50 years of judging

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Today’s article from our archives was originally a lecture. In 1985 James Campbell, the son of Archibald Campbell of Kilberry, delivered the John MacFadyen Memorial Trust Annual Lecture. It took place in the Chapel Royal of Stirling Castle on April 26, the night before the Piobaireachd Society Conference.

Campbell’s lecture was entitled ’50 years of judging’ but, really it was much more than that. By discussing, albeit briefly, the legacy of John MacFadyen, Campbell’s reflection over 50 years of solo piping – from the mid-1930s to the mid-190s – was a fascinating comparison of how the solo piping world changed to become one that saw more and more retired professional pipers on the judges’ bench and the Piobaireachd Society Conference become a fixed event in the piping calendar.

By James Campbell

Students of back numbers of the London Times will find that in pre-war days the space available to ceòl mòr and its background compared favourably with that afforded by the same and other sources of information to-day. As an illustration, I read an extract from the contribution of “Our Special Correspondent” in the issue of the Times dated August 30, 1935.

“Between Fort William in Lochaber and Portree in Skye is no great distance as the eagle flies, but transport is slow in the west and a full day is none too much to allow for the journey between the two places. There are three ways in which the driver of a motor car can cross to Skye, the largest island of the Hebrides. He may follow the usual route and cross between Kyle and Kyleakin or he may drive his car over the heights of Mam Rattachan and cross by Kylerhea, which is the old road to Skye, and where a motor-ferry capable of carrying two cars has begun its career during the past fortnight.

“The third sea road to Skye, from Mallaig to Armadale, was the one which your Correspondent took. He arrived at Mallaig shortly after midday and waited on the shore until 4 o’clock in the afternoon. The ferry was then crossing from Armadale, and, on arriving, the ferryman reported heavy head seas in the Sound of Sleat and said that their last crossing took them two hours. The car was driven on to the ferryboat and after we had pitched and rolled our way half a mile into the Sound of Sleat, a friendly fishing boat out of Mallaig overtook us and towed us across to Armadale, while white-sailed yachts passed up the Sound.

“Beyond the MacDonald Castle of Armadale the Cuillin Peaks rose inky blue to the clouds, while on the mainland to the east the great hills near Lochiel’s march rose up clear and bold like a D.Y. Cameron picture. Skye is a large island, and from Armadale to Portree is a distance of over 50 miles.

“At Portree the Skye Gathering is held. The meeting consists of two Highland balls, the first of which was held last night, and a day of Highland games, at which piping takes place. The most important piping event is the competition in Pibroch, which is the classical music of the Highland pipes. This year the list of six tunes was published, and pipers today had to be ready to play any one of the six which might be given them by the judges. It was stipulated by MacLeod of MacLeod, whose passing the whole Isle of Skye laments, that his gold Dunvegan medal should be given for MacCrimmon compositions only, and the tunes heard to-day were all composed by that great line of Skye hereditary pipers.

“The tunes were the Lament for Donald Bàn MacCrimmon, a very beautiful composition on MacLeod’s piper who was killed at Moy in 1745; MacLeod of MacLeod’s Rowing Pibroch, a tune which is rarely heard today; MacCrimmon’s Sweetheart, a pibroch believed to be 400 years old and to have been composed from the playing of a spirit ancestor of the MacCrimmon, who made the tune the Lament for Iain Garve MacLeod of Raasay, who lost his life 300 years ago at sea in a tempest said to have been conjured up by the witch of Staffin for his destruction; the MacDonald’s Salute, a fine tune composed by Donald Mor MacCrimmon in the early 17th century on the marriage of a MacLeod of Dunvegan and a MacDonald of Sleat; and I Got a Kiss of the King’s Hand, a pibroch believed to have been composed by Patrick Mòr MacCrimmon in 1651, when Charles II was encamped outside Stirling and as a sign of favour, gave MacCrimmon his Royal hand to kiss.

“The pipers in the Pibroch competition played under difficult conditions this morning. A gale of wind was roaring through the trees and churning the waters of Portree Bay, and a thin driving rain accompanied the storm. Pipe Major Reid was not at his best in the Lament for Donald Ban MacCrimmon and Calum MacPherson (Invershin) left out a bar of the Taorluath of the MacDonald’s Salute, although he played well otherwise. Wilson, of Edinburgh, was placed first with MacCrimmon’s Sweetheart; Macpherson was second, and Pipe Major Robertson, who played the same tune was third. The judges were Colonel Grant of Rothiemurchus and Mr Seton Gordon.

