Category Archives: News

Band Cut Offs and Why Do Some Pipers End With a Rabble of Finger Gymnastics?

By P/M Jim McWilliams

For decades, possibly even centuries, pipers have been vandalising their own performances. I have been fortunate enough to hear some of the finest pipers ever, and I must admit that many of them have been as guilty of this crime as the rankest amateur.

The vandalism I refer to is defacing their own performances by tacking on the end ‘wee twiddly bits’ rather than cutting off smoothly. Bands are expected to make perfect cut-offs. Why is so much less expected of soloists?

I know of no other musical performance where it is considered acceptable to conclude a respected and much-loved masterpiece with several meaningless notes of one’s own invention. Certainly other stars in the music business would rather chew broken glass than deface their greatest hits by sticking some totally inappropriate twaddle on the end.

Yet many pipers regularly vandalize the greatest compositions of such geniuses as Donald Mor MacCrimmon, John MacColl, or Donald MacLeod. These great compositions were created as complete entities — including well designed endings. Only applause should follow the last note of such masterpieces.

Why do so many pipers do this? Surely they can’t believe they are improving their performance? They must know how to cut off their pipes. Do they have left-over breath they don’t want to waste? This mood destroying nonsense transforms many a wonderful performance into an amateur production.

It’s as if Leonardo da Vinci, upon completing the Mona Lisa, discovered a little paint left on his brush, and daubed a moustache onto her intriguing smile.

The editor writes: Jim makes a very good point but I think it fair to say that in piobaireachd competitions this is something of a rarity. Most pipers these days will return to the ground and play the first line before coming to a stop on a long note preferably in the major scale.

This return to the ground was not a feature in days of yore and  there are recordings, for example, of Robert Reid finishing his tune with just the sort of finger flash that Jim abhors. Though paradoxically he doesn’t do it in the PP Audio clip below, finishing nicely on low A.

P/M Robert Reid with a 6/8 March and a Strathspey & Reel:

We can thank the late Lt. Col. DJS Murray for effecting this change in piobaireachd performance. It was David, whilst Piping Convenor of the Northern Meeting (one of the best they ever had) who insisted that competitors end their piobaireachd with a line from the urlar and it certainly rounds things off in a dignified way consistent with the rondeau that this form of our music is.

David Murray announcing  results at the Northern Meeting

In ceol beag it is a different story. I can’t explain why some pipers do it. If the drones are out they might not want to hold a long low A which shows up that fact. If they are ‘in’ then they don’t have that excuse. That said, I would not want the rapid cut off we hear in pipe bands, often with the last note clipped to extinction even at the expense of a deficit required the time signature:

Read Jim McWilliams’ article on his friend P/M Donald MacLeod here.


PP Ed’s Blog: Schools Poll/ Gordon’s Recital/ SPA Pro/ Piob Soc Conf/ Barnaby

The result of our poll into the suitability or otherwise of the new venue for the Scottish Schools Pipe Band Championship were as follows: 

Some heart for the organisers if we amalgamate the two bottom stats: 41% think it okay or are prepared to give it another go. The majority however were clearly not happy. Read about the 2017 contest here. The picture up top shows the main winners, George Watson’s College.

Gordon McCready in action at the ‘Hole in the Wa’

Piper Callum Moffat has taken over as the main organiser of the ‘Hole in the Wa’ piping recitals in Dumfries. First piper of the new season is Gordon McCready, Renfrew. Gordon, formerly of Glasgow Police and Field Marshal Montgomery pipe bands, played at the venue a couple of years ago to wide acclaim. His gig is on March 26 at 7.30pm.

SPA President Tom Johnstone: ‘Just a reminder that entries close for our professional contest tomorrow, Friday, 24th March. Entry forms here. The SPA committee also want announce that all the events in this contest will now have five places (still three cash prizes). Judges this year are : Ian McLellan, Andrew Wright, Andrew Frater and Roddy Livingstone. McCallum Bagpipes have kindly agreed to sponsor the contest once again. Look forward to seeing you all there.’

All arrangements are in place for the Piobaireachd Society Conference to be be held this weekend at the Birnam Hotel, Perthshire. Day visitors are most welcome. In an interesting twist to the usual proceedings, there will be a fiddle pibroch session at the Conference (Saturday, 5pm) led by fiddler Pete Clark with Iain MacInnes (BBC) on smallpipes. Rumour has it that PS President and VP may be on the fiddle and smallpipes too. 

