Published: September 30, 2000

Piping in America — A Brief History

Preface: In 1982, the Journal of American Ethnic History published “Under the Kilt: Variations on the Scottish-American Ground” by Rowland Berthoff, professor of history at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. The 15,000 word study examined the history of Highland games in the United States, and the ethnic identity of Scottish-Americans.

The Piper & Drummer is pleased to provide excerpts from the study that pertain specifically to piping. At a time when American pipers, drummers and pipe bands are contending on the world’s most important competition platforms, the study serves to highlight just how far things have come in the United States.

Off-prints of “Under the Kilt: Variations on the Scottish-American Ground” are available from the author at no charge. Professor Berthoff will even cover the cost of postage. They may be obtained by writing to: Rowland Berthoff, 7195 Washington Avenue, St. Louis, MO 63130 USA.

Part 1

At the smaller [American] games [in the mid-1800s] the only piper — too often a poor one – was the accompanist hired for the dancers. As late as 1865 “a genuine Scotch bagpiper” was called “a rare sight to be seen in this country.” Only the largest games in the 1870s and 1880s managed to engage several pipers, in place of the usual American brass band with its poetry-in-translation version of Scottish tunes, to lead the parade that enticed spectators to the games. “Six pipers playing together,” such as the Philadelphia Caledonian Club could boast in 1875, were “not to be seen or heard on many occasions.” Albany reached the pinnacle of twelve in l886. Beginning about 1869, at a few games—never more than a third each year—the pipers also competed, on the system followed in Scotland since 1781, for a single set of cash prizes in “bagpipe playing” or “bagpipe music.” The first North American United Caledonian Association (NAUCA) rules, in 1877, were sub-rudimentary: “competitors to appear in Highland costume, and to repeat each piece of music three times. Judges [who were notorious for being better acquainted with the pipers than with pipe music] to be in a closed tent, or otherwise concealed from the competitors. Separate prizes for “pibrochs and marches” and for “reel and strathspey,” the common arrangement in Scotland and Ontario, were introduced in the late 1880s but remained beyond the resources of most games.

The pipers of the time seem to have been ordinary immigrant workingmen who incidentally played the pipes. Although there were at least eighteen in New York in 1882, a Saratoga hotel sent to Scotland when it wanted six pipers for the season. Knowledgeable critics blamed the low state of playing on games committees too quick to hire anyone “who could skirl out the outlines of a tune. . . no matter how unearthly and harsh.” At best, “continual repetition of the same airs” disgusted “even enthusiastic admirers of the piobh mhor. (“The Campbells are Coming” was inescapable; it welcomed the chief of the Macleans to the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893.) Nothing about piping impressed Americans as much as the pipers’ ornate costumes, except perhaps their ability to render simple but familiar tunes like “My Grandfather’s Clock.” Purists complained that too many pipers, facing such incomprehension, became “wanting in dignity and self respect . . . ready to go anywhere, indifferent to who or what they play for, . . . as long as they are paid.” It was enough to drive pipers to the drink for which they were already proverbial.

The pipers themselves, however, undertook reform. Robert Ireland, formerly of the 93rd Highlanders and winner of a first prize at the Braemar Highland Gathering, helped to organize a Highland Pipers’ Association in New York in 1882 “for the better encouragement and practice of their instrument” throughout the country, and sent off an order for reeds to David Glen of Edinburgh. The association expired within a year or two, evidently victim of NAUCA jealousy, but new NAUCA rules in 1887 and larger prizes at games began to lift the standard. “The points to be observed in arriving at a decision” were still fairly simple:

1st, whether the pipes are in tune; 2d, the character of piece played, whether difficult or easy; 3d, taste and time maintained, whether shifting, too fast, or slow; 4th, mistakes, such as missing notes, omitting to repeat a part or playing it over too often.

On the west coast, another Highland Pipers’ Association briefly existed at San Francisco in 1890.

