winning a prize, sometimes largely or wholly based on the bagpipe sound is often a turn off for an audience, including the hardened enthusiasts. “Novelty” playing or presentation of ceol mor tunes may catch the ear from time to time, but the tuning aspect should be tackled by teachers, pipers, and competition organisers as audiences should really get greater respect. There is a prestigious competition that I have attended only once as a spectator and is now being Live Streamed and one of the comments that everybody seems to make is in relation to tuning periods. I do not intend going to the venue to listen to nearly two hours of tuning, from the most experienced and successful competitors.
    Duncan Watson

  2. If we want pipers to stop spending so much time on stage hunting for the perfect sound then judges need to stop putting sound above all else. Why would you waste a year’s preparation for the sake of sparing your audience a couple of minutes of tuning?

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