Category Archives: Reviews

Dress at Oban and Inverness and the Standard of Play in B Grade Events

By Robert Wallace

A last look at the piping at the 2017 Northern Meeting today. Before that a word about Oban and its dress code. Pipers at the Argyllshire Gathering are permitted to play without jackets. The rooms get hot at times and the laudable aim of the organisers is to make the competitors as comfortable as possible in the pressure cooker atmosphere of the small theatre at the Corran Halls and in the confined space of other competition venues.

You might think that such a dispensation would yield a pipe band outcome where everyone wears a waistcoat, a smartly pressed shirt with cufflinks, fastened tie and a bonnet correctly (mostly) positioned on the head. Not so. What I witnessed this year was a noticeable decline in appearance. Here we had some of the most important piping events in the world (and some of the best musicians) parading in rolled up shirt sleeves, ties unhinged, bonnets askew, no waistcoat or kilt belt – and no visual respect for the occasion.

So it is one thing for promoters to try to accommodate sweaty pipers, but if the no jacket allowance leads to a further drop in standards of dress and deportment then we need to be concerned. Could Oban not state in its rules that pipers who drop the jacket must wear a waistcoat, must have ties appropriately knotted, shirtsleeves fastened at the cuff etc? In the picture up top young Luke Kennedy shows pipers how they should dress at the Gathering if they don’t want to wear jackets (bonnet to be added). Luke is seen receiving the P/M RG Hardie Memorial Trophy for Intermediate MSR playing from AG Assistant Piping Convenor Jamie Mellor.

No such worries at Inverness where jackets are de rigueur….. shame about some of the playing in the ‘B’s. The topic of conversation amongst many of the adjudicators who presided over the ‘B’ grade March, Strathspey and Reel and ‘B’ Grade Hornpipe & Jig was of the indifferent (I don’t want to go any stronger than that) standard of performance. One judge wrote to me: ‘I am seriously concerned about the state of piping among our up and coming players – lack of musicality, technique, phrasing, bagpipes etc. Three minutes should be ample to tune a set of pipes surely? Very few achieved it. That was an uncomfortable experience today for all three of us – for seven hours.’

I would echo these sentiments but would say that in the ‘B’ Hornpipe & Jig that I judged with Ian McLellan the prizewinners all played well and there were others who perhaps had a good hornpipe but failed in the jig and vice versa. I am sure this would be the same in the ‘B’ MSR, however my correspondent’s point is well made.

Sandy Cameron, winner of the Northern Meeting ‘B’ Hornpipe & Jig and a regular winner round the games this year. Sandy is pictured at Arisaig

The number of times pipers came to the floor with the pipes well in, only to put them out, and then struggle to recover their tuning – and invariably failing – was considerable. Add to that the flaws in basic technique: D throws not properly grounded to low G, double Es from F false fingered, inconsistencies in grips and taorluaths, the list goes on and this at the Northern Meeting!

Consider too, a failure to understand, or deliver, the basic ceol beag idioms and we have a problem. Are senior pipers/ judges doing enough teaching? Are the draconian rules of the Solo Piping Judges Association already having an effect? Do nerves play a big part? Certainly, this is Inverness after all. But there is a world of difference between someone trying to play correctly and failing and someone who misunderstands the basic requirements of the art.

Band playing may have made an unfortunate impact too. The quality of fingerwork required to succeed on the solo platform probably exceeds that of the average Grade 1 piper. We often hear pipers fresh from a win at the Worlds struggling to execute their solo stuff with the required clarity and definition. Rhythm: in bands this comes from the pipe major and the drummers. Individual feel for the music is secondary, yet on the solo board the piper is lost without it.

And tuning. Do pipers actually rehearse the three or four-minute tuning lights regime they encounter at Oban and Inverness? I would be amazed if they did not, yet judging by the evidence, this is clearly not the case. (Some even think that by standing with their backs to the lights as the red approaches they will gain extra time and fool the judges. Believe me, this does the guilty piper no favours.) Has a reliance on electronic tuners caused a decline in the development of what used to be called a ‘good ear’? It would seem so.

Many pipers will be hurting after a disappointing Oban and Inverness. I’ve been in that movie. The only response can be a complete re-evaluation of your instrument (from the bag up), your technique, your appreciation of basic rhythm and expression and a thorough look at your practice regime. For goodness sake don’t despair. Many’s the piper who, with a change in direction or a look at the basics, manages to turn round their performance and consequent success rate. Remember, just to get to Oban and Inverness says something about your standard of play. You have to be a very good piper to be accepted.

