Pipe-Major William Ross
Willie, as he is affectionately called by his friends, has had more
honours conferred upon him than any living piper, or indeed it may be
said, in so far as history recalls, more than any man who played a
bagpipe. Still he remains the modest Highland gentleman and will do so,
I am sure, to the end.
I first met Willie Ross at the Northern Meetings, Inverness, in 1895,
and he has been a lifelong friend. Unlike so many I have known, success
never spoiled him, and if ever one should need a tonic, let such a one
spend an hour in the company of the illustrious Pipe-Major and the cure
for the ailment is assured.
Of Willie Ross’s activities and achievements in fostering the music of
the Highland bagpipe so much is known and recorded that any words of
mine are needless. In my opinion he has brought the pipers of Her
Majesty’s Forces to a standard never before reached, and long may he
carry on the good work.
It was my privilege recently to compose a salute in praise of the
Pipe-Major, which was played by that young master in the art of piping,
John Burgess, of Edinburgh, at a dinner given in honour of the
Pipe-Major, in the Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh, and at which he was
presented with a very handsome cheque subscribed to by people from all
over the world. Never was there a happier company assembled, an event
which I am sure will go dowp in piping history, and it may be, perhaps,
that my contribution to the worthy Pipe-Major although not equal to the
great master composers of old will be played by succeeding pipers as a
tribute to a great man.
Pipe-Major George Stewart Maclennan, of the Gordon Highlanders
Here I am dealing with a genius. The name Maclennan is surely a name to
conjure with, and such is that of the beloved George. I met him first at
the Highland Gathering in London, at Stamford Bridge, so far as I can
remember in 1897. He was then a mere boy, but what an artist in the
playing of the bagpipes. In his own inimitable style he became one of
the greatest men of all time.
George was taught by his father, Police Lieutenant John Maclennan, of
the Edinburgh Police, and many happy hours have I spent in this
gentleman’s hospitable home and in his office in the High Street, with
the practice chanters and, of course, with the inevitable friendly
arguments resorted to wherever pipers foregather. To hear George play
was something never to be forgotten, and I question whether we shall
ever hear his like again. He, of course, won all the highest awards, and
his trophies lie securely in that shrine of glory, Edinburgh Castle,
where they will be saluted by succeeding generations.
When the hand of death claimed George at an early age it is not too much
to say that there was national mourning. Prior to this event I had the
honour of his fellowship at my home, Inveran Hotel, Invershin. He was
then recuperating from an illness from which all hoped he had fully
recovered, but it was not to be. The illness returned and in a short
time our friend passed on to the great unknown. Whilst in Inveran,
George composed some of his finest tunes including that superb reel “Mrs
Macpherson of Inveran” as a tribute to my wife, and as a tribute to
myself that very fine march “Inveran”. Compositions which only our
experts can handle!!
“Until the Day breaks and the Shadows flee away, we shall remember
him”—Pipe-Major George Stewart Maclennan.
Pipe-Major George Allan, of the Royal Scots
Truly this was another of our great men who won all the premier prizes,
and to me fell the honour of awarding him his last First Prize for
Piobaireachd when at the Braemar Gathering he gave a masterly rendering
of that beautiful tune, “The King’s Taxes”. His untimely death was a
great loss to piping.
Pipe-Major John Macdonald, of the Glasgow Police
Another of our famous men and winner of all premier honours, who could,
whether on the competing stage or leading his gallant Pipe Band, hold
his listeners in spellbound admiration.
Pipe-Major Robert Reid, of the Highland Light Infantry
A man of conspicuous modesty who in a very few years rose to the highest
rank in piping, having won all the premier awards. He is now carrying on
a successful bagpipe-making business and passing on his great art to the
Pipe-Major Robert Reid, Pipe-Major John Macdonald, Sir Reginald MacLeod
of MacLeod on board the yacht which took the Dunvegan party to the
unveiling and dedication of the Memorial Cairn to the MacCrimmon pipers
at Boreraig on 2nd August, 1933.