“The weather had improved when the open marches began, and a third judge, Mr James Campbell (Kilberry) was requisitioned …”

And that, ladies and gentlemen, was my beginning of 50 years as a judge of pipe music. I was a stripling of 19, thrown in at the deep end. That was the form in those days. The supply of Piobaireachd Society judges came exclusively from the ranks of amateurs. The professional judge was unknown at Oban and Inverness, also, with the exception of John MacDonald who was a law unto himself, at the other three games which I frequented – Lochaber, Isle Oronsay and Portree. So any member of the Scottish Pipers’ Society who aspired to win the Strathcona cup was seen as it potential recruit by those whom Seumas MacNeill has somewhere described as the hard men of the Piobaireachd Society.

James Campbell in 1939.
James Campbell in 1939.

The practice of blooding them young resulted in one of the classic stories about John MacDonald which goes the round to this day. A certain competitor of high distinction was, to his distaste, placed third in a piobaireachd competition judged by a bench which included John MacDonald and a greenhorn from the amateur ranks. The disappointed competitor was, later in the day, emboldened to put this question to John MacDonald: “What does a boy like that know about Piobaireachd”? To which the answer was: “He knows enough to put you third.”

But do not imagine that the hard men of the Piobaireachd Society had no system. There was nothing formal, or in writing, but training there was, and with a sensitive ear to the ground in the business of keeping in touch with professional sentiment. Pursuant to this policy my early judging activities were much restricted. Ceòl beag only in the first two years, and that in company with experienced judges. Then I find by reference to the Times that in 1937 I judged piobaireachd at Lochaber in the company with my father and John MacDonald. And in 1938 I was in Lochaber, with John MacDonald and at Isle Oronsay with Rothiemurchus and John MacDonald. And at Portree, judged with Rothiemurchus and (as he then was) Captain F.M. Richardson RAMC.

I did not see myself as a judge proper till after the war when, at the age of 30, I had had the opportunity to reflect on and digest earlier instruction and experience. But the post-war period came later. And meantime I am tempted to take a nostalgic look at pre-war days. Not that I am pining for those days because today not only are there many more high class players than there were then but also we as a piping community, are much more fortunate in the business of informed and critical appreciation of ceòl mòr than was the case 50 years ago. There were, however, pipers of the greatest distinction, and the front rank competitors were J. B. Robertson, Robert Reid, Malcolm MacPherson and John Wilson. On occasion they were joined by others with less opportunity to frequent the games – such as John MacDonald (Glasgow Police) and the Bobs of Balmoral, but it was those four who were the regular prizewinners.

… And so we move to the next part of my story, which starts in the autumn of 1946. That was the earliest practicable moment at which things could be started up after the war. In a somewhat apologetic vein, Oban and Inverness announced the holding of indoor competitions in piobaireachd. At Oban it was not possible in the time available to crank up the machinery for the traditional games. Whereas at Inverness the Northern Meeting Park was no longer available, having been sold to meet expenses in connection with the upkeep of the Northern Meeting Rooms.

In fact, what at the time was thought of as something of a misfortune turned out to be the best thing that had ever happened in the history of competition playing of piobaireachd. Because it led to the discrediting of the outdoor competition and to the end of the jolly joke that it was all part of the rub of the green to be distracted by pistols, wasps, loud hailers and, on occasions, vile weather conditions which could result in the prize going not to the best players, but to the best battlers against the elements. It led to general recognition of the principle that the place for a piobaireachd competition, in this country at any rate, is indoors.

Well, there is the scene set in 1946. And the stalwarts who ruled the roost pre-war – Reid, Robertson, MacPherson, Wilson – were there to ease the new generation into the saddle. They only stayed a short time. History never makes a clean break, but substantially only one pre-war top man remained for any length of time, not only to pass on the torch but also greatly to enhance his own reputation as a competitor. That was the great Robert Brown. By and large, however, the story after the war is of new men. Thus in the years 1946 and 1947 the winners of the two Senior Competitions were, at Oban, J. B. Robertson and Robert Reid and, at Inverness, Robert Reid and Robert Brown. In 1948, 49 and 50 the corresponding winners were at Oban, Donald MacPherson, John MacLellan and Donald MacPherson: and, at Inverness, Donald MacLeod, Donald MacLeod and Donald MacPherson. Those were the three, MacPherson, MacLeod, MacLellan who were going to dominate the major piobaireachd events in the 1950s as well as the late 1940’s, In that period Donald MacPherson had the formidable bag of two Gold Medals and nine senior awards. And, as a less regular competitor, he was going to bag at least 12 more senior awards in subsequent decades.