Do not wander in the wilderness cursing judges and misfortune. Seek out a senior player or judge who has been there and done it all. Hopefully some guidance will be forthcoming. Get your set tunes off by Christmas; cut out that march you never seem to do well with, think hard about linking your strathspeys and reels and how well they sit together. Is John Morrison, Assynt House worth the risk when Alick C would do? Look logically and rationally at all of this, take the necessary action and you should be able to approach next season with renewed confidence.

Get full results from Oban here. Get full results from Inverness here. 

Review of Bill Livingstone’s Book ‘Preposterous: Tales to Follow’

This book shows glimpses of delicious interactions, thought processes and history, writes our special correspondent MacStig. It should become a standard read for anyone interested in the piping art, pipe bands and humanity. It is all there, fame, failure, family, humour, heartache, and hard work.

The long anticipated reminiscences of renowned piper, lawyer, husband and now author, Bill Livingstone soar immediately from the opening paragraphs of his book ‘Preposterous: Tales to Follow’. There are jaw-dropping instances and the sheer honesty of it all is breathtaking. His described lack of self-confidence, hypochondria and challenges with depression lay bare the man many consider a giant in the world of the great Highland bagpipe. His fortune to have been around a lengthy time, is to have supped, played and walked with names that to many are often only uttered in whispered tones.

From his earliest days in a ‘company’ mining town in Canada where his description made me cough just thinking about the dust and pollution, to his Scottish heritage in learning the chanter, to arguably the solo pinnacle of ‘Gold Medal’, Dan Reid Memorial, ‘Clasp’ and that pipe band defining 78th Fraser concert in 1987 and World Championship later that same week (main picture, top), the book gallops at pace with a look back to significant events, people and themes in Mr Livingstone’s life.

I got through it in two sittings because it is so readable, very compelling and down to earth. The humour is palpable, some slap stick, and I refer to the left hook from Mrs Livingstone in the Georgian Assembly Rooms in Edinburgh, to the missing hat issue and resultant PPBSO sanction on the 78th Frasers. Then some more subtle instances, like the description of the apartment he and his wife lived in whilst he studied, and the building’s colourful  tenants. Who wouldn’t laugh at a hapless solo American piper telling the author, sitting on the bench, that he would play King George Versus Army (it was of course, King George V’s Army). There are also dark passages and the author is to be commended for laying it all out. This is no sugar-coated, ‘churn out the anecdotes’ tome. It’s real.

Students of the craft should pay particular attention to the passages about building the 78th sound and repertoire. Younger players might have to ask an elder about being taught by cassette tape sent in the mail – mail that is delivered by a person. In those formative years Bill was a seeker for sure, seeking knowledge and seeking improvement.

The open mindedness, his surrounding himself with good people and willingness to look to other genres and have a go at new ideas, led to that defining concert and World Pipe Band Championship in 1987 – and should it have been in 1986 and 1988 too? The near three decades at the Frasers, and how that ended, how they created the tartan (by accident) and the glory years, all add to the drama.

Bill Livingstone with Winston Pinkerton, President of the Northern Ireland Branch of the RSPBA. Bill receives a glass plaque to mark 30 years since the 78th Frasers ground breaking concert in Ballymena

The courage to call it as he saw it, might have caused issues at the time. The relating of stories of the ‘benches’ he faced, and the instances around judging and authorities all add to the colour. The first segment of the book launches on one such instance and captivates the reader immediately. The questions posed about innovation, the professionalisation of winning and passages towards the end of the book about form and substance are very thought provoking.

Also, there are some great photographs in the book of the young Livingstone, his family, earliest bands and shots of him amongst the celebrated pipers of decades gone by. You’ll recognise some of the fresher faced Glenfiddich competitors.

At the official launch of the book in Scotland during Piping Live, his appearing with Shotts in the pre Worlds concert, and a fitting honouring of Bill Livingstone at the Glengarry Games, Maxville, onlookers would have raised their hats to this man and perhaps a glass of ‘low flier’ too (Famous Grouse if you need to ask) for all that he has done.

As the author writes, ‘The son of a coal miner from Ayrshire with the temerity to pen a memoir, for God’s sake, it seems to be contrary to nature, against all reason and common sense, absurd’. Of course, the author might even think it preposterous. I’m my view, it’s a must read. Period. As an aside, I had the pleasure of his company for a short while one evening, just after he had played for an invited audience on the east coast of the US. Listening intently, the youngsters in the gathering were encouraged to tell him their stories, and what they were doing. That’s a true leader.

