Review: The 2017 Uist & Barra Ceol Mor

By Robert Wallace

Some members of the old guard may be beating a selective and not too dignified retreat from the professional solo board, but any idea that the two late withdrawals from Saturday’s invitational Uist & Barra competition would somehow leave an unfillable performance vacuum should be dismissed forthwith.

There is a phalanx of excellence taking over the solo piping scene; a new generation of expert pipers is abroad, young, keen and able. Whilst some may fear this reality, others marvel at how Scotland keeps producing champions fit to carry our tradition to the next horizon. We can do so because the experts of past generations and this have determined that they must pass on what they know to the gifted, wide-eyed, tyro. Any impediment to this process, no matter how slight or unintended, threatens this crucial refinement of nascent talent. That is why I am so uncomfortable with the recent dictat from the Solo Piping Judges Association regarding teaching and judging. It does just that. Thankfully, for now, the centuries old system is still working and was there for all to see and hear in the main hall at the College of Piping on Saturday, March 4.

This was a superbly run event, masterminded by convenor John Angus Smith and the piping committee of the Glasgow Uist & Barra Association. It takes someone who has been there to do full justice to a professional solo piping contest. John Angus showed exactly why the Association selected him to follow in the footsteps of such illustrious U&B servants as James MacLean and Ronald Morrison. The day raced by, flowing smoothly from Glenn Brown’s first note at 9am till my last Gaelic song some 10 hours later.

I had the pleasure of sharing the judge’s bench with P/M Jimmy Banks and John Wilson (above). Throughout the day we were very well looked after by the ladies of the committee. This, and the close confines of the main hall at the College of Piping, generated a convivial atmosphere and, as a bonus, the proximity of tuning rooms meant there was no delay in pipers getting to the stage.

The winner of the ceol mor was Callum Beaumont (pictured top) with MacLeod of Colbeck. Consummate playing this on a sweet, unmoving  pipe though maybe needing just a tad more bass. Control, technique and timing were just as one would wish – apart from a couple of small points. E between high A and F in the ground is too clipped for a passing note; and same goes for the connecting notes in the T&C cadences.

Second went to Niall Stewart who played the Stewart’s White Banner on the best pipe of the day: unmoving, projecting, perfect note intervals. He timed variation one to low A, not my preference, and the crunluath was loose at times though never missed – early season rustiness no doubt. Still, Niall’s instrument carried him through.

[wds id=”2″]

Third placed and first on, Glenn Brown gave us Patrick Og’s Lament. The first line showed the chanter’s high G to perfection, a prerequisite of any successful reading of this masterpiece. Glenn’s finger was up to the task too with embari and chedari rippling upwards each time, with only the odd a mach a shade tight. More focussed phrasing would have improved things but overall he shaped the tune well, handling the transition from 4/4 time  to 6/8 with all the surety of the Gold Medallist that he is. Glenn finished with a pipe that had shaded slightly off from half way. A great start to the day and a contender.

Fourth went to Jamie Forrester with the Earl of Ross’s March. Really competent playing this on a pipe that did not stand the 12 minute steadiness test. Jamie has everything in his playing: clean professional standard technique, musical awareness and, for at least half of his tune at the U&B, a tuneful pipe. Complete the package and watch him go.

Uist & Barra Picture Gallery[wds id=”34″]

Craig Sutherland was fifth. His Scarce of Fishing had everything one could wish for. Throughout this lengthy examination he exhibited poise and maturity far beyond his youth, controlling variation transitions with the touch of a master. Downsides were a forgotten low A in the middle phrase of the dithis singling (just before the cadence) and an overzealous cut to the short note after the grips in the C and B cadences throughout. These points apart, thoroughly enjoyable playing on a lovely pipe.

Of the others Faye Henderson was, unfortunately, wandered in her 3/4 timing of Colin Roy with the result that the melodic thread was either lost or confused; Wilson Brown cut to low G in the ground of the Bells of Perth. This is fine by me but the time has to go somewhere and he also cut the low G. As a result he never got the required swing into this iconic tune; it was good to see Wilson back on the boards after so many years absence; Cameron Drummond’s chanter seemed slightly flat on D and B in the Unjust Incarceration; chedari was missed once and generally the tune lacked the required anger/ anguish emotion shift; a fumble in the dithis and two missed low As end line one dithis singling; Finlay Johnston started well enough in Craigellachie though personally I am not a fan of the long E before the B in the ground; moreover the low A passing notes, should, to my mind, be treated just so and not as a stopping point; error Var. 1 doubling; Douglas Murray did not nail the pipe from the start and, though shaped well enough, his In Praise of Morag suffered technically with tight T&Cs and several misses; the cadence Es in Var 1. singling were over extended too; Innes Smith, answering the call at the last minute, gave a good fist of Lament for Donald Duaghal MacKay but simply did not have enough preparation time to compete successfully at this level. We should all be grateful to him for filling the breach at such short notice.

• Stay tuned for the Editor’s appraisal of the Ceol Beag at the Uist & Barra later.

[wds id=”10″]