The Dickson family of pipers and fiddlers.
Top left: John, Joe, Alexander.
Seated: Gavin, Lindsay, Mary, George
Picture taken c1910
In the writer’s collection of bagpipe music there are forty handwritten manuscript (MS) books and many dozens of single sheets of music. These MS books date from the late 19th century though to the middle of the 20th century. Some have been compiled in Scotland but by far the majority are home grown.
There are those that the original owners were proud enough to put their name to and others not so easy to identify. Some of the names of these owners are well known to older generations of pipers.
The majority of the tunes in these books are tunes that pipers will recognise instantly. In many cases they have the appearance of having been copied from published books like David Glen’s Collections, Logan’s Collection and Pipe Major William Ross’ Collection. Sometimes the compilers of the MS books have appended a note to indicate which book they were copied from. There are even tunes that have been copied from old 78 rpm records and the details are there.
As we know many New Zealanders are inveterate composers and there are many such tunes amongst these pages. Some of the composers are fairly well known. Most of the tunes are inferior and will never stand up to the scrutiny of the discerning piper but there are a few gems. Perhaps one day a collection of the better ones will be published.
One name that occurs frequently is George Dickson of Riverton. Enquiries amongst older pipers failed to identify this man but recently a chance meeting by Allan Speedy of Auckland enabled the writer to establish exactly who this man was.
Allan was playing his pipes at a funeral and one of the mourners Joy Holley nee Dickson, approached him and it became evident that she and her family had a considerable amount of family information and memorabilia. Thanks to Allan the writer was able to make contact with this family and archive and record much information about bygone piping times.
The most noteworthy thing about George Dickson is that he was not a piper although he did come from a piping family; he was a fiddle player. But perhaps it is best to start at the beginning; at least the beginning as far as we in New Zealand are concerned.
On the 5th of December 1866 the ship ‘City of Dunedin’ departed Glasgow with a number of Scottish migrants. Amongst them was Gavin Lindsay Dickson who was 22 days short of his 22nd birthday. He had been born in Maryfield, Leslie in Fifeshire on 27 December 1844. His ship arrived in Port Chalmers on 15 March 1867.
Two years later his parents George and Isabella Dickson and siblings arrived at Port Chalmers on 30 October 1868. George was a fiddle player and owned an instrument he had made himself. George and Isabella’s eldest son Gavin was a fiddler as was another son Andrew. But it does not finish there as Andrew played the pipes as did two other brothers Robert and Alexander.
Two months earlier another family had migrated from the same area of Scotland. Joseph and Catherine Cable and their children arrived in Port Chalmers on 19 January 1866. Gavin had known 20-year-old Mary in Scotland. It is interesting to note that the Cable of the well-known New Zealand firm Cable Price Ltd descended from this family.
Gavin and Mary married in Dunedin on 21 March 1867. They had 16 children:
The observant reader might have detected the difference between the date of the marriage of Gavin and Mary and the arrival of George. This would not raise an eyebrow these days but amongst the Presbyterian Scots of the time it would not have been taken lightly!
Gavin’s father George purchased 58 acres at Knapdale north of Gore and farmed there until he sold it in 1895. He died in 1900.
Gavin became a farm manager to Mr Teschmaker of Otepopo about 14 miles south of Oamaru. Later he obtained a lease on a farm at Inch Clutha near Balclutha and farmed there for 7 years. In 1877 a land auction was conducted, and he purchased 81 acres at Otama northwest of Gore. The farm was called Maryfield after their home village in Scotland.
The land had only recently been surveyed and although roads existed on paper, they were by no means obvious to anyone travelling in those days. The family removed all their chattels from Inch Clutha in a horse drawn dray; of course, there were no motorised vehicles in those days!
Most of the streams and rivers had to be forded as there were no bridges. Along the way there were many swamps to be negotiated; there were no road maps available to help them. In 1936 the eldest son George recalled the trip and stated they got their first view of the farm as they came down Chatton Hill. He recalled that it looked a vast wilderness with no roads, trees or fences to be seen.
Once they arrived at their newly acquired land, they had to clear it of flax, tussock, reeds and niggerheads. I do not know what sort of plant niggerheads are, but I dare say they are not called by that name these days! Only after the land was cleared could they start ploughing and cultivation. However, they were so successful they were able to buy another 63.4 acres nearby in 1889.