David Ross, Rosehall, now in London
Another of our champions who could always hold his own with the best and
could still do so, were it not for the demands of business. In the
company of Mr Seton Gordon, C.B.E., and Colonel Jock Macdonald of
Viewfield, Portree, who judged with me on one occasion at the
Invergordon Gathering, we placed David Ross first for the piobaireachd.
He played the finger-lock in an outstanding manner.
Pipe-Major John Macdonald, of the Scots Guards
The County of Sutherland, in which I live, was at one time famous for
its pipers, but like its greatly depleted population its pipers are now
few. I have, however, had the joy of knowing one Sutherland champion,
the late Pipe-Major John Macdonald, of the Scots Guards, who was a
native of Melness. John was taken from us early in life, just at his
best, but the echo of his beautiful fingering will long live in his
native County of Sutherland.
In connection with the younger school of pipers I am very much impressed
with the playing of Donald MacGillivray, of Calrossie, Nigg, Ross-shire,
especially in his rendering of the Piobaireachd. Donald has large
business interests to claim his attention and unfortunately we cannot
hear much of him in competition.
Of the rising generation of pipers I cannot speak too highly, as long as
such champions as I had the pleasure of listening to at this year’s
Northern Meeting—incidentally, my 59th successive attendance in
September, 1953—can be produced. Bagpipe playing and its composition
will always have its honoured place in our beloved land. Men such as
Pipe-Major Donald Macleod of the Seaforth Highlanders; Pipe-Major Donald
Maclean, late Seaforths; Pipe-Major Robert Brown, from Balmoral;
Corporal John Burgess of the Cameron Highlanders; Donald Macpherson,
from Glasgow, and Seumas MacNeill, Principal of the College of Piping,
Glasgow, are bound to leave fragrant memories and upon the sands of time
a foundation for others to build upon.
The achievements of my own family I will confine to little space. In my
possession I have first prize ornaments won by my grandfather, Angus
Macpherson, at the Northern Meetings in the years 1852 and 1854. In
1886, my father, Malcolm Macpherson, in competition at the Edinburgh
Exhibition (considered to be the World’s Championship for Piobaireachd)
won two massive Gold Medals, and a sum of £10. In my family are also
eight champion Gold Medals of the London Highland Society, two gold
clasps and other treasures, some of which I regret to say were lost in
the disastrous fire which destroyed my home, Inveran Hotel, Invershin,
in June, 1949, and can no more be replaced. I hope that here the music
of my family may not end, and that some young blood may yet arise to
shoulder the Piob Mhor and carry on with distinction the traditions of
Many stories of wit and humour are told of my father, “Old Calum”
(Malcolm Macpherson) even to this day. At the time of his death in 1898,
it was written of him: “Now he is gone and Scotland is the poorer,
though many a piper whom he taught and many a piper whom he beat will
still think many a time on old Calum, and play ‘Lochaber No More’.”
Never will I forget the sad tune as the funeral cortege wound its way
from the little piping cottage to the place of interment at Laggan
Bridge. There was weeping in the glen as the bagpipes played their
mournful notes of “Cha Till MacCrimmon”, and when John Macdonald played
his last farewell to his beloved tutor with that beautiful piobaireachd
“The Lament for the Children”, as only Donald Mor MacCrimmon himself
could emulate. The scene was an unforgettable one as we crossed the
bridge on the river Spey, which with its murmuring stream seemed to add
its tribute to the solemn occasion.
Of bagpipe music I can say according to the records from the late Cluny,
Colonel Ewan Macpherson and others that I can claim relationship with
James Macpherson who was piper to Cluny in the 1745 period and was in
attendance on Cluny, while in hiding, in the cave at Benalder. My
great-grandfather, Peter Macpherson, left the Cluny Estate and went to
Skye. He, too, played the bagpipes. He settled down in the Isle of Skye,
took a croft at Idrigil, Uig, and married a sister of those great
pipers, the Bruces of Glenelg.
