I first travelled to London for the annual competition in 1976 and have always found it an enjoyable experience. I can’t quite put my finger on why this should be. A chance to meet up with piping colleagues in a far off land? A different competing environment? The beer? I don’t know. Certainly the lure of the big prizes, the Bratach Gorm and Gillies Cup and all the history attached to them, played a part.
This year I formed part of the west coast cadre of judges heading south for the big day by train. Such a journey spent in the company of Ian McLellan, and John Wilson, not to mention Bob Worrall and Walter Cowan, is always going to be entertaining and informative. The journey flies in and before we are into our 20th anecdote we are at Euston, the madding crowd and a taxi to Kensington.
There we meet up with the east coast judges and those who have flown down separately, one of whom is my room-mate and co-judge in the B Piobaireachd, Archie Maclean, Inverness. Archie and I are old pals from the 214BB days (he’s a lot older than me mind, well about 18 months) so we had plenty to reminisce over. The most interesting part of our conversation over the weekend however (apart from his career as a sculptor and piping), was the life and times of his father Piper John Maclean, Scots Guards (pictured), a man who fought through Normandy to Hamburg in some of the most bitter fighting of WW2. Born and bred on North Uist, John Maclean, a piper of renown who won prizes at the Northern Meeting, vowed that if he made it through the war he would never complain about anything ever again in his life. He did and never did, said Archie.
Saturday morning, and a walk through the autumn leaves to arrive in good time for our duties: adjudicating 30 pipers in the B Grade Piobaireachd. Given the length of day to be faced, we held a short meeting and discussed the best and fairest way of completing our task in as reasonable time as could be expected. Our stewards agreed they would present each piper at the conclusion of the preceding tune and we would write our notes and crit sheets during the three minute tuning period. It worked out very well and thanks to Shaun and Jennifer’s cool efficiency the day swam in with nary a blip. We began at 9am and finished just before 4.30 with a 15 minute break for lunch.
The winner of the contest was Xavier Boderiou from Brittany (pictured top) playing the Glen is Mine, the bagpipe as good as any that would have been heard at the Championship and I include the above mentioned senior contests in this. The finger was exemplary too, and a little more study of the thumb variations would have made this the perfect performance. Second went to Greig Canning with the Battle of Bealach nam Brog. Greig was much more lyrical with the tune than he had been when I last heard him play it at Lochaber. This time the joining notes were all smoothly negotiated with a cultured linking of salient passages and phrases. It goes without saying that the finger was immaculate. A sweeter pipe and this performance would have been even more impressive. As it was, the bagpipe was just a shade loud for the Conference Centre’s Committee Room 2.
In third place was Ben McClamrock from the USA. His Ronald MacDonald of Morar never really got going until after the third ground, the early part of the tune lacking momentum and rhythm, especially in the timing of that main constituent of this enchanting piece, the double echo. However Ben’s pipe was deep and resonant and gave full support to his crisp, professional fingering; he finished with some aplomb. Nick Hudson, also flying in from the US, had a shrill high A and this affected the appreciation of his Donald Duaghal MacKay. His delivery was rather square in places too, but despite a few minor chips, completed the course set for him and was well worthy of his place. In fifth we had Ross Cowan. His Flame of Wrath was bold and insistent, the pipe solid, our only criticism the slightly open crunluath movement – nothing missed just needing a bit more zip.
To continue the military theme we will have a few mentions in despatches: Graham Mulholland (what a shame he went off his well presented Patrick Og), Ben Greeves, Northern Ireland (pipe nearly there in the Vaunting, ditto the finger and timing), James MacPhee (at last showing maturity of approach in Glengarry’s March and only needing a bit more finesse in his reading of the tune), Andy Wilson (good ground in Beloved Scotland, Morpheus overwhelming the variations), Ashley McMichael (excellent pipe and hands, adrenalin rush in the third ground and snappy with the suibhal of MacCrimmon’s Sweetheart), Bruce MacDonald (a real feel for MacLeod’s Salute just too untidy with his fingering), Andrew Hall (pipe not quite locked and tightish hiharins and fosgailte), Anna Kummerlow, Germany, (refreshing to hear W Ross’s Melbank’s Salute – just too nippy with the connecting notes), and Katherine Belcher (good phrasing in Corrienessan but crunluath needing work; promising).
It took only a few minutes for Archie and I to arrive at our unanimous decision and then it was downstairs for some welcome socialising, always a feature of the London gathering, with amateurs from the Clasp contests mingling with all grades of professional piper, audience, enthusiasts and SPSL officials. In closing, a word for secretary Jackie Roberts and her team. From her command post in the centre of the foyer they mastermind the day with calm efficiency. Once more we should salute these volunteers who do so much for piping with very little reward other than seeing the music prosper – as it most certainly did at London 2015.
• Full results from London here.