This article was written in 1967, shortly after its author attended the very first Silver Chanter competition. He considered sending it to the Piping Times for publication but hesitated due to his teacher’s negative views about Glasgow and west coast piping in general. He put it in a drawer instead. In the August 2018 Piping Times, just as the iconic competition moved to Glasgow, he finally published it but insisted on using a pseudonym.
For many years now I have read the Piping Times and have seen the time after time the editor asking for articles and opinions on everything typical in the piping world. I am an enthusiastic piper and, like hundreds of others, not very good at executing the music of our highland pipe. Like hundreds of others I do my bit practice and try to become better as a result. Like some of these hundreds I am a dedicated piobaireachd fan and like very few of these hundreds I am privileged to be a pupil of one of the famous piobaireachd players of our day.
Like hundreds of others I am a keen supporter of all things to do with piping and try to do my bit for the piping world in many ways. It has always worried me that I should be able to do more for piping than I have to date but what can I teach anyone, what can I write about that would be appreciated in the Piping Times? I know nothing of the intricacies of pipe making and my studies are more for my own satisfaction and therefore my technical knowledge is slight.
Piobaireachd is my driving force and my tutor has repeatedly told me to forget the written music and listen to the song, sing it, not once, hundreds of times and then it will play itself. This I could not understand but eventually I thought I had got the message and I sing and sing much to the distraction of my close friends and family and not once, but often, have I found myself singing in the company of the unbelieving, the uneducated. They could not know this only happens when one is bored by their company and prefer one’s own or that one is thinking deeply of other things.
In my quest for the meaning of piobaireachd I have travelled the games circuit and the Northern Meetings. I have attended lectures, fortnightly meetings, ceilidhs, Eagle Pipers’ evenings, the lot. I have listened to eminent piobaireachd players’ opinions, their recitals, their views, their arguments, their recordings and while I learned a lot I still felt I lacked something, some finishing touch which would enable me to join the very few who really know what piobaireachd means. Whether I would ever be able to play better as a result did not worry me but I simply had to find that final, vital part to give me the foundation for my understanding of the music.
My quest was eventually rewarded and I hope that in passing my experiences on to the other thousands who are still seeking, I will have done that little extra for piping. Even if this article passes the editor’s eye, someone else will see it, perhaps it will inspire someone else to seek and find, even if it goads one more person to that bit more practice or brings in one letter to the Piping Times it will have done its part and if it helps to increase the Pilgrims, well and good.
In black and white elsewhere in the Piping Times you will have read someone’s official report on the Silver Chanter competition at Dunvegan Castle on the Isle of Skye. With all due respect to the writer, it will probably have given you all the facts but did it convey any meaning? Our national press reported it in black and white. The Scotsman ran an article on the forthcoming competition and tried to capture the tiny picture but lacked the inner knowledge to truly capture the potential. The London Times had perhaps the best report afterwards, certainly that I saw.
The competition was not very fully advertised but I saw it in three or four different places and secured tickets surprisingly easily. I was even more disappointed to read a list of competitions in the Oban Times with week to go but my plans were made and I would stick to them. Fancy, only ten competed in what should have proved to be the most attractive competition to the true lover of piobaireachd in the world.
It was truly an inspired idea of Dame Flora MacLeod’s to reinstate this 400-year-old competition, and although I am no relation of the Brahan Seer, I predict that the Silver Chanter competition will grow into one of the most prestigious recitals in the world. I would not be surprised if there thousands of pipers make a pilgrimage at this time of year and descend upon Dunvegan like migrating birds on a lighthouse. I only hope that MacTavish can get seats in the competition hall and not be forced to sit outside and listen piped pipe music. However, MacTavish is not really too worried because he has got the message and on one can ever recapture the exhilaration of experiencing the first of the Silver Chanter competition. MacTavish can laugh at those who are not interested, he can understand what the select are talking about, he can understand their meaning and he can argue with the unbelieving.
Now, the quest has gone on for years and it was in this respect that I thought it high time to go to Boreraig. I had read so much about Boreraig I felt I had to go there sometime. When I read about the Silver Chanter competition I thought this would provide the ideal opportunity, so I left the civilised and set off on my pilgrimage to the north west of Skye.
