Lochaber Gathering – a Gratifying Increase in Numbers

angus-nicolPiping Correspondent of the Times in London, Angus Nicol, takes a look back at this year’s Lochaber Gathering, in principal the senior competitions…..

CRUINNEACHADH LOCH ABAR:     THE LOCHABER FESTIVAL OF PIPING

It was very pleasing to see the great upsurge in the numbers of competitors at all levels after a number of years of very sparse entries. For the Tuagh Oir, for instance, there were 17 entrants of whom only two were unable to be there.

In the B/C grade event, for the Tuagh Airgid, there were 28 competitors, and 44 for the Open Hornpipe and Jig, several times the number that we have heard in the previous several years.  This must have been highly gratifying to Allan MacColl and all those concerned in the organisation, as well as to the sponsors whose generosity makes the event possible.   Some attributed his large increase to the fact that this year the event was held only a week before the Argyllshire Gathering, thereby giving those who competed a welcome opportunity to compete at a high  level just a week before the first of the two major competitions.  Whatever  the reason, it is to be hoped that the same circumstances will keep the numbers at least as high in years to come.

axeheadThe Premier and A Grade piobaireachd competition  is for a trophy known as An Tuagh Oir: The Golden Axe.  Lochaber was the home of the famous and dreaded Lochaber Axe.  This was a formidable weapon.  It had a long handle, and a long blade which curved over at the top so that a blow could be struck either to the left or to the right.  It also had a hook at the top which enabled the axeman, or gallowglass, to  pull his opponent from his horse before administering the coup de grâce.  This fearsome weapon, and the broadsword, were in wide use down to the late 18th century by Highland warriors.

One of the advantages of a competition in which the competitor has to submit a number of tunes of his or her own choice is that the judges can ensure that no tune is heard more than once.  This makes for a pleasant recital for the audience (if there is one), and enables them to hear and compare competitors in different tunes of comparable standard, or as near comparable as is possible. The judges’ view of the Tuagh Oir competition as a whole was that it was high, as one would expect in a competition for the Premier and A Grades. But a faultless technical performance may not contain that essential spirit which turns it into music.


The Spaniards have a word, duende, which cannot be translated in a word , but only in a long explanation. Put as briefly as I can, it means that element which is the spirit of the music, of the poetry, of the dancing, or whatever art form, which makes it come alive. It enlivens the performance of the music with the passion, the love, perhaps the hatred or anger, or the grief of the composer.  Without it, the tune is no more than a collection of notes, perhaps immaculately played, but lacking the essential life.  It is rarely that such a performance is heard in a competition, nor was it often to be heard at Lochaber.  Well, that is what I thought, having heard all the Tuagh Oir tunes; but then who am I to judge?

The winner of the Tuagh Oir was Michael Fitzhenry (pictured top), with a good performance of The Park Piobaireachd (No. 2), a tune commemorating the Battle of Park, which took place in about 1490, as part of an unsuccessful attempt by the MacDonalds to regain the Earldom of Ross. If the tune is contemporary with the battle, it is one of the oldest known tunes. In second place, Willie McCallum played the Lament for the Children, that grief-laden tune by Patrick Mor MacCrimmon on the deaths, all within one year, of seven of his eight sons, the ground of which was declared by Mendelssohn to be the most beautiful melody he had ever heard. Callum Beaumont came third, playing the Lament for MacLeod of Colbeck, John MacKay’s tune on the death of John MacLeod who had emigrated to Jamaica and had considerable estates there which he called Colbeck, after his estate in Raasay. [Calum was to go on to win the Northern Meeting Clasp with the same tune]. His performance of Isobel MacKay won Euan MacCrimmon fourth prize. The tune, by an unknown piper, was composed some time after Rob Donn’s famous poem in praise of the beautiful and accomplished Isobel MacKay. Both she and her husband died in 1747 a year after their marriage.

William McCallum swept the board in the light music events, taking first prize and the Lochaber Gathering Medal in the March, the Leek’s Taxis Trophy for the Strathspey and Reel, and the Lochaber Gathering Shield for the Open Hornpipe and Jig.  Derek Midgley took second prize in the March and Hornpipe and Jig, and third in the Strathspey and Reel. Third prize in the March was taken by Colin Campbell, and fourth by Jenny Hazzard. Michael Fitzhenry came second in the Strathspey and Reel, and Callum Beaumont fourth. In the Hornpipe and Jig, John Angus Smith took third prize, and Jamie Forrester fourth.

The judges for all the Premier and A Grade competitions were Iain MacFadyen and Alan Forbes. Next year’s Lochaber Gathering is scheduled for August 20th.