In the ensuing 120 years the Dickson family has added nearly 80 more acres and for the last 30 years has been owned by Gavin’s great grandson Rae Gavin Dickson.
Gavin and Mary Dickson were both music lovers and as radio and television were many years in the future, they created their own entertainment. Gavin was a fiddler, and many were the occasions when he enjoyed playing for those who enjoyed dancing.
However, not all in those days approved of such activity and in 1905 Gavin received a letter from the minister of the church castigating him for encouraging young people to dance. It is perhaps worth reproducing the letter here:
Chatton, Saturday 30 September 1905.
Dear Mr Dickson,
I have prayed and thought much over Tuesday’s Bluefit concert and the more I think of it and of the fact that it is merely the preliminary of a dance, I see my duty clearer and clearer to withdraw my presence and countenance from it altogether.
I hope God may save Chatton and Knapdale young people from those who desire to foster dancing in our midst. I have one longing filling my soul – that they may all be the Lord’s.
May God bless both you and ours and grant us so to live and use us influences that at the end we shall hear his “Well done!” Henceforth you are in me prayers daily.
I am yours sincerely,
One may assume that it was not just the land and living conditions that were harsh and uncompromising.
In 1912 the farm was leased to two of the younger sons, John Cable and Alexander Cable Dickson and Gavin and Mary retired to Riverton the following year. Mary died 28 January 1918 and Gavin four years later on 7 August 1922.
Gavin and Mary’s eldest son George (1866-1955) knew the hardship of colonial New Zealand at an early age. He was twelve when his parents made the move from Inch Clutha to Otama. His parents and siblings had departed with all their chattels in a dray and two days later George drove all the stock to the new farm.
The road from Balclutha to Gore is about 47 miles (75 kms) and was reasonably negotiable in the 1870s. In the mid-1860s a road had been formed to allow access for horse drawn traffic. However, the 10 miles (16 kms) from Gore to Otama was not so well sign posted. George had to negotiate swamps, rivers and hills by trial and error but was able to stay with some of the inhabitants along the way who directed him along the best routes.
George worked on the family farm until he was 25 years old and got married. He had a few different jobs before he became foreman of works with the Riverton Borough in 1906. There was an eight-year stint with the South Invercargill Borough, but he returned to Riverton where he spent the rest of his life.
George inherited his father’s and grandfather’s interest in music and at 18 learned the fiddle. He never called it a violin – it was always a fiddle. It was an unfulfilled dream of his to become a professional musician. Whenever there was a requirement for musical entertainment George Dickson’s name was first to be mentioned.
At one point in his life George was the conductor of the St Andrew’s Strathspey Band in Invercargill. The members of this Band were his children. There is a photograph of the band from the early 1900s with sons Russell, Gavin and Ingram holding the fiddle, mandolin and banjo respectively. His daughter Marion played the piano. George has pride of place in the centre holding his fiddle. Besides the instruments already mentioned his family also played the piano, dulcimer and bass cello.
Through his father and grandfather George learned a number of tunes that he believed were in the style of the very famous 18th Scottish fiddler Neil Gow. In fact, he believed that he was one of the last repositories of that style. The family believed this to be the case until a grandson David McKenzie Cloughley (1931-1999) in the discovered otherwise.
David had learned the fiddle within the family unit and tunes like Harvest Home, The Laird of Dunblair (sic), The Bonnie Lass of Bon Accord and The Hills of Glenorchy were standard fair. According to his son Robert Gordon Cloughley, David became involved in the Dunedin folk music community in the early 1970s and was astonished to learn that other fiddlers were playing these tunes and with a greater degree of skill and speed.
George also had the ability to repair fiddles and was recognised as an expert in identifying violins from the famous makers.
Although he was primarily a fiddler, George had a deep love and interest in all Scottish music and arts. In fact, he was known to dress up in the Highland dress and mix in with pipers whenever he could.
Composing seems to have come late in life. The earliest tune according to family tradition is Lady Seaforth’s March. A number of his tunes exist today with dates on them, and the earliest date is 1939. The latest is 1954, the year before he died.
