“THE best piper of his day”, “the king of pipers” and “the most complete piper of this century” were all plaudits attracted by Pipe Major George Stewart McLennan, composer of such enduring tunes as The Jig of Slurs and Mrs MacPherson of Inveran and a formidable player who profoundly influenced piping technique during the early 20th century.
George Stewart McLennan was born in Edinburgh in 1883 (although some Army documents and press cuttings give the year as 1884), the son of Lieutenant John McLennan of the Edinburgh City Police, whose piping lineage went as far back as a town piper of Inverness during the 16th century. There was piping blood on his mother’s side as well: she was Elizabeth Stewart, sister of Pipe Major John Stewart of the Black Watch It was Lt. John who gave George – and subsequently his half-brother, Donald Ross MacLennan – his first piping lessons, continuing to supervise his development, while he also received lessons from his uncle, Pipe Major John Stewart, and his cousin, William MacLennan, who was also a renowned highland dancer, as well from the great John MacDougall Gillies.
Despite suffering from polio when he was a child, “GS”, as he became known, was a prodigy, winning open competitions, alongside adult pipers, at the age of ten and attracting the attention of Queen Victoria, no less, by whom he was commanded to play at Balmoral. The young piper, however, nursed ambitions to go to sea, much to the consternation of his father, who dispatched him to a Gordon Highlanders’ recruiting office, stating: “Please enlist my boy the bearer George Stewart McLennan in the 1st Gordon Highlanders and send him up to the Castle as soon as possible.”
Duly enlisted into the Gordons, he rose through the ranks, becoming Pipe Major of the 1st Battalion in 1905 at the age of 21, one of the Army’s youngest pipe majors ever. On the competition front, he won the Gold Medal at Oban in 1904, the Gold Medal at Inverness the following year and Gold Clasps at Inverness in 1909, 1920 and 1921, gleaning around 2,000 piping awards throughout his career. He might have achieved even more triumphs on the competition circuit had the Gordon Highlanders been more accommodating in giving him leave to compete.
During the latter stages of the First World War, GS served in the trenches and became ill, in May 1918 playing “A” company over the top then collapsing. He returned to duty, however, and used to make reeds in the trenches for his fellow regimental pipers. He was discharged from the Army in 1922 while based at the Gordons’ depot in Aberdeen, but his ill-health would never leave him, ultimately contributing to his death at the age of only 45.
Following his Army service, GS remained in Aberdeen, where his family were settled, and where he established a pipe-making business. Having married Nona in 1912, he had two sons, George and John, both of whom became pipers with the Territorial Army Gordons, with John dying at St Valery in 1940.
GS continued to compete until 1926. One contemporary would recall that “his fingering in march, strathspey and reels was brilliant. He was a master of their type of music and we shall probably never hear his like again,” while another commented: “George’s playing gave me the impression of the supernatural and kept one spellbound.”
Having inherited some of his father’s controversial views on piobaireachd interpretation, he tended not to play in the style dictated by the Piobaireachd Society, which militated against his chances of winning in ceòl mór competitions, although he took pains to teach piobaireachd in the approved manner so as not to jeopardise his pupils’ chances of success.
Of all the light music on which his fingers sparkled with such brilliance, he particularly loved jigs, writing: “I am immensely fond of jig playing and consider it one of the finest methods possible for putting one into form. In fact one cannot play jigs unless in tip-top form … my Jig of Slurs I am extremely proud of – not of course as a tune with a fine melody but for its grand execution. I do not know a tune – piobaireachd or anything – which is nearly so difficult or requires such a nimble finger to play.”
And of course the Jig of Slurs was just one among the stream of superb tunes he composed and which endure to this day, making the initials “GS” renowned wherever the Highland pipe is played – tunes such as the reels The Little Cascade, Dancing Feet and Mrs MacPherson of Inveran, the marches Inveran, The Lochaber Gathering and Major John Maclennan, another jig, Biddy from Sligo and the retreat marches Kilworth Hills and Loch Maree.
Like many veterans of the First World War, he finally succumbed to lung cancer. He died on 1st June 1929, having lapsed into a terminal coma while supervising his sons’ chanter practise from his bed. His funeral prompted extraordinary scenes, some 20,000 people lining the route from his home to Aberdeen station, whence his body was taken to Edinburgh for burial. The gun carriage bearing his coffin was escorted by pipe bands from the Gordons and the British Legion, with another formed by Highland games competitors, and the lament Lochaber No More was aired. At Echo Bank (now Newington) cemetery in Edinburgh, his old friend Pipe Major Robert Reid played GS’s favourite piobaireachd, The Lament for the Children.
His untimely death was widely regarded as a tragedy for the world of piping, not just because of the loss of a great musician and composer, but for the passing of a truly independent voice that wasn’t afraid to take on the piping establishment. Another great composer of the piping world, Pipe Major Donald MacLeod, described GS as simply “the most complete piper of this century”.
Written by Jim Gilchrist 2015