Dunedin Experiences

Dunedin Competitions

There are many stories of Mr Sutherland's acerbic side. Here are vignettes that demonstrate the man's uncompromising integrity that will bear on what follows them.

The conversation among the pipers in a Dunedin bar in the early 1920s turned to the general musical hopelessness, or otherwise, of dancers. The well performed piper Cuthbert C. Selby opined that one could miss out a bar and the dancer would never know it. Someone put ten pounds or ten bob on the bar and said, "Do it to Sutherland tomorrow". The time for the open fling arrived, there was not another piper in sight and Selby landed the job of playing for the lot. The competition was charged by the rivalry between the local dancers and the Scot. Come Sutherland's turn - he knew nothing about the bet - and a bar of the tune was omitted.

The dancer returned to the first position in mid flight and bowed to the judge. With arms still akimbo he marched across the stage to Cuthbert C. who was small and feisty and who never recovered his health after the First World War. The dancer grabbed the piper, who had a mouth full of blowpipe, by the back of the neck, shook him and hissed, "Play it again, ye bloody little rrrraat!".

Other competitors demurred and the judge ruled sagely that, "It was not the dancer's fault so he should be given another try". The shaken piper managed the complete tune this time and, with an example in front of him, the judge awarded the dancer first prize upon the repechage. The bet was honoured out of Selby's winnings.

I knew both actors in this drama well, though many years after the event. I possess the pipes that were played and, until recently, the dancing shoes that were worn in the fiasco.

More can be found on Selby in Bruce McCann's Pipe Tunes and in Cuth Selby's Pipe Tunes both edited by Valda and Ewen McCann. Since those books were written we have ascertained that there was a thick file on Selby in the Invercargill Police Station and that the Police did run him out of town. It should be mentioned that Selby, McCann and Donald Patrick Sargent form a descending line of teacher-composers of bagpipe music in New Zealand that has extended for 100 years. Donald is still actively composing.

On another occasion in Dunedin, the piper to Mr Sutherland played faster and faster as he danced until a spectator intervened in the piper's ear, "Not so fast Charlie, I have an interest in this!" The piper was Charlie Stewart, who had a son of little dancing talent though he won prizes. Stewart Snr later became prominent in the Piping and Dancing Association, a point that will be of relevance later in this memoir.

Also in Dunedin, someone in a group of pipers and dancers threatened to hit Mr Sutherland. There was a policeman in the group in civies who prevented a fracas by announcing that, "If there is going to be a fight, I'll be in it."

Episodes such as these, and there were others, were related many times over by Mr Sutherland to my parents and to me. Mr Sutherland was a softly spoken, mild mannered man which may have deceived his antagonists. One does not be a great artist and survive two wars as an NCO without being resolute, a characteristic he would have to draw on in the future.

The incidents provide less a revelation of the characters of the participants than they do an insight into the ambiguity of Mr Sutherland's position in New Zealand, even in his early days here.

The attitude of the New Zealanders involved is inexplicable, though I expect Mr Sutherland would have made clear to them his low opinion of their dancing. For example, he used to refer to regimental army dancers (who were often drawn from the piping corps) in Scotland as "tinkers." The McCann family were later aware of his views of New Zealand 1920's dancers - Mother was a successful one of their number.

Truth Newspaper

Mr Sutherland's position in New Zealand Highland dancing soon became a scandal in New Zealand piping and dancing circles reaching the national weekly newspaper, Truth, on page 5 of Issue 969, 21 June 1924, in a long article noticed by Geoff Hore, of One Tree Point, who alterted me to it.

Kenneth Cameron was the possibly corrupt Dominion President of the Piping and Dancing Association of New Zealand who received a good honorarium of fifty pounds, who paid his wfe an honorarium of ten pounds for the inconvenience she suffered because of his role and who paid his daughters honoraria for typing. There is much in the Truth article about this, about his dancing competence, about the manipulation of prize money for his dancing favourites and about the expulsion from the P&D of an opponent, Hugh Paterson a Vice President of the Otago Center of the P&D, who had raised these issues and who was Mr Sutherland's employer.

Mr Sutherland advertised for pupils before things soured with the P&D receiving little response because of the rumours, claimed by Cameron to be spread by the P&D's opponents of the time, that he was addicted to drink, something that he never was.

Mr Sutherland taught Beulah King and Violet Paterson. He declared to President Cameron, who had recently judged them favouring Beulah first with Violet second in two events, that Violet should have won them. This is Cameron's version of events as he wrote it to Truth newspaper. Mr Sutherland's reported version is quite different. It was that since Cameron was virtually Mr Sutherland's sponsor to New Zealand, Cameron should not be judging Sutherland's pupils. Mr Sutherland has a point, as a sponsor would not want his protegee's pupils to lose a dance to the pupils of some other teacher. Cameron is unlikely to report this valid criticism of his actions. Mr Sutherland did not deny his remark about his pupils' merits.

The two men evidently disagreed and the situation escalated. The father of another of Mr Sutherland's pupils resigned as vice president of the Otago branch of the P&D, allegedly as a result of pressure from Mr Sutherland. The Otago branch officially censured Mr Sutherland, threatening to blackball him and his pupils from competitions.

The reporter notes that he was besieged and pressured about the article by both sides to the fight within the P&D. The reporter had this to say about Mr Sutherland's demeanour,"Truth's representative found Mr Sutherland a quiet and reserved type of gentleman, who gives the impression that he would be one of the last in the world to look for trouble". On his dancing record he wrote, "As a matter of fact Mr Sutherland's list of successes entitles him to be termed champion of champions."

There were resignations from the Piping and Dancing Association over the affair, some of them notable including the pipers Murdo and John McKenzie. Murdo has the best piping record of any piper to live in New Zealand.

Mr Sutherland later left Dunedin to live in Wellington but the affair was by then national. The consequences became self sustaining with time, radiating in several directions. They stayed with Mr Sutherland and with the Piping and Dancing Association; they fed into the New Zealand Academy of Highland and National Dancing, into the Academy's relationship with the Scottish Official Board of Highland Dancing and to the isolation of Academy dancers from competition in Scotland. The way that the artist lost the local battle and won the global war is the major theme of the rest of this memoir.