The event which started it all off was his first Gold Medal. His tune was The Old Man of the Shells. The setting which he played came from MacDougall Gillies and was probably derived from John MacPherson, an old Blair Athol piper. That setting was published by the Piobaireachd Society in 1938, together with the more authoritative setting of Angus MacKay. The tune was set for competition in 1939, but the war came and there were no competitions. So it did not become well known until 1948, when it was set again. It has since become a popular favourite, but it is the Gillies setting which has been universally adopted.

Kenneth MacDonald.

… So, as I was saying, the 1950s was the decade of MacLeod, MacPherson and MacLellan. At the same time the Gold Medal competitions were throwing up future contenders for senior awards – among them Robert Hardie, John Burgess, Willie MacDonald (Inverness), Iain MacFadyen, Kenneth MacDonald, John MacDougall. The post war boom in the piobaireachd cult was well under way and there was no shortage of up and coming competitors.

But there was an increasing shortage of up and coming judges. For one reason or another the traditional source of new blood had dried up and 15 post-War years had seen only two additions to those who were doing duty before the war. The solution was, of course, to seek recruits from the ranks of professionals.

Easy and obvious as that situation seems today, it was not so easy and obvious 30 years ago. Rightly or wrongly, a full and lengthy career as a competing piper was not seen as the best training for a judge. And I assure you that these reservations were not confined to the Music Committee of the Piobaireachd Society. They were shared by the competing pipers. But the change had to come. And it came in two stages. The first stage was marked by the availability and willingness of two professionals of ample repute who had for one reason or another competed recently on infrequent occasions only. They commanded the respect of the diehards, the progressives and the mass of the critical piping world. On terms that they had firmly retired from competition playing they took their places as Piobaireachd Society judges in the early 1960s, and in doing so paved the way for much necessary reform. The door was now open to other respected retired professionals, among whom we found Nicol MacCallum and Ian Cameron.

Then the second stage came with the emergence of the early retired professional – the man who at a comparatively young age had got all he wanted out of competing and who now wanted to turn his attention to the academic side of the business. There were several of these – enough to generate a trend, and they were quickly absorbed in the ranks of judges. And this process continued, peacefully and unobtrusively, until there came a moment of time which one can roughly fix at the mid 1970s when we woke up to the face that the old distinction between amateur and professional judges had simply vanished. One restriction had to remain in the appointment of ono who had competed professionally – he had to be firmly retired, Otherwise the test was the same for all – (1) Does he know his stuff, and (2) Is he capable of distancing himself from his own preferences in the matter of style?

And so, one way and another I see the position today as pretty satisfactory. There is some more to be done. Judging can never be an exact science. If you have a plurality of judges on a bench you are never going to avoid disagreements, however knowledgeable and broad minded the judges may be. You are never going to define by metes and bounds the area of legitimate interpretation of a tune. You are never going to be able to lay down rules on when mistakes should be condoned, and when and to what extent they should be penalised.

What you can do, and what is in process of being done, is to hold regular conferences of judges for the consideration of these and other matters such as the difference between known styles, settings and interpretations. In some such way we can hope, not to obviate, but to reduce as grounds for the inevitable criticism, suggestions of ignorance of domatism.

And so to sum up, my story of 50 years has fallen into three phases:

(1) The halycyon days before the war when the sun shone and the grass was for ever green.

(2) The wind of change which blew in the 1950s and 1960s.

(3) The placid revolution of the 1970s, of which more later because it remains for me to have a look at the career of John MacFadyen with an eye on his influence on this process of development.

In the pre-war period John MacFadyen had no part to play in this story. He made his appearance in my second period, which I have labelled “the wind of change” and which spans the 1950s and 1960s.

During this time, of course, he was on the receiving end, as a competitor, and was building up for his big moment so far as the story of 20th century judging is concerned. I suppose that for a competitor of his talents he was a slow starter, and for those who only remember him as one whose knowledge of tunes ranged far and wide, the following story which he delighted to tell against himself, will come as something of a surprise.

