Uist & Barra 2024 Review: Giving Tunes a Week Early Does Not Help Pipers or Listeners

Expert tunes from Iain Speirs, Finlay Johnston and Angus MacColl

Most highlights of the day came in a four hour period between 9am and 1pm when the ten invited pipers performed their piobaireachd. They had been given their chosen tunes, selected by the promoters from six submitted, a week in advance.

I’m not sure this is a good idea. Yes, it allows a programme with prescribed tunes to be printed (costly and is it really necessary?) and it reduces the chances of breakdowns and wrong notes – but it does little for musical expression. Gone is the spontaneity, the chance of inspired interpretation fired by the moment.

By Robert Wallace

Repeated rehearsal brings staleness. Those on top of their brief display an over familiarity; those not, entrench their flaws.

That aside, there was a lot of very good piping at the 77th annual Uist & Barra and those piobaireachd I enjoyed, in no particular order, are mentioned below.

Before we get to that I have another bone I hope we can agree to chew on….The pipes were all well set but I worry we are losing harmonics. Where was the solid bass locked to low A and delivering such over and under tones that the chanter projected and the pipe filled the room?

Does anyone aspire to the sound that we heard from Donald MacPherson, P/M Angus MacDonald, Hugh MacInnes and others? Is it these water control systems that are to blame?

A skilled bagpipe maker spends his life studying air flow. He measures and makes his drones to maximise harmony and steadiness. Along comes a piper and sticks a lump of plastic on the stock end killing off half the sound. Why bother Mr Maker?

Absolved of all guilt was Finlay Johnston. When he struck up first on in the morning here was sweetness and deep sonority. Had we, I wrote, already heard the best bagpipe of the day and perhaps the year?

Finlay played a lovely My Dearest on Earth, marred slightly by early gracenotes after the opening C and B grips, and a few other missing musical touches. That said, high quality playing and a memorable pipe.

Callum Beaumont with the Glasgow Highland Club Medal

Callum Beaumont’s only flaw to my ear was the over eagerness with which he set out the ground and first variation of Donald Gruamach, losing some of the melodic beauty in the process. He settled down after this and his technique and control, especially they way he handled the cadences, was perfection itself.

The good tunes kept coming and what a strong return to form from Iain Speirs. Again perhaps a shade quick with the ground of Cherede Darievea, a quickness I aver would not have been there had he not had a week to think about the tune. Like the master player he is, Iain sailed through the technical demands of this formidable piece on a chanter with a ringing high G backed by a wash of comforting, consistent drone. Maybe a bit more on the short theme notes in the suibhal was needed.

When Angus MacColl first blew up, comforting drone had he not. But, as if by a miracle, when he started his Unjust, there they were rock solid and resonant. He proceeded to bring out all the fire and fear inherent in this masterwork, rounding off with his crisp crunluath and an a mach which could have done with a little more progression rather than being played strictly on the beat. Minor point; marvellous tune.

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I found Craig Sutherland’s chanter to be a trifle bold, a trifle keenly set for piobaireachd – but the ear adjusted and he got through Colbeck with plenty still in the tank. He’s a big strapping lad after all. This was a good tune, but I noticed Craig had a tendency to time his work to the knee bend. Never a good idea if you want to avoid mechanical playing.

Of the others, Sarah Muir produced a very nice ground of the Big Spree before squaring off the variations and rushing the transition from suibhal to triplet.

Technical and timing errors, too many to mention, populated the remainder of the tunes.

After lunch I was joined in the audience by the great P/M Ian McLellan. We listened to the whole of the light music contest. Ian’s thoughts are his own and I’m not going to share them here.

For myself, the ceòl beag was not of such a high standard as the piobaireachd. That is not to detract at all from Sarah Muir’s performance. She thoroughly deserved her victories, crisp fingering, pleasant bagpipe and musical interpretation. Ditto Craig Sutherland who can’t have been far behind her.

Sarah Muir at the U&B….winner of both light music titles and the PP award for best Gaelic air

Again, getting the tunes a week early did not help everyone else – pipers playing off the beat, missing phrases, erratic tempi. But let’s be generous and put that down to early season rust.

It didn’t stop those in the audience enjoying themselves, singing along with the Gaelic air warm ups (pleasing to see the pipers keeping this U&B tradition alive), the loudest chorus reserved for Sarah.

If some of the playing wasn’t that great, Ian’s stories about the Strathclyde Police band kept my entertainment level peaking. Midst the humour he tells me that he has retired from judging and will now be content to enjoy his music from the rear seating. He plans to attend the Duncan Johnstone competition in a couple of weeks and the Scottish Pipers shortly after that. What a servant to piping and pipe bands he has been.

Looking at the day as a whole, I can’t help feel that the U&B needs a friendly shake. For example there were no trophies for the winners. Some of these go back decades with many famous names on them. I hear they are housed in a museum on Uist for safety.

U&B 2018….Craig Sutherland, Niall Stewart and Iain Speirs with the historic trophies

If pipers failing to return them is an issue, present them, do some photographs and then take them back into the secretary’s care until the following year.

Trophy snaps are absolutely vital for the media and for attracting sponsors, and I hope the committee will give some thought to this suggestion. Look at the picture above; no such thing in 2024.

The return to my old stamping ground in Otago Street was definitely a plus, but the short after party known for its drams and songs was sorely missed. The social aspect of the U&B should not be underestimated.

  • Uist & Barra Professional Invitational Competition held at the Piping Centre, Otago Street, Glasgow, on March 9, 2024. Results here.

1 thought on “Uist & Barra 2024 Review: Giving Tunes a Week Early Does Not Help Pipers or Listeners

  1. I was at the light music only and thoroughly enjoyed it. Maybe my expectations, like my expertise, are not as great as Robert’s.

    Thanks for answering the question about the trophies, Robert. I am totally in agreement with you. Mags, John Angus and co. – let’s have a rethink here PLEASE! Surely, Charles Hepburn at al donated them to be enjoyed by the pipers and the audience at the annual competition; not by visitors to a museum in Uist.

    Also Robert, we are in agreement about the absence of the informal post-championship ceilidh for members and sponsors. A few drams, a tune on the box, a song or 6 in the Gaelic … I particularly remember John Angus drawing the Ceilidh to a close by getting everyone in a circle, not to sing ‘Auld Lang Syne’ but ‘Teann a-nall ‘s thoir dhomh do làmh’, with accompaniment from the Great Highland Bagpipe. If we didn’t have that walk in Uist thereafter, some of us would get as far as Argyle Street and The Park Bar!

    My sources tell me that the ceilidh has been abandoned owing to its cost. I’m sure that we could gather together a few bottles from attendees to make it happen again.

    These things contributed to the homely, uniqueness of the Uist and Barra and without them something is lost.

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