Piobaireachd Society Conference 2016

By Robert Wallace
By Robert Wallace

Anyone who had the idea that the Piobaireachd Society was run by a bunch of old fogeys locked in a time warp of dusty decrepitude would have been quickly disabused of that notion had they attended this year’s conference held last weekend mid the glories of Highland Perthshire.

Dr J David Hester had flown in from America to give us an update on his revisionist ideas, Simon Chadwick suggested links between the ancient small harp and ceol mor, and Colin MacLellan urged everyone to think again about new music and how to foster its composition. Nothing dusty or decrepit about any of it.

The weekend began with a welcome from President Dr Jack Taylor and a reflection on the sad loss of one of the Society’s greatest servants, Dr Roderick Cannon. Roddy was a fixture at the conference over four decades and his immeasurable contribution would be impossible to replace.

Dr J David Hester flew in from the US to speak at the conference
Dr J David Hester flew in from the US to speak at the conference

Dr Taylor then introduced Dr Hester, the first speaker. His  engaging delivery and enthusiasm was infectious and even if some attendees found his theorising about old scores hard to accept, they sat thoroughly charmed by Dr Hester’s transparency and devotion to what he believed in.

He thought it important that even though some could construe that his way of playing the tunes – a literal reading of the early manuscripts – was at odds with the modern tradition, it should not be seen as such. Terms such as ‘competition piobaireachd’ were unhelpful and sent out the wrong message of what his website and endeavour was all about. 

After coffee I introduced Simon Chadwick, an expert on the small medieval harp. Simon produced a replica of the 15th century Queen Mary Harp he had had made from the original in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. He revealed that it had two tenor strings, a bass an octave below, and a scale with a flattened seventh. What does that remind you of?

Simon played examples of piobaireachd he had transcribed for his instrument. Haunting, they filled the great baronial hall at Birnam with strains that at one time must have been the norm in grand houses throughout Scotland.

He lamented that the harp’s tradition had died out here but by researching Irish and Welsh harp history it was possible to reconstruct, or at least make an informed stab at, what we once had. Simon finished to grateful applause and healthy sales of his piobaireachd CD ‘Tarbh’.

After lunch, an enjoyable performance from 16-year-old Lani O’Neil. Lani (pictured top) was  a recipient of a 2015 Piobaireachd Society Teaching Bursary and under this auspice received a free week of top class tuition from John Wilson at the College of Piping. She and her mother drove all the way from Dumfries to the conference and this and Lani’s fine performance of the Lament for the Old Sword were greatly appreciated.

On into the afternoon and the floor given over to Colin MacLellan, who gave us a fascinating two-hour talk on the piobaireachd compositions of his father, Captain John A MacLellan. But it wasn’t all talk. Colin’s wife Jenny played illustrations of her late father-in-law’s music and on his bagpipe too. This was the best instrument I heard all weekend, its rich, smooth MacDougall timbre chiming perfectly with the quality of the music Jenny demonstrated so well. Here she is playing a short excerpt of Farewell to the Queen’s Ferry:

On to the ceilidh, best bib, a table furnished with homely fare, good wine and good friends. Fear an Tighe Andrew Wright introduced the following pipers and their tunes: Dr Jack Taylor, The Piper’s Meeting (from the Campbell Canntaireachd), David Hester, Slan Suive (Campbell Canntaireachd – need confirmation of the name), Annie Grant, Struan Robertson’s Salute, Barnaby Brown on the lyre, MacIntyre’s Salute, Colin MacLellan, Nameless, PS p420), John Frater, MacKenzie of Gairloich’s Salute, Robert Frater, Farewell to the Laird of Islay and Roger Huth, MacIntosh’s Lament.

Sunday began with a session on the 2016 set tunes with the Earl of Ross’s March and Mary’s Praise demonstrated by Alan Forbes, Music Committee Secretary, MacSwan of Roaig, Lament for the Castle of Dunyveg and My King Has Landed in Moidart by President Jack Taylor and the Bells of Perth and Scarce of Fishing by myself.

Retiring Treasurer Walter Gray (right) and President Jack Taylor

The AGM saw the re-election of all office bearers and the General Committee with the exception of Treasurer Walter Gray who stood down after ten years of tireless work on the Society’s behalf. In gratitude, President Jack Taylor presented Walter with a set of crystal dram holders (gentleman’s measure) suitably cut with the Society’s motif. Walter’s place as Treasurer has been taken by Roderick Livingstone, London, and he was welcomed to this important chair to loud applause.

The 2017 conference will be held once more in Birnam in March next year and all members and lovers of ceol mor are welcome to attend what is a thoroughly engaging weekend of friendship and good music.