Seumas MacNeill, John MacLellan, John Wilson and John MacFadyen

Time: The early 1950’s. Scene: The Skye Gathering Hall. Occasion: The Competition for the Dunvegan Medal. Conditions for competition: four MacCrimmon tunes to be submitted. Competitor: John MacFadyen, whose repertoire only included three MacCrimmon tunes, but who had a certain notorious familiarity with The MacFarlane’s Gathering and reckoned that he could work up the somewhat similar Too Long in this Condition to do duty for tune number four. The presiding judge was Grant of Rothiemurchus, and as ill fortune would have it the tune selected was Too Long in this Condition. And as John turned away to strike up his pipes he heard Rothiemurchus mutter to the other judges, ‘‘He will probably go into the MacFarlane’s Gathering.” And that forecast was fulfilled.

John reckoned that the life of a professional piper spanned three stages. In the first stage your learned how to play the tunes. In the second stage you won prizes. And in the third stage you went academic and explored beyond the printed page of the music and beyond the style of playing taught to you. Well, it may be said that in the 1950s he was learning how to play the tunes – he was picking up prizes as well, but the Gold Medals were eluding him. And his theory was that you kept on at your standard tunes until you have the medals behind you.

On that theory, 1960 was a landmark in his career because it was in that year, afters some 12 years as a competitor, that he won his first Medal. The scene is the Territorial Drill Hall at Oban. The judges are Rothiemurchus, Archie Kenneth and Charles MacTaggart. The tune was Black Donald’s March.

John MacFadyen in 1960.

Well, after winning that medal John was out in the open and the story of competitive piping in the 1960s is largely the story of his consistent success. With a vengeance he was into the second stage of his career – winning prizes, and, entering for all set tune competitions, rapidly expanding his repertoire. In this period he won the Bratach Gorm in London six times, five of them in successive years. He won three clasps at Inverness and was three times the winner of the senior competition at Oban. And, of course, he had innumerable first prizes elsewhere. Then, quite suddenly, al the peak of his success he decided to stop winning prizes and to move on to the third and exploratory stage of his career. And 1970 saw his last appearance as a competitor at Oban. The occasion in to me a memorable one because there was a seldom-heard tune played by two exponents of similar distinction and repute, who performances were way out in front of the others. The actual result, as between them, has no relevance to this story. The scene is again set in Oban, but this time in the Dunollie Hall. The judges are Kenneth MacKay, Graham Murray and Nicol MacCallum. The two exponents were Donald MacPherson and John MacFadyen. And the tune was Clan Ranald’s Salute.

And so, in the early 1970s, John MacFadyen ceased to compete and came to the stage of exploration. My emphasis today is on the history of judging, and when on his retirement John came to take his place among the Piobaireachd Society judges he had everything – prestige, knowledge, flexibility of mind – it was all there. He, more than anyone, served to engineer what I have described as the placid revolution of the 1970s. He was not alone – there were others working with him. But for two reasons he claims a special distinction. First, he had an unusually eager interest in the unknown and the unfamiliar, and at the time of his retirement he was working hand in glove with Archie Kenneth over the production of the new material for Book 13 of the Piobaireachd Society Collection. And Book 13 is a work which constitutes a considerable landmark in the story of Piobaireachd Society publications, and which after 10 years has by no means exhausted its capacity to inform and educate.

Second, he can claim as his brainchild the annual Piobaireachd Society Conference. John had grasped the need for a forum in which matters relating to piobaireachd could be aired and litigated at leisure and in friendly surroundings. These conferences have been and are an occasion for mutual enlightenment and education. Through the devotion of the staff of the College of Piping the proceedings have been and are recorded and transcribed in print, and have been and are made available far and wide.

And so, quite shortly after John’s retirement several of his concerns had come to fruition. Book 13 was launched. The conference, which started in 1972 at Minard Castle, became an accepted feature of the piping calendar. The distinction between amateur and professional judge had retired into history. There remained a short time in which full rein was given to his restless interest in teaching, writing, learning, researching, playing, publishing. His story will continue to be told. As in the case of Book 13, the vein of appreciation is not worked out. And his influence persists.

From the outside looking in. Left to right: Iain MacFadyen, Tom Speirs, Alasdair Milne and James Campbell.

*From the July 1985 Piping Times.