Reflections on the Northern Meeting from P/M Ian McLellan

Time for a first look back at this year’s Northern Meeting, one of the great gatherings in world solo piping, writes the Editor. I had a chat with P/M Ian McLellan, a senior adjudicator on the Former Winners’ MSR bench. He is concerned about the homogenisation of bagpipe sound and the lack of depth in many instruments.

Ian, of course, needs no introduction to anyone in the pipe band or solo field. He is the most successful pipe major in history with 12 World Championship titles to his name. During his playing days he also enjoyed success at the highest level in the solo world with wins in the elite Former Winners events. It goes without saying that Ian is a recognised expert in the delivery of ceol beag.

Here’s what he told me during a break in the ‘B’ grade Hornpipe & Jig which we judged jointly on the second day of the Meeting: ‘One of the things that was very obvious during the Former Winners this year was that probably 75% of the bagpipes all sounded the same. There was no individuality in the instruments. The other thing that was obvious was the lack of bass drone resonance. Without this you do not get the strong harmonics you should be hearing from the chanter.

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‘It was very clear that the majority were lacking in this area. Perhaps the reason is pipers setting their instruments up for playing indoors. Fair enough, but at the same time you still have to have that solid bass drone sound. It might be that some of the synthetic drone reeds that are being used are not helping.

P/M Ian McLellan

‘Okay have two tenor drones which are synthetic, but if the bass is not delivering the right sound then switch it back to cane, but only a cane reed that will give you that lovely rich, steady tone judges and audience want to hear. In days gone by we could identify pipers by their instrument. I’m going back a few years right enough, but then, as soon as a piper blew up his pipes, you practically knew right away who it was that was playing because of the individuality of the pipe. You don’t hear that so much nowadays.’

Turning to the delivery of the tunes in the competition P/M McLellan continued: ‘In these big events some pipers approach things very carefully. They play their cards close to the chest, don’t let the music flow and try not to make a mistake in the hope that they do enough.

‘But I am looking for more than that. I am looking for some fire and brimstone. In the marches we hear the tempo down from what you normally like to hear. I want a march with flow, played with passion and good phrasing. Let the tune go is what I say. Some pipers do that but others hold things back, and to my  mind that is to the detriment of musicality.

‘However all the prizewinners this year played well and the first three we had no problem with. After that there were small issues that had to be weighed up. Personal taste always comes into it as you know.’

• Get full results from Inverness here. Read more about P/M Ian McLellan’s background and career here. The picture up top is of Niall Stewart on stage at the Eden Court Theatre during the Northern Meeting. Niall was placed third in this year’s Former Winners. 

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3 thoughts on “Reflections on the Northern Meeting from P/M Ian McLellan

  1. Niall would be best to answer that himself, but I recall asking him a few years ago what kind reeds he had in the drones and at that time it was a very known make of the synthetic variety in which a wood composite is used in the body of the reeds. No prizes for guessing the specific maker? In any case a lot of pipers use them for ‘ ease’ in setting up instead of having to learn about how to handle cane drone reads.

  2. It`s intresting that you have put Neil Stewart`s pic at the top.I think he has the most distinctive drone sound around, he fills any hall with great harmonics,Does he use cane?

  3. The topic on which Ian comments is interesting. I am still young and do remember what bagpipe sounds were like in the 1960 s and 70 s. There were fewer players at the likes of Inverness in the 1960 s. In truth around that era into the 1970 s the sounds of bagpipes from individual to individual did differ more than now. There were of course some very fine sounding instruments and yes you could identify the players. Until the upsurge in interest through more available teaching and the availability of recordings by master players, there were not a lot of pipers taking part in solo competitions and individuals were easier to identify by sound. There were some very good players whose sound was actually very poor. Wrong to name the pipers who are no longer with us, but there were a few of those players who could be identified by their F and high G notes, which were so sharp, that they were described as being capable to remove the greallach (entrails) from a stag! Of course there was not much choice in regards to reeds and pipe bags. It was cane drone reeds and sheepskin bags. Obtaining good reeds was a challenge, particularly bass drone reeds and this reminds me of an article that the late Donald MacPherson wrote and referred to how he chose drone reeds. This was republished and is of great interest. He was of course a master at setting up the bagpipe and set the bench mark for all that followed. While it is true to say that in a lot of cases bagpipe sound from piper to piper is very similar, undoubtedly overall bagpipe sound with steadiness, tone and accurate note pitches has improved tremendously in the last 45 to 50 years. I think what has maybe changed a little in an adverse way is that bagpipe pitch is perhaps too high, maybe by only a small margin, but nevertheless too high for the solo scene. To try and reverse this is near impossible. Hearing a player with a slightly lower pitch of pipe after hearing the higher pitched sound takes some time to adjust the ear. The high pitch is maybe driven by pipe bands and of course a lot of very good players now take part in competitive pipe bands. There are bagpipes taken from the pipe band scene and taken to the solo piping platform and while the players are very successful, at times the sound does not carry the music which a lower pitched instrument seems to be able to do. There are some players who have through the advent of moisture control systems are able to keep their instruments in tune for much longer periods than was the case decades ago. This is of course very important for those who get into piobaireachd playing as frequently tunes can extend to twelve to fifteen minutes. There are notable players who do not need to use as much technology in this area as they are not so troubled with moisture. In general the sound of bagpipes has improved immensely and in a lot of cases puts the playing on a level playing field as the sound is more anonymous.
    At one time getting and keeping the bagpipe in prime playing condition was difficult. I recall one of the leading players of the past era stating that when he had to change drone reeds he would try and do one at a time and when he would have all three fitted, would blow his drones without the chanter for hours and test how steady they were and might then have to start all over again because of moisture problems. It made me sometimes wonder why on earth would anybody play the pipes with the struggles there was in keeping them going, spending precious time on this without playing a tune, but we got some fun!

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