Alasdair talks of his early years and how he developed his…..
Love Affair With the Northern Meeting at Inverness
By P/M Alasdair Gillies
My association with the Northern Meeting, is short in comparison with Corriechoillie (43 visits according to the tune title), but quite eventful. Living in Ullapool after the family had moved from Glasgow in 1975, I had been winning some prizes at the Highland games round the north. My father didn’t think I was ready to compete at Inverness until 1977. At that time the Northern Meeting was scattered around different venues in the town, with the Caledonian Hotel the venue for the senior competitions.
I remember playing in the under-15 march competition at the Dr Black Memorial Hall. The junior events were confined to the crofting counties, the Western Isles, and serving members of the British Army. I was fortunate enough to win the competition playing the 74th farewell to Edinburgh, and the bug had bitten. I regarded this as my biggest achievement so far. There was something special about the Northern Meeting that I really liked. I suppose the fact that it was a two-day event, and everybody in piping seemed to be there, was the thing that really made the atmosphere special.
I couldn’t wait for the next year to come round to get back to Inverness and when I practised often thought of how I would play. This obsession remains today. I really class other competitions as warm-ups for Inverness. I want to peak at the right time with my playing at its best so that I am totally relaxed when I get up to compete. I won the under-15 march the following year too playing the Braes of Castle Grant. I remember D.R. MacLennan was in the audience and told me that I was playing a wrong note in the last part, but that I would still win as I played it both times through. He said I would have to sort it out in future, which I did. The competition was held in a church hall in Academy Street that year.
The next year I was in the 15-18 March, Strathspey & Reel. This was held in The Spectrum Centre at Farraline Park. I won this event but can’t remember the selection I played. I left school at 16 and joined the Queen’s Own Highlanders as a junior soldier in January of 1980. By the time I had done my basic training and moved to the Band Company based at Dreghorn Barracks, Edinburgh, the pipe majors there were about to change. P/M Jimmy Hood of the Argylls was due to leave and P/M Iain Morrison was to take over the position. I started to get tuition from Iain and this helped me a great deal. I still had my old man a phone call away, but he wasn’t there to tune my pipes, so it was a real learning experience for me.
I had been going round the games that summer and doing quite well. I made the mistake of going to Glenurquhart games two weeks prior to Inverness and competed in the junior and senior events. I won the overall in the Open events that day against players like John MacDougall, Iain MacFadyen, Evan MacRae, and not forgetting my old man.
My father and I thought nothing of it, but when I arrived at the Northern Meeting there had been a complaint by some parents that I was competing in the junior events and had won at Glenurquhart, a professional competition. Lt Col David Murray was convenor at the time; he ruled that I wasn’t eligible to compete in the Senior or B Grade events as I was not eighteen years old. I played in the 15-18 MSR and came 2nd.
The next year, although still only 17, I was told to enter the B Grade light music and the Silver Medal. This I did and won the Marches and was 2nd in the Strathspey & Reel. I remember going to lunch with my father and Gavin Stoddart, and Gavin saying that I really shouldn’t be in the B Grade as he thought I should have been in the A Grade. When I went back to Eden Court a piper who had won the previous year, told me that he reckoned I’d only moved up to the Senior so as not to get beat again in the Junior events. I remember thinking that no matter what way I went, I couldn’t please everybody.
Next: Posted to the South Atlantic and war in the Falkland Islands. Listen to Alasdair’s playing here.