The Conference will see the launch of President Jack Taylor and Patrick Molard’s book from the Campbell Canntaireachd. The Piping Press Shop is offering the book with a pre-launch discount of 10%. Tomorrow is the last chance to order at this price:


Still with the great music, Harry Campbell of Voicebeat has sent this: ‘At short notice we are delighted to announce a ‘WORKSHOP ON CANNTAIREACHD’ by Barnaby Brown at the  Scottish Dance Teachers’ Alliance, 101 Park Rd, Glasgow G4 9JE on  Monday 27 March 6.45 for 7pm; £9 on the door (£5 to existing VB members)  
Hosted by Voicebeat, Glasgow’s world music community choir

Brought up in Glasgow, Barnaby is dedicated to revealing the ancient artistic traditions of  Scotland’s music. He is currently writing a PhD on pibroch at Cambridge and teaches at the National Piping Centre. His workshops on canntaireachd, the traditional teaching chant of the classical bagpipe, allow anyone to develop an appreciation of what he calls the ‘single malts of Western music’, using not only syllables but gestures, and even colour!

Come and learn something of this unique and fascinating vocal tradition, and please help spread the word about this exciting workshop. Best wishes Harry Campbell

Don’t miss this opportunity for world-class piping and drumming tuition

London Society Contest and Results/ Bratach Update/ Rab Kelly

President Andrew Hall of the Scottish Piping Society of London reports: I see Harry Stevenson my tutor from back home popped up on the news feed.  Harry started me on my first piobaireachd, Glengarry’s Lament, in 1988.  I went to him for lessons until I left Northern Ireland in 1994.

I thought you and your readers might be interested in a summary from our most recent event at the SPSL. On Saturday 18th March the Society held its annual Members’ Competition & Recital at The Caledonian Club in Central London.  Callum Beaumont judged the competition during the day and delivered an excellent recital in the evening. SPSL committee member Stephen Cussen was an excellent host for the day’s event.  The event ran smoothly and Stephen announced the winners in plenty of time for the rugby fans to watch the England vs. Ireland match! Thank you to everyone who supported the SPSL in this successful event.  

The Society is also looking forward to the Annual London Competition in November and a number of additional volunteers have joined the team this winter. Preparations are well under way and being driven by a team which includes Mrs Jackie Roberts, Mrs. Annie Broderick, Billy Wardrope, Callum Galleitch, Michael Fitzhenry, Stephen Cussen and myself.  


I expect to confirm details of this year’s London Competition in the next few weeks.  One certainty this year is that acting on feedback from last year there will be a bar and catering refreshments available throughout the day to ensure the social activities of the gathering are fully restored! 

Amateur Piobaireachd: 1st Lachlan Macdonald (Glengarry’s Lament) 2nd Len Durham (The Groat) 3rd Colin Taylor (Corrienessan’s Salute)
Open Piobaireachd: 1st Jamie Forrester (MacDougall’s Gathering) 2nd Andrew Hall (Lament for Ronald Macdonald of Morar) 3rd Michael Fitzhenry (The King’s Taxes)
Amateur March, Strathspey & Reel: 1st Len Durham 2nd Lachlan Macdonald 3rd Colin Taylor
Open March: 1st Jamie Forrester  2nd Michael Fitzhenry 3rd Andrew Hall
Open Strathspey & Reel: 1st Andrew Hall 2nd Michael Fitzhenry 3rd Jamie Forrester
Open Jig: 1st Michael Fitzhenry 2nd Jamie Forrester 3rd Andrew Hall
4th Len Durham

The evening recital was a very enjoyable and friendly occasion.  Guests were seated in the impressive Johnnie Walker function room where we were treated to a supper of haggis, neeps and tatties.  It was a convivial atmosphere where society members and friends enjoyed a very pleasant meal listening to top quality piping.

London Champion Jamie Forrester…Jamie is pictured after his success in the John MacLellan contest last year

Callum is at the top of his game after his recent successes at the Metro Cup and the Uist & Barra and he displayed his excellence and versatility with a wide range of tunes.  His piobaireachd for the evening was Queen Elizabeth the Second’s Salute which was really quite appropriate given that we were next door to Buckingham Palace!