George would often have the beginnings of a tune come to him when in bed. He would get up and immediately write it down. Many of the tunes he composed came to him in the Highland Bagpipe idiom. Not being trained in the art of writing bagpipe music he sought out the assistance of a piper to transpose them.
One notable piper in Southland before and after the Second World War was Cuth Selby; he was the man who set down the tunes for the bagpipe. In fact, most of the tunes that exist are in Cuth’s immaculate script.
Perhaps it is appropriate to digress a little here and talk about Cuth Selby. This is a name the writer has known for about 40 years. Whenever questions were asked about him those being questioned would deny knowledge. One elderly gent I met in Dunedin in 1993 knew Cuth and said, ‘he was not a very nice man’. When questioned further about these comments the subject was changed.
About three years ago I finally learned why there was reluctance to talk about him. Cuth was a self-confessed homosexual. Prior to law changes in 1986 homosexuality in New Zealand was illegal and those convicted in court could, and often did, go to jail. Additionally, those who did come out, as they say, were often shunned. This undoubtedly explains the reluctance to talk about him.
However, Cuth Selby seems to have been a better than average performer on the Highland bagpipe. He has won many piping competitions up to and including NZ Championship level and composed some tunes. If anyone reading this can help with any information about Cuth’s piping and composing, the writer would like to hear.
In 1999, George’s grandson David McKenzie Cloughley wrote an article called George Dickson and His Music. Until recently it had not been published and was available only to those in the family who knew about it. Much of what is written here comes from that article. (If anyone wishes to refer to the full article it can be found in the book by Allan Steel and Patricia Dickson mentioned below).
David lists sixteen tunes composed by George for the Highland Bagpipe. He also lists another eight tunes for the fiddle. Three tunes in this second list are included in the first list.
The titles in the first list are as follows:
All the tunes in this list except for No 10 & 16 the writer has in his collection; Cuth Selby has arranged them for the pipes. It may be that tune No 10 is in the writer’s collection; he has a 6/8 tune called Lambert Scott’s Quickstep dated 1943. This tune, although it is in the bagpipe style, has no gracenotes. Any piper could easily play it adding their own embellishments as they saw fit.
George’s daughter Marion married an Adam Scott and had a son in 1928, Adam Lamberton Scott. It seems plausible that this is who the tune is named after. he writer does not have the music for tune No 16.
The second list has the following tunes:
Tunes No 1 & 2 are the only two that the writer has from this list. However, a number of other tunes composed by George exist and the following is a list of those that are known at the time of writing:
Tunes would come to George at odd times. Margaret McKenzie’s Farewell came when he was ‘tootlin’ and whistlin’ in the garden’. He went into the house to write it down and immediately the second part came to him. He was going out into the garden again and before he got to the door the next part came to him.
On another occasion George was with his grandson Lindsay Dickson waiting for a bus to take them to Invercargill. He heard a bellbird singing and immediately took out a notebook and wrote the tune down. The bus came and went, and George continued writing it down and then went home to play the tune. We are not told what the tune was called.
Margaret McKenzie’s Farewell was well received by pipers when it was first composed and has apparently been played by 5 pipers when they have won New Zealand Championships.
The Dickson family has a booklet with many of George’s Tunes. The Foreword to this is by Cuth Selby and he made the comment that he believed that Margaret McKenzie’s Farewell was a great tune and that if it were the only tune George had ever composed, he would have done a good service to piping. Cuth also singled out Lindsay Castle Strathspey, The Old Home in the Glen and The Silver Wedding as worthy of mention.
Joseph Cable Dickson
Joe was born in Inch Clutha in 1872, the fourth child and second son of Gavin and Mary. In his early years he was an itinerant worker and travelled throughout the South Island working mainly on threshing mills but would turn his hand to anything.
In 1900 at the age of 28 he joined the New Zealand Railways. He married Nellie Nelson in 1910 and immediately transferred with the Railways to Auckland where he remained for the rest of his life.
Joe learned the fiddle from his father and later learned the pipes. We do not know who taught him, but he was a member of the newly formed Southland Pipe Band (Now the City of Invercargill Pipe Band) in 1901 when they toured Australia as part of the Commonwealth celebrations. The History of the City of Invercargill Caledonian Pipe Band 1896-1996 by F W G Miller, OBE, J E Annear and N A McMillan gives an excellent outline of the circumstances surrounding this trip.
