Review of Jakarta Highland Gathering

Jakarta Highland Gathering, started by Gordon Benton with Java St Andrew’s Society in 1975, is one of the important events for the Scottish community in the region. Jakarta Highland Gathering is also one of the biggest Highland gatherings outside Scotland, as each gathering attracts 10,000 competitors and visitors.

Program of Jakarta Highland Gathering 1977

Although Indonesia is a former Dutch colony, links between Scotland and Indonesia stretch back to 1919, when the Java St Andrew’s Society was established. Furthermore, many of the Scots now living and working in Indonesia were brought there by the oil industry because of their expertise in offshore drilling in the North Sea.

The British community in Indonesia is not as big as the one in Singapore and Hong Kong, and there is no pipe band, but the gathering has long attracted many bands to travel there, even bands from Scotland. Apart from traditional events such as caber tossing, hammer throwing and Highland dancing and piping competitions, there are also Maori war dancers, Australian log choppers and stone jumpers from the island of Nias.

The game field of Jakarta Highland Gathering 1988

The first Jakarta Highland Gathering was held on 26th July 1975. The gathering had 60 pipers and drummers compete from Hong Kong, Singapore, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and Britain. Due to the considerable travelling costs, the competition format was changed to a quintet competition rather than a full band competition in 1976. This format has been adopted for every gathering since then. Five bands competed in 1976 and were required to play a slow air and then into a set of March Strathspey and Reel. The results were:

  1. St Andrew’s No. 1 Band, Brisbane
  2. 17 Bn RNSWR, Sydney
  3. Gurkha Rifles, Hong Kong
  4. Singapore Girl Pipers, Singapore
  5. Gurkha Signals, Hong Kong.

In the early 1980s, the gathering attracted some Scottish regiments travelling from Hong Kong, such as Gordon Highlanders and Scots Guards. In 1984, the piping competition was split into Open Quintets and Southeast Asian Confined Quintets as the gathering has become famous for bands from Australia, making it difficult for Asian bands to win. Under the judging of Peter Snaddon and James Ferguson, St Andrew’s Band from Australia won the open category, and Singapore Girl Pipers won the confined in 1984.

Jakarta Highland Gathering enjoyed its heydays between the late 1980s and the mid-1990s. The scale of the gathering was developed as a 4-day festival, with a golf competition on the first day, ‘Scotland in Concert’ on the second day, the gathering on the third day and the Kid’s Charity Day on the final day. Major Stevie Small recalled how his band played ‘Scotland in Concert’ in Jakarta in 1993:

I’m sure we played much better at the concert than we did in the competition [in the following day] because the concert was inside, so it was conditions that we were used to; the competition was outside, it was roasting hot, so the pipes didn’t do well. If I remember anything, we didn’t play very well in the competition.

Being close to the equator, Jakarta is very hot, often reaching 40 degrees Celsius during the day. Major Stevie Small MBE discussed the hot weather in Jakarta and how it affected the performance:

From Jakarta, we played golf once, and we got halfway around, and it was too hot. We just said, ‘No, this is too hot, ha-ha’ […] Yeah, gosh! That’s why the pipes weren’t good – we played the night before, that’s ruined the pipes probably.

It was hot, I remember that because it was the first time that in the Black Watch that we had played in what we called Khaki Kit, because in the Black Watch we’d always played in full dress. We competed in the world championships in 1983 in full dress with feather bonnet on, in the pipe band championships. Why would we do that? That makes no sense! But in Jakarta, we were allowed to wear white shirts, short sleeve shirts, and a leather sporran, and just socks, so it wasn’t kilt and spats and big hairy sporran. We thought this was great! 

The following pictures also show both military and civilian bands wearing civilian shirts due to the weather in Jakarta.

Gordon Highlanders turning their bagpipes in Jakarta Highland Gathering 1980

ScotRail Vale of Atholl (Left) and Victoria Police (Right) playing at Scotland in Concert in 1992

With support from local British and Indonesian companies and the British Embassy in Jakarta, the organiser was able to provide a USD 200 allowance with accommodation to every piper and drummer who participated in the competition, which was impossible in other places. Overseas bands over the years include some grade one bands such as ScotRail Vale of Atholl, Victoria Police, Manawatu Scottish Society, St Mary’s Band Club, St Andrew’s Pipe Band (Australia), and British Gas Pipe Band. Professor Gary West travelled to Jakarta with Vale of Atholl in 1988, and he recalled that he could not remember why the band travelled there, but that they probably had been invited by the British community in Jakarta.

Hong Kong Pipe Band (left) and Bagad Sonerien Bleimor from France (Right) in Jakarta in 1988

Professor Gary West (second from the right) with Vale of Atholl in Jakarta in 1988

The scale of the pipe band competition of Jakarta Highland Gathering reached its peak in 1994 when the gathering marked its 20th anniversary. Under the judging of Robert Shephard, Ian Mathieson, and Jim Baxter from Scotland, 17 pipe bands competed in 1994, with eight from Australia, one from France, one from Hong Kong, four from Singapore, two from Scotland, and one from Sweden.

Nat Russell (far right) leading the massed band in Jakarta Highland Gathering in the early 1990s

The scale of the Jakarta Highland Gathering has sunk since 1997 due to the unstable political situation in Indonesia, the fall of Suharto, and the Asian financial crisis. The Jakarta Highland Gathering further sank into utter redundancy in some years between 2000 and 2006, as the bombing of the Australian Embassy of Indonesia in Jakarta in 2004 and two bombings in Bali executed by Jemaah Islamiyah in 2002 and 2005 seriously hit the number of Australian players and visitors of the gathering. In 2000, only four pipe bands played in Jakarta – Sri Dasmesh Malaysian Sikh Band, Republic of Singapore Police’ Gurkha Contingent, Hawthorn City Pipe Band, and Perth Highland Pipe Band. In 2007, the 30th Jakarta Highland Gathering was held. However, unfortunately, it was suspended again in 2008 due to the global financial crisis and security concerns. In 2010, Phoenix Communications, a local media company owned by Alistair Speirs, took over the gathering. Although it was under the threat of terrorism, the gathering still attracted 6,000 visitors, mainly from Jakarta. However, only four bands played at the gathering.

Since 2010, Scott Nicolson, a well-known piper from Australia, has started to judge the competition with Allan Wallace. Scott Nicolson has tried hard to rebuild the competition by bringing in some bands from Australia, including St Mary’s Band Club, the Pipeband Club, Ballarat Highlanders, City of Whitehorse, Perth Highlanders, and the Scots School Albury. Alan Wallace also brought some bands from Singapore.

Jakarta Highland Gathering 2013

The gathering was suspended again in 2016 due to the funding issue and the terrorist attack in Jakarta on 14th January 2016. In 2017, no competition was held because of the same concerns. In 2019, when the Java St Andrew’s Society marked its centennial, the society announced the plan for the 37th Jakarta Highland Gathering that would be held in May 2019 after a four-year hiatus, but it was once again cancelled due to funding issues. The gathering planned for 2020 was also cancelled due to the global pandemic, making the future of the Jakarta Highland Gathering unknown.