MacTavish is very much a Scot and although he loves the romance of Skye he deplores the sight of commercialised tourism and for this reason has avoided Skye in the past. So it was all the more remarkable that he determined to go at the height of Skye Week to Dunvegan, that seat of Scottish tourism. True to form, the cars stretched for miles at the ferries, the tourists in shorts and sandals were everywhere. They sat in their deck chairs drinking tea in laybys while kilted MacTavish struck an incongruous picture, dedicatedly heading to the seat of inspired piping and every mile becoming more and more convinced that it was to be an utter waste of time.
His first view of Dunvegan Castle caused the most depressing feeling he had ever experienced, the hope, speculation and expectation went out with a rush like blow from a punctured bag. There was Dunvegan Castle, the seat of that mighty clan, the MacLeods. The notice at the gate used the word ‘Tourists’ and MacTavish immediately jarred at the thought that he, so typically Scottish, could be described as a tourist. Surely, ‘visitors’ would have been more appropriate? To be sure, indeed, ‘tourists’ is correct and he realised the true meaning of the saying, “The truth hurts most.”
To use the words of a local forester, the place was fair “hotchin’ wi’ veesitors”. MacTavish never finds a native calling a tourist a tourist. The truth was rammed home by the sight of six large charabancs parked at the gate, the ones one usually giggles at, with large notices saying ‘Isle of Skye’ and ‘Loch Lomond’ or ‘Misty Isle’ and ‘Devil’s Elbow’ of plain ‘Bonnie Scotland’.
MacTavish’s first view of the house itself was even more depressing, lots of tourists pulling the tame heather on the drive verges. All visitors become tourists when they misbehave. There seemed to be hundreds of these unfortunate people being shepherded about the place. MacTavish ran.
Disconsolate and completely depressed by these goings on, MacTavish retraced his steps and by car took the road to Glendale and eventually branched off to Boreraig and Galtrigal. After some miles he arrived at the rather sleepy, sultry clachan of Boreraig and having parked his car, interrupted a worthy local’s afternoon snooze in the sun by asking details of the whereabouts of things MacCrimmon and pertaining to. So it was that he arrived at the MacCrimmon Cairn and only then did the romantic take over and the true Skye reveal itself. This wild spot on the shores of Dunvegan Loch, the place where our prized piping was developed and taught.
Not a soul in sight, the loch far below, the cliffs of the west, the sea of the surf, this was more like it. Having driven the best part of 300 miles MacTavish was slightly weary and it was not difficult to the at the base of the cairn and turn back pages of history. The sun was shining, the air circulating in the upcurrents from the sea below, the smell of salt, peat and sea. What a tonic!
The imagination ran off and one eye opening slightly, saw the war galleys sailing gently up the loch toward Dunvegan and marvelled at the work of earlier beings in the building of a nearby broch. The eye became heavier and closed again, the music was there, the wind circling round, every now and then blowing through the rushes nearby, the incessant throb of the waves, throwing themselves on the rocks below, the gracenotes of lark and pippit chipping in so clearly, but what was that? Who else has ever heard and identified the plaintive warning cry of the golden plover? For the first time MacTavish recognised that note, its duration, pitch and feeling of utter despair is exactly on the G with F and A finger closed should sound in any tune in which desperation is a part of, was Cille Chriosd, in the thumb variation. The note is identical and one can identify the helplessness of these doomed souls with the eeriness yet beauty of that plaintive wail. Now i do not mean that Cille Chriosd was composed on Skye or anything like that. All I say is, I can identify and feel sure that the plover and high G are related!
So it was that sleep overtook the war galleys, the last thoughts of these burning souls, the MacCrimmon scholars, and the ghoulish thought of Mary MacLeod still lying face down in her cold grave. I was rudely brought back to the present by my quite suddenly realising that the sun had gone behind a cloud, the wind had whipped up and that the midges of Skye were hungry and seeking refuge. So it was that I set off to find a suitable spot in which to cook my evening meal.
Having found a suitable spot and dined a lot better than many of those who were in my thoughts would have done, I set off once again for Dunvegan and once again the romantic was built up and it was with high hopes that I pulled in to a deserted car park.
This time things were different. The castle had a different air about it, there was no one to be seen and the tourists, like the midges, had been driven inside by the cool, early autumn night. MacTavish was in good time, as were the mere handful of enthusiasts already there. These were the seekers or the ones who already knew, and it was most interesting to record mentally those who had thought it worthwhile.