Joe did compose some tunes and there are two known to exist at this time. Namely, a strathspey called The Laird O’ Glencoe, (sic) and 2/4 march called The Birds Welcome. There may well be others yet to be discovered. Joe died in Auckland 1945.
Gavin was born in Inch Clutha in 1874 the 6th child and 3rd son of Gavin and Mary Dickson. He trained as a blacksmith and when he completed his apprenticeship in 1894 moved to the West Coast and worked on a gold dredge.
He later worked in sawmills in Nydia Bay, Marlborough Sounds, Kumara Junction and later Camerons on the West Coast. In 1918 he and his family moved back to Invercargill. The travel bug got him again in 1932 and he was back in the West Coast but within the year was diagnosed with cancer and moved back to Invercargill where he died in February 1933.
Gavin was a piper and was instrumental in forming the Tuatapere Pipe Band. It is not known if he composed any tunes.
William Cable Dickson
Born in 1875 in Inch Clutha he became a piper and was also a member of the Southland Pipe Band that went to Australia in 1901. In 1903 he travelled to Scotland and was in Winnipeg, Canada on his return journey when he contracted typhoid fever and died.
He was reputed to have been a good player but there are no compositions that can be attributed to him.
John Cable Dickson
John was born in Otama in 1880 and died 75 years later in 1956. In 1913 he married and at the same time bought his father’s farm and two adjacent blocks of land to increase the farm size.
John was a piper and also followed the family tradition by playing the fiddle.
Alexander Cable Dickson
Alex was the youngest of the Gavin and Mary Dickson’s children being born in 1889. He left school at 15 and worked at many jobs but in his early 20s moved to Christchurch and got a job on a dairy farm. He worked long hours but was still able to attend night school to complete his education.
By 1914 he was in Hamilton working for the Waikato Co-Operative Dairy Company but in August of that year World War 1 broke out and he enlisted and was accepted in the Army. However, he went down with a severe case of enteric (typhoid) fever and was not accepted in the Army until near the end of the war. In April 1918 he was shipped out to the Middle East.
Alex was not involved in the actual fighting but was in Transport and Supply with the Army Service Corps. One story he told his family that did upset him greatly was the way the horses were treated at the end of the war. New Zealand soldiers took their own horses with them and when the hostilities finished, they were not allowed to bring them home. They were ordered to shoot them. Alex, being from farming stock was attached to horses and like the soldiers was deeply upset by this episode.
After the war he was a field staff member of the international Correspondence School. At the same time, he continued with the Territorial Army. When war broke out again in 1939, he was seconded straight back into the Army and served in North Africa, Greece and Crete. He was invalided back to New Zealand in late 1941 and discharged from the Army.
During the war he met his third wife, Gwendolen Elsie Atkins, an English nurse. They had three children and although they are all in their 60s, they are perhaps a little unique in that they are only one generation removed from the early settlers of New Zealand.
Alex learned the pipes at a young age. His family believes he was taught by older brother Joe, but family correspondence suggests he may have also received lessons from someone who signed himself Alick Duncan of Tapanui.
An Alex Duncan of Tapanui was a very successful competitor at the end of the 19th century and this is surely the same person. There is a family photograph taken in 1900 when he was 11 years old that has Alex dressed in Highland uniform alongside three of his piping brothers William, John and Joseph.
Alex accompanied his parents back to Scotland in 1900 and while there they bought him a set of small pipes. On a later trip back home in 1912 his parents bought him a set of Henderson pipes which he had until he died.
Alex did not get involved in pipe bands but was a regular solo competitor in the early years of his life. He is known to have competed in the Southland/Otago area, Christchurch, Wellington and Auckland. The family have a number of medals awarded to him at piping competitions.
During his later years Alex played for dancing. His daughter Joy Holley can remember him playing at a dancing competition in Tauranga in the late 1940s. There are no known compositions we can attribute to Alex.
The above deals only with the sons of Gavin and Mary Dickson because of their involvement in piping. All the daughters seem to have been musically literate but as far as we can tell none were pipers.
