By MacGregor Kennedy

A round up of the 1984 Glenfiddich Piping Championships

MacGregor Kennedy

Everybody knows someone who could not organise a booze-up in a distillery, so most people who attend the Grant’s Scotch Whisky Piping Championships are perfectly well aware that the smooth-running machine which gives them so much pleasure at Blair Castle, and is so remarkably hitchless, does not just happen by itself. The careful discussions and best-laid plans that precede the event are, as in all well run occasions, not in the least evident. This is a reflection of the skills of the dedicated staff and associates of Grant’s; any inadvertent sight of the seams and girders of the construction should not mar the great day.

Nevertheless, the very anonymity of the mechanics of the operation should not preclude a very warm feeling of appreciation for all those who have laboured in the vineyard prior to the harvest. In addition to paying tribute to the lovely ladies who do so much to make it run smoothly, it is as well to remember the chaps, especially those who turn out to be their husbands.

There is a heady ambience about the run up – or down as the case may be – to the Vale of Atholl at this time of year that is surely unsurpassed at any other time; the golds, scarlets, russets and tans of the forested slopes and corries lending an atmosphere that is peculiarly that of Perthshire at its best. A singular prelude for putting the aficionados in the perfect frame for the big tunes to come – and how very encouraging to note that an increasing number of seats is required each year for those discerning people. Let us trust that the event will never become too big to be held in the present superb location, lending as it does the touch of class and intimacy that makes this contest the show piece of Scotland’s piping year. Indeed, as lain MacFadyen* said after winning the championship and the Balvenie Trophy for the third time, “This is the best competition of the year”. Who would disagree?

This was, in fact, the fourth time that Iain has won the piobaireachd section at the castle. As ever, the MacFadyen entourage was as handsome as may be, the beautiful wife and daughter augmented by friends from Skye, some via Australia, whom we had the pleasure of meeting before at Husabost. They make a remarkable supporters’ club.

Blair Castle in autumn.
Blair Castle in autumn.

On the subject of good looking Australians, how about Stephanie’s jazzy line in headgear, Malcolm, a lawyer, came to Scotland in ‘67 to study piping at the source for a two year period before returning to Sydney to resume his law practice. Ten years ago, he retraced his steps qualified in Scots law, and took up the profession in Inverness. The charming MacRaes live with their children in fabled Strath Glass. It will be remembered that Malcolm MacRae has competed in the Grant’s Championship on several occasions.

Pipe Major Alex MacRae, Atholl Highlanders, as he appeared on cover of the July 1989 Piping Times.
Pipe Major Alex MacRae, Atholl Highlanders, as he appeared on cover of the July 1989 Piping Times.

Another distinguished member of the clan, Alex MacRae of Pitagowan, connoisseur, raconteur, bon vivant and piper of repute, was in the best possible order with his lightning thrusts of wit and perspicacity keeping all within earshot in stitches. Since my wife is part MacRae, aiblins I am regarded as one of the ‘in-crowd’.

Encountering a regular attender at the contest, Mr Buchanan of Dubh Leitir, (sometimes rendered Dullater) I took the opportunity to enquire the source of the material from which his Ancient Buchanan kilt is woven, which I had long admired. Regrettably, it was to discover that it was no longer available but had been made 30 years previously by a weaver at Whitehouse, in Kintyre, by the name of Snowden who is now gone. One wonders if this quality of tartan is made anywhere in Scotland, nowadays. There has to be a market for textiles of this standard among discerning purchasers.

There seemed to be some confusion with regard to the tartan which was draped over the bar in the China Room and which was also worn by the ladies of Grant’s serving there. It was, in fact, the Hunting Grant, naturally. One or two people wanted to know why the Campbell tartan was being afforded such distinction. They ken noo.

It is always a matter of satisfaction to observe that people are wearing a tartan to which they have a legitimate claim, a practice that should be encouraged with all possible vigour. One does occasionally encounter the odd character that does not even know what colours he or she is sporting. An informed public must be preferable to an untutored mob. Bearing in mind that most clans can ring the changes on at least four setts it is possible for the most dedicated follower of fashion to dress for the current mood. And, of course, if you happen to be a member of Clan Chattan the possibilities are quite mind-bending. No offence meant …

Scotland's Hotel, Pitlochry

Since this is also a great social occasion, the ceilidh in Scotland’s Hotel is regarded as an integral part of the proceedings, quite properly. Good food, good wine, the best of malt whisky and the exchange of views on the state of piping among the revellers contribute immeasurably to the enjoyment of weekend; there is no shortage of views and opinions. Some are even worth listening to, despite the fact one has long taken the view that everyone is entitled to my opinion. It makes for some fascinating monologues.

