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A Highlander Looks Back

THE 19th June, 1949, brought me much sorrow. I lost heirlooms and trophies which cannot be replaced. The old family bagpipe, made in 1800 by Donald Macdonald, an Isle of Skye man then a bagpipe maker in Edinburgh, was saved from the flames, and thus I have still a treasured link with the past. In contrast to the 19th June, 1949, the 19th December, 1950, brought me unspeakable satisfaction and modest pride, for what can a man feel more proud of than being honoured by his fellowmen. At a luncheon purveyed by Mr and Mrs Black, of the Invershin Station Hotel, served in excellent style, I was presented with a beautiful 18 ct. gold watch and chain, double-cased, with monogram and inscription as follows:—“To Angus Macpherson from the tenants of the River Shin and their friends in appreciation of the many happy days spent in his company on the banks of the River Shin."

My wife was presented with a magnificent silver tea-set, of George III reign with inscription couched in words of affection and appreciation, and Joy our daughter-in-law was presented with a beautiful pair of gold and diamond earrings. There could be no happier company than sat down to luncheon that day after which Mr Seton Gordon, who had travelled all the way from Duntulm, Isle of Skye, on icebound roads, made the presentation in words and in a manner by which I must confess I was almost overcome, and to which I found it very difficult to respond.

From far and near friends came to honour the occasion; many with regret had to cancel their company on account of the very severe storm then prevailing. Colonel Walter Macfarlane, of Glasgow, a Shin tenant, a first class angler, and a good friend, came all the way from Glasgow, representing Mr Norman P. Donaldson, who by years of tenancy is the oldest Shin tenant, but could not attend on account of ill-health. Mr Victor Cumming came from Glasgow and arranged everything, and acted as chairman in a most delightful manner. Mr J. P. Whittet, factor for the Skibo estates, was present. Our connection as factor and tenant was now ended, as it began, on the best of terms. Other Sutherland friends with whom I have spent many happy hours were also present and by their presence added much joy to an occasion that will live very dear to my heart.

And nearly five years later another presentation was to be made to me ....

In my boyhood days in the environment of my Highland home, the glory of the Northern Meeting was often spoken of, and how I longed for the day to come when I too could take part in the competitions, with which my family was so long associated.

The day eventually came in September, 1894, when in the company of my brother, John, I attended this renowned Gathering for the first time. Previous to this I was simply a competitor at local Games. At this time my father was teaching me the classic music of the bagpipes (Ceol Mor or piobaireachd) and my brother had been teaching me the art of dancing prior to my going to that great artist, the late John MacNeill, of Edinburgh.

In those far off days the Meeting was held in the Northern Meeting Park; there were usually large crowds of enthusiastic spectators around the arena, and the grandstands filled to capacity with a very select company, to which only those of high credentials were admitted; the scene was indeed imposing and a test to the nerves of any young competitor from the quiet serenity of the glen and the heather braes. The competition in the piping and dancing events was keen and large, and the names of some of those who competed in the piping at that time may be of interest:—John McCall, Oban; Angus Macrae, Callander; John Macdougall Gillies, Glasgow; John Macdonald, Glentromie (later Inverness); Danny Campbell, Skye; D. C. Mather, Lochcarron; Alick Mackenzie, Resolis; Gavin MacDougall, Aberfeldy; Pipe-Major Robert Meldrum, Pipe-Major Robb, Pipe-Major Cameron, and Murdo Mackenzie, Inverness; and others whose names for the moment evade me.

On the morning of the Gathering all assembled at the Northern Meeting Rooms, Church Street. The roll was called at 9 o’clock sharp, and woe betide anyone who was late: he was subject to censure or disqualification. Rigid rules were laid down, and a piper was expected to have from his employer or some other qualified person a certificate as to his qualification for competition and must be dressed in full Highland dress to the satisfaction of the judges or Games Committee.

The March of the massed band of competing pipers round the town square en route to the field was indeed picturesque, with most of the Highland lairds in the company. Arriving at the field numbers were put in the Glengarry bonnet of one of the pipers and lots drawn for order of competition. A list of six tunes had to be submitted for the judges to select from. The piobaireachd selected for me was “My King has Landed in Moidart”.

