Published: October 31, 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 pipes|drums 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 2

At the sixty American Highland games in 1979 the cultural showpieces now were the pipe bands, more than 180 of which called themselves Scots, Caledonians, Highlanders, “kilties,” and the like. (Another 120 high school, college, Shrine, and Irish bands had also adopted the Great Highland Bagpipe but without any pretension to Scottish ethnicity.) About a dozen of the pre-1940 bands still existed — the oldest now at Buffalo — but nearly half the rest were creations of the 1970s. By that time it was a recognized peculiarity of North American pipers that almost all of them, even the few who were also “open” or “professional” solo competitors, belonged to bands. Although more than half the bands were still in the Northeast and Midwest, more than a quarter now were in the Far West and almost a fifth in the South. Since the Great American Piping Desert between Kansas City and Denver defeated attempts to form a national pipe band federa-tion, an east-west division of the country was effected by the Eastern United States Pipe Band Association and the Pacific Coast Pipe Band As-sociation, both founded in 1963. At the end of the 1970s the EUSPBA in-cluded 47 Scottish and 19 other bands, the PCPBA 27 and 2, respec-tively, and the two associations supervised competition at most of the games. In the Pacific Northwest 5 bands belonged to the Western Pipe Band Association, a British Columbia federation, whose rules governed the Seattle and Portland games.

The pipe band associations and certain of the larger games introduced a form of the Scottish and Canadian graded competition — four grades in the East, three in the West. In 1979 all seven bands in eastern Grades I and II or western Grade I — Worcester Kiltie; Manchester, Connecticut; Denny & Dunnipace (Maryland namesake of a band in Scotland); West-ern Reserve of Cleveland; Culloden Moor and Prince Charles, both of San Francisco; and Los Angeles Police — were in the North or West and able to make use of Canadian as well as Scottish-born pipers. Worcester, the only consistently first-grade eastern band, competing on equal terms with the best in Canada, was three-fourths Scots, including pipers and drum-mers expressly recruited from the most renowned bands in Scotland. In the West first-class instruction was likely to come from Canada. It has been estimated that during the rapid proliferation of bands in the 1950s and 1960s more than forty pipe-majors from Canada were active in Washington, Oregon, and California. Occasionally, of course, immi-grant expertise fell flat. “Some of our most dismal failures,” an experi-enced band-organizer recalls, “have been some of the champion piper and drummer drunks from Scotland” — one of the “cold hard facts not usually mentioned about bonnie Scotland.”

Southern bands might have been happy to put up with the inconveni-ence. As recently as the 1930s there was not a piper to be found in cities like Richmond or Atlanta, nor thirty years later in Wilmington, New Or-leans, or Oklahoma City. Even in 1969 a fledgling pipe-major in North Carolina lamented, “A lot of bands are being formed, and the tragedy of it is that they do not have any help,” no one with any “old country pipe band experience to speak of.” By 1979, although almost all southern bands regularly competed at games in the region — unlike the one band in four elsewhere that was simply a “parade band” — none had achieved much distinction beyond the South. The most rigorously competitive games were all elsewhere: Alma, Michigan, a two-day affair attracting the best Ontario pipers; Delco (Philadelphia) and Ligonier (Pittsburgh); Santa Rosa (San Francisco) and Coeur d’Alene (or Spokane). Southern games tended to use pipe bands as accompaniment to the other activities; even Grandfather Mountain, the largest gathering of all and the oldest (1956) in the South, offered only solo piping competition. Ethnic fervor came more readily to “Scotland the South” than did the ethnic music.

For all the Gaelic resonance of the piob mhor, piping was steadily moving away from the ethnic group. The twenty-three hundred pipers and twelve hundred drummers who belonged to the 180 bands of 1979 (which were also training some twelve hundred pupils) were far less uniformly Scottish than their tartans suggested. Although 7 percent of the bandsmen still were Scottish-born and another 16 percent had Scottish parents, while 46 percent could at least claim distant Scottish roots, nearly one-third had no family ties whatever to Scotland. The First World War had inspired immigrant Scots to organize pipe bands; during the Second, hun-dreds of thousands of Americans, stationed in Britain for a year or two, heard good piping for the first time. Within a few years the non-Scottish bagpiper, “a thing unheard of in the ‘old’ band,” as it was noted in 1963 at Yonkers — where German, Slavic, Armenian, and Jewish names now appeared among the Kilties — had become a regular element (36 percent) of pipe bands in the North and West. In the South, although the bands were newer, only 23 percent of their members had no Scottish ancestry; a mere 10 percent, if Florida and Texas are omitted. In short, southern pipers had the most “Scottish blood,” but others, who might not be Scottish at all, generally had the best-trained birl fingers.

