Reflections on the Argyllshire Gathering 2016 – Part 1

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The 2016 Argyllshire Gathering should be described as nothing less than an outstanding success, writes the Editor. Of course the fine weather helped with pipers able to stop and chat in the Oban sunshine about all the usual things: drones going off, rotten reeds, crooked judges.

The gathering was helped by having popular winners in all the main piobaireachd events. Pride of place must go to Ian K. MacDonald of Toronto Police who, after multifarious Gold Medal prizes over many years, finally nabbed the big one.

It was a double success for Toronto with Ian’s friend and colleague Sean McKeown taking second place; celebrations went on long into the night and it was with some trepidation the stewards waited for the arrival of the dynamic duo to lead the parade to the games at Mossfield Park. This they did with consummate ease despite the sore heads, the pipe band training coming to the fore. And pleasant it was to see so many pipers out supporting the winners. I counted over 40 on the march – a terrific effort and a credit to all those who took part.

On the outside flank we had the Silver Medallist Nick Hudson of Pittsburgh, PA, a deserved winner of this competition and more of which later. In a nice touch piper William Geddes went to the back of the column to retrieve 14-year-old Finlay Cameron, winner of the MacGregor Memorial Piobaireachd, and place him in the front rank. It was a gesture typical of today’s competing pipers and one that puts into perspective all those petty agendas we witness.

As well as the ‘A’ and ‘B’ grade light music events and the Open Jig, the games saw the introduction of the RG Hardie Memorial Trophy for Intermediate MSR. Only those who competed in the MacGregor piobaireachd were eligible to play and 21 put their names forward with 16 playing on the day. The pipers were asked to submit three marches, three strathspeys and three reels and could be asked to play their chosen tunes in any combination.

This proved a tall order for these young players but not so for Calum Ian Brown from Aberdeen, a good winner, a very promising player. Not far behind was John McElmurry from Northern Ireland a pupil of Norman Dodds MBE. Another good prospect, John had a clear technique and steady tempo. The importance of good technique was what I impressed on the pipers in my closing remarks at the prize giving. No piping career can prosper without it.

Calum Ian Brown, winner of the RG Hardie MSR
Calum Ian Brown, with the RG Hardie MSR trophy

A few of the young pipers asked for comments on their playing and the judges were happy to comply but for next year I think it might be  a good idea to have crit sheets for this contest.

Over on the senior boards, short leets were being held with Alistair Lee and Finlay Johnston finally tidying up their ceol beag prizes at Oban. Prior to this year both had won either March or Strathspey and Reel. I managed to hear Alastair’s S&R set – very hard to fault, musical, the pipe immaculate. Callum Beaumont played very well for second but a hint of nerves in John MacKechnie (unusual for Callum) may have cost him.

Alastair Lee and Finlay Johnston winners of the 'A' Grade Strathspey and Reel and 'A' Grade March
Alastair Lee and Finlay Johnston winners of the ‘A’ Grade Strathspey and Reel and ‘A’ Grade March

One of the pleasures of the games is the opportunity to meet and greet friends and acquaintances of yore. One was multiple Clasp winner Greig Wilson from New Zealand. No luck for Greig this year at Oban but he assures me he’ll be back for more punishment in the future. Our professional pipers continue to do their duty in producing chanter candidates with pleasing regularity. There was Craig Sked and Fiona Manson with daughter Maggie and James and Kylie McHattie with tiny Briar. It says a lot for these couples that they are prepared to load up and travel thousands of miles at considerable expense to pursue their passion with the wee ones in tow.

But back to the medal. After his presentation from the Duke of Argyll, I took a few moments to chat with the 2016 Oban Gold Medallist Ian MacDonald. He said: ‘This is without doubt the greatest day of my piping life – by far. When I came off I thought I had put a good tune out there and it’s nice to be able to do that. But the last couple of years I’ve felt I’d played well too, much better than in years prior. I knew I’d been coming harder every year and yesterday it was the right tune for me [Mary’s Praise]. It’s a tune I like and I enjoyed it. I think I’ve been placed in the medal six times and the last twice I’ve been second.’

Was there a lesson for other pipers to keep going? ‘Definitely. At one time I was on the verge of being removed from the list of candidates just because I hadn’t done well enough. So keep going; you never know when it’s going to be your day. I am glad I did, that’s for sure. Bill Livingstone and Peter Aumonier have been a great help to me and the two of them have really good for support; they’ve helped me out big time.’

Would his win help Ontario piping? ‘Perhaps there was a little dip when Bill and guys like that retired, but I think piping is really coming on now and I would like to see the drumming improve too. But the piping is strong and having Andrea Boyd, Andrew Hayes and Sean McKeown there is great, and I can now see the next generation coming through. We took three of the five prizes yesterday so we did pretty well.’

Ian K is pictured up top with Nick Hudson, their justified delight at their success plain to see. Get the full results from the Argyllshire Gathering here and stay tuned to PP for more on the performances.