George Stewart McLennan, Pipe Major of the Gordon Highlanders, is recognized as one of the finest pipers of his day.
He is said to have won more than 2,000 piping awards. His skill was recognized at a young age and he played for Queen Victoria at Balmoral Castle at the age of 10. A prolific composer, his tunes are considered classics of the repertoire, and are still commonly played today.
G.S. was born in 1883 in Edinburgh. A sick child from birth, suffering from polio, he didn’t start walking until he was almost 4 years old, which is about when he began learning the bagpipes. His father, Lieutenant John McLennan of the Edinburgh City Police, was a recognized authority on bagpipe music and George's first instructor. He also received instruction from his uncle John Stewart and from John McDougall Gillies.
In 1893, he won the Amateur National Championship at the age of 9. The next year he won the Scottish Amateur Championship and attracted the attention of Queen Victoria. He was invited to Balmoral to play for her. This was only the second time this honor was granted to a bagpiper. The first, Patrick Mor MacCrimmon, played for King Charles I in 1626.
G. S. McLennan’s father sent him to join the 1st Gordon Highlanders in 1899. He did this by sending his son to the local recruiting station with a note. The note, which George had not read, said “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.”
He did well in the military, being made a Lance Corporal in 1902, Corporal in 1904, Sergeant in 1905. It was then, in 1905, that he was appointed as Pipe Major of the 1st Battalion. This made him the youngest Pipe Major in the history of the British Army at that time. He was just 21.
In 1913, the 1st Battalion was sent to France while Pipe Major McLennan was sent to Aberdeen to work at the Gordon’s Depot. He later rejoined his battalion in France, in 1918, to replace a pipe major who was killed in action. In addition to his piping duties he also acted as Lewis Gunner along with another piper from the Battalion.
Pipe Major McLennan became ill in May of 1918. He collapsed while playing one of the companies out of the trenches and had to have fluid drained from one of his lungs. He rejoined the Battalion on June 8th and resumed his piping duties on June 30th.
During this time with the Battalion in 1918 Pipe Major McLennan started what became his bagpipe making business. He would make reeds, while in the trenches, that he would sell to other pipers. He was discharged, on pension, from the army in 1922 after 22 years of service. He opened a bagpipe making business in Aberdeen and also taught students, including his two sons.
George McLennan passed away on June 1, 1929, after lapsing into a coma a few days before. It is said that he had a practice chanter in his hands at the time. He had been ill since 1924. George was suffering the effects of having the fluid drained from his lungs during the war. The scar from the operation led to carcinoma, which was somewhat common in the men who fought in World War I.
He was buried in Edinburgh. When his funeral procession passed through Aberdeen on the way to the train station a crowd of almost 20,000 people lined the route. He was escorted by bands from the Gordon Highlanders, the British Legion, and an ad hoc band made up of people who had competed in Highland games. The bands played “Lochaber No More.” His favorite piobaireachd was played by his friend Pipe Major Robert Reid at the cemetery, “The Lament for the Children.”
George McLennan was a prolific composer throughout his life. It was said that he had a small notebook that he used to write bits of tunes that came to him. in 1929 a book of his music, “Highland Bagpipe Music” was published by his son George and R.G. Hardie.
This book contained many of his most well known, and still played compositions. It included “The Jig of Slurs,” “Alick C. McGregor,” and many others. Some of his other, well known compositions include, “Biddy from Sligo,” “The Breamar Gathering,” “The Lochaber Gathering” and “Dancing Feet.” His tunes can be heard from solo pipers and pipe bands of all levels. "The Little Cascade" is a revered piece of music not just among bagpipers, but among other musicians as well. There has probably never been a Grade 1 pipe band in the last two decades or more that has not featured the reel "Mrs. MacPherson of Inveran" in an MSR.
Pipe Major G. S McLennan is still considered one of the greatest composers of Highland bagpipe music of the 20th century and among most influential bagpipe composers of modern times.