The pipers’ growing detachment from the ethnic group proper was reflected, in a sense, in the 15 percent of band members in 1979 who were women, something unprecedented in pipe band tradition. In Scotland enough prejudice remained against women’s playing a “man’s instru-ment” and wearing a man’s kilt to confine most female players to “ladies’ bands” and, until passage of the Sex Discrimination Act in 1975, to bar even the best of them from certain major solo competitions. Fewer than a fifth of the Scottish-American bands, however, were all-male, and the only girls’ pipe bands were at a few high schools and non-ethnic.

The non-Scots who have taken up Scottish arts have nevertheless had to cultivate much closer ties to contemporary Scotland than many Scottish immigrants maintain. The pipers of the 1970s were working to strictly old-country standards, and to good effect. As recently as the 1950s, a distinguished immigrant piper has recalled, “the very idea of comparing the North American piper with the Scottish pipers would have been laughed at.”

The remedy was prescribed by certain Americans, though administered by Scots, beginning in 1962, in a dozen two-week summer schools of piping-and also drumming, Highland dancing, and, most recently, Scottish fiddle-playing. Like the two decades older Gaelic College in Nova Scotia, these summer camps have been staffed by a handful of leading Scottish and Canadian professionals, some of whom spend the season proceeding around the country from school to school, where they attract pupils of all ages and every grade from novice to seasoned com-petitor. The first overseas contingent, at the Invermark school in 1962, was John MacFadyen, John MacLellan and Seumas MacNeill. By 1979 the important distinction, as a southern pipe-major ob-served, was not where a piper was trained but by whom.

At most American Highland games in the l970s the judges of piping and drumming — who, after annotating each competitor’s tempos, “breaks,” tuning, tone, steadiness, execution, and expression and assigning him a mark, customarily gave a friendly private critique as well — were drawn from a panel of two or three dozen resident Scots of much the same origins as the school instructors. As winners of somewhat lesser honors in Scotland, however, most of them seem to have emigrated for reasons apart from this avocation of their summer weekends. But like the school instructors they have been indispensable. Although there are competent teachers and at least potential judges among American-born pipers, greater confidence still resides with someone known to have won the Gold Medal or simply to have placed at the Argyllshire Gathering at Oban or the Northern Meeting at Inverness.

By the 1970s there were many American pipers whom their Scottish in-structors found it “a pleasure to listen to” and perhaps two dozen capable of “open” competition in Scotland. Distance, however, made a “world-class” reputation elusive. Even within the United States, where Highland games are hundreds or thousands of miles apart, no band or piper will have competed against enough of the others to become undis-puted champion. As for crossing the Atlantic, although several American pipers have devoted a summer or two to study in Scotland and several since 1969 have placed in the highest level of competition there, none by 1979 (and only one, Michael Cusack, by 1999) had taken the supreme honors at Oban and Inverness.

Since many of the American pipers are not of Scottish descent, they are not simply persisting in tradition. Indeed, they strive to keep their art abreast of every new tune, new settings, every new prescription from Edinburgh or Glasgow, and from Guelph or St. Catharines in Ontario as well. No doubt they would keep at it even if there were no immigrants’ societies or clan associations to provide annual Highland games for competition. They belong to a lively transatlantic community centred upon present-day Scotland although nearly as esoteric there — “the ‘closed shop’ of all closed shops” — as in America.

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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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What do you think? We always want to hear from our readers, so please use our comment system to provide your thoughts!

Do you have an idea for a feature story that you would like to read or write? Be sure to send your concept to the pipes|drums. We can’t report what we don’t know about! Please remember to support the businesses that advertise and make the not-for-profit p|d possible.

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