By Angus Nicol
The 49th annual MacCrimmon Memorial piobaireachd competition, for the much coveted Silver Chanter, was held as always at Dunvegan Castle on 5th August 2015. The six pipers, four of whom had already won the Silver Chanter in years gone by, were selected from those who had won the major piping awards during the previous twelve months. This made the event, as the Fear-cathrach for the evening, Iain Maclean QC told us in his introductory remarks, a kind of Blue Riband for pipers.
The original silver chanter was, so the legend goes, the gift of a fairy to a young apprentice piper some centuries ago. The then Chief of MacLeod had invited a number of other chiefs to Dunvegan, to bring their pipers with them, with the object of holding a piping contest. MacLeod no doubt confidently expected his own piper to win. But a day or two before the event MacLeod’s piper became ill, and told his young apprentice (whose name may have been MacCrimmon) that he would have to play in his place, and uphold the honour of Dunvegan against the other pipers. The boy was appalled, and felt that his skill was not enough to do other than make himself look foolish in front of all the other pipers. Wandering along the battlements of Dunvegan, in floods of tears at the prospect, he was surprised to hear a voice asking him what was wrong. On being told, this stranger gave the boy a silver chanter. He told him to fit it into his pipe, and said that if he did so he would play magnificently. He took this fairy’s advice, and, needless to say, excelled over all the other pipers and did, indeed, uphold the honour of Dunvegan. Some years later the silver chanter was said to have been accidentally lost at sea.
The first to play was Callum Beaumont, winner of the Silver Chanter in 2013 and of both the Dunvegan Medal and the Clasp in Portree. He started the evening with the Lament for the Children, one of the greatest of the laments by Patrick Mor MacCrimmon, who in one year had lost seven of his eight sons to a smallpox epidemic in Skye. We learnt from Iain Maclean that the ground was derived from Patrick Mor’s wife keening for the deaths of her sons. Felix Mendelssohn, on his famous visit to Scotland, had heard the tune, and declared that the ground was the most beautiful melody that he had ever heard.
William Geddes played next, The Lament for Donald Duaghal MacKay, at one time thought to be the composition of Donald Mor MacCrimmon, but now generally accepted as that of John MacKay. Bill Geddes has twice before competed for the Silver Chanter, having won the Dunvegan Medal in 2010 and three times been runner-uo in the Gold Medal in Inverness. Donald Duaghal MacKay was a soldier, Chief of MacKay, and was created the first Lord Reay in 16?? Duaghal is not a name. The word is now obsolete, but Angus MacKay suggests that it meant someone who had been put upon rather to his own disadvantage.
During the playing of each of the first two tunes, something in the pipes or in the room set up a kind of blaring harmonic, which suggested that the drones were drifting seriiously. But whenever A, high or low, was played it became plain that the pipes were accurately tuned. What this phenomenon could have been it is difficult to say. Several people to whom I spoke heard it, but seemingly the pipers themselves did not.
Last year’s winner, Stuart Liddell, played Patrick Og MacCrimmon’s Lament. This is the famous tune, by Iain Dall MacKay who heard erroneously of the death of Patrick Og, his former teacher. Later he was able to visit the still living Patrick Og, and play the tune to him. On being told what the tune was, Patrick Og said ‘Cumha Padruig Oig, agus e fhéin beò fhathast!’ (A lament for Patrick Og, and he yet living!) It is said that Patrick Og himself learnt to play the tune. In this performance the harmonic blaring sound, though present, was much less audible than in the first two tunes, though when the notes C or B were played there was an unusual faint ringing tremolo sound.
In the interval, as was customary, refreshments, in the form of either Glenfiddich or The Balvenie were obtainable in the dining-room of the castle, there being constant steady rain outside. These two single malts were provided by Grant’s Glenfiddich Pipes and Fiddle, one of the sponsors of this annual occasion.
After the interval, Iain Speirs, winner of the Silver Chanter in 2012 and in three earlier years, played the Lament for MacLeod of Colbeck. This tune was composed by John MacKay, Raasay, on the death of John MacLeod who held lands in the south of Raasay, according to some writers called Colbeck. He emigrated to Jamaica, where he became a planter and called his Jamaican estate Colbeck as well. He died in 1775. This performance was not accompanied by the harmonic to any significant extent, and only rarely throughout the tune.
Roderick MacLeod, MBE, played the The Earl of Ross’s March. He has won the Silver Chanter six times, the first being in 1989, equalled only by Hugh MacCallum. There is uncertainty as to the subject and the composer of this tune. The earldon of Ross cased to exist in 1476, yet the tune has been ascribed to Donald Mor MacCrimmon, who died in 1640. It has been suggested that, whoever composed the tune, it was on the death of some othefr pefrson who wrongfully called himself he Earl of Ross.
Last to play was Douglas Murray. In 2014 he became the eleventh piper, since 1873, to win both the Highland Society of London’s Gold Medals, at Oban and Inverness, in the same year. On the present occasion, he played the Lament for the Earl of Antrim. This tune, too, sets something of a puzzle as to its origin. It has been attributed to Donald Mor MacCrimmon, though it is also said that the tune is not in his style. Also, there is a query as to whether it commemorates the death of the first, second, or third Earl. The first Earl died just in Donald Mor’s lifetime. However, the second Earl had become a marquis before he died in 1682, and the third, supporting James VII’s claim, to which MacLeod was opposed, it was unlikely that a MacCrimmon would have composed his lament.
The Adjudicator was Pipe Major Iain Morrison, himself a winner of the Silver Chanter in 1981. He awarded the trophy to Iain Spiers, who now has five Silver Chanters to his tally. The Chanter was presented to Iain Spiers by Maggie Grant Gordon. The custom of presenting a small replica of the chanter to the previous year’s winner has been revived this year, and such a replica was presented, on behalf of Glenfiddich, by Liz Maxwell, to Stuart Liddell.
As one might expect at a competition at this level, the standard of playing was very high. But it is one thing to play immaculately, but another element is necessary to play the music. Some of the tunes heard this year were undoubtedly composed out of the grief of a parent or relative, and tunes which we heard were not played so as to bring sympathetic tears to the hearer’s eyes. A number of people to whom I spoke after the recital remarked on this. It is one of the failings of competitive piping: the piper is so frequently intent upon a perfect, or near-perfect performance, that perhaps his own heart is not wrung by what he is playing. Having said that, now and again one does hear, in a Gold Medal or Senior Piobaireachd competition, a tune played by a piper who is truly moved by the music. On this occasion, having heard Iain Spiers’s tune, I felt sure that he would be the winner, unless either of the last two pulled a phenomenal performance out of the bag. Roderick MacLeod, in my view, ran Iain a close second.