Regularization of piping, dancing, and athletics left little in which the less skillful, among whom officers of the sponsoring club might be numbered, could distinguish themselves. As in Scotland, consequently, many games offered prizes for the “best-dressed Highlander,” although in the 1870s uncertainty about proper Highland dress sometimes led judges to favor a competitor whose ornamental buttons or extraordinarily crooked walking-stick “lookit gey an’ Scotchy” or who was just “a guid lookin’ chap.” In 1884 the NAUCA adopted far more explicit rules than those for piping or dancing:

“Kilt and plaid to be of uniform tartan, and preference to be given to recognized clan family patterns. The jacket to be of velvet or cloth, with lozenge shaped buttons. Vest to be of tartan, or cloth of a color approximating to the leading colors of the tartan worn. Kilt to be worn plain, without bows of ribbon, or other attached ornaments. Hose to correspond in color and design as nearly as possible with the kilt. Plaid to be of full size. The bonnet to be of recognized Balmoral, Glengarry, or broad pattern. Shoes to he low cut. Ornaments to consist of brooch, crest on bonnet, and buckles on shoes, and eagle or blackcock feathers in bonnet. Powderhorn, suspended from the shoulder. Sporran to be of goat or horse hair. Arms and belts to consist of claymore, dirk, skene-dhu and pistols, sword and waistbelts. All mountings to be of silver, or silver-plated, and the chasing or engraving to be of uniform design throughout. Judges will take into account the manner in which the costume is worn, the richness of each part, and the harmony of the design of the whole.”

Toward the end of the century the games began to change. The non-Scottish spectators drifted away to more novel amusements, including modern track and field meets adapted from those the immigrants had introduced. What remained was coming to seem only “the ‘auld hech howe’.” In Scotland, a critic observed, games now were enlivened with “military matches, broadsword combats, climbing of greasy poles, archery, and many other things.” In America they went on presenting year after year a succession of hammer and stone throwing, caber tossing, two dances, and a miscellaneous collection of walks, runs and jumps, with a game of quoits thrown in to please the curlers.”

The era of Highland dancing and piping, and of pipe and drum bands, now began in earnest. By 1913 almost all the games were holding solo piping competition. The bagpipe had always been a solo instrument; the pipers who occasionally paraded together at American Highland games had seldom been accompanied by drummers. In Scotland, for that matter, army pipers were not formed into regimental bands until the 1850s, and the craze for local pipe bands in Lowland towns and mining villages came a generation later. The first pipe band competition was at the Cowal Gathering at Dunoon in 1906. The oldest bands in the United States consequently date from a time well within the memory of pipers still active in recent years.

A kilted drill corps in Chicago calling itself the First Regiment of Royal Scots sponsored, in 1893, the first regularly organized pipe and drum band in the United States. Next, in 1898, came the Pittsburgh Bagpipe Society; in 1902 the Chicago Highlanders Pipe Band, and the band of the Massachusetts Highland Dress Association, at Boston; 1903, the pipe band of the Gordon Highlanders of Buffalo, another quasi-military unit; 1904, the International Pipe Band of Detroit and Windsor; 1905, the New York Scottish Highlanders Pipe Band under Robert Ireland, recently pipe major of the 48th Toronto Highland Regiment; 1907, the band of the Scottish Dress Association of Rhode Island, at Providence; 1908, bands at Philadelphia, Chicago and St. Louis; 1909, at Yonkers and among the Scottish papermakers of Holyoke; by 1910, the Clan Gordon (Order of Scottish Clans) Pipe band, Denver; and in 1912 at Rockford, Illinois. The First World War evidently inspired another wave: in 1914 at Manchester, Waterbury, Jersey City, Chicago, and the coalmining village of Gillespie, Illinois; 1916, at Worcester, Bridgeport, Hartford, Paterson, Youngstown, and Seattle, and the Lovat Pipe Band of New York; 1917, Cincinnati; 1918, Schenectady; 1921 the Chicago Highlanders (later the Stock Yard Kilties); and at least a dozen more during the 1920s and 1930s. All thirty-odd bands were in centers of Scottish immigration; none was south of Washington, and only the Seattle Pipe Band in the Far West. Like the earlier pipers, almost all band members were immigrants who had learned what they knew of piping or drumming in Scotland. Since such skill was always in short supply, the Yonkers Kilty Band posted a watch at the New York docks to intercept any new arrival “who carried anything that even looked like a pipe box.” Inland, however, as early as 1905 the Pittsburgh pipe-major resorted to tutoring “several young Scots” on the practice chanter. No band seems to have thought of women pipers. The quality of bagpiping in America, so distant from the source, improved slowly if at all. At a ball in New York in 1916 the playing by a trio of Angus Fraser, Murdo MacKenzie, and William Armstrong was called “superb” simply for seeming “to come from one set of pipes alone.” (Although Fraser was pipe-major of the Lovat band, by later standards he was “not a great piper.”) Pipers still interspersed their marches, strathspeys, and reels with popular tunes of the day, such as “Tipperary,” “Keep the Home Fires Burning,” and “Marching through Georgia,” which the New York Scottish Highlanders “got up especially” for a wartime concert.

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