A Look Back at the 2016 London Championship

By Robert Wallace
By Robert Wallace

Ian Duncan and I judged the A Grade Piobaireachd for the Ram’s Horn Snuff Mull. Committee Room 5 at the Kensington Conference Centre was the venue and, though adequate, the close proximity of the bench to the room’s playing area may have intimidated some of the pipers and contributed to the mixed standard of play.

Two tunes were out on their own: Darach Urquhart’s Big Spree and Nick Hudson’s Lament for the Children. It would have been a closer contest for first had Nick locked his drones in (I understand he was rushed on after the previous piper broke down) and he also had a nervy double echo on F which, over the piece, was a very minor blemish midst his impressive phrasing. However there was nothing to blight Darach’s tune. He gave a thoroughly professional performance.

Darach and friend
Darach and friend

The pipe was ‘in’ from the moment he blew up and he merely had to add a few fine tuning touches before being ready for his quest for glory. On he went, leading us from variation to variation with controlled authority. By the end he had given the bench the package it was looking for: solid pipe, correct score, good expression and flawless technique (a crunluath reminiscent of Angus MacColl’s crisp delivery).

The Blind Piper’s Obstinacy earned third following a correct reading from Breton Xavier Boderiou – yet the tune was never more than that. The pipe stayed the course, but a tendency to over clip the short theme notes detracted from the appeal of this quirky Iain Dall MacKay composition. In fourth came Mike Fitzhenry with Lament for Ronald MacDonald of Morar. He played cleanly enough but the snappy treatment of the crucial double echoes – in all three grounds –  meant that he lost much of the lyricism required to do full justice to this classic.


Flying in from New Jersey (though soon to settle in London I hear) was Derek Midgley. He played MacDougall’s Gathering but never quite captured the essence of the tune’s transition from gathering call to sweet imploration. The E double echoes were regular with a pause on the final strike; thus did the rhythmical pattern sit at odds with the rest of the urlar. Derek also lacked control in the bottom hand climbs at the ends of the Ts & Cs; first class pipe and execution however.

Definitely due a favourable vellum scrawl was Peter McCalister. He started well with Clan Chattan but the timing of Variation 1 was not to our taste and there were very tight/ nipped D gracenotes to C throughout. Peter must get credit for a lovely pipe however and for demonstrating an estimable feel for the music.

Poor pipes ended  Greig Canning’s Earl of Antrim, Bill Geddes’s MacSwan of Roaig, Ed McIlwaine’s Pass of Crieff, and Jonathan Greenlees’s Earl of Antrim. Poor memory cost Craig Sutherland and Jamie Forrester; poor fingering cost Alasdair Henderson and Sandy Cameron. These two fine players may want to get the practice chanter out, leave their band taorluaths behind and generally open things up all round. With Sandy, the two low Gs in the T and C were just not consistent enough.

On to the Strachan Trophy for MSR and here young Sarah Muir was a class apart with a near flawless rendition of Allan Dodd’s Farewell to Scotland, Cal. Soc. of London and Dr MacPhail; poise, control and a super pipe and finger. The others in the list played well enough but careless technique dropped them down the reckoning. Of those who didn’t make it, it would be fair say they either played too fast or too slow. Many also showed a lack of two-bar phrasing and/or an understanding of strathspey rhythm. Others had very tight  movements – movements which might be adequate in a band but which were simply not good enough for the professional solo stage. Result: 1 Sarah Muir 2 Nick Hudson 3 Darach Urquhart 4 Jamie Forrester 5 Graham Drummond.

Andrew Hayes, outstanding winner of the Gillies Cup
Andrew Hayes, outstanding winner of the Gillies Cup

Speaking to fellow judges in charge of other events it would appear that the Gillies Cup was an outstanding competition with at least 10 pipers contending for a place. The winner, Andrew Hayes, Ontario, gave, I was told, a beautiful rendition of MacNeill of Barra’s March – full of subtle nuance and balanced phrasing. Looking at the list it was refreshing to see a number of younger players pushing out the usual suspects. A particular well done to Craig Sutherland for taking second after his disappointing showing in the Snuff Mull.

There was a prize too for double Gold Medallist Alan Bevan from BC who took third in the Gillies. This was quite an achievement given the time Alan has been away from solo work. Calum Beaumont’s fourth helped get the overall title and, as with Craig, it was good to see Jamie Forrester getting a place after his Snuff Mull aberration. Mention of Jamie reminds me that compliments are due to him for his programme tribute to Angus Nicol. Fine prose; tasteful sentiment.

P/M Gordon Walker
P/M Gordon Walker

In the other contests we had a welcome return to form for both Gordon Walker, who took the ‘big’ MSR, and Callum Beaumont who lifted the major prize of the day, the Bratach Gorm. Finlay Johnston got over his Glenfiddich disappointment to take second in the big one and Jack Lee placed third. Jack told me later that his prize was achieved on a set of pipes, and a bag and a chanter reed all made by his son Andrew! Some going; smacks of John Ban MacKenzie. Stuart Liddell had pipe problems in the ceol mor events but sorted them out in time to figure prominently in the ceol beag.

Further down the lists judge Archie Maclean reported an outstanding Lament for the Earl of Antrim from Alex Gehrig in the C Piobaireachd for the NPC Trophy. A Swiss piobaireachd star is born!

Alex Gehrig
Alex Gehrig

On a more general front this was a very well run day of piping – and that with only six stewards to run 17 contests! All thanks to them for their work and if you’d like to help the Society in this important area place get in touch via their website. Masterminds Andrew Hall (SPSL President and Treasurer) and Jackie Roberts (Secretary) are due considerable credit too for keeping everyone happy on the day and fashioning a reasonably early finish. In his closing remarks Andrew paid tribute to his sponsors, in particular the William Grant Foundation and David Naill & Company. This company presented a magnificent set of pipes, an engraved practice chanter and a pipe chanter for the raffle. The pipes went to Ann Johnston, mother of Finlay, and the pipe chanter to Andrew Hayes (what a day for him).

Ann receives her D Naill pipes from Chelsea pensioner Davy MacIntyre
Ann receives her D Naill pipes from Chelsea pensioner Davy MacIntyre with SPSL President Andrew Hall in the background

Next year may see a change in venue for the London contest. There could be major refurbishment at the Kensington Conference Centre but the financial constraints on the Society may dictate a change anyway. This will probably be a good thing I feel. It can be a soulless place and without a bar to oil the chat the social aspect of last Saturday’s gathering never really got going till we all met up in bars and restaurants later.

Get full results here.

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