With our strong Scottish heritage it’s not surprising that pipe bands have flourished in New Zealand. Especially in the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, pipe bands (often called highland pipe bands) were formed in communities all over the country.
One band has a special connection with our clan, as it wore the Matheson tartan as part of its uniform. Sadly this group, the Strath Taieri Highland Pipe Band, has since closed down, but its story has been well told by Central Otago historian Elliot Matheson in his book “The pipes and drums of Strath Taieri 1940–1990; a history of the Strath Taieri Highland Pipe Band on the occasion of its golden jubilee celebrations 19th May 1990”.
How the Matheson connection came about is best told in Elliot Matheson’s own words:
“While perusing band records one is struck by the remarkable contribution some families have made and sustained throughout the years, and, in some cases, to several generations. The Matheson family immediately comes to mind. M A (Alick) Matheson was one of the early group of local pipers who were the forerunners of the present band. His bachelor uncle, Alexander McKenzie Matheson, although not a piper, had been a dedicated attender at piping and dancing fixtures in Dunedin, and his enthusiasm was no doubt an inspiration to his nephew to learn to play the pipes. He became a father figure to the band and made some generous monetary gifts in the early years. It was fitting that the Matheson tartan was chosen for the uniform. Alexander McKenzie Matheson was the first patron and his photograph in full Highland dress hangs in the band hall.”
As Elliot Matheson notes, Mathesons were involved in music in the area before the pipe band was formed. The Middlemarch Brass Band was formed in 1905 and its first conductor was J H Matheson, a local schoolmaster. After the brass band was disestablished in 1937 an unofficial group of pipers played at district gatherings, one of whom was the M A (Alick) Matheson mentioned above.
Elliot Matheson’s book recounts the service of the wider Matheson family:
“Alick was made Pipe Major in the very early 1940s and held the position for over a decade. His enthusiasm helped to recruit many young members in the early days and he later was a long-standing committee member and president. He followed his uncle as patron in 1956. His brother, Jim, was an early drummer, until leaving for active service in the Second World War.
“His two sons, Doug and Bruce, have also made a worthwhile contribution. Doug has filled the roles of Pipe Major, and Treasurer. He was the recipient of a long service medal at the 21st anniversary celebrations in 1962. Bruce was one of the longest serving Drum Majors. He has also served as secretary and drum instructor. Two other younger Mathesons, Blair and Kaye, have served as tenor drummers.
“Another member of the family, Hugh Matheson of Attadale, has served the band well [rising] to the rank of Pipe Major. He was secretary for several years and of latter years has been the base drummer, noted for his accurate judgement of time.”
The Strath Taieri band was successful in regional and national competitions through the 1950s and 1960s, and active locally in the 1970s and 1980s. There seem to have been Mathesons involved in the band as players or committee members continuously through the band’s existence.
And by the way, isn’t Strath Taieri a wonderful New Zealand use of a Scottish term. The word strath comes from the Gaelic and means a large valley, particularly a wide and shallow river valley (as opposed to a glen, which is typically narrower and deep). Strathclyde, the valley of the Clyde River, is one example of its use in a Scottish place name. Adding it to a Maori place name is a unique New Zealand adaptation of this term.