Northern Meeting 2015: A Look Back at a Wonderful Two Days of Piping and a Review of the Clasp

So that’s it for another year. Once more the Eden Court Theatre in Inverness witnessed moments of high emotion, a re-kindling of lingering friendships and  marvellous piping.

I have been critical of the open plan arrangement in the refreshment area of the theatre in the past – the old self-contained bar was much more conducive to camaraderie and the sort of noisy bonhomie that pipers and their followers generate.

I have to say, however, that this year the front of house staff at the theatre were so helpful and welcoming that they did much to ameliorate any deficiency in that regard. The high quality of the fare in the restaurant played its part too. As writer Virginia Woolf said, ‘One cannot think, love or sleep well unless one has dined well’. To that add pipe, judge and josh.

In his closing address at the prize-giving, Piping Convenor Alan Forbes paid tribute to his band of stewards who every year grace the Meeting with their mannerly efficiency. This is something the 80 -odd pipers appreciate. Nothing tips an already nervous disposition over the edge more than confusion over playing times, selected tunes, venues. There was none of that at the Northern Meeting (there seldom, if ever, is), everything rippling along as timeously as a Donald MacPherson crunluath.

The crowds were up too and we like to think that the pre-publicity in Piping Press played a part in this. The auditorium for the Former Winners MSR on the Thursday evening was, I was told, just like ten years ago; packed with excited listeners, the pipers responding with some electrifying playing. All credit to Canadian Bruce Gandy for prevailing in such a high quality event.

I was of course tucked up in bed when all this was going on, readying myself for the considerable responsibility of co-judging the best pipers in the world in the Clasp contest the following day. It is to that event I now turn.

There were 21 entered of whom three scratched. Four MacCrimmon – associated tunes from a prescribed list of eight set by the Music Committee of the Piobaireachd Society were asked for. Of these, two fine pieces hardly featured on anyone’s list: Lament for the Duke of Hamilton and Lament for John Garve. Indeed the latter featured only once – at Oban, where it was given and therefore not played at Inverness. This is an issue I know the Music Committee is actively addressing.

Each piper was given five minutes tuning time; most used it to the full, often with no noticeable improvement in the instrument. First on, and fresh from his success in the Gold Medal the previous day, was Finlay Johnston with Mrs MacLeod of Talisker’s Salute. The pipe was nicely set but not completely locked throughout; there were two misses on the taorluath on D and a wobble on the first E in the triplet; the suibhal was a shade nipped on the short theme notes and the triplet could have been phrased more; yet not a bad effort for 8.40am after a night of celebration.

Douglas Murray seemed unsettled; off the tune in the first line of Colbeck’s Lament and eventually stopped. Roderick MacLeod‘s piping career has been built on the rock of an outstanding bagpipe. His instrument here teetered on a pale pebble. No good piper can play on a poor pipe and Roderick’s Lament for the Earl of Antrim was off colour from the start. P/M Gordon Walker gave us a technically sound Lament for Patrick Og, though the B grips in the urlar were rather open and the cadence E lacked variety. However, it was good to hear Gordon back close to something like his usual form after a quiet summer.

Stuart Liddell‘s pipe was beautifully set with only a minor drift towards the end of Lament for Donald Ban. Technically brilliant, the tune would have improved with more variety in the edre variation and there was slightly too much of a gap before the cadences in the T & C singlings for my taste. Another Argyllshire man, William McCallum, came on with the Lament for the Children. He had what was probably the finest bagpipe in the competition: wonderful balance drones to chanter, solid from start to finish. He set out his tune with confidence and masterful technique – an unrythmical crunluath we could not ignore, his nemesis.

Bruce Gandy was given Lament for the Duke of Hamilton and announced to the bench that he would be playing Variation 1 a la MacSwan; no improvement to my ear, and an over-eager approach to the ground denuded this engaging passage of much of its expressiveness; the setting in Binneas may be the best guide; otherwise technically sound on a top-drawer instrument. For Patrick Og MacCrimmon’s Lament one needs a solid high G, and that is just what another Canadian, Andrew Hayes, gave us. He also gave us a well handled Variation 1, if a bit quick into it, and there was a degree of tightness in his work towards the end. The ground had been nicely shaped, only missing a pulsed E, pre – chedari, in the penultimate bar of the ground.

One thing you are guaranteed with Oban’s Angus MacColl is musicality and fingering of a very high, professional standard. That is just what he produced in the Earl of Antrim, an Antrim played on a pipe that may have shaded towards the end, but more than did justice to this magnificent work. The ground lacked variation in the treatment of the double echoes, but that was the only musical blemish to my mind. Faye Henderson had a lightish pipe but it held very well. She gave a snappy treatment to some of the connecting notes in the ground and first variation of MacLeod of Colbeck, and the short theme notes in the suibhal doubling needed a shade more prominence. Glenn Brown had difficulties fingering cleanly to D in Lament for Donald Ban, and his insistent cutting up to the top hand seriously impaired the attraction of Variation 1.

The pipe was the problem for Jack Lee from British Columbia – that and an uncharacteristically workmanlike approach to the T&C in Mrs Macleod of Talisker. The instrument did not have the resonance of old; depth minimal, harmonics confined, the resultant imbalance with the accurately set chanter noticeable. Chris Armstrong was going along fine in MacLeod of Colbeck when the slightly raucous pipe decided it was time to call it a day – Chris did too as the drones became unbearable, condensation the probable culprit. We were uncomfortable with Iain Speirs‘ treatment of Lament for the Children. The ground was well handled on a good pipe (the cut on the B at the start of line three the exception – not as melodic as what is written). Iain’s real problems started in the urlar doubling and Variation 1 where the gracenote after the double echoes in the first, and the top hand throws in the second, were introduced a little early each time.

Fred Morrison was off the tune in the doubling of Variation 1 of the Earl of Antrim and had a lower pitched pipe than others in the contest. Not a problem if it is perfectly in tune with itself; but it wasn’t quite on this occasion. Euan MacCrimmon had a bold, spirited  Mrs Macleod of Talker spoiled by a few catches here and there and some loose work on the D taorluaths and crunluaths. On came Callum Beaumont, a previous winner of the Clasp, and it was clear from the beginning that this young man was in complete command of his pipe, his finger and his music. He proceeded through Lament for MacLeod of Colbeck with a maturity that belied his lack of years. This was ceol mor of the finest vintage: beautiful pipe, crystal clear, professional standard technique, and the expression and tempo control we all strive for.

The final competitor was another Clasp holder, Greg Wilson, from New Zealand. Overall this was good playing but his timing was overdrawn at the ends of lines and some cadences. The pipe held well, though he searched for high A on occasion. The crunluath lacked the crispness of some other competitors.

In the end the unanimous decision of the bench was:
1 Callum Beaumont (pictured at the top of this article)
2 Angus MacColl
3 Stuart Liddell
4 Andrew Hayes
5 William McCallum
Judges: IM Morrison, J Taylor, R Wallace

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