A Sorry Season for the Solo Piper

Can anything be salvaged from the 2020 piping season? It remains to be seen whether Oban, Braemar (above) and Skye will follow the trail of cancellation evidenced yesterday by the not wholly unexpected call offs from the Northern Meeting and Cowal, writes the Editor.

I hope the remaining gatherings can, at least for now, resist the temptation of making too early a decision. All of the competing pipers I have spoken to are of the same mind.

I am not sure that having the Northern Meeting so early – before Oban as was planned for this year – sat well with most folk anyway. The idea upset the rhythm of the summer somehow, and I am sure the promoters of the NM felt the same.



If it had been up to me I would have hired a school and put the Meetings on on a Saturday mid to late September. These grand contests are ultimately about the pipers and their music not about the surroundings. It’s the music you remember not the fact that you had a comfy seat. If the prestigious Eden Court is not available then its not available. Find somewhere else.

The pipers will rise to the challenge. Let us not forget that the Meetings used to be held out of doors a few generations ago, with stories of Clasps being won in the snow. And we’ve all heard magnificent performances in less than salubrious surroundings haven’t we?

I can think of Donald MacPherson winning in the wee church hall at Oban with Lady MacDonald’s Lament and with the Sister’s Lament in the dingy Phoenix Cinema. And the Dr Black Hall and the Cally Ballroom all had their fair share of brilliance in the Highland capital despite the usual difficulties of tuning and stewarding.

No, we don’t want to go back to that if we can avoid it; pipers are entitled to expect to be treated like professional musicians. But needs must. The music must continue. It must be heard. Pipers must have the top awards to play for. Within the bounds of health and safety, this has to be the guiding imperative.

Northern Meeting 1912…the games park was good enough for these giants of the past. How many can you name? Front rank (l-r) we have John MacDonald, Inverness, ?, GS McLennan, John MacDougall Gillies, Robert Meldrum?, ?, ?. Angus Macpherson, Invershin, is standing behind Gillies’s left shoulder

The Argyllshire Gathering is a different animal to the Northern Meeting. Apart from the foyer at the Corran Halls, there is seldom any large congregation to worry about. If the UK lockdown is to be eased from May 7 as we are told, and that London hotels have already been informed they can open from the first week in June, then is it not fair to assume that three months after that date a degree of normality will have returned, perhaps just in time for the AG?

Worst case scenario? Cancel the march to the games but hold the Gold and Silver Medals, the Senior Piobaireachd and the Former Winners’ MSR anyway, but with a livestream audience only. If social distancing is still required by law then space the judges out accordingly. They hand their lists of winners to the Piping Steward and he announces the results to the waiting world.

With their small, sporadic audiences, something similar could be done for the Dunvegan Medal, Clasp and light music at Skye. Braemar is more difficult. Come September there may still be restrictions on large events of over, say, 500, and if that is the case the Royal Gathering has had it. However, looking on the up, it is all of four and a half months away. A lot can change in that time.

The march to the Games at Oban in 1996. The pipers are John Don MacKenzie, Angus MacColl, Jack Lee, Alan Bevan, Iain Hurst and Michael Gray QOH

On their website today, but posted in late March, Braemar say: ‘The organisers of Braemar Royal Highland Gathering are acutely aware of the ongoing uncertainty surrounding the current  COVID-19 (Coronavirus) outbreak, and the concerns our visitors, athletes, competitors, judges and volunteers may have. 

‘As organisers we continue to monitor and review the UK and Scottish Government’s guidance for the duration of the suspension of large events, and like everyone around the world, look forward to a swift return to a safer and more normal time.

‘We understand the difficulties which this level of uncertainty generates for both our overseas visitors and those who live closer to home, all of whom will have made advanced plans to get the most from their day.  As more information and clarity is provided in the coming days, we will update you as quickly as we can. In the meantime with the 5th of September still over five months away, we continue to plan and work towards delivering another Braemar Gathering.’


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4 thoughts on “A Sorry Season for the Solo Piper

  1. Great piece Rab. Oh,and still looking and hoping for the piping fraternity
    to link up via zoom. If box players can do it, why not. Or am I missing something?

    1. Good to hear from you Eric. The Piobaireachd Society has a rolling programme of tunes underway on their Facebook page and there are other piping endeavours on Fb too. Best wishes. RW

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