• Buy the book here priced £3.86 (Kindle), £25.99 hardback and £16.99 paperback.

Some Personal Reflections on the 2017 Ceol Mor Competitions at Oban and Inverness

Chris Terry has studied ceol mor throughout his life. In his competing years he won many top prizes in Scotland including several placings in the Gold Medal and this despite the necessity of having to travel thousands of miles each year at great expense to do so. He has been solo piping champion of South Africa on innumerable occasions. We are very grateful to Chris for taking the time to pen these thoughts on this year’s major solo competitions at Oban and Inverness. Pictured above is Alasdair Henderson the recipient of the Highland Society of London’s Gold Medal at this year’s Northern Meeting….

      Some Personal Reflections on
Oban and Inverness

By Chris Terry, South Africa

Archibald Campbell of Kilberry spent a number of years in India, and on his return was able to document changes that he observed in the playing of the pipers of the day. These were probably almost unnoticed by the pipers themselves, as these changes would have been gradual and evolutionary; but for someone who had been away for a sustained period, the changes were quite significant.

It is now 23 years since I last competed at Oban and Inverness, and, although I have attended both contests once in the intervening years, I have noticed some relatively minor changes in the evolution, and one or two quite significant ones. I heard almost the entire Gold Medal at the Argyllshire Gathering (I missed the last two), and at the Northern Meeting (where I missed the first two), and all but the first in the Clasp.

Probably the most noticeable is that the quality of the instruments has reached a very high level. I noted with interest Ian McLellan’s comments about the balance, particularly the lack of bass sound. My comment really revolves around the fact that hardly an instrument was less than perfect in tuning, with balanced note intervals, and hardly any drifted noticeably off the mark during the performance. This made listening to the music a pleasure throughout.

Secondly, the standard of technique was amazing – such that the odd slightly second-rate crunluath or taorluath seemed to be the sheep and goat separator. Miss one gracenote (approximately 30 milliseconds in a 14 minute performance), and you are dead in the water. A note error seems to be less of an issue these days (and rightly, perhaps) than it used to be, but don’t miss a B gracenote in a D taorluath!

On the subject of technique though, I felt that there is a tendency to play some of the heavier movements (darodo, throws from low G to high G, and particularly the throw to F) so quickly that they are almost non-existent. They are there for a purpose – otherwise the composer would probably have used just a plain gracenote. Clear but crisp is what is desired.

Another area of change is that of tempo. There seems to be less variation within the tune (singling to doubling, for example) than was the case; and generally the tunes are taken more quickly than they used to be, particularly laments – though the path between ‘stately and dignified’ and ‘dragged’ is a fairly narrow one to tread. And some of the bolder, more aggressive tunes seem to be treated less boldly than in the past.

Trying for Gold next year if he can find the air fare will be the 2017 Northern Meeting Silver Medallist. Stuart Easton from NZ. Stuart’s performance was described by one judge as perfect in every department, pipes, finger and interpretation. ‘Stuart was on early and he made the most of his tune the Sword’s Lament. Though there were good tunes following him his was clearly the best of the day.’ Stuart is seen receiving his medal from Inverness Provost (Mayor) Helen Carmichael. Picture courtesy Alistair Sinclair

It was in the area of musicality that I have to admit to some disappointment. When I was fortunate enough to spend a little over a year of weekly lessons with the late John MacFadyen in 1975, he placed great emphasis on phrasing, particularly holding the ends of the phrases, tempo contrasts, rhythm, and the smooth transition from one variation to the next. What appears to be the norm now is a somewhat sterile, bland, ‘play it safe’ approach.

It is understandable that the players tend to play cautiously (there is much at stake, after all), but the sad thing is that judges seem to award the prizes more often to those who play cautiously (and correctly) on good instruments, with good technique, and less often to those who play real music, and try to get the music out of the tune.

Free of criticism….John Angus Smith

Free of this criticism, I felt, were John-Angus Smith, and Connor Sinclair, at Inverness. John-Angus’s Nameless, hiharin dro o dro was the seventh that I heard in the two Gold Medal contests, and his performance really popped out, for me – good phrasing, good control, good tempo contrasts – my winning tune! This is not a tune I particularly care for, but he made it speak to me. Perhaps his pipe, with a rather robust drone sound, was not to the judges’ liking.

