• From the February 2017 Piping Times

By Brian D. Yates

It is not often that an idea for a new and different kind of piping event unfolds, takes shape, and then – crucially – becomes a success but we are fortunate to have just such a one. The Captain John A. MacLellan MBE Memorial Trust Piobaireachd Recital and Dinner, to give it it’s full title, is rapidly becoming one of the premier events in the solo piping calendar. Begun in 2012, and an annual event since 2014, it has very quickly become a favourite of mine. It is a superb opportunity to hear seldom heard tunes played by musicians at the top of their game.

The concept is simple: provide a sumptuous dinner in elegant surroundings, follow it with five piobaireachds presented by five of the world’s top players, the repertoire being chosen from among MacLellan tunes. However, like a good piobaireachd, while the concept is simple the execution must be anything but. My hat is off to Colin MacLellan and the Capt. J. A. MacLellan MBE Memorial Trust for doing a spectacular job of putting together a stunningly successful evening lying in the busy-ness between Oban and Inverness. An unwritten but obvious part of the concept is that, like the Pipe Major Donald MacLeod in April, it’s an event that celebrates modern piobaireachd compositions; making evident the fact that ceòl mòr is not just the purview of the ancients.

Flexing the muscle of my newly earned bus pass I was eager to get from Inverness to Edinburgh for this much-anticipated evening. Imagine how I felt when the bus ground to a halt in Aviemore and sat, becalmed in closed streets thronged with people eight and ten deep to watch … a parade of enough Harley-Davidsons to sink a small nation. The 45 minute-long drone of Harley pipes for ‘Thunder in the Glen’ was not the sound of pipes I had been looking forward to. Our driver made up some time and soon found myself racing along Princes Street into the glare of the western sun, hauling my kit bag and tux into a nearby phone booth … They’ve all been nicked! Where’s the gents?!

Gathering for cocktails and getting caught up with friends who are normally rushing around at the aforementioned contests preparing to play, is a treat to be savoured. You don’t feel you’re interfering with their preparations to play; there is a dinner to be had first. It’s always fun to have a chat about language with Greg Wilson in the ‘how to distinguish a Kiwi from an Aussie’ category. I’m always asked similar questions regarding Yanks vs. Canucks. Speaking of whom, it was wonderful to see Emily Kate MacLellan of the eponymous Scott MacAulay hornpipe in attendance as well as a friend of many years (our acquaintanceship, not his age) Brian Williamson. Ed and Kelly Bush were also a nice surprise to see. Had a lovely catch up with Iain MacInnes who must have been grateful not to have to rush off and do the BBC thing. My shout next time, Iain.

The well fed, joyful, assembled company. I haven’t a Scooby where Waldo is but get out your magnifying glass – how many faces can you identify? Photo: Derek Maxwell.

The dress code ranged from black tie to blazer and tie, from gowns to stylish dresses. And the relaxed nature of the dress code reflected the relaxed nature of the entire evening: perfect for enjoying a good meal, good company, and fine music.

The sumptuous four-course dinner was every bit deserving of the elegant surroundings of the Castle Suite in the Waldorf Astoria Caledonian. The lamb was delectable and the potatoes, spinach, and roast tomatoes were perfection. The acoustics for the pipe in this new venue were excellent and preferable, I felt, to the previous. The high ceilings gave ample breadth to the sound of the drones and the space meant the chanters were not overpowering. The large mirrored room was not too live because of the number of people attending. Being opposite Edinburgh Castle, what more appropriate setting could there be for an evening of listening to the Captain’s piobaireachds? The service was stunningly efficient. In fact, the servers were almost as much fun to watch as the US Marine Corps Drill Team. Really. You have to see it to believe it.

five pipers
The invited recitalists, from L to R: Iain Speirs, Roddy MacLeod, Greg Wilson, Dr. Innes Smith, Callum Beaumont. Photo: Derek Maxwell.

The invited pipers in order of play were Callum Beaumont, Roddy MacLeod, Dr. Innes Smith, Iain Speirs, and Greg Wilson. I thought five was an ideal number. Past dinners had four players and I always used to think “What, over already?” I’m reminded of the old Audi commercial from the 1970s when they were interviewing Herr Somebody-or-other, ostensibly an engineer from Audi, explaining the five cylinder engine: “Because six are too many and four are too few.” Why not have one more piper than the number of courses on the menu?

