This Saturday evening – May 4 – sees Stuart Liddell and Gordon McCready play in the first heat of the Scottish Pipers’ Association’s (SPA) ‘knockout’ series for the Piping Times Trophy. Stuart is the current holder of the trophy.

The other invited players in the series are Cameron McDougall and Callum Beaumont (June 8), and Steven Leask and Sarah Muir (September 7). A fourth heat will take place near the end of this year with the final taking place next year, the SPA’s centenary.

All heats take place at The National Piping Centre Otago Street in Glasgow’s west end (the former College of Piping) at 7.30pm. Refreshments will be available from the bar.

The SPA’s Knockout competition started in 1963 and was inspired by the Scottish Cup football [soccer] competition, although the principle is clearly something that occurs in many other competitive activities. The idea was put to the SPA by Seumas MacNeill, editor of the Piping Times. His friend, John MacFadyen, was the SPA President at the time. Seumas recalled many years later:

Seumas MacNeill and John MacFadyen.
Seumas MacNeill and John MacFadyen.

“Every Saturday evening about 9 o’clock John would hand over the reigns of office to Hamish MacColl and with a tiny jerk of his head he indicated to me that it was time for a small refreshment. On one of these occasions that winter I reverted to a topic which I had been plugging with no great success – namely the possibility of the SPA running a knockout competition.

“It seemed to me that the winter meetings could be made more interesting if once a month we held a competition between two pipers, each playing his own favourite selection, and the results being judged by popular acclaim. John was reluctant to agree, but when I eventually said that the Piping Times would put up the trophy and the prizes he said he would give it a shot.

Duncan Johnstone and Pipe Major Donald MacLeod.
Duncan Johnstone and Pipe Major Donald MacLeod.

“We then wrote down the names of 16 pipers who would be invited to play, and as an afterthought John said: ‘But I know who will win, if it is by popular acclaim.’ When I said that I, too, knew who the victor would be he challenged me to write down the name on a piece of paper while he did likewise. At least we showed good sense by agreeing, and in fact by writing down the name of the eventual winner, Duncan Johnstone.

“The next problem was to persuade Duncan, who was notoriously reluctant to compete, to take part. However, John MacFadyen was notoriously skillful in getting his own way. He called at Duncan’s house on the Saturday and suggested they should go up to the Pipers’ Club at the Highlanders’ Institute. Duncan agreed as he and John often enjoyed a dram together.

“That evening the draw was to be made for the Knockout. John told Duncan that one of the pipers had called off and asked him to stand in, knowing that Duncan, after a dram or two during a convivial evening with friends would not refuse. So Duncan said okay and his name went into the draw. After the early rounds, two players – P.M. Donald MacLeod and Duncan Johnstone – were left to contest the final, which took place in the grand hall of the Highlanders’ Institute on the evening of the last Saturday in May, 1964.

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“According to the report in the Piping Times, ‘Duncan Johnstone played first, ending his performance with a selection of jigs and finishing with his own arrangement of Cabar Feidh. It is doubtful if anyone ever got a grander ovation than was recorded at the end of this half hour performance.

“‘After a brief interval to allow the listeners to recover, Donald MacLeod entered to play his part. Although he must have known it was going to be a difficult task to equal what had gone before, Donald showed no sign of nerves as he set about the job in hand. As usual, the instrument was impeccable, and from beginning to end of a 30 minute performance he did not put a finger wrong. Included in his selection were 4/4s, 6/8s, strathspeys and reels, Gaelic airs and retreats, the Gaelic song, Calum Beag, made into a hornpipe, Donald’s tune of the year, The Man from Skye, and to finish a selection of jigs ending with his own arrangement of the Banjo Breakdown. Again, the audience rose to the piper at the finish and both competitors must have felt that if they got nothing else out of life they were at least appreciated one night in Glasgow.”

The outcome, decided on audience vote, resulted in victory for Duncan Johnstone. In his report of the final Seumas MacNeill described Duncan’s performance as “the finest exhibition of light music playing that any of us had ever heard.”

The competition began as an annual one but has evolved into being held intermittently. Many other piping organisations have adopted a similar event in the calendars.

Knockout finalists:

Pipe Major Angus MacDonald pictured in 1995.
Pipe Major Angus MacDonald pictured in 1995.

1964 – Duncan Johnstone beat P.M. Donald MacLeod
1965 – Kenny MacDonald beat Ronnie Lawrie
1966 – Duncan Johnstone beat Iain McLeod
1967 – Ian McLellan beat Iain MacFadyen
1968 – Iain MacFadyen beat John MacFadyen
1979 – Dr. Angus MacDonald beat John Wilson
1980 – Dr. Angus MacDonald beat James Hardie
1981 – P.M. Angus MacDonald beat Robert Wallace
1988 – Willie Morrison beat Alasdair Gillies
1993 – Gordon Walker beat Gordon Duncan
1997 – Gordon Duncan beat Stuart Liddell
2002 – Angus MacColl beat Chris Armstrong
2005 – Stuart Liddell beat Chris Armstrong
2007 – Stuart Liddell beat Angus MacColl
2009 – John Patrick beat Dougie Murray
2016 – Stuart Liddell beat John Patrick (Stuart won by default as John called off on the night due to illness)

In 1984, instead of the normal Knockout, a special Knockout event for young pipers was held. This was won by Roddy MacLeod who beat Ronnie McShannon in the final.