I also liked Connor Sinclair’s tune, Lady MacDonald’s Lament, which had great phrasing and tempo control, but was a little inconsistent in timing in places (for example the repeat of Line 1 in the ground was timed very slightly differently). His transition to the cadences was not quite consistent, though I applaud what he was trying to do – but with added maturity he will achieve greater consistency. Faye Henderson showed why she regularly finds her way into the major prizes with her rendering of the Park Piobaireachd No2 which had subtlety and control, but a couple of suspect D taorluaths must have knocked her out of the reckoning.

Piping’s man in black and the 2017 Clasp winner, the supremely talented Iain Speirs

The Clasp was a wonderful experience, with some of the bigger tunes set, though even some of the top players seemed guilty of aspects of my criticisms above. It was a pity that the two slightly less frequently heard tunes, Craigellachie and My Dearest on Earth, Give Me Your Kiss, received only one hearing each. (I also heard only one performance of the Vaunting in the two Gold Medal contests, but it is certainly possible I missed another. It wasn’t submitted all that often.)

Two general points might be of interest. I like the system at Inverness where the tunes submitted are all displayed on the screen. It would be good to see this practice followed at Oban too. (In the past these were sometimes given in the programme. While space might be an issue there, a simple numbering system could be used to save printing the names multiple times.)

The tunes displayed above the stage at the Northern Meeting. The piper here is Gold Medallist Duncan MacGillivray, Calrossie

It would also be useful with this display to indicate if a setting other than PS or Kilberry is being offered. Lord Lovat’s Lament was a case in point, where several competitors played a setting that was not the Kilberry or PS setting, nor Angus MacKay, but they all played the same setting, so what I originally thought was an error (or in fact several errors) appeared to be acceptable.

The standard is extremely high; one after another the players display a high level of skill on beautifully tuned instruments. Add to this the pleasure of seeing a number of old friends, and you have the recipe for a great few days in Scotland. And the weather was kind too!

Reflections on the Northern Meeting from P/M Ian McLellan

Time for a first look back at this year’s Northern Meeting, one of the great gatherings in world solo piping, writes the Editor. I had a chat with P/M Ian McLellan, a senior adjudicator on the Former Winners’ MSR bench. He is concerned about the homogenisation of bagpipe sound and the lack of depth in many instruments.

Ian, of course, needs no introduction to anyone in the pipe band or solo field. He is the most successful pipe major in history with 12 World Championship titles to his name. During his playing days he also enjoyed success at the highest level in the solo world with wins in the elite Former Winners events. It goes without saying that Ian is a recognised expert in the delivery of ceol beag.

Here’s what he told me during a break in the ‘B’ grade Hornpipe & Jig which we judged jointly on the second day of the Meeting: ‘One of the things that was very obvious during the Former Winners this year was that probably 75% of the bagpipes all sounded the same. There was no individuality in the instruments. The other thing that was obvious was the lack of bass drone resonance. Without this you do not get the strong harmonics you should be hearing from the chanter.

‘It was very clear that the majority were lacking in this area. Perhaps the reason is pipers setting their instruments up for playing indoors. Fair enough, but at the same time you still have to have that solid bass drone sound. It might be that some of the synthetic drone reeds that are being used are not helping.

P/M Ian McLellan

‘Okay have two tenor drones which are synthetic, but if the bass is not delivering the right sound then switch it back to cane, but only a cane reed that will give you that lovely rich, steady tone judges and audience want to hear. In days gone by we could identify pipers by their instrument. I’m going back a few years right enough, but then, as soon as a piper blew up his pipes, you practically knew right away who it was that was playing because of the individuality of the pipe. You don’t hear that so much nowadays.’

Turning to the delivery of the tunes in the competition P/M McLellan continued: ‘In these big events some pipers approach things very carefully. They play their cards close to the chest, don’t let the music flow and try not to make a mistake in the hope that they do enough.

‘But I am looking for more than that. I am looking for some fire and brimstone. In the marches we hear the tempo down from what you normally like to hear. I want a march with flow, played with passion and good phrasing. Let the tune go is what I say. Some pipers do that but others hold things back, and to my  mind that is to the detriment of musicality.

‘However all the prizewinners this year played well and the first three we had no problem with. After that there were small issues that had to be weighed up. Personal taste always comes into it as you know.’

• Get full results from Inverness here. Read more about P/M Ian McLellan’s background and career here. The picture up top is of Niall Stewart on stage at the Eden Court Theatre during the Northern Meeting. Niall was placed third in this year’s Former Winners. 

