Ten days in Scotland at the height on Piping Live in Glasgow — quite an experience, and my first time as a World Championship spectator. Some thoughts….
First trip was to Skye, where I’d been tasked to judge the famous Silver Chanter competition, held in the Drawing Room of Dunvegan Castle where the MacCrimmons themselves may have piped centuries ago. Bit of a warm night, but opening the windows would have invited the dreaded midgies in, so the pipers soldiered on sweatily. A magical atmosphere, and some lovely pipes, but the wild music of the Highlands was all too often the music of caution, as pipers played not to lose. This is an all too common by-product of competitive piobaireachd playing. It can make for a tedious evening, and does our music more harm than good. Bottom line: if our audiences are small, perhaps it’s because we reward the wrong things.
But there was magic in the evening for me. Back in 1974, as an impressionable teenager, I was at the Silver Chanter to listen: the first piping event I ever attended in Scotland. I’d followed names like Hugh MacCallum Iain MacFadyen, Duncan MacFadyen, Donald Morrison, John MacDougall, John D. Burgess and a dozen others from afar through BBC piping broadcasts sent to North America on cassette tape to my teacher, and to finally see and hear my piping idols live in a Scottish castle in the land of the MacCrimmons was breathtaking.
Back to Glasgow then, as I made like Mario Andretti through Skye on a race to catch the Mallaig ferry. (And yes, we saw the steam train go by.) After that, a few nights at the National Piping Centre in Glasgow with the fantastic spectacle of Piping Live in full swing, and encountering more familiar piping faces from past and present than I would ever see anywhere else. Roddy MacLeod had invited me to do an official launch of my Piobaireachd Fingerwork tutor at 2 pm on Friday. The 50-minute live-streamed session was shortened to 35 as other sessions ran long. But his was fine given another hot auditorium, the result of several days of searing summer Scottish sun.
Very impressed by the organization of the event: when the session before mine finished, a wee team including a sound man set me up to go in record time. Help was everywhere. My good friend Willie McCallum kindly provided two piping interludes as I gave a quick tour of the book’s principles to about 65 attendees. Curiously, a show of hands showed at least 90% of them to be from outside of Scotland. Does that say more about tourism in Glasgow during Piping Live or about how Scots’ see piping that doesn’t come from home?
The National Piping Centre is a lovely place. The overall atmosphere is friendly, bright and cheerful: very much a reflection of its Principal, Roddy MacLeod, M.B.E. All of the staff of mostly young ladies constantly went out of their way to be helpful to me and my wife. Frankly, all of my personal and business dealings with the NPC over the last 15 years have been professional, positive and productive and the place represents the Scottish piping world beautifully.
Saturday saw me in an unfamiliar position: in the Grade 1 grandstand at the World Pipe Band Championships for the medley. My seat was perfect between my lovely new wife and Willie McCallum’s father, Willie Sr. The sun was blazing and, as usual, the RSPBA brought the bands in swiftly and on time. A dozen or 14 bands or so, and by god they are all good! However, a small number just fill the arena with sound and play with forward motion that carries the thousands in attendance right along: thus today’s need for 20-plus pipers and all the ringers you can fly in. Field Marshall Montgomery, St. Laurence O’Toole, Boghall and Bathgate, Scottish Power and Strathclyde Police were five that stood out. To my mind, perennial favourites SFU were unusual in lacking the park-filling pipe sound we’re accustomed to despite superb playing. SuperPiper Stuart Liddell’s soaring Inveraray & District are about 5 pipers short of being very, very tough to beat.
Those who know me well won’t believe this is coming from my mouth, but the bass and tenor sections (“mid-sections,” as we call them) at this level impressed me. After many years of too often making too much noise in the back end, these corps have matured nicely, and lower grade bands would do well to model the restraint demonstrated by the top bands. I’m not sure mid-sections will win you a pipe band contest, but they can lose one for you real quick.
Next day was the Masters Piping Championship — piobaireachd played by 16 former Gold Medallists at the Piping Centre, and a march, strathspey and reel played once through by 20 A Grade competitors at the Royal Conservatoire down the street, with the overall winner earning a spot in the Glenfiddich Championship in October. I love judging solo contests in Scotland because you sit on a “bench” with two other judges with whom you consult on the final result: a great process that is much more fun and personable than spending the day entirely alone as we do at the games in North America. I sat with former Scots Guards Pipe Major Jimmy Banks, who was largely responsible for the just-published Scots Guards Volume III. Third on the bench was the man generally regarded as the greatest pipe major of all time: Ian McLellan of the Strathclyde Police. Both were in good form, and we agreed on the top four prize-winners, haggling for not more than two minutes on the final order, with P/M Gordon Walker being unanimous choice for first in our event. Willie McCallum would win the overall to be assured of his 135th straight trip to the Glenfiddich. Any more and they’ll have to give him Blair Castle.
Lots of interesting reminiscing and conversation on my bench, which included Ian McLellan saying that he’s decided the upcoming Cowal Gathering will be his last pipe band judging gig. Now over 75, he’ll retire from the band scene totally: the passing of an era if there ever was one.
I write this from a hotel room in Troon, where we’re having a few down days before heading back to the grind. All that’s left is a trip to McCallum Bagpipes on Tuesday to discuss some business that could prove very significant in the piping world. But that is best left as the subject of another article.