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Updated 01/30/2018


G.S. McLennan

Doornkop (literally "thorn hill") is a ridge and locality southwest of Johannesburg, close to Krugersdorp, in Gauteng Province, South Africa.  I found it by its association to Vaal Krantz. The Battle of Vaal Krantz (February 5-7, 1900) was the third failed attempt by General Redvers Buller's British army to fight its way past Louis Botha's army of Boer irregulars and lift the Siege of Ladysmith. The battle occurred during the Second Boer War.

The tune was written by George Stewart (“G.S.”) McLennan.

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 death certificate.


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.

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 jeopardize his pupils’ chances of success.


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 practice 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 favorite piobaireachd, The Lament for the Children.