Northern Meeting 2016 – The Former Winners’ March, Strathspey & Reel

n-mtg-logo-colourOur first report from this year’s Northern Meeting covers the premier ceol beag event, the Former Winners’ March, Strathspey and Reel held in Eden Court Theatre on the evening of the first day of the Meeting. Just to qualify to play in this competition is a considerable achievement – you must have won the now amalgamated  ‘A’ grade MSR or the previously separate Northern Meeting ‘A’ March or ‘A’ Strathspey & Reel. Pipers are asked to submit four marches, four strathspeys and four reels and have to play two of each in any order without a break – a tough ask. One of this year’s adjudicators, Barry Donaldson, has kindly penned these thoughts on the playing….

The Northern Meeting Former Winners’ MSR
by P/M Barry Donaldson

barryWhat a cracking competition the Former Winners’ MSR was; a high standard of piping delivered by all, with the prize winners excelling themselves.

A couple of great players experienced a bit of bad luck. For example, Finlay Johnston’s playing was exemplary but for some reason he played a wrong strathspey! Oblivious to this, he continued on through to the end to complete a performance which would have been in consideration for the prize list but for his aberration. Jimmy Murray, a previous winner of the ‘big’ MSR, played two first class marches then broke down. This was the only breakdown of the competition and, it has to be said, was unusual for Jimmy and especially tough luck given that he had  travelled all the way from Western Australia to take part.

Anyway, the top five prize winners were at their very best with only minor indiscretions affecting placements. Gordon Walker took fifth with the Knightswood Ceilidh, Hugh Kennedy, Piper’s Bonnet, Tulloch Castle, the Smith of Chilliechassie and John Garroway. A little lack of drive in the march (a personal preference) and his drones moving slightly – noticeably during the reels – were the only negatives in this performance.

Stuart Liddell was fourth playing the Clan MacColl, Arthur Bignold of Lochrosque, Arniston Castle, Catlodge, John Morrison, Assynt House and the Cockerel in the Creel. A little more drive in the two John MacColl march masterpieces and a more rounded version of the Cockerel in the Creel (again personal taste) would have seen this performance rated higher.

Niall Stewart on stage at Eden Court
Niall Stewart on stage at Eden Court

Niall Stewart was third with the 74th’s Farewell to Edinburgh, Kantara to El Arish, Glentruim, Sandy MacPherson, Drumlithie and Kildonan. Niall had a superb instrument but a slight loss of pulsation in his first strathspey and a minor bottom hand slip in Kildonan had to be considered, otherwise he gave us a superbly musical rendition.

Second came William  McCallum playing Captain Campbell of Drum a Voisk, Angus Campbell’s Farewell to Stirling, Caber Feidh, Lady MacKenzie of Gairloch, the Man from Glengarry and Roddy MacDonald’s Fancy. Other than a slight tendency to clip the last bar of the marches, this was a cracking performance on a superb bagpipe. Willie at his best and full of musicality.

First went to Angus MacColl playing the Highland Wedding, MacLean of Pennycross, Caledonian Society of London, the Ewe wi’ the Crookit Horn, Pretty Marion and Lachlan MacPhail of Tiree. Notwithstanding a slight choke in Pretty Marion, this performance had everything. From the outset Angus let the marches rip and crafted the melodies beautifully. The drive and excitement in his march playing placed this idiom beyond the others. His strathspeys danced with strong pulsing and his musical interpretation of Pretty Marion arguably made this the best reel of the competition. Again, super playing and Angus at his best.

Other notable performances mentioned during the judges’ summing up were those by Iain Speirs and Ian K MacDonald. Both played extremely well. However, what can make the difference at this level is the piper who is prepared to throw caution to the wind and really go for it. Many top players delivered their pieces with a degree of caution. This can’t match those who play right on the edge; indeed this is just what Angus MacColl did to win top honours and he deservedly received the MacBrayne’s Challenge Trophy and the Royal Scottish Pipers’ Society Silver Star. [Angus is pictured with both at the top of this article.]

The result was reached with a unanimous decision by the judges. My fellow adjudicators were Ian Duncan and Iain Murdo Morrison.

Angus MacColl is no stranger to winning major MSR competitions. Click here to listen to his performance whilst winning the Argyllshire Gathering Former Winners’ MSR last year. The BBC’s ‘Pipeline’ programme was at this year’s competition at Inverness. Tune in this Saturday for excerpts from the Clasp competition and the Former Winners’ MSR.