History: Solo Piping in 1985 and the Day the Gold Medal was Paused for Communion

The following is taken from the Oban Times piping column written by Alfred Morrison in late August 1985. He begins in characteristically trenchant fashion with a comment on the Silver Chanter:

On Wednesday evening this piping recital was held in Dunvegan Castle. This event in piping used to be a competition for pipers who had already won the Gold Medal at Oban or Inverness, but this year it was demoted to a recital by four invited pipers who had to play two piobaireachd each.

There are no prizes given, but the pipers are financially compensated for their appearance, and the judges’ remit was to reward the instrument [the Silver Chanter Trophy] to the player whom they adjudicated to give [sic] the most pleasing performance.

In this instance it was Iain MacFadyen, Kyle [pictured]. The appointed judges were Pipe Major John D Burgess, General Frank Richardson and Alasdair Milne of the BBC, but Alasdair could not be there.

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This cosmetic exercise in piping at least gives the opportunity to a clientele who believe themselves to be on the social ladder of piobaireachd appreciation and who are rewarded with a sumptuous buffet and of course the inevitable miniature whisky – after all one of the supporters of this exercise is The Famous Grouse Whisky.

Fred then turns his attention to the Argyllshire Gathering…

August 28 was the first day of the gathering. This is the day when all piobaireachd competition are held: Gold Medal, Silver Medal and Senior Piobaireachd for the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders Cup.

Strange as it may seem in a month which had only four full dry days, Oban on Wednesday and Thursday was basking in warm sunshine.

Last year I was advocating in these columns that the Silver Medal should be divided into two parts and a list of five taken from each for a final play-off. I was delighted to see that this was the way in which this cumbersome competition was administered this year. But, as Disraeli said, ‘No sooner have I solved the Irish Question than the Irish change the question.’

No sooner does the Argyllshire Gathering committee solve one problem than another rears its ugly head. I refer to the open March competition. There were 62 entrants and I am convinced that at least 40 of these are neither competent nor proficient to be accepted as candidates for this competition.

Eventually the committee will have to accept the Competing Pipers’ Association gradings – and this is also true of the Gold Medal – or they will have to split the competition into two parts and take five from each for a final play off as was done with the Silver Medal.

No one could hope that any piping judge could equate the performance of the first player with that of the last. In my opinion that would be an inhuman task. I can readily understand the committee, looking to its finances, being willing to accept an entrance fee from all and sundry, but that only leads to chaos and in many cases undesirable decisions.

The Gold Medal: Oban was so much taxed in its halls capacity that the Gold Medal was held in St John’s Cathedral – not in the Cathedral Hall but in the very church itself. It was somewhat bizarre to see the competitors marching in front of the High Altar while the judges sat in the cross pews.

As a matter of fact the competition had to be abandoned for an hour while communion was dispensed. Anyway, I felt some 20 piobaireachds were fully blessed.

Twenty-three competitors entered and no fewer than ten of them were from overseas: Canada, New Zealand, USA and South Africa. A total of 120 piobaireachd were submitted as each player had to submit eight. This proves what tremendous strides piobaireachd playing has made in the last 20 years. This is mainly due to the introduction of piping into our schools curriculum and to the College of Piping.

It is a matter of great regret that the Education Committee of the Western Isles has seen fit not to replace the piping teachers who have retired from this service.

The competition was started off by Dugald MacNeill playing Beloved Scotland Thee I am Leaving. Throughout the day a good standard was maintained. At the end of the contest the judges selected four tunes and placed them in the following order: 1 and Gold Medal – Robert Wallace, King’s Taxes, 2 Alfred P. Morrison, Lament for Captain MacDougall, 3 James MacGillivray, Canada, Battle of the Pass of Crieff, 4 Chris Terry, South Africa, MacLeod of Raasay’s Salute.

The judges were Captain Andrew Pitkeathly, P/M Evan MacRae and P/M RG Hardie.

The Silver Medal: 1 Gordon Walker 2 Michael Gray 3 James Bain 4 Donald Lindsay.

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