Argyllshire Gathering – Final Thoughts and Former Winners’ MSR Review

Firstly a mention for young Lewis Russell winner of the MacGregor Memorial piobaireachd competition, writes the Editor. This is a tough challenge for the aspiring young professional. Entrants have to play once in a qualifying heat and again in the final if they make it through.

Lewis (17), from Livingston, has been taught since age 10 by Andrew Frater from Uphall. Andrew said: ‘Lewis is a natural player and very easy to teach. He has worked hard and deserves his success.’ Lewis now goes forward to the Silver Medal at Oban in 2018. Lewis is pictured up top with his trophy and the chanter presented by sponsors RG Hardie & Co.

It would be remiss of me not to mention the achievement of Cameron MacDougall, Nigg, the 2017 Silver Medallist. It is only a few short years since Cameron graduated from the MacGregor himself and his progress shows that the promotion system employed at the AG is bearing fruit. All congratulations to Cameron and his tutor Niall Mathieson.

Silver Medallist Cameron MacDougall with Piping Convenor Torquil ‘The Toff’ Telfer

A mention too for Gordon McCready who had a miserable first day at Oban, going off his tune in the Gold Medal and breaking down in the Former Winners’ MSR. Gordon rescued his visit to the west coast with a consolation win in the Jig proving that it is always worth keeping going right to the end of any gathering.

My main duty on Day 1 was the judging of the Former Winners’ MSR. I joined senior adjudicators Ian Duncan and Willie Morrison on the bench in the decorated main auditorium of the Corran Halls.

Three pipers withdrew from the competition Christopher Armstrong, who also pulled out of the Gold Medal, Donald MacPhee who had a medical issue (hope you are OK for Inverness Donald), and Roderick MacLeod who played in the Senior Piobaireachd but failed to show for the Former Winners.

The playing was mixed with a number of top players not up to the mark on this occasion. These included Stuart Liddell (indifferent tempi, finger misses), William McCallum (indistinct bottom hand work) and Angus MacColl (rushing). No such worries for the winner Jack Lee (John MacDonald of Glencoe, Islay Ball, The Rookery) who thus completed his ‘grand slam’ of major titles. Afterwards he told me he had now been competing in Scotland for 40 years. Jack, who turns 60 next year, went on: ‘With this win I can probably retire happy! However I will definitely play next year and see what happens after that. It all depends on how I feel physically. I still have the passion. It’s all about whether I can still deliver. I thought I played quite well this evening and it is always nice to come out on top against so many great players.’

Well Jack certainly did play very well, with commanding technique and an ultra steady instrument. The performance grew as he proceeded: solid in the march, lively in the strathspey and then some real magic in The Rookery. Jack showed all his guile and experience in holding things together on the home run.

Grand slammer….. Former Winners’ MSR champion Jack Lee, Surrey, BC, with his trophies. Jack runs a thriving bagpipe and bag making company with his sons and plays his own products

In second came Finlay Johnston with Hugh Alexander Low of Tiree, Cabar Feidh and the Rejected Suitor. If anything the pipe was better than Jack’s by a very small margin but Finlay had a couple of minor finger flaws and an occasional light D throw which despite his otherwise exemplary playing  had to be considered. Third prize went to Cameron Drummond with a bright presentation of Lochaber Gathering, P/M Hector Maclean and Miss Proud. There were the occasional catches E/C/E and E/F/E and the birl from low G smudged. But the pipe was very good and ditto the expression.

Fourth went to Bruce Gandy who played the Crags of Stirling, Caledonian Society of London and Lochiel’s Awa’ Tae France. He had a few rhythmically unstable moments in the reel and the march could have done with more phrasing. All told however, a professional performance from a fine piper.

A word here for Bruce’s son Alex who had a wonderful day at the games on Day 2 winning both the March and the Strathspey & Reel. Alex will now be competing against dad in the big one.

Alex Gandy, winner of the ceol beag double at the games

Fifth was Iain Speirs with Knightswood Ceilidh, Tulloch Castle and John MacKechnie. The pipe shaded off towards the end and there were a few technical lapses in the reel but again professional delivery from a fine piper.

Close to the money were Alastair Lee who needed to let go more, Niall Stewart who had the best pipe in the contest and the best march (Parker’s Welcome to Perthshire) but who inexplicably went off in Broadford Bay, Alasdair Henderson (the title holder) who went wandering in the Sheepwife, and Craig Sutherland fresh from his win in the Gold Medal. Craig’s drones drifted slightly and he had several misses on F in MacLean of Pennycross.