This was at the time when the MacCrimmon College of Bagpipe Music was
going strong, and no doubt my great-grandfather took advantage of it. Be
that as it may, it is a fact that his son Angus, my grandfather, did so
and had lessons from the last of the MacCrimmons, John Dhu. My
grandfather was born in 1800. For a time he settled in Raasay, quite
close to the famous John Mackay, who was definitely taught by the
John Mackay in his turn gave a lot of his music to my grandfather. John
Mackay had a son Angus, who became piper to Her Majesty, Queen Victoria,
and was one of the finest exponents of the bagpipes recorded in history.
He was twelve years or so younger than my grandfather, and they romped
together on the Raasay braes, and under the tuition of his father, John
Mackay, they both carefully studied the art of Ceol Mor, the classic
music of the bagpipe.
John Mackay left Raasay and became piper to the Earl of Ancaster, at
Drummond Castle, Crieff. Soon after my grandfather left Skye and took up
the position of his forebears as piper to the Chief, at Cluny Castle.
John Mackenzie, better known as Piobair Ban, another MacCrimmon product,
became piper to the Earl of Breadalbane, at Taymouth Castle. Together
this trio often met and played their bagpipes, and no doubt exchanged
the music they brought to the mainland from the misty Isle of Skye.
At home in winter I studied the composition of the great masters, and in
the London season in the spring of the year, I conducted a successful
School of Dancing in the Macpherson Gymnasium, in Sloane Street, and had
a very fine connection of ladies and gentlemen. In the summer session I
made the round of the Highland Games winning first prize for
piobaireachd at Stamford Bridge, London, and at the Bridge of Earn and
other places, against such stalwarts as John MacColl, Angus MacRae,
Danny Campbell, D. C. Mather, and others. In 1897, as will be shown in
these memoirs, I was debarred from this interesting pursuit having gone
into private service when the only place I was allowed to compete was
the Northern Meetings, Inverness, where eventually I had my name added
to the roll of champions.
After John Mackay retired from Drummond Castle, and made his home in
Kyleakin, Skye, my grandfather often walked across the Pass of
Corrieyairack and stayed for weeks with his old friend, and to this home
I myself have made pilgrimage on several occasions, breathing into my
soul the silent but ever living notes once heard on that honoured spot.
My father, Malcolm Macpherson, was taught by his own father, (my
grandfather) and by Angus Mackay and Archibald Munro, of Oban, also a
MacCrimmon product, and from the maternal side, by the Bruces of Glenelg—and
who that is conversant with piping authority and ability does not know
of those great performers? My father in turn taught five of his own sons
including myself, and others, some of whom I will deal with in this
My earliest recollection is of four stalwarts: Robert and Alexander
Grant, from Glentruim, Duncan MacMillan, from Phones, and William
Chisholm, from Shenaval, on the estate of Glentruim. In the long winter
nights this quartette would come for their lessons, walking, of course:
MacMillan eight miles at least, and the others a good five miles;
weather made no difference, and often drift and snow up to the waist.
The instruction would go on until the early hours of the morning, and
then after a cup of that which cheers, the lads would make their way
homewards in mirthful ecstasy to be heard for at least a mile down the
road. I wonder how many of the young lads of today would brave such
elements for the love of our national music?
The first three named although good players did not make it a
profession, but the latter, William Chisholm, became piper to the Earl
of Airlie, and a right good piper he was. Early in life he contracted an
illness, from which he died, and thus we lost one who certainly would
have made his mark in the piping profession.
In later years I met Alexander Grant, in New York, who introduced
himself by playing on my practice chanter one of my father’s tunes,
which convinced me at once that my visitor was none other than the Sandy
Grant of my boyhood days, who had now gone in successfully for market
gardening in the States, and could yet play a good tune as of yore.
Other pupils who were first class performers and composers and who won
the blue riband for piobaireachd were:—John Connon, Angus Macrae,
Pipe-Major Robert Meldrum and his son William, Pipe-Major Ferguson,
Donald Ewan Macpherson, and Pipe-Major William Maclean.