There is ample evidence in the family records of them getting involved at the many ceilidhs and family gatherings. They would sing, dance or play various musical instruments.
This musical tradition has come down through the generations and there are pipers, fiddlers, dancers and singers mentioned throughout the family records. As mentioned earlier there have been many other musical instruments played by all generations of Kiwi Dicksons. One of George’s sons, Ingram Dickson played the cello and over the last forty years of his life made 38 violins, 16 violas, 4 cellos and a double bass.
It is difficult to determine exactly how much influence the Dickson family had in piping in the last years of the 19th century. We do know they were at the forefront of the pipe band movement with involvement in the Southland Caledonian Pipe Band soon after its inauguration. One family member was involved in starting one pipe band in Southland and others seem to have been involved in other fledgling bands in the Southland area.
There is no doubt the Dicksons were right there when it came to ceilidhs and other festive occasions. Out would come the pipes, fiddles, banjos – you name it, and they seem to have played it! One can only imagine the fun they had.
All branches of the Dickson family have been inveterate collectors of family and Scottish ephemera. There are numerous scrapbooks, photos and other artefacts that have made the job of family researchers so much easier.
Unless stated otherwise what is written in this article has been extracted from Gavin Lindsay Dickson and Mary Cable: A Family Tree & Pictorial Record of their Descendants from 1866 by Allan Steel and Patricia Dickson 2008. Thanks, are extended to Allan for his permission to use it.
This wonderful book is a mine of information. Many of the individuals discussed above, as well as their descendants, have left written accounts of their lives that have been reproduced throughout this book.
Thanks, are also due to Joy Holley of Whangaparaoa, daughter of Alexander Cable Dickson, for her assistance in producing this article. She allowed the writer to photocopy relevant detail from her father’s scrapbooks and family photographs. She also has copies and originals of most of George and Joseph’s tunes and allowed the photocopying of these to assist research.
Follow up 16 July 2008
This article about the Dickson family has created lot of interest; the editor and the writer have received a number of letters and emails offering new information. A few days after the magazine hit the streets Neil McMillan of Invercargill sent a letter with a number of anecdotal stories about the Dickson’s.
Neil has been extremely helpful lending the writer some mid-19thcentury pipe music books to help in his research of Cannon’s A Bibliography of Bagpipe Music.
The day after Neil’s letter Walter Gibson of Mosgiel sent a number of tunes, some by George Dickson and others by New Zealand composers from bygone times. Walter has been piping for over 60 years and is a past Pipe Major of the Taieri Pipe Band. He is currently a playing member of the Maniototo Highland Pipe Band and played with them at this year’s National Contest at Papakura.
Throughout his life Walter has collected bagpipe music books and now has no further use for them. Rather than see them dumped he sent them to the writer for his collection. The suitcase duly arrived, and it included two very hard to find 19th century books. William Ross’s Collection 1885 (3rdedition) and James Bett’s Collection 1899. The former is perhaps not that rare but this one was in exceptional condition and that is quite rare. These books were not well bound, and it is most unusual they turn up now in anything like good condition.
Walter also had dozens of handwritten manuscript of tunes, many of them composed by New Zealanders. These are now archived in the writer’s collection and maybe one day might find their way into a published collection.
Two years ago, Ewen and Valda McCann of Lower Hutt published an excellent book of tunes composed by Ewen’s father, Bruce. Bruce was taught by Cuth Selby and inherited much of Cuth’s music and his bagpipes. Ewen is now the owner of all this material.
When Ewen read of the plea in the last article for information about Cuth Selby, he advised that he and his wife were in the middle of a project to publish a book of Cuth’s tunes, including a detailed biographical note about him.
In the Letters to the Editor of this issue of the Pipe Band magazine is a letter from Velda and Ewen requesting assistance from readers. If anyone can help with information or tunes, please don’t hesitate to contact them.
The Dickson family grapevine has also been working overtime and when they heard of the article about their family new information has been presented to the writer.
This series on New Zealand composers has been running for 7 years and the editor and the writer have received a reasonable amount of feedback during that time. However, the interest in the article on the Dickson family has been by far the greatest and the writer would like to thank all those who have offered information and music.
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