Piobaireachd Society Conference 2017 – New Music and Friendship in the Perthshire Highlands

The Piobaireachd Society Conference affords members, friends and enthusiasts the opportunity to gather together and, over a weekend, discuss the music and listen to some fine playing in a convivial atmosphere, writes Robert Wallace.

Though it has always been thus, I can remember some fiery exchanges from my early days in the late 70s and early 80s when S MacNeill, Donald MacLeod and David Murray were to the fore. Not that Donald ever said anything that would rile anyone, but he had plenty of vocal supporters in the ongoing controversies of the time.

Things are different now, and whilst there may be the odd bit of tension from time to time, PS weekends are firmly rooted in the music with politics, thankfully, taking a well-earned rest.

Birnam in Highland Perthshire is an ideal location given that it is central and well served by road and rail. Around 40 of us gathered there last Saturday to be welcomed by President Jack Taylor. I gave the first paper, on Angus MacKay, and after giving a biographical account of his life had a look at the excellence of his book (despite the errors). I then drew a few conclusions from his work, namely that we have been left a wonderful legacy by him and that whilst research is important, we must not lose sight of where we are and why. Like all papers at the conference, this will be available in full in due course in the Proceedings as will a YouTube video courtesy Charles attending from Tennessee.

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Following tea, coffee and shortbread we had a detailed account of the Piping Centre’s very popular CLASP series of amateur competitions from administrator Margaret Dunn. Margaret brought some much-needed glamour to the speaker’s dias. She outlined the various grades on offer to amateur pipers and mentioned the fact that they now had set tune lists of piobaireachd.

Gordon, Margaret and Gill

Two champion members of the CLASP system, Gill Cairns and Gordon Hislop, played for us and acquitted themselves well in testing company. During the Q&A session there was some concern raised that CLASP members were not allowed to play round the Highland games without losing their amateur status. Some thought this restrictive and harmful to the games, hand back any prizemoney and so remain an amateur being the course most favoured.    

I believe the CLASP series one of the best programmes the Centre has ever launched and all those involved, Margaret included, deserve credit for coming up with the idea and seeing it to fruition.

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Lunch then launch. Jack and Patrick Molard’s new book from the Campbell Canntaireachd, ‘Pipers Meeting’, was given the full treatment with extensive illustrations of tunes that may not have been performed in 200 years. Fascinating. The authors gave detailed explanations on how the book originated and of editorial policy. This included adding ‘cadence’ Es at select points in the melody where this was deemed musically appropriate. It was emphasised however that pipers were at liberty to ignore these if they wished. The dots and tails were the editors’ own choice too and they fully accepted that others, on studying the source material, may have a different approach.

Jack and Patrick with their new book

More tea and shortbread and then we had an informal session on fiddle piobaireachd from local man Pete Clarke. The highlight here was a performance of MacIntosh’s Lament. Was it from the Daniel Dow MS? The President and I then played through the ground of the  Old Woman’s Lullaby on fiddle and smallpipes – the fiddle was Jack’s first instrument.

Come the evening the hotel catering staff rose to the occasion once more with a sumptuous dinner and Master of Ceremonies Roger Huth rounded up a good selection of pipers to play at the ceilidh. The following all helped the digestion: Bob Frater with Battle of Auldearn No 1 – his winning Archie Kenneth Quaich piece, Isle of Jura Malt, Stuart Letford – Desperate Battle of the Birds, Patrick Molard –  Sister’s Lament, Bowmore Single Malt, Peter McCalister – King’s Taxes, Duncan MacGillivray – 6/8 marches from the Patrick MacDonald Collection and a tune made for his late father, Glenmorangie Single Malt, Walter Gray (runner-up in the AKQ) – Hail to My Country, and Alan Forbes – Hector MacLean’s Warning.

The piping ceilidh

Sunday saw the Set Tunes Session and here the three pipers, Peter McCalister, John Frater and Dr Bill Wotherspoon each played a tune from the 2017 lists. Bill performed on a particularly sweet set of cocus wood pipes. His interpretation of Donald Macleod’s Roderick MacDonald’s Salute was particularly noteworthy and Bill told us that he had once met the eponymous Roddy on South Uist where he was playing for the dancers in blue serge suit and flat cap. Amongst his other well-handled tunes, John made a good fist of the difficult first variation of Hail to My Country and Peter gave very polished renderings – as would be expected from a Gold Medal candidate – his variation 1 of Lord Lovat’s Lament absolutely spot on to this listener.

To the AGM where it was announced that trustees Andrew Wright and Dugald MacNeill were standing down from the committee and they were enthusiastically applauded for their service to the Society over many decades. There was also sincere sadness at the passing of former President David Murray and his contribution was acknowledged by all present. Treasurer Roddy Livingstone reported a healthy balance sheet and Secretary Bill Wotherspoon a membership of 600. Music Committee Chairman Alan Forbes noted the success of the new editions of Sidelights and Book 16 and reported progress on the Gesto book by the late Dr Roderick Cannon.

Charlie and Paula

In all a thoroughly enjoyable weekend, made more so by visitors from abroad including Charlie and Paula Glendinning from Maryland and a French film crew making a documentary on Patrick Molard in particular and Scotland in general. 

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