Gather together all those
pipers said to be “the best piper of his day,” and G. S.
McLennan would probably be the best.
Those who heard him say his
fingers were miraculous. His astonishing technical prowess
contributed to an important evolution in Highland pipe technique
in the early part of the twentieth century. As a composer of
bagpipe music, the quality and lasting appeal of his tunes are
unequalled. As a person he was modest, generous and well-liked
by his peers. But on the strength of his light music playing
alone his name would almost certainly be included in lists of
the top three pipers ever.
He was born in Edinburgh in
1883 to a leading and long-standing piping family and would die
in his prime at age 46 in 1929 with his only book of music just
off the presses. While most in the family spelled the name “MacLennan,”
it appeared that G. S.’s immediate family, starting with his
father, spelled it “McLennan.” The birth and death certificates
both use the spelling ‘McLennan.’ In fact, the name on G. S.’s
birth certificate is “George Charles Stewart McLennan,” the
result of his parents naming an earlier child who was born and
died in 1881 “George Stuart McLennan.” This renaming practice
was common among Victorians, who frequently suffered child
loss. The name “Charles” does not appear on G. S. McLennan’s
His father, Lieutenant John
McLennan, was a recognized and outspoken authority on bagpipe
music with views on piobaireachd which some contemporaries
considered radical. A stern critic of the early Piobaireachd
Society, his later reputation suffered accordingly. He would
produce two books of music later in his life: Piobaireachd as
MacCrimmon Played It (1907) and The Piobaireachd As
Performed in the Highlands for Ages till about the Year 1808,
which would be published in 1924, after his death.
The Lieutenant remarried when
G. S. was 8, and the young boy acquired some step-siblings, of
which the youngest and most known to piping would be Donald Ross
McLennan, or “D. R.” as he would become known. D.R. won both
Gold Medals in 1956, became one of the most notable reed makers
of his time, and died in 1984, outliving his revered
half-brother by more than two generations.
G. S. was
not a healthy young boy and suffered with polio as a child. He
learned pipes at age 4, first from his father and later from his
uncle, Pipe Major John Stewart, whom he later commemorated with
a march. But he continued to be taught throughout his
development by his father and his cousin William, himself a
pupil of G. S.’s father and considered one of the finest light
music players of the time. He would also learn Highland dancing
from William, whose accomplishments as a competitive dancer were
legendary. By the age of 10, G. S. was winning prizes in amateur
competitions and had caught the attention of Queen Victoria, who
had him play for her at Balmoral.
G. S. loved the sea. His father
feared he would jeopardize his promising piping career by
joining the merchant navy, so on October 3, 1899, Lieutenant
John sent the 16-year-old boy to a Gordons recruiting station
with a confidential note that read, “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.” The surprised
young man duly found himself in the Gordons.
His father’s judgement was
sound: G. S. rose quickly through the ranks, becoming Pipe
Major of the 1st Battalion in 1905 at age 21 – one of the
youngest pipe majors ever in the British Army.
He won the Gold Medal at Oban
in 1904, the Gold Medal at Inverness in 1905, and the Clasp at
Inverness for former winners of the Gold Medal in 1909, 1920 and
1921. He would have two sons, George (1914) and John (1916).
Both became pipers with the Gordons, John dying at St. Valery in
1940 and George living to age 81.
G.S. served in the trenches
late in the First World War. On May 14, 1918 he became ill. Two
days later he played ‘A’ Company over the top and the next
day collapsed with illness that would never leave him. But he
returned to duty and began making reeds in the trenches for
fellow pipers. He was discharged from the Gordons in 1922.
G.S. made Aberdeen his home.
After his discharge he set up a pipe-making business there, a
trade he plied until his untimely passing in 1929. Some of his
chanters and pipes still survive. He continued to compete up
until 1926 when he won his final event: the Former Winners’
M/S/R at Inverness, for the third time.
While no recordings of his
playing have surfaced, his brother D.R. wrote a letter to Seumas
MacNeill in 1964 saying that he was once in possession of
recordings made of G.S. around 1894 when he was 11. But they
have never been found.