THE HIGHLAND SOCIETY OF LONDON: Its History and Significant Contribution to Piping

By Angus Nicol
The Highland Society of London grew out of the failure of the ‘Forty-five, and especially out of its aftermath. Many
more people, nearly all Highland men and women, died after Culloden than had lost their lives in the Prince’s cause
before 16th April 1745, and a fearful revenge was being exacted against the Highlands led by Cumberland.
One of the less destructive, but none the less life-changing, measures was the passing of the Disarming Act of 1746,
which, amongst other provisions forbade the wearing of the tartan, the carrying of arms by Highlanders, and the
playing of the Great Highland Bagpipe. Another was the seizing by the Westminster Government of extensive lands
in the Highlands held by Clans or chiefs who had come out for Prince Charles Edward. Many crofts and villages were
cleared and the houses burnt both before and after the Clearances during which some Chiefs turned their clansmen
and women off the land in order to make room for sheep, so as to make the lands pay.
Little, if anything, could be done against the more violent reprisals. But in Parliament steps were beginning to be
taken to repeal the Disarming Act and to restore the confiscated lands. On 28th May 1778 a number of Highland
gentlemen met at the Spring Garden Coffee House in London, with the purpose of forming a society that “might
prove beneficial to that part of the Kingdom”. Its first President was Lt. General Simon Lovat, the 12th Lord Lovat,
descendant of that Lord Lovat who was beheaded for his part in the ‘Forty-five, at Carlisle in 1751 The newly formed
Highland Society began intense lobbying in Parliament, which, in some three years, bore fruit.
One of the ways in which the Society sought to influence the Government was the holding of a piping competition.
They chose Falkirk, principally because it lies roughly on that imaginary but acknowledged demarcation known as
the Highland Line. The playing of the bagpipe was forbidden in the Highlands, and it would have been very difficult
to prove, at that time, that piping in Falkirk was in the Highlands or not. This, the first ever piping competition
anything like those we know today, took place on 12th October 1782. The date was important, too. At that time
each year there took place the Falkirk Tryst. This lasted for about a fortnight, and was essentially a very large fair at
which cattle and other farm animals and equipment were bought and sold. To this event came people to buy or
sell from all over Scotland, from the Orkneys, from ulster and even from the north of England. Consequently Falkirk
was crowded, and the evenings saw, as one might well imagine, a good deal of conviviality. It was in the middle of
this that the first Falkirk piping completion took place. It was not forgotten, either, that at Falkirk there took place,
in 1745, the first defeat of the Government troops by a Highland army. Not only was there the political motive for
the occasion, but it was greatly feared (as perhaps the Government hoped) that the playing of the bagpipe and its
music, especially ceòl mór, might die out. The Society therefore invited thirteen pipers, all those of whom they could
hear who were said to be able players, to compete during the Falkirk Tryst.
There is quite a good account of the Society’s competitions, annual at first and then triennial, to be found in Angus
Mackay’s book (left). It appears also in the programme printed for the bicentenary competition, also at Falkirk, in
1982 (more on this and how it spawned today’s MacGregor Memorial competition to follow). For the early years
the facts were probably gathered by Angus MacKay from his father, and latterly by Angus himself. After Duncan
Ban MacIntyre had recited a poem in praise of the Gaelic language and of the Highland Bagpipe, composed for the
occasion (also reproduced in the Bicentenary programme), the pipers played in a courtyard, and the judges sat in
an upper room next to the courtyard, where they could hear but not see the competitors. The competitors had to
play four tunes from a number which they had submitted. The winner in that first year was Patrick MacGregor. He
was the son of John MacGregor who had been Prince Charles Edward’s piper during the ‘Forty-five. The first prize
was a prize pipe, made for the Society by Hugh Robertson, of Edinburgh. John MacGregor himself won third prize,
at the age of 73, and second prize in the following year, his younger son, John, taking third prize. Angus MacKay was
a prize-winner at the age of 14 in 1826, and won first prize in 1835.
These MacGregors were from Druim Charraig, near Fortingall. They were known as Clann nan Sgeulaiche (the family
of the storytellers). They ran a school of piping at Druim Charraig, and it is said that they used to send their best
pupils to Boreraig to be finished by the MacCrimmons. They were clearly a family of talented pipers, since the sons
and grandsons of John MacGregor dominated the prize lists for some decades after 1782.
The competition was a marked success, and continued annually until1784 at Falkirk, after which it was removed
to more roomy premises in Edinburgh. It remained an annual event until 1826, after which it became triennial. By
that time the Northern Meeting had begun holding annual piping competitions. But the political motive was also
wholly effective. Later in 1782 the Disarming Act of 1746 was repealed insofar as was necessary to allow Highlanders
freely to wear the tartan, carry arms, and play the bagpipe. And in another year the confiscated lands were restored.
These events were recorded in poetry by Duncan Ban MacIntyre, who was commissioned to compose a poem
suitable to celebrate the holding of the Falkirk Tryst Competition. He also composed another, in praise of the Gaelic
language and the Great Highland Bagpipe, for each of the next four Falkirk competitions. His very famous poem,
“Fhuair mi naidheachd an diugh” (I got news today) which is still sung today, celebrates the restoration of the
confiscated lands, attributing the success in this field to the Marquess Graham, son of the Duke of Montrose, then
President of the Society, and the Society itself.
In the 19th century, the Society became incorporated by statute in the Highland Society of London Incorporation
Act 1816 (56 Geo. III cap. 20). That Act contains a very brief history of the Society over the previous 48 years, and
otherwise sets out the rules by which the Society is still governed. From time to time, the Rules of the Society, which
conform to those set out in the Act, are modified, within the ambit of the Act, to bring them up to date. But the
objects, though slightly differently expressed since the last amendment to the Rules in 2014, are still those for the
preservation of Highland culture and music, and of the Gaelic language, and of the support and improvement of the
lot of those inhabitants of the Highlands. In 1965, the Society became registered as a charity.
The Society also supported the recording of ceòl mór in staff notation. The first such book was produced by Donald
MacDonald, with the financial support of the Society in 1820. This was followed in 1838 by Angus MacKay’s book,
commissioned by and dedicated to the Society, in which the method of recording ceòl mór in staff notation was
taken somewhat further than had Donald MacDonald.
When the Northern Meeting began to hold piping competitions, in 1841, the Society at first presented annually
a prize pipe for the first prize winner. Later the Society awarded a gold medal for a competition for pipers who
had already won the prize pipe and were therefore debarred from competing again. The Argyllshire Gathering was
founded, in 1871, and from 1873 the Society has presented a Gold Medal each year.
Since 1879 the Society has also presented a Gold Medal to be awarded at the Northern Meeting. These two gold
medals are the highest awards for ceòl mór, or piobaireachd, in any competitions in the world. There are, however,
also prizes awarded at Oban and Inverness, and also at the Scottish Piping Society of London’s annual competitions,
for which only those who have already won one of the two Gold Medals may enter. These events are the Senior
Piobaireachd Competition at Oban and the Clasp to the Gold Medal at Inverness, also the Bratach Gorm at the
London competitions. Today an annual donation is given to the Argyllshire Gathering, Northern Meeting, and
Scottish Piping Society of London. Currently this stands at £1,500 to each.
A further result of the piping competitions, and the consequent resuscitation of piping, was the later recruiting
of pipers to a number of army regiments. Sir John Sinclair of ulbster gave it as his opinion that “…had it not been
for the exertions of the Society, the Army would not have been supplied with Highland Pipers, so rapidly was that
species of music sinking into oblivion.”
Courtesy of Robert Wallace of the Pipingpress