Famous Pipers: P/M Alasdair Gillies Part 5

We continue with the revealing and informative interview given by the late pipe major in 1999. He focusses on his remarkable run at the Northern Meeting and offers some signal advice for all would-be champion pipers. To win one Former Winners’ title at either Oban or Inverness is a landmark in any piper’s career; to do it repeatedly, year after year marks P/M Gillies out as one of the piping greats of all time…..

My Succession of Victories at the
Northern Meeting

by P/M Alasdair Gillies

The Royal Scottish Pipers' Society Silver Star, the award Alasdair coveted above all others
The Royal Scottish Pipers’ Society Silver Star, the award Alasdair coveted above all others

The tunes I’ve played in the Former Winners MSR at Inverness have certainly been tried and tested. I would never dream of submitting a tune that I didn’t know 100%. I wouldn’t even submit a tune if I hadn’t already played it at recitals and the smaller games on the circuit. I like to be in complete control of what I’m doing up there on the platform, so being at ease with the tunes is a big help. It would probably take a couple of years for a tune that I had just learned to make my list for Inverness. With this in mind, as I look back, I find there to be quite a lot of tunes repeated through the years. When you consider that six of each are submitted, it goes to show that judges tend to pick the tunes that they know a player plays well. I have been changing my list every year but still I seem to get the old favourites. Mind you, it wouldn’t really bother me what they picked, as l believe that every tune I submit is as well rehearsed as the others by the time of Inverness.

1985: The Clan MacColl, Piper’s Bonnet, the Sheepwife. This year we were still in the days of twice through. The competitor gave four of each and the tunes were given as the player in front went on. This performance went well but I do remember a slight hesitation in the second time through the Sheepwife.

Alasdair in action
Alasdair in action

1986: The 74th’s Farewell to Edinburgh, the Knightswood Ceilidh, Dora Macleod, Cabar Feidh, Miss Proud, Cockerel in the Creel. This year saw the start of the competi­tion as we know it today: six of each sub­mitted and two of each played. I recall this being a good steady performance with no hiccups. John MacLellan was judging and stipulated that the tunes couldn’t be played out of the order that they were given. This was a blow to some competitors and made me think that the order that the tunes were written down on entry forms was what the judges were giving. From that year on, when I sent in my entry in May, I made sure that the breaks suited. P/M lain Morrison reversed his marches that day and didn’t feature in the prize list. Because I was still only 22, some people took it upon themselves to give me advice after I’d played. I have to say that most of it went in one ear and out the other. I wasn’t going to listen to Joe Bloggs who played pipes but had never won a major prize in his life.


1989: John MacDonald’s Welcome to South Uist, P/M George Ross’s Farewell to the Black Watch, Piper’s Bonnet, Tulloch Castle, John Morrison of Assynt House, the Smith of Chilliechassie. Here I had the opportunity to play some of my favourite tunes. The marches are not often heard. although John MacDonald’s Welcome was to feature heavily in the coming years. I don’t however hear many other players playing it. John Morrison of Assynt House? What can I say?

n-mtg-logoThis is my favourite reel, and I had submitted it every time in the Former Winners but it had never been chosen until now. I think the fact that the composer taught my father gives me the edge over most with this tune. I’ve spent many an hour on the finer points so now I feel at ease with it, although it is regarded as one of our hardest reels. All the tunes went well in 1989 and I was very happy with this performance. I didn’t count my chickens though as I’d had a couple of good performances the previous two years that hadn’t been good enough. I was relieved when the result came out and I’d again won the Silver Star. I remember coming off and Scott MacAulay saying that he’d thought Jack Lee played well but that I’d come on straight after him and blown him away. I replied that Jack’s prob­lem was that he came from the west coast of the wrong country! We both had a good laugh at that.

Eden Court Theater, Inverness….theatre of dreams for all pipers

1991: John MacDonald’s Welcome to South Uist, Mrs J MacColl, Cabar Feidh, Piper’s Bonnet. the Sheepwife, John Morrison of Assynt House. I had lost to wee Gordon Walker in 1990. I had no complaints with that. He’s a great friend and a tremendous player. I been red-carded earlier that day from the Gold Medal. I hadn’t yet qualified for the Glenfiddich. I was about to embark on a three-month tour of the United States with the Pipes & Drums, Queen’s Own Highlanders. This was do or die stuff. With all this on my mind I treaded carefully with this performance. You could say I was really happy to get through unscathed. I wouldn’t however class this as my best playing performance but I didn’t crack under the pressure so I was fair chuffed to get the result. I returned to my regiment in Germany only to be ordered to attend the Dining-out of the Commanding Officer. Lt. Col. Seymour Monro. As the band was still on leave I had to play the pipes. Big Bruce Hitchings was the Pipey and he told me not to bother tuning up through the back of the officer’s mess as was normal. Instead I was to take the casual approach and just tune in front of the mess members.

As I did this the RSM Brian Ross and Colonel Seymour stood up and flashed RED torches at me, mimicking the tuning lights that led to my sending off at Inverness! A sore point but all taken in good fun. Before leaving home that night I had told my wife I wouldn’t be late. That didn’t materialise and my last recollection was trying to smooth things over by play­ing Sleep Dearie Sleep in the front garden at 05.45hrs. It didn’t work.

To follow: Breaking the records of some of the greats of the past.

Wannabe  a piping or drumming snowbird?…then  catch some heat at the South Florida Pipe & Drum Academy!

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