January 24, 2024

Buffalo’s Mona Ross: a pioneer of female pipers in the USA 100 years ago

pipes|drums has been a strong advocate for women in piping and drumming since day one. We were pleased to receive the following piece from longtime reader Joe Baschnagel of New York, about one of the United States’ earliest successful female solo piping competitors.

By Joseph Baschnagel

Over the years, I have collected many stories and facts about bagpiping in Western New York. In this article, I would like to share some stories of early female Western New York pipers taken from my book, A Piping Legacy, A Collection of Music, and Essays on the History of Piping in Western New York.

For years, it was not considered proper for a female to play the pipes, especially in the early 1900s. The same went for wearing the kilt and Highland dancing, which were considered men’s domain.

I know for a fact that when I first started playing, there were bands in Western New York in the 1960s that women were not allowed in. Some of the old-timers refused to teach women. This is not to say that women didn’t play. In the 1950s, a girls’ band in Western New York named the Heather Highlanders was led by Pipe-Major Lillian Davis.

An assembly of pipers and drummers at the Buffalo, New York, St. Andrew’s Scottish Club, 1921. Mona Ross is seated front right.

Pipe-Major Davis was originally from Victoria, British Columbia, and lived in Fort Erie, Ontario. She was the first and, as far as we know, only female piper in the Canadian Army during World War II. She trained a group of pipers and drummers who were active in Canada and Europe during the war, assisting in recruitment, providing entertainment for troops, and performing other ceremonial functions. The Heather Highlanders also allowed young male pipers in the band.

My research has led me to discover a young woman named Mona Ross who lived in Buffalo, New York, in the 1920s. According to the local news reports, she was a well-known piper. There is no report of her playing in a band, and in the early photos I have seen no women, but newspapers listed her as a solo competitor.

July 31, 1920, at the 50th Annual Crystal Beach Scottish Games. The Buffalo Highland Pipe Band, numbering 14, entertained guests throughout the day. From left to right P-M Thomas Thomson; Helen Cockenburg, Highland dancer; P-M George Munro; Jimmy Kline, Highland dancer; Mona Ross, piper; Adelaide Robertson, Highland dancer; P-S William Farquarson.

According to the Buffalo Courier in 1920, Mona Ross was one of the best-known and most accomplished pipers of her day. She competed in Scottish games all over the country and won the best woman piper prize at every event.

Joseph Baschnagel is pipe-major of the Celtic Spirit Pipe Band of Western New York. He offers piping performances for functions through his ACE Piping services company. Joseph Baschnagel is the author of A Piping Legacy, a Collection of Music and Essays on the History of Piping in Western New YorkHe lives in Cambria Center, New York.

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