After dinner, Callum played one of my favourites, The Phantom Piper of Corrieyairack, a breabach tune. Consummate professional that he is, he didn’t seem phased one bit when the festival’s fireworks from the castle began thundering their way down the mound at the end of the Tattoo.

Callum was followed by Roddy playing The Salute to the Great Pipe, a fosgailte tune with which he won at last year’s event. Following Roddy was my convivial table partner, Dr Innes Smith playing The Salute to the Piobaireachd Society on a pipe whose full drone sound I quite enjoyed.

Iain Speirs was next playing Colin’s tune, The Salute to Sir John A MacDonald – Canada’s First Prime Minister with his trademark look of fierce concentration he played a lovely rendition of a very melodic tune that, when submitted in a contest to be given the title, was chosen over the tune submitted by Colin’s father.

The final performance of the evening was Greg Wilson playing A Lullaby for Iain, a standard crunluath tune with both a tripling as well as a standard taorluath variation. It is a credit to Greg and all the others that in addition to learning the required number of tunes from the set list they also took time to learn these tunes for this marvellous recital. One nice touch was inclusion of copies of the tunes in the evening’s programme. Having a visual map of what you are about to hear, I think, charges the listening and enriches the experience by bringing a deeper understanding to less familiar tunes.

Iain Speirs
Iain and his well deserved new bling. Photo: Derek Maxwell.

Although it’s a recital, and the evening’s atmosphere certainly reflected that, there is a prize for a declared winner. The adjudicator for the evening, Bill Livingstone, gave the nod to Iain who received a specially struck sterling silver medal depicting Captain John and Edinburgh Castle.

Retired Edinburgh Police DI, Euan Anderson, a longtime friend of Colin’s and a member of the Trust, was a very capable fear an tighe, giving a nice continuity and focus to the evening’s recital. At one point he announced a contest among the tables to name the number of Gold Medals produced by Canada. I got it wrong, so did the very animated table of young Yanks (and Canucks) next to me: some new young faces making their presence known in the circuit over here; Nick Hudson, Dan Lyden, Andrew Donlon, and Derek Midgley. Topic of animated discussion? Does Colin count as a Canadian?

While we’re on the subject of name dropping, the Yanks weren’t the only young ones in attendance. Cameron Drummond and Faye Henderson were there and the faces ran the gamut from the young to the venerable: Dugald B. MacNeill, Malcolm MacRae, Ian Duncan, Bruce Hitchings. Roddy S. MacDonald was helped off the ramparts of the castle by Makiko. Stuart Letford (Piping Times) was there and I’ve always had difficulty deciding if Willie McCallum is young or venerable. From my vantage point he’s certainly the former, but maybe a bit of both. Likewise, Murray and Pat Henderson – he’s venerable, she’s young and I’m sticking to that one. The list of familiar faces is way too long to continue but I mention it not to create a society page or the feeling of “necessary to see and be seen” but to give you an idea of how much fun and well respected the evening was. Put it on your list!

One name that absolutely cannot go unmentioned is Liz Maxwell’s. A special thanks has to be given to Liz and the Glenfiddich Piping and Fiddle for help in sponsoring the evening. I can’t imagine the very reasonable price of the dinner could even begin to cover the costs. Without their help, I’m quite sure this splendid event would not be possible. I’ll sign up for next year and I hope Glenfiddich does, too.

Such was the nature of this fine evening that even after a big meal and five big tunes many people lingered afterwards and only slowly drifted off into the night. One special cherry on the whipped cream for me was running into someone I hadn’t seen since we both had much longer, much darker hair; and a lot more of it. There was much to get caught up on with Gregor as we slowly made our way to the exit.

A post prandial stroll back to Dean Park Crescent, with good friends, in the warm Edinburgh August evening, on cobbled streets with my Glenfiddich miniature in my sporran and the echoes of those five piobaireachds still running refrains in my ears, was the perfect nightcap to a perfect evening.

• Brian Yates is the proprietor of Cabar Feidh Bagpipe Supplies in Inverness, Scotland.