Review: Uist & Barra Professional 2023

U&B Champion for 2023, Craig Sutherland with the Glasgow Highland Club Medal for first in ceòl mòr

The first thing to say is what a total success this comeback meeting, the first for three years, was. The standard of play, particularly in the light music, was as good as has been heard at this stage of the competitive year.

Yes, there was some ring rustiness – but only some. For the most part the ten pipers entertained the large crowd grandly, with even those who didn’t make the lists producing something worth listening to.

By The Editor

Piping Convenor John Angus Smith and his team ran a slick operation, despite the clunky delays of the McPhater Street lift. A crisp 5.30pm finish was ideal.

At the end I was asked if I thought the old College building would have been a better fit. Certainly it gets warm, but against that the pipers can walk straight in from the tuning rooms with very little change in temperature.

Moreover, the U&B committee can usually install their own purvey in what was the College museum where many a Gaelic song wrapped up the day in pleasant fashion.


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I know the competitors will take the following comments in the positive manner they are intended; they have every right to insist judges account for their decisions, so here are my thoughts:

Ceòl Mòr: The winner was Perthshire’s own Craig Sutherland. He played Park Piobaireachd No2 on a strong, accurate pipe which projected his fingerwork. There could have been more phrasing in the ground but that will come with maturity.

A good second went to John Mulhearn. John had a beautifully set pipe with the solid high G necessary for Queen Anne’s Lament. He negotiated the urlar well with only the odd timing indiscretion. Variation 1 had the grips more o-dro than the much better odro and he could take more time over the high G turns at the end.

Angus MacColl has won the U&B with the End of the High Bridge before and looked set to repeat the feat when a slight drifitng of the drones took the edge off a perfectly laid out piobaireachd.

In fourth we had Sandy Cameron who just lacked a little phrasing in his Pass of Crieff variations, especially in the doubling and trebling of the dithis. The pipe lasted well, the finger solid.

Finlay Johnston never quite got going with Battle of Auldearn No1 and matters were not helped when his initially well set bagpipe went on a wander. I also felt that the odd dare movement in the ground lacked rhythm.

Champions three….Finlay Johnston, Craig Sutherland and Angus MacColl

Of the others Sarah Muir was competent with the Old Men of the Shells but somehow lacked conviction, and the D gracenote in her hiharin could be more prominent; Iain Speirs‘s I Gave a Kiss the King’s Hand was marred by drones not locked to the chanter – yet they were perfect when he first blew up and he did his best to nurse them along with controlled blowing; Connor Sinclair (Viscount of Dundee) may like to look at his piobaireachd technique to ensure that it has the required ripple, and he dwelt too long on the connecting notes from Var 2 onwards; Jamie Forrester was too quick off the grip notes in MacIntosh of Borlum Ground and Thumb, and had a slip; Angus J MacColl needs to rethink his Earl of Seaforth which, though well fingered, did not rise and run as it should.

Ceòl Beag: Finlay Johnston was outstanding. No worrries over the pipe this time; beautifully sweet and steady. His MSR set was on the money tempo-wise and well expressed throughout. In the Hornpipe & Jig, the jig didn’t quite flow as it should.

Runner-up in the MSR was Angus D MacColl. (Angus Dad MacColl if you want to remember which MacColl is which.) Angus gave his usual melodic, musical masterclass. Maybe one or two D throws were indistinct. He started carefully in the H&J but ramped up the revs in the jig and powered to first place.


On stage at the U&B 2023…..


A few light finger moments were the only criticisms of Craig Sutherland‘s playing, though he took the jig a shade fast. Third for Craig in the MSR and a place in the H&J too.

This was proving to be a very high order MSR contest – confirmed by Iain Speirs, who, like the true professional he is, put the disappointment of the piobaireachd behind him to present a commanding set. Was the high A a shade sharp?

Any one of the first four MSR places could, in another year, have been enough for first. Iain kept the music going, especially in his hornpipe, with only a few missed strikes nudging him down the order.

Fifth MSR prize went young Connor Sinclair. No worries over fingerwork here as Connor confidentally stepped out. There were tight tachums in the march though, and a slight wobble in the reel. The hornpipe was restrained but the jig clattered along at a jaunty lick.

Of the others Sarah Muir missed F doublings in Donald MacLellan of Rothesay (nice pipe and just short of the list in H&J), Angus J had slack work at times and, though musical, maybe showed a lack of experience on the big stage. Sandy Cameron could look to his phrasing – it didn’t match the quality of his pipe or finger. Jamie Forrester, perhaps off form, had loose strikes on the bottom hand and occasional weak throws on D (need more C). John Mulhearn was another whose control and phrasing let him down – and he could give regard to his choice of tunes, though his own hornpipe, The Idle Pint, has some pleasing passages.

It was a feature of the light music, particularly the H&J, how many pipers put themselves out of contention by playing some average compositions. I am all for new pieces, but if you are going to put them in, make sure they compete with the classics.

The judge’s decisions were prompt and unanimous and I must say it was especially rewarding to share the bench with such piping greats as Willie Morrison and Ian Duncan.

Judges Willie Morrison, Robert Wallace and Ian Duncan

MSR
1 Finlay Johnston, Major Manson at Clachantrushal, Cat Lodge, Brown Haired Maid
2 Angus D MacColl, Mrs John MacColl, Atholl Cummers, Rejected Suitor
3 Craig Sutherland, MacLean of Pennycross, Islay Ball, John Morrison, Assynt House
4 Iain Speirs, Duke of Roxburgh’s Farewell to the Blackmount, Tulloch Castle, Smith of Chilliechassie
5 Connor Sinclair, David Ross of Rosehall, Piper’s Bonnet, Broadford Bay

H&J
1 Angus D MacColl, Redondo Beach, Glen Orchy
2 Craig Sutherland, The Gladiator, Donald Cameron’s Powder Horn
3 Connor Sinclair, Jack Adrift, Inspector Donald Campbell, Ness
4 Finlay Johnston, P/M George Allan, Tucker’s Tales
5 Iain Speirs, Arthur Gillies, Angus John MacNeill of Barra

Overall
1 Craig Sutherland 2 Angus D MacColl 3 Finlay Johnston

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