The Piping Centre announced a couple of weeks ago that their instructor Margaret Dunn would be giving a paper at the Piobaireachd Society Conference in March, writes the Editor.
Her subject was to be the Centre’s popular CLASP series of competitions for amateur pipers. Margaret is the main organiser and one of the reasons for its success. Students tell me of how helpful and encouraging she is and certainly she keeps the publicity going by making sure Piping Press readers are up to date with the latest results.
Many may be unaware of Margaret’s personal prowess as a piper. We first featured her back in 1998 on the front cover of Piper Press, the paper forerunner of this magazine. The occasion was her success in the MacGregor Memorial competition at Oban. At the time Margaret Houlihan, as she was then, was only 18. She was studying piobaireachd with Andrew Wright and had recently arrived over here from her native Cullen, Country Cork, in the south of Ireland.
Aged nine, she had begun piping with her father Con and then former Scots Guardsmen Steven Power, and it was clear to everyone who heard Margaret what a good job they had done in the early stages of her career – clear, accurate fingering allied to a good appreciation of phrasing and expression. She moved to Glasgow to study Scottish Music at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama and began piobaireachd with Andrew. A job at the Centre followed as did marriage in 2006 to P/Sgt Alastair Dunn of Field Marshal Montgomery Pipe Band. (In his spare time Alastair is also Managing Director of bagpipe makers RG Hardie & Co.)
Following her MacGregor win Margaret was quoted: ‘My ambition is to win the Gold Medal. I don’t think being a woman makes any difference. Men can blow a bit stronger but women can play just as well.’
That Gold Medal ambition has still to be realised and the arrival of two young children have since taken a lot of Margaret’s time as you can imagine. But she can reflect with pleasure on her outstanding success since winning the MacGregor:
Grade 1 Worlds with Shotts & Dykehead 2000
Silver Medal, Inverness 2007
Grade 3b Worlds as P/M of Cullen Pipe Band 2007
In addition to this, in 2003 she became the highest placed woman ever in solo MSR playing when she won the ‘A’ Grade Strathspey & Reel at the Argyllshire Gathering. Thus she qualified for the Former Winners’ MSR competition, the only lady piper ever to have achieved entry into this exalted club in the 145 year history of the Gathering. At the time Margaret had a couple of years with P/M Robert Mathieson in the Shotts & Dykehead Grade 1 band under her belt and felt this had helped her reach the heights. She said: ‘I was shocked when the result was announced. I knew I had played well but you never know how it is going to go. My tunes were John Roy Stewart and the Grey Bob once through. Maybe some people were surprised at a woman winning, but all the women pipers today have good instruments and the playing side has never been a problem for us.
‘Playing with Shotts a few seasons ago steadied my blowing and I am more confident about my sound now. I think you can tell pipers who have played in bands. Their blowing tends to be more reliable. I am a little disappointed my win doesn’t get me into to the Former Winners MSR but I will try hard to win the Marches. There aren’t any other women’s names on the Strathspey & Reel cup so I’ll be content with that for now.’
This was indeed the rule at the Argyllshire at the time – you had to win both major light music prizes to qualify for the Former Winners. That rule has since been reversed to the original structure of FW qualification. Even if it had not been, Margaret would have now qualified anyway – she won the Oban Marches in 2007.
Have a listen to Margaret and husband Alastair in duet:
Several ladies have had major success in ceol mor at Oban and Inverness, none more so than Faye Henderson who won the Gold Medal in 2010 playing the Lament for Donald Duaghal MacKay. Success by women pipers at these major gatherings should be seen against the background that they were not permitted to play at either until 1976, an injustice removed with the introduction of the Sex Discrimination Act of the previous year.
• The Piobaireachd Society Conference runs the weekend of March 24-26 at the Birnam Hotel, Perthshire. Check out their website later to book.