This cheerful, noisy gathering was augmented this year by the addition of a small ceilidh band, which afforded the opportunity to trip the light fantastic. Naturally, one could also hear again some of the competitors playing with the pressure off and, later, some good players of whom one had not previously heard. As always, there were some of whom one wished one had never heard.

It seems there were murmurs of discontent from some performers who reckoned that they were entitled to rather more of the audience’s undivided attention. Had they taken a leaf from the book of Gavin Stoddart, unfailingly courteous – like his father before him – who got up immaculately turned out, faced the audience and played, they might well have got it.

Bob Hardie.
Bob Hardie.

It is obvious that Bob Hardie enjoys these occasions as much as I do and it is always a pleasure to be in his company, It’s a good few years since Bob dropped Seumas [MacNeill] and me well after midnight on Saturday night on the way back from Inveraray, where we had been at an Arts Council recital, and left us to make our way up the corrie to Bealach a’ Mhaim above ‘Abyssinia’ for a day’s skiing on the following day.

That prolific writer and conversationalist, General Frank Richardson – ‘‘the Doctor Johnson of piping” – is always good for a craic and was in his element as ever after the arduous task of decision-making, an unenviable one with such excellent performances on review.

Breakfast is always a hilarious affair at Scotland’s, some people keeping their best patter for the occasion. They invariably leave those of us who are late starters bobbing in their wake. Doctor John MacAskill has devised a great prescription for bringing me back among the quick in the morning that I can recommend. It’s a magnum of champagne.

One wonders how the staff manages to look so cool and good-tempered and civil, for they don’t seem to get much sleep on this particular weekend. They deserve a medal.

There is much of interest in the district for visitors to enjoy after the festival of piping is over. Indeed, from spring through to the autumn, Muilean Bhlar Athall, a working corn mill, was featured in the BBC. Radio Scotland programme, ‘MacGregor s Gathering’ after the presenter had reported on the competition. It is well worth a visit as is the Atholl Country Collection at the Old School. The Clan Donnachaidh Centre beside the Bruar Falls will have particular interest for all members of the tribe of Robertson and its many septs, but has much to attract all with an intelligent concern for the social history of the Scottish people. Surely, one need hardly mention the tour of Blair Castle itself, 32 rooms of which are open to the public from May to October.

The River Garry flows through the Pass of Killieecrankie, here in its autumn colours.
The River Garry flows through the Pass of Killieecrankie, here in its autumn colours.

The Pass of Killiecrankie, held in trust for the nation, has a visitor centre and is well worth a visit while those of an adventurous turn of mind, if willing to spend a solitary bivouac under the stars may be rewarded by a glimpse of the ghostly apparition of a Highlander as he flees his noisome pursuers to the sound of crunching gravel and many a hoarse shouted oath.

The National Trust for Scotland Visitor Centre at Killiecrankie.
The National Trust for Scotland Visitor Centre at Killiecrankie.

Those who elect to indulge this entertainment should previously furnish themselves with a liberal supply of Glen Fiddich or Balvenie, a precaution that will ensure that, if the livid spectre is encountered, no fear is experienced. It may well accelerate the manifestation. Tradition has it that the best place to witness this singular drama is on the north bank of the Garry, below the Falls and among ‘the trees, secreting the person as avidly as one may, for the penalty of discovery is dire indeed.

Those of you who prefer a more conventional repose will find any number of excellent hotels in this part of Perthshire, with ample stocks of the above-mentioned spirits, ready to accept and cosset you.

Our thanks are due to Am Moireach – the Duke of Atholl – and to his Atholl Highlanders, and to Grant’s Whisky for yet another great experience that will be long savoured by all piping enthusiasts who attended a memorable occasion.

Feuch gum bi thu ag urnaidh!

• From the December 1984 Piping Times.

*The 1984 contest was won by Iain MacFadyen. He won the Piobaireachd contest with The Old Men of the Shells and placed fifth in the MSR with Millbank Cottage, Atholl Cummers and Major Manson.]

• The 2019 Glenfiddich takes place at Blair Castle on October 26. Tickets can be purchased HERE.