Review: Scottish Pipers’ Association Knock Out Round 1

By Robert Wallace

The late Archie Kenneth once opined that bagpipe competition would always exist because of our thirst to see ‘blood on the carpet’. Not for us the douce, well mannered formality of the recital, we must have a WINNER! Die you LOSER! Well, I wonder if that is waning. There were scant few around for the first heat of the Scottish Pipers’ Association Knockout contest, the acme of ‘blood on the carpet’ events.

Some thought the low crowd to do with an expectation that the evening would be livestreamed (it wasn’t), others that the Highlands & Islands Festival had drawn many of the usual audience north, and a few that a band contest in Northern Ireland meant Field Marshal’s Glasgow contingent was over the water for the weekend.

Contestants Stuart Liddell and Gordon McCready wait to hear their fate from SPA President Tom Johnstone

Promoters are waking up to the fact that livestreaming can be detrimental to local attendance, witness the recent wise decision by the RSPBA Northern Ireland Branch to pull coverage of their solos.

The solution lies in recording the event but broadcasting it later. That way those who can’t make it to the venue for whatever reason get to see the show. Those who can have a live action incentive to get out of the armchair.

Whatever, the combatants last Saturday, Stuart Liddell and Gordon McCready, two master players, faced a half empty hall at the National Piping Centre, Otago Street (looking pleasingly trim after a paint job, all light bulbs functioning).

Both of these champion pipers played well but not as well as I have heard them – it is hard to raise your game to an empty chair. The pipes were good but not really good. The technique unerringly brilliant, the music rather less so.

There is a Holy Trinity in piping: instrument, technique, expression. Give an audience that and it goes home satisfied. If a piper can deliver on all three for at least 75% of his set he too can retire pleased with his evening’s endeavours.

The Piping Times Trophy presented to the winner of the SPA Knockout

But it is a difficult goal. The secret lies in keeping it simple, not trying too hard. The vehicle must be a canon of tunes of worth, of integrity. Stuart’s 6/8s and his ground of the Lament for the Children and a few other pieces delivered on all three as did Gordon’s Hard Drive and his Skylark’s Ascension set.

But on the night we could have done with less of the flash fingerwork and more of these ‘Holy Trinity highs’.

Another point worth considering: whilst it is nice to to chat, it inevitably hampers momentum. Build your set to a climax the way Duncan Johnstone advised: continuous playing with a minimum of tuning.

A controlled start to settle the pipes and the nerves; pepper the middle with a few airs and medium pacers and then a flourished finish with hornpipes, jigs and reels the audience knows.

That’s how he overcame P/M Donald MacLeod on that memorable night in the 60s and the method that that lucky sod P/M Angus used when he beat me in the final 40 years ago.

At the end SPA President Tom Johnstone announced the audience vote in Stuart’s favour by the narrowest of margins. In all truth it could have gone either way.

No matter; it is Stuart who marches on, yet Gordon can take comfort; he pushed his opponent all the way. It is no loss to lose to such a great piper.

Finally well done to Kyle Shead, the warm-up act. A lovely instrument and fine technique from this young lad from the English midlands. One to watch.

  • The next round of the Knockout will be at the same venue on Saturday 8th June when Callum Beaumont and Cameron McDougall draw swords.

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