During the interval Stephen Cussen told us a little bit about the City of London Pipes and Drums.  Stephen is a driving force in that organisation which is led by Pipe Major Iain Westgate.  They are doing a significant amount of teaching across London and the South East area for both piping and drumming and deserve significant credit for this investment in learning and development.   

As Society president I was particularly pleased to see a number of new faces join our established members in making it a very enjoyable day.  Enclosed is a photo taken at the prize giving in the Morrison Room.  The portrait in the background is of Prince Charles Edward Stuart and he looked very satisfied with the day’s events!

A special mention is due for young piper James O’Connor. James started piping in the Air Cadets three years ago and is now piping with the City of London. At the end of the evening recital James addressed the gathering and on behalf of the SPSL thanked Callum for the excellent recital. James’s comments were warmly applauded by all present.

• Read our history of the London Society here.

It is with regret we report the passing of Rab Kelly, one of the real characters from the British Caledonian Airways band of the 70s and 80s. His friend, Tom Johnstone, reports: ‘Sad to report the passing of my good friend and a legend in the piping world, Rab Kelly. He was aged 73.

Rab was a piper, accordionist and pipe-bag maker, and in his heyday his bags were used by many top players including Pipe Major Angus MacDonald another great friend of his who composed the hornpipe ‘Rab Kelly’ in his honour. Rab had a shop in Edinburgh where he made the bags and later moved to become the in-house pipe bag maker at Grainger & Campbell in Argyle St., Glasgow, and was responsible for teaching Jim Begg his trade.
Rab played in the British Caledonian Airways Pipe Band along with me and the then Pipe Major, Bob Richardson, P/M Angus MacDonald, Ronnie McShannon, Allan and Dr. Angus MacDonald, P/M Joe Wilson, P/M Calum Campbell, P/S Jimmy Liddell and many others. In 1982 the band had a trip to Los Angeles which Rab was on and he liked the place so much that he stayed on and eventually became a US citizen. He had an apartment in Hollywood Way, Burbank, California.

He later took a job with United Airlines and worked there until his retirement. Having moved several times, he ended up in a wee place called Parumph, about a half-hours drive from Las Vegas in Nevada. His death was reported to me by our mutual friend George Brown who hails from both Ayr and Los Angeles and was at one time the Drum Major of the Red Hackle Pipe Band.

‘Big’ Donald MacLean and Arm Swapping and Harry’s Father’s Pipes

I read George Taylor’s letter re swapping arms, writes Duncan Watson. Re Donald Maclean. I understood that big Donald did start playing under the right arm and to conform with others in the pipe band scene in the Army he was ‘instructed’ to  switch to his left arm. Counter marching through pipers in a band seemed to a problem with cords getting in a tangle.

Donald Maclean in a picture which first appeared in the Glasgow Herald newspaper and was subsequently used to promote RG Lawrie bagpipemakers
The late Willie MacDonald (Benbecula) could adapt as I saw him doing it when in the Territorial Army bands. John Don MacKenzie, prize-winning professional piper and now adjudicator, can do both as I understand, and has had competitive success with both arms – not at the same time!
Regarding the Benbecula MacDonald, who we all knew as a character. He was in the Infantry Training Corps pipe band and ‘big’ Donald Maclean was the pipe major. The Drum Major was James Watson  (no  relation of mine, but I knew him). The story goes from Drum Major Watson that Willie Benbecula as a raw young piper had been in the HLI and was seconded to the ITC  band based in Edinburgh. On his arrival there was to be a band engagement at Murrayfield.  
Double Gold Medallist and Clasp winner Willie MacDonald (Benbecula) playing at the Inverness Piping Society in the 1960s

It is not demeaning about Willie Benbecula to say that he was not the most military orientated re marching and the likes, but his playing ability was without question. Big Donald heard Benbecula and instructed that he get kitted out for the engagement. The event took place and the ITC band at the time was drilled by Drum Major Watson to form circles etc. in unorthodox fashion.   

The HLI Benbecula man had not been part of rehearsal drills, but big Donald was confident of the pipers’ ability. According to Drum Major Watson, it was a military disaster. In addition, Willie played of the right shoulder and when the band was countermarching, the tangle of cords and ribbons became a problem. Drum Major Watson told me several times that he often tried to forget the event!

