Piper above all others


The first ‘Piper Above all Others’ competition was an invitational one that was held in Glasgow from the late 1970s to the early-mid 1980s. Andrew Wright won it in 1979, Donald MacPherson in 1980, Pipe Major Angus MacDonald in 1981. Fred Morrison won the 1985 one. The 1980 competition is the subject of the following contemporary review by Captain John A. MacLellan MBE and is taken from the February 1981 edition of his International Piper. (At the end of this post there is a clip of Donald MacPherson in recital from 1999).

By Capt. John A. MacLellan MBE

This is the second year that this invitational competition has been held in the plush surroundings of Glasgow’s City Chambers. The competition is organised by Glasgow District Council who are advised by Mr. Angus MacDonald, formerly Pipe Major of the Glasgow Police Pipe Band. Both the sponsors and the conveners of both political parties of Glasgow District Council are pleased by the stature of the players who competed and it is possible that in future it may be arranged to transmit the music to George Square during the competition. As it was, the B.B.C. devoted four broadcasts of news time which we are glad to say was not treated in the usual “Gie’s a blaw” idiom but with the due respect that Scotland’s national music should command. The competition this year is set for 28th November, 1981. It will be held once again in Glasgow’s magnificent Banqueting Hall.

Adair Storage and Distribution Ltd. sponsor the event and have presented a silver plaid brooch engraved with the title PIOBAIRE OS CIONN CHAICH (Piper above all others), as well as generous prize money. The choice of the competition’s title is debatable, for most leading pipers manage during their competing careers to be “a piper above all others”, but for the day of competition only!

This year, 10 competitors were invited to participate in the Ceòl Mòr competition and 12 for a March, Strathspey and Reel competition, the results of which had no bearing on “The Above All’ title which is awarded to the winner of the Piobaireachd competition only. In addition, the holder of this title is appointed Piper to the Lord Provost of Glasgow for the ensuing year.

Eight competitors played in the Piobaireachd event. Pipe Major lain Morrison of the Queen’s Own Highlanders ‘broke the ice’ and ‘set the ball rolling’ with an excellent interpretation of one of his favourite tunes, Lord Lovat’s Lament. As always, his bagpipe was perfection and thus the competition got away to the best of starts.

Rory McLoude’s Lament was chosen for Duncan MacFadyen to play but a bagpipe which was not quite settled obviously had an unsettling effect on the performer for this was not Duncan MacFadyen at his best.

Competitors were required to submit four tunes from the 1980 Clasp list and, in addition, four tunes of their own choice. It so happened that the judges, Captain Andrew Pitkeathly, Captain D. R. MacLennan and Pipe Major John M. MacKenzie chose to ignore the Clasp list and in each case chose a tune from each competitor’s personal list. Malcolm MacRae, who was third to play, was asked to render Beloved Scotland a favourite tune of many piobaireachd players. His performance was nicely phrased and in conjunction with a fine pipe produced a good performance which if anything lacked crispness in the final variations.

Donald MacPherson (Piobaire Os Cionn Chaich, 1980).

Donald MacPherson must have lost count of the number of competitions that he has entered for since he began his professional career about 1946 or ’47. His record is outstanding and his fellow competitors must always reckon that ‘he is the one to beat’. His tune on this occasion was Ronald MacDonald of Morar’s Lament and his playing was a musical, mature performance, marked by excellent technique on his usual fine bagpipe. One comment heard was “that was the kind of professional performance one expects from Donald MacPherson’’ — it was indeed a fine tune.

Playing in fifth position was Kenneth MacLean who like those who had played earlier was given a favourite tune. His was Lament for Patrick Òg MacCrimmon. The judges were obviously out to ensure that both competitors and listeners were getting the best music that was available. Kenneth played a good ground, but as he progressed to its doubling he was inclined to snatch. The doubling of the first variation was marked by a tendency to play too fast thus losing out on the best musical effect. After good Taorluath and Crunluath playing the performance was spoilt by some inept fingering in the Crunluath a-Mach.

Last year’s winner, Andrew Wright was next to play. His allotted tune was the magnificent Lament for the Children. Once again, he turned in a fine performance and as always, his pipe had that deep, resonant sound which is so effective.

The tune In Praise of Morag brought Hugh MacCallum his first major win at the Argyllshire Gathering all of some 30-odd years ago and, of course, since then he has had so much repeated success, As usual, Hugh turned in a first class performance which was unfortunately marred by a slip in the Taorluath singling. In the tradition of piping competitions such slips tend to tell heavily, especially when an excellent performance is scarred.

The final performance was that of lain MacFadyen’s rendering of Clan Ranald’s Salute. Ian brought the competition to a close with a very good per- formance played on a fine bagpipe. The tune was kept alive from beginning to end, never losing interest, climaxing with a splendid Crunluath variation.

The result was — 1. Donald MacPherson, 2. Pipe Major lain Morrison, 3. lain MacFadyen, 4. Andrew Wright, 5 Malcolm MacRae.

Piping audiences delight in March, Strathspey and Reel competitions, especially when the performers are proficient in this class of music. As with the Ceòl Mòr competition, it was a requirement that the performers be qualified to play in the Former Winners competition at Oban or Inverness.

Malcolm Macrae, who played Millbank Cottage, MacBeth’s Strathspey and Alick Cameron, began the competition with a correct performance on a steady pipe.

He was followed by Donald MacPherson playing The Clan McColl, The Piper’s Bonnet and MacAllister’s Dirk. Donald is, of course, well experienced in this type of competition, but strangely had a change of setting the second time over the reel which detracted from a very good performance.

Gavin Stoddart, since he has become Pipe Major of the Royal Highland Fusiliers, has put the opportunity to compete to very good use and has shown that he is a player well worthy of his salt. His set was Abercairney Highlanders, Maggie Cameron and The Sheepwife. Perhaps the march was a shade fast and round, but a very good strathspey and an excellent reel made up for that deficiency. His bagpipe tended to be unsteady which, of course, tells on the debit side.

Pipe Major Iain Morrison was asked to play The Edinburgh Volunteers (seldom heard these days), Dora MacLeod and John Morrison of Assynt House. As his playing form at present is excellent his performance was well up to the standard. Indeed, it was outstanding and a real pleasure to listen to.

The tunes Southall, Lady Louden and Dr. MacPhail were the tunes asked from Hugh MacCallum who played them in his usual clean and inimitable way. Seldom does Hugh turn in a poor performance and this one was no exception. The reel in particular was quite outstanding. The audience were most appreciative in getting their money’s worth.

Dr. Angus MacDonald is one of the younger competitors who has recently made his mark as a player of repute. His tunes were the great favourites. The Braes of castle Grant, The Atholl Cummers and Mrs MacPherson of Inveran – a set to delight any player or listener. However, Angus did not do it justice. The pipe was not quite right and a change of setting in the strathspey marred an otherwise musical performance.

Last to play was Iain MacFadyen who was asked to play some of his favourite tunes, Lonach Gathering, Inveraray Castle and Dolina MacKay, which set was beautifully played, the march and reel being both of a very high standard.

The judges for this competition were Pipe Major Robert Hardie, Pipe Major John MacKenzie and Captain Angus MacKillop who chose the prizewinners are follows – 1. Pipe Major Iain Morrison (last year’s winner), 2. Iain MacFadyen, 3. Hugh MacCallum, 4. Pipe Major Gavin Stoddart, 5. Donald MacPherson.

• Here is a clip of Donald MacPherson in recital at the National Piping Centre in 1999 when he was in his mid 70s: