By Cameron MacFadyen
Skye Highland Games has been held in Portree for nigh-on 150 years, with piping being a constant and important feature but it is improbable to think that there was no competitive piping before that. Given the importance of patronage by the various clan chiefs towards piping and the towering presence of the MacCrimmons, MacArthurs and the Raasay MacKays in the immediate locality, it is highly likely that piping events were a regular feature of island culture stretching back into the mists of time.
In the modern era the piping events – ceòl mòr and ceòl beag – are spread over two days in August, on the day immediately before the Games and on Games’ Day itself, which is normally a Wednesday. The competitions, including an open Under 18 event for Piobaireachd and MSR, are held in and around Portree with all venues within easy walking distance of each other.
The historic Skye Gathering Hall situated, some might say appropriately, next to the old jail overlooking Portree Bay, is the venue for what is possibly the key competition – the Dunvegan Medal for piobaireachd where only MacCrimmon compositions are played. This tradition is in salute to Skye’s contribution to piping by arguably the most famous piping family in history who taught and composed at their piping ‘college’ at Boreraig on the west of the island. Former winners of the Dunvegan Medal contest the Colonel Jock MacDonald Clasp held on the Tuesday evening. In previous years, this fine competition, where only the biggest and most majestic of the MacCrimmon tunes are played, could run on beyond midnight which was unfair on competitors, judges and audience alike. To avoid such a situation a strict limit of 25 entrants was imposed on the Dunvegan Medal.
Running a modern piping competition is not easy. The costs continue to increase and without the generous support of sponsors, the goodwill of local hotels and hostelries, and the sterling work of volunteers it would be very difficult indeed. In Skye we try to make the competition of a standard and with rewards that will make it worthwhile for top players to make the journey to the North West in peak holiday season. In recent years this has become more of a challenge due to busy roads and the increasing cost of accommodation but the piping committee was pleased that last year, for the first time in many years, the waiting list had to be brought into operation for entry to the Dunvegan Medal. Although we were very sorry to disappoint some potential entrants, the popularity of the competition amongst pipers is very reassuring and indicates that the efforts of successive piping convenors and local committees are being valued.
I was fortunate indeed to take over the convenorship in 2017 from well-known polymath, Cailean MacLean, member of the illustrious MacLean family from Raasay, Gaelic scholar, national broadcaster, distinguished photographer, entrepreneur and mountain guide to name but a few of his attributes. I aim to continue to make Skye an attractive competition for the top pipers to attend yet give opportunity for young and emerging talent to flourish. This was never more apparent than in 2018 when 16-year-old Finlay Cameron from Roy Bridge stormed the prize list being placed in four out of the five events he entered. We have made small adjustments to the organisation of the competitions but are very conscious of not changing a winning recipe.
A Hornpipe & Jig event has been reintroduced – so pleasing to the ear of the public with the change of tempo in the middle of the performance – and the ever popular, but not often heard, 6/8 competition continues.
These two events, in conjunction with the ceòl mòr and MSR, give a breadth of expression which is attractive to an audience and allows pipers, who may have different strengths, to compete against each other in a wider than usual variety of disciplines.
We are very proud to be able to offer the people of Skye and visitors access to some of the best piping available anywhere and last year we had competitors from five different countries drawn from three distinct continents. We also are fortunate in inviting competitors to perform in front of a genuinely world class bench of judges whose combined experience and knowledge is seldom found elsewhere. But, of course, there would be no competition without the competitors and it is to them, past present and future, on whom the success of the Skye Gathering depends.
There was a period in the 1960s when the entries declined to a parlous level and it was in response to this and to encourage the best pipers to come to Skye that Dame Flora MacLeod of MacLeod, Seumas MacNeill and my late father, John MacFadyen, devised the Silver Chanter competition held in the ancient hall of Dunvegan Castle. The ’Chanter continued to be held in Dunvegan for some 50 years until last year when for the first time it was held in Glasgow under the auspices of The National Piping Centre. We wish the ’Chanter well and we are confident that its new venue will not adversely affect the Skye Games so whether you are a competitor or an enthusiast, come to Skye for two days’ top class piping – a warm welcome awaits you.
• The piping competitions at this year’s Skye Highland Games commence on Tuesday, August 6 and continue on Wednesday 7.
For information about Skye Highland Games email Allan Stewart, Hon. Secretary at: firstname.lastname@example.org. For information on the piping email Cameron MacFadyen, Piping Convenor at: email@example.com