I shall never forget it, and must confess that I felt like a person landing his first salmon. I was not in the prize list, but was comforted later on when that perfect gentleman, Alick Cameron, son of old Donald Cameron of piping fame, congratulated me on my performance. I told him that my fingers were cold, and to this he replied: “My boy, you should have heard your old father play the same tune as you did when he won the gold medal here. It was snowing, but och, och, it made no difference to Calum’s fingers.”

My ambition to win the coveted gold medal was now fixed. On several occasions I missed the mark by one or two points but, undaunted, I persevered with the handicap of private service and a business career to contend with until at last my name was placed on the honoured list of previous winners. I little thought then that for me there still awaited an even greater honour from the Northern Meeting than any medal or clasp, not for any spectacular record in piping, but for an unbroken attendance of sixty years at the Northern Meeting, surely a unique record, and in September of this year, 1954, the Executive presented me with my Clan Crest with an inscription to mark the occasion.

I was deeply touched by this generous gesture, and especially proud when the gift was handed to me by that gallant gentleman, Cameron of Lochiel, who spoke of the occasion in such terms that no response from me could ever fully express my inward feelings. In token of remembrance I wore by my side the first-prize dirk won by my grandfather at the Northern Meeting in September, 1854, exactly one hundred years ago to that day, and a strange coincidence on this occasion was that a worthy Clansman, Donald Macpherson, of Clydebank, Glasgow, should be the premier prize-winner.

In olden times and in my earlier years the Northern Meeting Balls were held on the two nights following the Games, Thursday and Friday, and the piper who won the medal was expected to play for the Highland Reels. The ballroom was a brilliant scene, and the dancing done with conspicuous deportment and etiquette.

The full length of Church Street on both sides would be lined with a throng of spectators watching the horse-drawn buses taking the parties to the ball from the various hotels. It was the custom for families to come to town on the Wednesday, and stay in hotels until the Saturday. The advent of the motor car, not to mention the aeroplane, has changed this as it has many other fine old customs.

Competitors, especially the pipers and dancers, usually put up at the Volunteer Arms Hotel, Church Street, now non-existent. There I saw many jovial nights fit for any Tam O’Shanter, or Souter Johnnie, culminating in the time-honoured Pipers’ Ceilidh on the Friday night, when in the early hours of the morning the last toast would be pledged: “Here’s to our Meeting next year”. Everything was delightful and orderly, though perhaps to a few the stairway to the bedroom seemed a little crooked and out of focus.

I am glad to say that the Pipers’ Ceilidh still survives, and this year a most delightful evening was spent in Cumming’s Hotel, where could be heard the very best of bagpipe music, Gaelic and Scots songs, with the Gaelic motto “Lean gu dluth ri cliu do shinnsear” (“Stand firm to the reputation of your ancestors”). Could there be any more appropriate motto for pipers?

The competition is no longer held out of doors, and pipers have not to suffer the agony of cold, torrential rain, and sometimes frost and snow. Pipers and spectators have all the comforts of the Northern Meeting Rooms, and a welcome is given to all who have the heart to pay a very nominal fee in support of a very great heritage.

There are two good reasons why a man should retire from active life, and to ward them off should be the aim of every man, for leisure can never make up for the joys of activity. Infirmity and old age are the bogies; so far as the former is concerned I am thankful to say I am still enjoying good health, and can enjoy a day’s fishing on the river amongst its most rugged paths when invited to do so by gentlemen with whom I have spent so many former days.

I still like to feel that I am as young as when I could run 100 yards in 11 seconds, but I find that I can no longer travel in top gear or even in the lower if unduly hurried. I am reminded that I have a heart that talks to me, and brakes must be applied, a recent experience.

It is no little achievement, however, when I can take up my bagpipe and from beginning to end play “Donald Ban MacCrimmon’s Lament” which requires, to do it justice, the better part of twenty minutes, not to mention the necessary tuning time required to get my instrument settled down to stand the test.

Last summer some sprightly youths called upon me to see whether I would give them a brush-up in Highland dancing preparatory to a competition. Theory and lectures are all very good, but nothing can achieve the objective save the practical. I was tempted to put on my old dancing pumps and once again, like an old duck taking the water, I tripped the light fantastic toe, to the enjoyment of my young friends who told me afterwards how much it meant to their winning in the competition.

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