Set Tunes blog feedback / Contest by tape

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In full flow. The Clasp competition at the 2019 Northern Meeting.
In full flow. The Clasp competition at the 2019 Northern Meeting.

We have received some feedback regarding the blog post from Simon McKerrell, pictured right, that appeared here last week. All of the feedback we received came from competing pipers and a couple of judges.

Most were supportive of Mr McKerrell’s suggestion that it is time to gradually abolish the Set Tunes for the major solo piping competitions. Most responses were short comments of four or five sentences. We quote two of the responses below, one for and one against. (We have respected our correspondents’ wishes to remain anonymous but this is surely not a healthy situation? All who are interested in furthering piping should feel they can state their considered views publicly.)

Firtly, writing in favour, a competing piper from Scotland said: “Simon put his points across well and I agree pretty much with all of them. It’s hard to disagree with anything he wrote. When you look at the pipe band scene, it is currently going through a period of immense creativity. This is almost a golden age for the medley. It begs the question: will piobaireachd ever have another golden age of composition?

“Despite the setting of some very good tunes from Capt. John [MacLellan] and [Pipe Major] Donald MacLeod for a while now, the main body of tunes that we’re forced to learn and play are nevertheless those written 200-300 years ago, some of which are certainly wonderful piecs of music but some which are of bogus musical merit. What must the judges really be thinking when the competitor before him is trying his best to get music into a musically questionable tune, one that he’s heard too many times over the years? No branch of music survives exclusively on the compositions of 200-300 years ago. A rotten tune will always be a rotten tune no matter how many times pipers are forced to play it. Devolving the make-up of the Music Committee would bring fresh thinking and introduce a more performer-led landscape. This is overdue. Simon’s piece was a refreshing read.”

Writing in favour, a judge based in Scotland said: “I’m old enough to remember various high-profile [piobaireachd] composing competitions of 40+ years ago and some of those tunes simply weren’t up to standard. Those tunes came and went. Perhaps, in fairness, the competition environment wasn’t conducive back then.

“Of course no one will compose new music if there is no platform for them to be heard. That’s a fair comment but it’s too sweeping a generalisation. After all, some John MacLellan and Donald MacLeod’s tunes have been set in recent years and those tunes are certainly up to standard. Those tunes will continue to be set in the years to come.

In full flow. The Clasp competition at the 2019  Northern Meeting.
In full flow. The Clasp competition at the 2019 Northern Meeting.


“Simon made some good points but careful consideration would need to be given to any system that replaces the current one and I rather suspect that, despite its faults, this is the best system. Simon’s suggestions would require a degree of professionalism in piping that is simply not there. That is the reality.”


Our report on March 21 confirming the cancellation of this year’s Skye Games, caught the attention of reader, Luke James who lives in South Africa’s Eastern Cape province.

Luke writes: “… You suggested that organisers of the Argyllshire Gathering could hold its competition for junior pipers [the MacGregor Memorial] online for this year. They should give it a go. The concept is really not new and I’m sure they could learn from others who have done this already.

From the June 1982 ‘Piping Times’.

“You may be interested to know that in the early 1980s the Grahamstown Pipers’ Society here in South Africa ran a solo piping competition. It was all pibroch. Interestingly, the competitors recorded their performances onto a cassette tape and mailed it to the organiser, Chris Terry. He then sent the tapes to the judges who arrived at their decisions and sent back their comments on the performances they heard.

“The Piping Times carried a brief report which I’ve scanned and attached to my email. I can’t recall if this novel idea was ever repeated, though. I don’t think it was.”

Thanks, Luke. It just goes to show that there’s nothing original in piping! It’s all been done before.

Bagpipe.News will carry a comprehensive report on Burntisland & District’s recent ‘Matrix’ online competition shortly.