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.
‘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.
‘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.