This was a vintage Glenfiddich, which the packed audience in the great hall of Blair Castle was privileged to hear. To begin with, we heard ten technically faultless tunes, played by ten of the world’s leading pipers of today: a rare occurrence. But technical perfection needs another ingredient: the pipers must convey the music as well as the notes. But there was no shortage of music, and the adjudicators must have had an unusually hard job to distinguish between the quality of the tunes of the prize-winners.
Iain Speirs, twice winner of the Glenfiddich Championship, played first, and from him we heard a performance of Scarce of Fishing. Little is known about this tune, neither the composer nor the incident which gave rise to it, though there are unsubstantiated traditions connecting the tune with Loch Nell in Argyll and with two lochs in Skye. From Iain Speirs we heard an excellent tune, though I wondered if his drones were not quite spot on for some of it.
Iain was followed by Angus MacColl, who played The Red Speckled Bull. The story that the composer, Ranald MacAilein Oig, a man of great physical strength, single-handedly overcame a fierce red bull and presented its trophies to Lochiel, gives what may be a true account of the inspiration for the tune. The music in this unusual piece is not always apparent, but Angus’s playing of it brought out the music and the latent aggression, or perhaps defiance, behind what might otherwise seem simply repetitive.
The third to play was Callum Beaumont, who had won his second Clasp at Inverness this year. He played the Lament for Ronald MacDonald of Morar, composed,in memory of one of the great pipers of the 18th century and then William McCallum, a multiple winner of the Glenfiddich, played the Earl of Ross’s March.
Next came Finlay Johnston, winner of the Highland Society of London’s Gold Medal at Inverness this year. He played the Lament for the Union. This tune has a lyrical ground, followed by what Seumas MacNeill called ‘eighteen mind-wrecking variations’. An apt description, as the difference between one variation and the next is very small, and must be no easy matter to memorise. His very successful performance won him fifth prize in the piobaireachd section of the Championship.
Jack Lee, from British Columbia, who is no stranger to the Glenfiddich and who has won the piobaireachd section of it four times, played The Big Spree, probably the composition of a chief of the MacGregor Clann nan Sgeulaiche (Family of the Storytellers), and, it is said, referring to a most valiant clansman who occasionally partook generously of the Uisge Beatha.
Appearing at the Glenfiddich for the first time was John-Angus Smith, from a South Uist family long resident in London. He was the winner of the Highland Society of London’s Gold Medal at Oban this year. He played the Lament for MacSwan of Roaig. This is probably a MacCrimmon tune: Roaig is not far from Dunvegan, and it was said that the tune was composed by ‘the family piper’.
After an interval for a lunch of excellent venison stew, Stuart Liddell, last year’s champion, was first of the remaining three competitors in the piobaireachd section. He played the Lament for the Laird of Anapool. It is sad that so little is known of this magnificent tune. Bridget Mackenzie’s research and detective work seem to have established that Anapool is the same place as Arnapool, in Wester Ross The Laird concerned was so-called because he was married to the Lady of Anapool, who inherited the land from a relative of Donald Duaghal MacKay, and who was also related to Iain Dall MacKay, the composer of this tune. This is another tune the music in which expresses, in Bridget’s words, ‘tearing grief’ but which is not easy to find. But this Stuart Liddell succeeded in doing.
He was followed by Roderick MacLeod, Principal of the National Piping Centre and four times previous winner of this Championship. His tune was The Old Men of the Shells. It has never been established whether this tune commemorated the drinking of whisky: the Gaelic title of the tune is Bodaich Dhubha nan Slige, and the word ‘slige’ means a scallop shell, which was often used in earlier times as a drinking vessel. The tune could also refer to a battle between MacLeods and MacDonalds at Sligeachan in Skye. Who knows? It might be neither of those, but his fine performance of this tune earned third prize in the piobaireachd section.
Last to play in this section was Bruce Gandy, who was the winner of the Former Winners March, Strathspey and Reel at Inverness this year. He was competing in this Championship for the eleventh time. He played The Unjust Incarceration, another composition of John Dall MacKay, it is said relating to the imprisonment for nine years of Neil MacKay of Strathnaver on the Bass Rock by the orders of King James I, in 1439, more than 200 years before the tune was composed.
My own first thought was that Stuart Liddell must have won first prize, but then I also thought, what about Angus MacColl’s great performance?, and I was glad not to be one of the judges who had to decide which. Stuart Liddell was indeed the winner of the first prize, and the Highland Society of London’s Trophy, and Angus MacColl came second. There cannot have been more than a hairbreadth between them. Roderick MacLeod came third, again surely close on the heels of the first two. The judges were: Iain Morrison, John Wilson, and William Wotherspoon.
Then came the ceol beag section. Each competitor had to play a march, a strathspey and a reel, each twice through. The winner in this section was Angus MacColl, who also thereby won the PLM Redfearn Trophy. His tunes were: MacLean of Pennycross, Caledonian Society of London, and the eight parts of Pretty Marion. In second place, Roderick MacLeod played Hugh Kennedy, Arniston Castle and Cecily Ross. Stuart Liddell took third prize with Pipe Major John Stewart, Lady Loudon and The Little Cascade. The judges were: Colin MacLellan, Ian McLellan, and Andrew Wright.
Other Ceol Beag tunes:
Finlay Johnston, Mrs John MacColl, Cabar Feidh, The Rejected Suitor
Jack Lee, Marchioness of Tullibardine, Islay Ball, John Morrison of Assynt House
William McCallum, John MacColl’s March to Kilbowie Cottage, John Roy Stewart, Grey Bob (placed fourth)
John-Angus Smith, Donald MacLean’s Farewell to Oban, Maggie Cameron, John MacKechnie
Iain Speirs, Edinburgh City Police Pipe Band, Top of Craigvenow, Smith of Chilliechassie
Bruce Gandy, Leaving Lunga, Tulloch Castle, Cockerel in the Creel
Callum Beaumont, Miss Elspeth Campbell, Bob o’ Fettercairn, Fiona MacLeod (placed fifth)
The overall winners were, therefore, first, Angus MacColl, who thereby won the Glenfiddich Trophy of a superb ram’s horn snuff mull and also a silver sgian dubh, second, Stuart Liddell, and third Roderick MacLeod.
After the prizes had been presented, the Fear an Tighe, Bob Worrall, gave way to the announcement of the winner of this year’s Balvenie Medal, for services to piping. This year it was awarded to Kate Paton for her long years of devotion and activity in the piping world.
Then Bob, ‘departing from the script’ as he put it, mentioned a very well-known figure who has run the Glenfiddich Championship for much of its 42 years, and ‘without whom, it would not happen’. This was Liz Maxwell, to whom was presented a special award, a gold brooch in the shape of the Glenfiddich stag’s head emblem. There was loud applause at this very well-deserved gesture.
• You can watch all the performances from the Glenfiddich here via the Livestream provided by the National Piping Centre.