We continue our ‘Famous Pipers’ column with the third part of our look back at the life and career of the late P/M Alasdair Gillies, renowned solo piper and last Pipe Major of the Queen’s Own Highlanders. What you will read is from an interview with the man himself for Piper Press magazine, the forerunner to Piping Press, in 1999. Alasdair has already talked of his annual obsession with the Northern Meeting. Here he gives us more detail on his succession of triumphs at the great gathering….
The following year, 1982, I couldn’t attend Inverness, as the Falklands War had broken out and I was posted to the South Atlantic. I was a company piper based in Gritviken, South Georgia. On the day of the meetings that September my mind was back in the Northern Hemisphere wishing I was back in the Sneck (slang for Inverness).
In 1983 I won the ‘A’ grade March and didn’t feature in the Strathspey & Reel or the Silver Medal. 1984 was the year I took the stage for the first time in the Former Winners March, Strathspey & Reel. I remember actually enjoying this experience and I thought I’d played really well. I was placed 2nd behind Brian Donaldson. I suppose I was happy enough but this was the competition I really wanted to win. For the next year I really focused on trying to do just that.
In 1985, I once more took the stage at Eden Court and things worked out well. I played the Clan MacColl, the Piper’s Bonnet, and the Sheepwife. In these days the Former Winners was twice through each tune. It was regarded as the toughest test in light music. I was absolutely delighted to win this event….. I didn’t dream that one day I would hold the record for most wins.
The Former Winners MSR was started at the Northern Meeting in 1921. There have only been 29 winners of this event since then. To hold the record for this contest is, for me, a great honour. Especially when my name is associated with the other pipers who have won it. Donald MacLeod and Donald MacPherson both won six times, John MacLellan five, Willie Ross, J.B. Robertson and Robert Reid four, G.S. MacLennan, Iain MacLeod (Edinburgh Police) and P/M Angus MacDonald three, John D Burgess, and John MacDougall, Donald Morrison, Iain Morrison, Jack Lee and Gordon Walker all have two wins. Others to have won include Owen MacNiven, John Wilson (Edinburgh), Ronald MacCallum, Hugh MacCallum, John Garroway, John Wilson, Ian McLellan, Iain MacFadyen and Gavin Stoddart.
In 1986 the format for the competition changed. Instead of tunes being played twice through, the player now had to play two marches, two strathspeys and two reels from a list of six of each submitted with the entry. Prior to this the competitor submitted four of each.
I won again in 1986 and also took the Silver Medal, the ‘A’ grade Strathspey & Reel and the Jigs. This was my best yet Inverness, winning everything I had entered. I had completed my Pipe Major’s course in April of this year so I was expected to be playing well, and I was.
In 1987, I thought I had played well enough to win again, but it was not to be. I was placed 3rd behind Jack Lee and Dr Angus MacDonald. Winning the Jigs and a 3rd in the Gold Medal weren’t enough to soften the blow of losing the MSR.
1988 saw me back but not regaining the Silver Star. I was 2nd to Gavin Stoddart. This was my only prize at Inverness that year, so it was back to the drawing board once more.
In 1989 I managed to win the Former Winners again. I had been going for a double Gold Medal, having won the medal at Oban. You only get one chance at that, but I blew it in the 2nd line of the crunluath doubling when things were going really well. I didn’t really care too much about that, as a win in the Former Winners was more important to me than a double Gold Medal.
1990 was the year only year I haven’t been placed in the MSR prize list. I remember having a small slip in Miss Proud and that put me out of contention. I did however, manage 2nd in the Gold Medal and 2nd in the Clasp that year. I was also moving house from Inverness to Munster, West Germany, at the time of the meetings. I had played first at 8.30 in the morning in the Clasp. My tune was the Earl of Seaforth’s Salute. I played an F for a high G in the taorluath doubling. Thinking I was out of the running I went home to continue packing.
I got a surprise phone call from my brother-in-law, Finlay MacGhee, telling me that I had better get back down to Eden Court as I had been placed 2nd in the Clasp.
Next time: The year I was ordered from the stage by Lt. Col. Murray. Read parts 1 and 2 of this feature starting here.