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McLennan, George Stewartfree

  • William Donaldson

McLennan, George Stewart (1883–1929), player and composer of highland bagpipe music, was born on 9 February 1883 at 105 St Leonard Street, Edinburgh, the eighth child in the family of seven sons and two daughters of John McLennan, superintendent of police and editor of bagpipe music (1843–1923), and his first wife, Elizabeth Stewart (d. 1889). The McLennans were one of the leading piping dynasties of Scotland, tracing their descent from Murdoch McLennan, town piper of Inverness in the early sixteenth century. One of them had played at Culloden, another at Waterloo. A collateral branch came down through Donald Mór McLennan of Moy (b. c.1783), who had taught the famous pipers Donald Cameron (1810–1868) and John Bàn MacKenzie (1796–1864).

G. S. McLennan began his musical instruction with his father at the age of four. Later he had lessons from his uncle Pipe-Major John Stewart, and in highland dancing from his gifted cousin William McLennan (1860–1892). He was a child prodigy, playing before Queen Victoria by royal command at the age of ten and winning amateur competitions while barely into his teens.

Alarmed by McLennan's ambition to become a sailor, his father enlisted him as a boy piper in the 1st Gordons in October 1899. By 1905 he was pipe-major, one of the youngest ever in the British army. He served in Cork, in Aldershot, and in Colchester where, on 3 April 1912, he married Nona Lucking. They had two sons, George (1914–1996) and John (1916–1940). McLennan was stationed at the Gordons' depot at Aberdeen from 1913 until early in 1918, when he joined the 1st battalion in France as a Lewis gunner. Although military service restricted his opportunity to compete, he won all the top awards, including the gold medal at the Argyllshire Gathering in 1904, the gold medal at the Northern Meeting at Inverness in 1905, and the clasp, the highest award for ceòl mór, in 1909, 1920, and 1921. His style as a piobaireachd player was strongly influenced by the ideas set forth in his father's book The Piobaireachd as MacCrimmon Played it (1907), which argued that under the twin influences of competition and dubious theorizing, playing had become too slow and rhythmically loose.

Like his father, he placed a high value on the musical autonomy of the player. Almost alone among the master pipers of the day, he refused to teach the ‘official’ scores prescribed by the Piobaireachd Society of Scotland for purposes of competition, although these were widely criticized (even by the players paid to teach them). As a consequence the society declined to employ him as an instructor.

G. S. McLennan was noted for his melodious pipe and outstanding technique. His fingers were so strong that spectators could distinctly hear their slap on the chanter as he marched round the boards. In the light music of the pipe (marches, strathspeys, reels, and jigs) he pioneered the faster and more heavily decorated style that developed during the opening decades of the twentieth century. He was also the most gifted composer of highland bagpipe music of his generation, indeed many would say of the whole twentieth century. Selections of his tunes were published in his father's book The Piobaireachd as Performed in the Highlands for Ages, till about the Year 1808 (1924) and in his own collection, Highland Bagpipe Music (1929), published in the year of his tragically early death. Some of the compositions for a planned further volume were eventually published in The Gordon Highlanders Pipe Music Collection (1983–5).

McLennan's style as a composer was highly original and inventive. Tunes such as 'Pipe Major John Stewart', 'Mrs MacPherson of Inveran', 'The Jig of Slurs', and 'The Little Cascade' were quickly recognized as classics. 'The Little Cascade' in particular, with its unique tonality and jazzily syncopated rhythms, was hailed as one of the wonders of modern Scotland. Perhaps more than any other single composer, G. S. McLennan was responsible for developing the light music of the pipe into a mature and sophisticated form, rivalling piobaireachd in technical difficulty and far outstripping it in creative vigour. Yet his own original piobaireachd compositions were as fresh and innovative as his achievement in ceòl beag, though not all had been published by the end of the twentieth century.

G. S. McLennan had great personal presence. He was a dapper figure, short but well knit, whose boyish good looks were complemented by a neatly waxed military moustache, and whose kindness and personal integrity won him much affection and esteem.

On retiring from the army in 1921, McLennan set up as a bagpipe maker at 2 Bath Street, Aberdeen. He was the focus of a lively musical circle in the city which included the fiddle virtuoso James Scott Skinner (who dedicated a march tune 'The Gordon Highlanders' to him) and the prominent piping judge Alfred E. Milne. But as a result of war service he developed a serious lung condition and died shortly before midnight on 31 May 1929 at his home at 48B Powis Place, Aberdeen. The highland dancer Mary Aitken ran 10 miles through the night to the village of Blackburn to bring the news of his death to Alfred Milne.

At McLennan's funeral on 4 June the gun carriage was preceded by forty pipers, and 20,000 people lined the route to Aberdeen station. His remains were interred at Echobank cemetery in Edinburgh. McLennan's wife, Nona, survived him. In 1996 a major international invitational piping competition was established in San Diego, California, to commemorate him.


  • W. Donaldson, The highland pipe and Scottish society, 1750–1950 (2000)
  • W. Donaldson, Pipers: a guide to the players and music of the highland bagpipe (2005)
  • P. Graham and B. MacRae, eds., The Gordon highlanders pipe music collection, 2 vols. (1983–5)
  • G. S. McLennan, Highland bagpipe music (1929)
  • J. McLennan, The piobaireachd as MacCrimmon played it: with instructions how to read and understand music [1907]
  • J. McLennan, The piobaireachd as performed in the highlands for ages, till about the year 1808 [1924]
  • A. Fairrie, The Northern Meeting, 1788–1988 (1988)
  • J. Campbell, Highland bagpipe makers (2001)
  • W. Donaldson, ‘Change and invariance in the traditional performing arts’, Northern Scotland, 17 (1997), 33–54
  • W. Donaldson, ‘Manuscript material in the University of Aberdeen for the study of piping’, Northern Scotland, 20 (2000), 167–78
  • private information (2004)
  • d. cert.
  • b. cert.


  • photographs, repro. in Graham and MacRae, eds., Gordon highlanders

Wealth at Death

£380 4s. 11d.: confirmation, 31 Aug 1929, CCI