‘Dunoon air vibrating with the drone of the bagpipes:’ The Cowal Highland Gathering since 1945
This weekend sees the return of the Cowal Highland Gathering to Dunoon. Hosting pipe band and solo piping competitions, highland dancing competitions, and athletics, the festivities allow visitors and locals alike to take part in historic celebrations. The Gathering has been held here since 1894, and in last year’s blog post we detailed the history and beginnings of the event from the 1800s to 1945, which can be found here. But how was the Gathering discussed in newsprint during its more recent history, with its development charted in headlines from 1945 onwards?
The year 1946 saw the Gathering continue for the first time after the Second World War and was discussed in The Scotsman as a great success. The paper mentioned a ‘record crowd’ of over 30,000 spectators on the Saturday, with most of the crowd lasting until the end of the famous ‘march past’ of the bands at the end of the day that signals the end of the Gathering.
A debate closely followed in newsprint came the next year, where there was disagreement between the Cowal Highland Gathering Committee and Edinburgh Town Council about the moving of the World Pipe Band Championship to the capital, but it was resolved in the Glasgow Herald that Dunoon was ‘the centre of the contest.’ However, it was decided in 1948 that the World Pipe Band Championship would be held in Glasgow, alongside a contest for the Cowal Championship in Dunoon. However, the following month this resolution was dissolved, and the Cowal Highland Gathering committee agreed to hold their Pipe Band Contests without the approval of the Pipe Band Association. The Gathering of 1948 was recorded in the Oban Times and Argyllshire Advertiser as having a significant number of entries, with 46 pipe bands competing. There were also members of the Olympic team present, competing in the field events, high jump, and various running contests. However, it was the 1949 Gathering which broke records, with crowds of over 31,000 spectators. The spectators were reported by The Scotsman as having ‘stood silently to attention’ throughout the touching tribute made at the end of the Gathering. This honoured three notable men who were heavily involved with the Gathering and its traditions that had recently passed away- Gathering chieftain the Duke of Argyll, vice-president Sir Ian Colquhoun, and Pipe-Major John McLellan, who composed the salute tune of the Gathering.
Image shows a crowded Argyll Street during the 1949 Gathering.
Prime Minister Clement Attlee visited the Gathering with his wife Violet in 1950, and it was stated in the Daily Record that he had seen ‘nothing to equal the Cowal Gathering’ in all his years of attending events across the globe, and that he ‘tremendously enjoyed’ his time there. The paper also estimated that the Gathering weekend had brought £100,000 to the town through visitors and locals alike celebrating. The Daily Herald eloquently described the scenes occurring in the wee hours before the Gathering which estimated the population of Dunoon would jump from 11,000 to 50,000 people, and that ‘long before dawn today oil lamps will be lit in remote cottages so that there can be much last minute bagpipe practise before journeys to Dunoon begin by bus, bicycle and boat.’ Although rain and storms clouded the 1951 Gathering, this did not deter the thousands of visitors who had travelled from across Britain to take part in the festivities. The only difficulty encountered was that drummers were not able to play in the Grade One contest, in case the weather ruined their instruments. This was the first Gathering where a trophy was won by an overseas competitor, with the Argyll and Sutherlands Highlanders of Canada the victors of the Territorial band contest.
Image shows a souvenir programme from 1975 for the Gathering, with a stylised drawing of a male competitor competing in the shotput in his kilt, with a backdrop of the Clyde, hills and a forest behind him.
The Gathering continued to develop and in 1954 a new record was set for the number of bands competing, with 71 entering. One town Provost appealed to the people of Dunoon to don ‘the kilt or some form of tartan’ for the Gathering weekend, with shopkeepers including tartan and heather in their displays, and tartan banners hung from the pier to the Games field. Just seven years later the Gathering was described by the Edinburgh Evening News as ‘mammoth,’ with over 80 bands competing. Although the 1969 Gathering saw a dispute with the Board of Highland Dancing, described by the Aberdeen Press and Journal as ‘dance and you will be damned’ as the Board did not recognise the Cowal Championships, there were still many entries. The number of bands competing in the Gathering continued to rise, a record number of 151 in 1979, with the march past parade of one thousand pipers rising to three thousand from around the world. The centenary of the Gathering was celebrated in 1994, and a new commemorative tartan designed to be ‘soft and muted in the colours of Cowal, [with] blue for the waters of the firth, green for the hills of the peninsula.’ It was also reported in the Oban Times and Argyllshire Advertiser that a Scotrail train was christened the CHG 1894-1994 at Glasgow Central.
Image shows a busy Games field during the 'March of A Thousand Pipers,' a Gathering tradition.
It is clear that the Gathering weekend has a prominent history, a display of tradition and enjoyment since its creation, one which continued to evolve even in the more recent past. We hope that everyone has a lovely weekend celebrating, and reflects fondly on the varied experiences and tales that make up the rich tapestry of the Cowal Highland Gathering.
The Scotsman. September 1946.
Oban Times and Argyllshire Advertiser. February 1947.
Oban Times and Argyllshire Advertiser. June 1948.
Oban Times and Argyllshire Advertiser. August 1948.
Daily Record. August 1950.
Daily Herald. August 1950.
Paisley Daily Express. August 1951.
The Scotsman. August 1954.
Edinburgh Evening News. August 1961.
Aberdeen Press and Journal. August 1969.
Aberdeen Press and Journal. August 1979.
Oban Times and Argyllshire Advertiser. August 1994.
Oban Times and Argyllshire Advertiser. September 1994.