‘I’ve been playing pipes since I was nine and started competing as an amateur in 1994. I’m a classical pianist first and foremost, though my piano has taken a back seat in the last 10 years since I took the plunge, leaving the amateur ranks. I was lucky enough to win the Silver Medal in 2012 at Oban. By coincidence I could only get a limited time off work that day too – at 11pm on the Wednesday night in Oban I had to get in the car and drive home to work, missing that marvellous March to the Games.
‘I can’t speak too highly of my teacher Tom Speirs, who has stuck by me for over 20 years, through good times and bad. Although today [last Thursday] is an all-time high, I have had some pretty dark days in the Medal contests and it has taken perseverance just to keep going. Lessons with Tom in recent years have been more of a discussion between the two of us, though I almost always take his advice. He is more conservative than I am, and cautioned me against putting in unusual settings to the Medal contests.
‘War or Peace was my tune. This is one of those tunes that few people have had contact with. It’s a strange piece of music and I hope this year will see it appearing more regularly on the boards. I opted to go for a 2011 setting where the Ground is played five times in total throughout the tune and I tried to subtly vary the speed of this, which was difficult. In fact I felt when I came off that I had overdone it – I got a bit carried away. However I knew that I had to give the judges something memorable – I was playing before 10 am – and it obviously worked. The Eden Court stage is a tough place to play. It is a lovely acoustic but that four minutes tuning is not what I would recommend to anyone. Your pipes may be going perfectly and you wonder should I use the time to change things?
‘Once I was into the tune I had no problems at all and felt completely relaxed though as I say I did get a bit worked up as the tune progressed. When I got to the a mach I thought ‘I don’t know how my fingers are not falling off the chanter’. I don’t suppose I am a stranger to the Gold Medal prizelist with three fourths in the past fairly well spaced out and I’ve had a good year round the games. I am one of the very few pipers who play their medal tunes at the games. I never go out with anything but the medal tunes. Some people would say that’s wrong but by the time I get to Oban and Inverness I’ll have played them all in front of a judge in difficult circumstances. Other guys go out playing their favourites and yes they win lots of prizes but then they have to play a strange tune on the big occasion. It is a difficult decision I know but I am going to keep on doing that. It means I have new tunes to play at the games every year – now with the senior events I’ve got to learn eight tunes for next year!
‘I’d no idea this was going to happen and you just feel your life has changed. I have had to work hard at my instrument, and the old adage that the sound comes first is a true one. I have had beautiful vintage pipes for years, but it was only when I happened upon a modern set of Naills that I began to get the consistency to win at this level. Round about the same time I came across the chanter made by Ayrshire Bagpipes – you can put any reed in this and the perfect piobaireachd high G appears as if by magic. So I can play any reed that happens to suit me – and the winning reed this week was made by Allan Russell, who has altered his construction technique to good effect this year.
‘I’m aware that I have come to this contest through a different route than most pipers, getting my knowledge and love of the music from the Piobaireachd Society – and then attending amateur contests for years. It’s been a long road, and my wife Bridget and the whole family, will probably feel as much relief as I do myself. Bridget was awarded an MBE this year for her work with a charity in Forth Valley, so we are off to Buckingham Palace for that in November – this is obviously the ‘year of the medals’ for us. I’m only sad that my father who inspired me to start the pipes, and my original teacher Andy Wilson in Belfast, are no longer around to see it – maybe they are looking down from the beer tent in the sky.’