Who of those who heard it can ever forget the performance of William
Maclean on the occasion when he won the Gold Medal and the Clasp with
the tunes “Donald Doughall Mackay’s Lament” and “The Unjust
Incarceration” at the Northern Meetings, Inverness? For many years
William Maclean came to the Honeysuckle Cottage, at Catlodge, and he has
a store of music and bagpipe history which the best talented men might
well envy. William and I slept together, humming the piobaireachd until
we were sound asleep, awakening in the early morning to resume chanter
practice. After those achievements William Maclean, having already won
the Oban Medal, retired from competition leaving the arena to the
younger men. Happily he is still with us, and in his own artistic manner
can give something which is seldom if ever heard nowadays.
Pipe-Major John Macdonald, of Inverness, was a modest but a great man.
Of him I can say, as he said of my father to Mr Seton Gordon and as
recorded in John’s own reminiscences which appeared in the “Oban Times”
some years ago, “he was the best piobaireachd player ever I heard”. And
of that I am sure: John’s name will live down the ages and be remembered
with affection and pride. I can never forget his beautiful playing of
"The Earl of
Antrim’s Lament” at the Bridge of Allan Highland Games in the year 1605,
where, of course, he won the first prize, and again when he won one of
his many clasps at the Northern Meetings, Inverness, with the “Park
Piobaireachd”. Those two tunes as John played them will ever live green
in my memory, and he undoubtedly rose to the eminence which in early
life was predicted of him by my father.
Well do I remember when John Macdonald came to Catlodge as a young man
from Glentromie, near Kingussie, where he was then gamekeepering. He was
met at the old Castle of Ruthven by my father in the early morning. John
suggested going by the four-inhand coach from Kingussie to Laggan, but
this suggestion was not well received by the man who loved walking, and
together they walked the ten miles to Catlodge, having a tune on the
bagpipes at intervals on the way. At length they reached the homely peat
fire, and a Highland welcome.
Operations were soon begun. My mother who was attentively listening
asked of the tutor what he thought of Sandy Macdonald’s son, “Sandy”
being John’s father. The answer came without hesitation: “He will make a
piper that will be nameable”, and never was there a truer prediction.
John, of course, sprang from a piping family, and heredity has a strange
but sure way of asserting itself. “Sandy” Macdonald was undoubtedly one
of the best pipers of his day, and during his years with Colonel
Macpherson of Glentruim he was also entrusted as Ground Officer having a
particularly good knowledge of forestry and general estate management.
In the first instance John Macdonald got tuition from my brother John,
and together they went to the Northern Meetings, Inverness, when with
the piobaireachd “The Battle of Vaternish” the pupil beat the master,
winning the gold medal. This incident was freely commented upon around
the ring as hard lines on the tutor. Of John Macdonald a lot has been
said and erroneously written, but the fact remains that he got his
teaching on the braes of Catlodge, thus giving him his link with the
great MacCrimmons of Skye, which he so worthily upheld.
During my many years at Inveran Hotel John Macdonald made frequent
visits and together we played the tunes taught us by my father,
picturing him with his long, black, curly locks and whiskers by the peat
fire, of which he was an excellent stoker, and in John’s own words never
making a mistake in the most intricate movements of the piobaireachd.
After the hotel guests and others had retired to bed we would sit with
our practice chanters recounting old stories and visualising the old
worthies of Badenoch, the likes of whom no longer adorn those romantic
glens. Time passes on, and Pipe-Major John Macdonald has passed over at
the ripe old age of 87 years, and in silent and affectionate memory we
Having the necessary time, my services as a judge of piping and dancing
at the various Highland games are often asked for, and this year and
last I have judged at Dornoch, Dingwall, Durness, Strath-peflfer,
Kingussie, Lochaber, Glenfinnan, Arisaig, Kyleakin, Portree, Turriff,
Aboyne and Royal Braemar. I meet many old friends and make many new
ones. I find the competitors true sportsmen—those who are successful and
those who are not. This means a lot to the judge who is there to do
justice, and if inexperienced he has no right to be there. It may be
very little that separates the person at the top of the prize list from
the person at the bottom. The following day results may well be the
reverse and indeed the person who has missed by a narrow margin may well
be the champion for the day following. The same can be said of the
dancers. Ladies are regret-ably much in the ascendancy, and I am afraid
that that position will remain so long as there is mixed competition.
