London: 12 Hours of Capital Piping

SPSL logoRobert Wallace reprises the London Championship held on Saturday at Kensington Conference Centre: This was a long, but ultimately successful, day of piping. I have to applaud the committee of the Scottish Piping Society of London in managing to cram 120 pipers, hundreds of performances and a wheen of events into 12 hours – a credit to their organisation and the hard work of the stewards. However, it doesn’t need to be like this; would less not be more? Couldn’t they prune things back a little and aim for a 6pm finish allowing us all a civilised evening meal at which we can discuss the day’s playing SPSL prog frontand slate the judges as necessary? One suggestion heard from a respected senior competitor is that they could have the hornpipes and jigs and similar contests on the Friday night. Might work, and it would certainly take pressure off the Saturday. As it was, we were still sitting listening to the JB Robertson March and the Beaton Cup H&J at 8pm – this after an 8.30am start to the day. The JB used to be judged as part of the ‘big’ MSR but is now done separately. I heard that this was to comply with the wishes of the family. Commensurate with the standing of the man it commemorates right enough, but something that unfortunately adds to the scheduling difficulties.


I arrived at 10am, later than expected, collected my ticket and programme, and headed for the Bratach. I was just in time to hear (through the door) the remains of Jack Lee’s winning tune. I believe the Laird of Anapool’s Lament to be the hardest tune in the book. Only the very best can tackle it successfully, and Jack is certainly in that bracket. Playing his own pipe bag and reeds, he made up for last week’s shaky Glenfiddich performance with another historic first prize. Second placed was Faye Henderson with Donald Gruamach’s March. The pipe may be light compared to the others (not such a problem in the small room in which the Bratach was held), but Faye timed and fingered her tune in fine style. Roderick MacLeod produced another good instrument; he fingered perfectly too but expressed his MacSwan of Roaig in careful, cautious fashion. The other tunes I heard in the Bratach were from Calum Beaumont, John Angus Smith and Douglas Murray. Calum played well, though he rushed the crunluath doubling and there were timing issues here and there; JA had an indifferent instrument and was too slow with Isabel MacKay; slowness too afflicted Douglas Murray’s Big Spree.

From there is was downstairs for some refreshment where I met Les and Martin Cowell of D Naill & Co., among those who generously sponsor the contest. They put up a superb engraved silver set of pipes and a number of practice chanters for the raffle. Later it was good to see the pipes being won by a young lad who will no doubt derive maximum benefit from them.

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Also in the refreshment area were three top pipers who haven’t been doing a lot of competing lately: Simon McKerrall, James Murray and Chris Armstrong. I heard them all playing at various times of the day and the solo world will be enriched if they can tread the boards more regularly. Simon did not figure in the prizes (although he had a very good pipe) but James and Chris did, and showed they had lost none of their skill in the light music. Ceol mor is always a different matter requiring more stamina, more control and careful consideration of phrasing. Ring rusty, and these are the things you lose very quickly. James is pipe major of the Western Australia Police Pipe Band and tells me he intends travelling back from Perth for Oban and Inverness next year and also hopes to play in the RU Brown contest in Adelaide next spring. Simon teaches at university in Newcastle and travels down each week from his home on the outskirts of Glasgow.



As the day wore on the refreshment area got busier and some of the atmosphere of London contests of the past was evident. Many of the adjudicators’ wives were there which was nice to see. I’m told London brings its judges down on the train, first class, from Edinburgh and Glasgow.
Up to the Snuff Mull and Gillies Cup where I enjoyed Finlay Johnston’s Lament for the Union. Lovely bagpipe, and but for a number of technical misses, would surely have been considered for a prize. His timing of the variations was very well handled. Douglas Murray, given Donald Ban MacCrimmon’s Lament, started well but ran out of steam two-thirds of the way through. It has been a long season for many of the pipers. In the Snuff Mull Darach Urquhart was let down by his pipe and a propensity to stay forever on the low As in the ground and doubling of MacCrimmon’s Sweetheart.


Back downstairs for more refreshment where I met a number of my old readers from the Piping Times. Thanks to everyone for the kind words and for continuing the support in the pages.

Into the aforementioned JB Robertson march now where I was struck by the number of pipers who simply do not follow the basic rules of 2/4 march playing: two beats to the bar, strong and weak, two-bar phrasing and a lively tempo. Many played very slowly and safely – this is a professional contest for goodness sake! – trying to make the list by not missing anything. Others paid absolutely no regard to phrasing. I really couldn’t believe their failure to grasp this vital first principle.
After playing their march the competitors tuned and on with the hornpipe and jig. Here again we had a lack of phrasing and pointing and that bete noir for many, and usually found in the playing of the untutored jigster: rushing, more rushing and erratic tempi. I was reliably informed that none of the prizewinners in these events was afflicted by the above faults.

So to the prizegiving and President Andrew Hall commendably rattling through the prizes and apologising for the late finish – and promising to have a look at scheduling for next year.  A little tweaking will make all the difference, but he can be justifiably satisfied with the way the day went and in the way the wider activities of the London society are bolstering piping in the south.

Well done to all the winners. Canada can be extra proud – its pipers took three of the main ceol mor prizes. Scotland did well too however with Calum Beaumont, Sarah Muir and Duncan Beattie named Champion Pipers in their respective grades and Douglas Murray, Chris Armstrong and Innes Smith taking the honours in the JB March, the H&J and the ‘A’ Piob.

London is an important fixture on our piping calendar but it is becoming increasingly expensive for pipers to attend. The 20% increase in prizemoney shows the committee is aware of this. Aware of it too will be the sponsors without whom it would be impossible to hire a venue such as the Kensington Conference Centre  – £10,000 for the day I’m told, though this does seem an extraordinary amount. In view of that it only seems right that those who shoulder the financial burden should get a mention in this column. They were: D Naill & Co., Glenfiddich Piping & Fiddle, The Piobaireachd Society, the National PIping Centre, the Highland Society of London, the Highlands & Islands Society of London, the family of Jim Caution, the London Highland Club and Angus Nicol Esq.
If you were at London and would like to add your comments on the day please do so below. Full results here.