This year, due to the pandemic, the sound of the Highland bagpipe did not reverberate through the walls of Eden Court Theatre, Inverness. The Northern Meeting competition, which is really the foremost in piping, did not take place as scheduled. And with various newspaper reports telling of the theatre’s financial woes, we are now concerned for next year too.
Eden Court has been the home of the ‘Meetings’ for a number of years and, with all its facilities, is undoubtedly a very suitable venue. The Northern Meeting Committee are fully aware of the cost of hiring the building for the two-day event. There have been cost estimates by people outwith the committee. Whether or not such five-figure estimates have accuracy, they are eye-watering when you think about it.
By Duncan Watson
Audience takings added to entry fees by the participating pipers are not likely come near to meeting the cost of hiring the theatre and the other competition expenses such as prizemoney and judges’ fees. Generous sponsors are undoubtedly the basis for the continuing decision to hire the facility despite its price.
As a very keen youth I attended the Northern Meeting when the competition was held in their Rooms in Church Street. It was there that I first saw and heard some of the then piping giants. I was smitten with the atmosphere and sound of what I thought good and wonderful playing.
I was intrigued with this piobaireachd business, oddly, perhaps, the sound and playing of what I later learned were what we call cadences. This still intrigues me. However, I digress.
As pointed out in a recent ‘history’ post in Piping Press, the Northern Meeting Piping Competition was eventually forced to move from its rooms as the building was unsafe and had to be demolished. It had served other purposes such as a regular dance hall and was part of Inverness cultural and social life. Closure was a sad loss to the town.
The competitions were then held in the Arts Centre, Farraline Park, and at the Territorial Drill Hall nearby. Thereafter there was a move to the Caledonian Hotel ballroom and the Dr Black Memorial Hall before the committee settled for the expensive luxury of Eden Court.
The older members of the piping community will have fond memories of the old Northern Meeting venues. A few years ago there was a brief change of course due to the refurbishment of the theatre and the competitions were moved to the Aviemore Centre a short drive down the A9.
I have played in all of the venues save for Aviemore. For me Eden Court was a daunting place; I suppose I was in awe of it. Some have found it more comfortable to play there than I did. What struck me was the obvious difference between playing at Highland games in outdoor conditions with pretty basic facilities and then trying to adapt to playing on a very formal stage in that huge auditorium.
Many top pipers have, undoubtedly, adapted very well to this concert setting and even seem to revel in the charged atmosphere. But for me it was actually frighteningly different. In this vein, I recall a piper, who I will not name, who was experienced and had prepared his tunes well, but when he took to the ECT stage, was petrified. He stood frozen to the spot playing all the way through his piobaireachd, sweating profusely, and quivering. Immediately afterwards the theatre bar takings rose considerably!
That bar, I recall, was called something like the Bishop’s Bar. It was well attended by pipers and audience members and it had a convivial atmosphere. The Eden Court takings from it during the two-day gathering, must have been significant, but I doubt if any of the profits found their way to the coffers of the Northern Meeting organisation.
With the refurbishment of the Theatre building that facility has been lost. There remains an open-plan bar in the venue, but it is widely agreed that the special atmosphere of the Bishop’s Bar has been lost.
These days I attend the Meetings as a spectator and from an audience comfort aspect the Eden Court facility is excellent. In addition, with the various rooms available, different competitions can be run simultaneously, giving the paying cutomer a choice of what they wish to listen to without leaving the building.
Bagpipe Tutor 1 is now available in French!
There are not many places such as this throughout the country. Indeed, had I never had the experience of attending, I doubt if I would have believed that there was such a suitable place for piping.
The complex has suffered money problems in the past and this current Covid crisis is exacerbating its difficult financial situation. Next year the theatre may be forced to increase hire fees that put it out of reach of the piping comepetition.
It appears likely that the cost of running the piping competition is spiralling too, maybe indeed putting its continuance at Eden Court in jeopardy? How the Inverness city fathers or indeed the Scottish Government might view this loss I’d be interested to know.
Robert Wallace in his Piping Press blog has suggested that the venue for the competition might not be so important and that if Eden Court became unavailable or unaffordable pipers would adapt. That could prove true, but undoubtedly Eden Court Theatre is the ideal venue and it would be a pity if it was lost to piping.