In piping I would like more attention paid to timing and phrasing, with
more feeling in execution rather than superfluous manipulation of
fingering. This applies more especially to the playing of jigs, which
would baffle the most expert dancer if required to dance to them, and
also, in my opinion, goes a long way in spoiling some of our best
strathspeys and reels. This applies also to much of our modern dancing
into which a lot of fancy acrobatic stunts have crept, to the loss of
deportment, position and grace.
Going around the various games one hears the most fantastic criticism
levelled at the judges, who are more often to be congratulated than
condemned, and amusing incidents are often witnessed. On one occasion
this year a very enthusiastic Highlander came up to me and gripping my
hand he said in a very forceful manner: “Mrs Macpherson of Inveran will
never die.” “Oh, yes!” I said, “she has that to go through like all
mortals.” But he could not be convinced. Of course what he meant was
that masterpiece Reel “Mrs Macpherson of Inveran”, to which he had been
listening with ardent attention and profound satisfaction, played by a
reputable and good Seaforth Highlander.
The County of Argyll was and is noted for its musicians both
instrumental and vocal. The name of Pipe-Major William Lawrie, of
Ballachulish, will live long as one of the best exponents and composers
of his day.
If I am asked my opinion as to who was the best lady-dancer I knew, I
would without hesitation say Miss Mary Aitken, of Aberdeen.
During my years at lnveran, Miss Margrat Duncan, of Islay, often visited
me and who can ever forget her charming personality, and a voice equal
to the best singing mavis that ever sang from the tree-tops on a dewy
summer’s morning. Miss Duncan often entertained in her own incomparable
way the hotel guests and others, both in Gaelic and English, with the
songs she loved, and with her stories created an atmosphere that sank
very deeply into the hearts of those privileged to hear her. We often
spoke of her dear native isle, which I am proud to say was that of my
dear mother, Anne MacDiarmid.
I cannot close my reference to dancing without recording the names of
two contemporaries, namely, D. G. Maclennan and his brother Duncan
Maclennan, of Edinburgh, two of the best artists of my time, and happily
still with us. Both those gentlemen worthily upheld the unfading memory
of their brother the great William Maclennan, already referred to. In
1910 D. G. Maclennan published a book on “Highland and Traditional
Scottish Dances”, which I can thoroughly recommend. To John MacNeill and
William Maclennan, of Edinburgh, we owe all that is best in the
preservation of our Highland dancing. (
I always get from Games Committees a very hearty welcome and cheer and
the best of attention. Their hearts are in the right place, and as long
as the general public respond to their endeavours in fostering our great
heritage, Scotland will have its proper place in the intellectual
enjoyment of our race.
Besides judging at the various Highland Games I had a few years ago the
honour and pleasure of judging at the Royal Scottish Pipers’ Society
competition in Edinburgh. I had with me as colleagues Calum Johnston
from Barra and Donald Macpherson from Glasgow, and no two better
qualified gentlemen could one wish to have. The Royal Scottish Pipers’
Society is a very old amateur institution and has done much to
perpetuate our traditional music and dancing; even in my boyhood days it
was going strong. I got to know many of the older members including the
late Mr Somerled Macdonald and Sir Alfred Macaulay.
Today the Society is still flourishing with a most energetic secretary
in the person of Mr Hector Ross, B.L., and to spend an evening in his
company is indeed a very great treat. On the occasion when I judged the
annual competition the piping was most commendable. In the Ceol Mor (piobaireachd)
competition Mr Dugald Graham-Campbell of Shirvan won with a first class
rendering of “The Macgregors’ Gathering”. His expression was none of the
dawdling, meaningless type that is too often heard, and he must have
inherited his good playing from his respected father. It would be unfair
to make comparisons in such a competition, when we have gentlemen giving
of their best not for the sake of winning a prize but in order that the
glorious inheritance of our race may be carried on to succeeding
generations. I would like, however, to record the pleasure I got from
Sir Douglas Ramsay’s performance, to me memories of bye-gone days.