Harry Recalls Memories of His Late Father

John  Kelly reports: Belfast piper Harry Stevenson was one of the guest pipers at the Blackthorn Pipers Society’s meeting at the Discover Ulster Scots Centre, Belfast, on Wednesday 15th March.  Harry has been an adjudicator at local pipe band contests since 1983 and has been an adjudicator at major championships since 1985.  

Harry’s father, also called Harry, died in 1995 and during the Blackthorn Pipers Society’s meeting Harry took a trip down memory lane as he played some of his late father’s favourite tunes – the Argyllshire Gathering by John MacColl, Dora MacLeod by Peter MacLeod Junior and Major David Manson by Pipe Major Peter R. MacLeod Snr. 

From 1963 to 1969, Harry’s father was pipe sergeant of Robert Armstrong Memorial Pipe Band who won the All-Ireland Pipe Band contest nine times.  Harry snr bought the pipes for £20 in the late 1960s from the 8th Belfast Memorial Pipe Band. The members of this band were all WW2 gunners in the Royal Artillery and when the band ceased competing in the late 1950s, they eventually sold off the pipes at £20 per set.

Harry pictured after playing his late father’s pipes at the Blackthorn Pipers

Robert Armstrong Memorial Pipe Band are pictured (top) in 1966, the year the band won the All-Ireland Pipe Band Contest at Cork.  This was the band’s first of nine All-Ireland wins; they also won in 1969, 1970, 1971, 1973, 1974, 1975, 1976 and 1977.  Included are Pipe Major Tommy Geddis (left in front row), Harry Stevenson jnr (second from left in front row) and Harry Stevenson snr (right, in front row).


PP Ed’s Blog: Highland School Success/ Boghall Concert/ Online Ads/ Paddy’s Day, Belfast

Gail Laird reports: ‘Three groups of young pipers all from Ross and Cromarty Pipes and Drums School competed for the first time in the North of Scotland branch of the RSPBA Quartets competition on last Saturday (18th March) in Huntly, Aberdeenshire. The three groups successfully achieved 1st, 2nd and 4th in the Grade 4A March, Strathspey and Reel. 

‘Their Pipe Major, Niall Matheson, was delighted with this result as the youngest piper, Isla Beeton (13), had only just started performing in the competing band. They went on to distinguish themselves further at the tougher Grade 3 level with a respectable, 5th, 7th,and 11th placing for MSR. All the pipers attend Highland schools and are 16 and under – apart from Niall who is over 21!

The kids in the  picture are (l to r): Rory Robson, Jamie Macrae, John McLaren, Dylan Finnie, Lewis Fraser (with first trophy), Kenan Widdows (with second shield), Andrew Laird, Kirsten Hunt, Isla Beeton (in front, the youngest piper) and Niall. They come from Invergordon Academy, Alness Academy, Dingwall Academy and Drumnadrochit. They all play with the competing band. Ross and Cromarty Pipes and Drums School in Novice Juvenile A grade. The band came third at the Scottish Schools Championships in Edinburgh on 12th March, a great results competing against several private schools.’

Niall, that’s him with the fancy haircut far right, is the well-known double Gold Medallist who has done tremendous work in the north since taking on the Ross & Cromarty teaching job. If anyone has the full results from Huntly please forward.

Talking of Gold Medallists, I hear that Richard Hawke’s son Jamie has taken over the Pipe Major’s ticket at Canterbury Caledonian down in NZ. Good luck Jamie!

Back to the north-east, here’s the smart new poster for the forthcoming Boghall & Bathgate concert in Aberdeen in May:

Click here for tickets.

Selling pipes? then look no further than Piping Press. Callum MacLean on Mull: ‘Hi Rab. Pipes are sold! Posted them to Denmark today. That was the quickest sell in piping history. The buyer was in touch the day after your ad. and I got the money last night. Thanks!’


Belfast was buzzing last week for St Patrick’s Day. John Kelly: ‘Belfast marked St Patrick’s Day with a colourful carnival parade and free concert on Friday 17th March.  The streets were awash with colour as the parade left the city hall snaking its way through the heart of the city to Custom House Square where a free concert was held.  Community groups from across Belfast’s cultural spectrum took part in this year’s Belfast themed parade, alongside professional and amateur performers, costumed characters, musicians and dancers.  Three pipe bands took part in this year’s parade – Major Sinclair Memorial Pipe Band [above], Cloughfin Pipe Band and Croí an Dúin Pipe Band & Music Group.’