Report and Comment on the 2020 Uist & Barra

No trophies but great satisfaction for pipers Finlay Johnston, Angus MacColl and Sarah Muir after their big wins at the Uist & Barra

I arrived late for the 75th Annual Uist & Barra Professional Piping contest held at the Piping Centre in Otago Street, Glasgow, last Saturday, writes the editor. Right away I was called on to help with the heating. The main hall of what was the College of Piping is particularly well insulated and needs very little to warm it up. Thermostat sorted I took my seat to listen to the playing.

There could be no excuses from the pipers. They had been given their chosen tunes one week in advance, so plenty of time to prepare and perfect.

Roderick MacLeod had the great Lament for Patrick Og MacCrimmon. His chanter was not quite up to the challenge, dullish with an unreliable high G. There was flawed timing of the celebrated first variation (and elsewhere) and the crunluath movement was correct but too open for this level of competition.

Angus MacColl was next with the Phantom Piper of the Corrieyairack, the pipe, settled, sweet and sophisticated. Angus gave us a fluent reading of John MacLellan’s modern classic. There were delicate touches aplenty and my only quibble came in the breabach where the round treatment detracted from the theme notes. Angus was a certainty for the list in my book.

The Battle of the Pass of Crieff was young Sandy Cameron’s tune and on a lovely instrument he timed the three grounds with some maturity bringing out the melody to its full. The dithis was a little round however and here the tune lost focus – and he should not be afraid to cut down from C to B in the crunluath turns.

Iain Speirs was next with MacLeod of Colbeck. Iain started well on a very fine pipe but was rather snappy with some short notes and this prevailed in the singlings of the variations where the connecting notes were at times given short shrift. There was rushing in the crunluath doubling as the drones moved a mite west of perfection.

Another wonderful instrument from Connor Sinclair and again this piper showed what a good prospect he is. However, he was ill-advised to include the additional third line from the Campbell Canntaireachd in the Unjust Incarceration as prescribed for the senior piobaireachd events at Oban and Inverness this year. Without it he might have lasted the course better.

Connor Sinclair on stage at the U&B

This was the first time I had heard this passage in competition and I do not believe it adds anything to the tune, more the opposite. With its inclusion we ruin the perfect construction of Iain Dall’s masterpiece: the low register ground first line ruminating and moody, the rising fears in line two and the screaming anguish in the third. With the additional line added, the ground, and all subsequent variations, end in anti-climax.

The good bagpipes kept coming and Niall Stewart’s might have been the best of the day. His Donald Duaghal MacKay was set out well and if he gave more time to the E between the two Fs in the second bar of Variation 1 I’d be a happier bunny. Unfortunately there was a round, 6/8 feel to the taorluath and the crunluath movement lacked fluency.

I did not hear the first placed Finlay Johnston but by all accounts he was outstanding and a worthy winner of the Glasgow Highland Club’s Silver Medal. 

The Ceòl Mór result: 1 Finlay Johnston, Craigellachie, £220 2 Angus MacColl, £175 3 Iain Speirs, £110 4 Glenn Brown, The Edinburgh Piobaireachd, £85 5 Alasdair Henderson, Scarce of Fishing, £65.  

Ceòl Mór champion Finlay Johnston receives the Glasgow Highland Club medal from Club representative Mr Jim Dougall

After lunch it was on to the light music, the pipers playing their MSR, pausing and continuing into a hornpipe and jig. The room was packed for this and it was delightful to hear the audience singing along as the pipers warmed up with Gaelic airs, now something of a tradition at the U&B. 

Again I missed the winner, Sarah Muir, and again all reports were that she had played extremely well. It is pleasing to see and hear so many of the younger generation such as Connor Sinclair, Sandy Cameron and Sarah hitting the heights. Well done to the U&B for giving them the opportunity to shine at this level and there are others in their age group deserving of a similar chance. I hope the promoter will consider them for next year.

Ben Duncan was first on in the ceòl beag and really never settled until the jig. Here the playing of Eileen MacDonald was very accomplished. Alasdair Henderson was a trifle square with his tunes but finger perfect throughout, though I thought the double strikes in his Train Journey North tight; terrific pipe. Niall Stewart was not on form in the ceòl beag and had a few top hand slips in his MSR and some misses in the hornpipe. 

Angus MacColl was tight with some doublings, but oh so musical. He had the whole room bouncing along to his irresistible beat from the first note of the march to the last of the jig. Iain Speirs was highly enjoyable too. No major errors, good pipe, crisp finger, good swing. 

Glenn Brown was another ceòl beag casualty. Much too fast with the jig, Glenn gave the impression he just wanted to get the whole nasty experience over with. Gordon McCready had adequate technique but deficient expression. The pipe was good when he first blew up but he knocked it off centre. 

Finlay Johnstone was controlled throughout, maybe too controlled, but this was mature, poised, in command playing. Unfortunately he had a breakdown in the H&J when going very well in the Stornoway Hornpipe. It cost him the overall. Roderick MacLeod had a better pipe in the MSR and a good strathspey and reel, but the doubling runs at the end of each part of the Argyllshire Gathering were inconsistent. Another break down in the H&J where there was indecision on whether to play the High Level round or pointed. 

A really class instrument from Connor Sinclair to end the musical proceedings. Connor played with good pointing and phrasing. The strathspey could have had more lift but that was a minor complaint. I was a little surprised he didn’t make the reckoning in the MSR. H&J: He needs to check his music for John MacKenzie’s Fancy – his version is peppered with wrong notes (John MacFadyen Bk2).

A tradition of the Uist & Barra is the presentation in Glasgow of the Flora MacDonald Young Piper of the Year trophy, a competition local to the islands. The winner, Chloë Steele, was delayed by bad weather at Benbecula Airport but made it in time to give a good seletion of tunes before receiving her trophy in front of the large, appreciative audience

MSR: 1 Sarah Muir, Allan Dodd’s Farewell to Scotland, Cal. Soc. of London, Alick C. MacGregor, £165 2 Iain Speirs, P/M J McWilliams, Arniston Castle, Bessie MacIntyre, £110  3 Finlay Johnston, John MacColl’s March to Kilbowie Cottage, Bob o’ Fettercairn, Sheepwife, £85 4 Angus MacColl, Highland Wedding, Ewe wi’ the Crookit Horn, Lachlan MacPhail of Tiree, £75 5 Alasdair Henderson, Hugh Kennedy, Piper’s Bonnet, Sandy Cameron, £65

H&J: 1 Angus MacColl, Redondo Beach, Skye, £70  2 Alasdair Henderson, Train Journey North, Alex MacDonald, £60 3 Connor Sinclair, John MacKenzie’s Fancy, Inspector Campbell, Ness, £50 4 Iain Speirs, Arthur Gillies, Angus John MacNeill, Barra, £40 5 Gordon McCready, Raigmore, Hen’s March, £30

Overall Champion was Angus MacColl (by half a point from Finlay Johnston). Altogether a great day of music and all congratulations to Piping Convenor John Angus Smith, to U&B President Mags Sproat and Bean an Taighe Catriona MacPhee for the organisation and smooth running of the day. One suggestion for next year would be to have the trophies restored for presentation. These are presently on show in a museum on South Uist. If there are concerns over engraving and security, present them at the contest, have pictures taken and then gather them back for safe storage for the following year.

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1 thought on “Report and Comment on the 2020 Uist & Barra

  1. Very nice review. It would be great to have comments on the make of some of the pipes and a couple notes on their setup. cheers

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