After much chatting the hour approached for the evening’s music to begin. By this time everybody was in place and some unfortunates were in the adjoining room listening only, as the main room was packed by the large but yet tiny crowd. The introduction and welcomes over, Dame Flora MacLeod had given in the romantic background to the reason for there being a competition at all. She spoke very well and the applause showed that she had had some success in searching the inner thinkings of at least some of the audience. There were a lot of visitors as well as pipers present but there were, in MacTavish’s opinion, very few who knew why they were there or really appreciated the potential of what they were about to hear.
MacT was not there to judge the competition. He was there simply to listen but in the express hope that he would hear some of the ten give a tune, inspired by the surroundings, come right out of themselves and let us see into their souls, let us hear the MacCrimmons come out of them, let us hear music, outstanding music.
The competition room was not very large. It was well lit by two large chandeliers, the north wall facing inland had two window recesses, the vast nine-feet thick walls revealing vividly a boistrous history. The south wall was a mere four feet thick but the sea and rocks were below and must have been a much more formidable obstacle in the past.
We were told that MacLeod had held his original competition in that very room 400 years ago by asking 12 of his fellow lairds to come for a feast and to bring their pipers for entertainment. We were told how the young MacCrimmon came to win and how the Silver Chanter came into existence. Dame Flora tried hard to convey to that not very receptive audience the romantic situation each and every one of us was about to experience. MacTavish needed very little encouraging and at this stage would like to make mention that he is not writing to judge his fellow pipers, nor is he slating the judges, which is a common practice. He is passing on his personal views and thoughts on a wonderful evening of piping.
The first tune we heard – and every tune, of course, had being composed by a MacCrimmon – was MacSwan of Roaig and this just whetted the appetite for more; if they all played like this it would be a memorable evening.
By the time the second tune started, MacTavish’s imagination was off again. The glass windows had shrunk in size and were once again narrow slits in those huge walls. The walls were hanging in drapes, the audience had disappeared and in their place sat the 12 invited lairds listening as we were to the best pipers of their day. The chandeliers had shrivelled and in their place the tallow torches burned with much smoke, a huge open fire roared on the floor and rushes strewn about took the place of carpets. Two large deer hounds lay curled up by the fire wincing at the closeness of the pipe or at the fullness of their paunch, filled by the scraps from the board. One by one the competitors then and now sweated out their concentration and their music.
Suddenly, MacTavish was aware of another presence. Here was a tune, here was music, my goodness it was as if MacCrimmon himself had taken over. The song was tremendous. Donald Duaghal MacKay sang himself away on an immaculate instrument and left MacTavish completely exhausted. There were others who heard this; they were the chosen ones and it was they who were exhausted, too.
How many realised what that had meant to MacTavish or to themselves? Had any heard what he had heard? Again his imagination ran and a chorus of voices all called at once, “I have, I have, I have,” and from outside yet another, “So have I.”
To whom did the voices belong as I asked, “Who dares to say they have heard this before?”
“I have,” said the first. “I am the very walls of this house and it was through my door they came and within these four walls that I heard music first of all 400 years ago.” I had to acknowledge he had a point, and apologised gracefully.
To the second voice I asked the same question and it replied, “I am the Fairy Flag and although I am in a glass case on the wall I was not always so. Although I look old and worn with new red wounds to show for my more gallant days, yet am I not too old to appreciate the poignancy of this moment. After all, I was ancient when they played here 400 years ago and I was only just past my prime then.” I had to acknowledge that the Fairy Flag had a point and yet again I apologised.
I was rather dubious about asking yet another but having been humbled so often already another once would do no harm. Ah, but here we were again, I Got a Kiss of the King’s Hand. The song was so clear, so pure again. It was as if – well, words cannot describe how it sounded. It was played by an expert, that we knew, but something was playing it for him. He was transfixed. All their voices were singing the song for him. There were the hidden forces that do the singing, here was the song, the rhythm, the immaculate timing and always the song.
The voices all applauded. “That is what I’ve longed to hear again,” called the one from outside and, of course, I had to ask where he had heard it before. He said: “I am the sword who gave William Long Sword his name. I was carried in many a battle but survived my master who was killed in 1485 at the Battle of Bloody Bay on Mull*. I did not always hang here but I was always within earshot of the piping and it is many a year since this place heard such music as you have just heard. Yes, I have heard it all before but long ago.”
The last three voices clamoured to be asked for their opinions and so I asked them to tell me their tale. They had a lot in common, had been in existence for a long time before the original competition 400 years ago, the one was about 200 years old then and the other cannot remember exactly but was made into it present form in about 900AD. Both are drinking vessels, the one made from Irish bogwood and the other the drinking horn of the MacLeod chiefs, who, when on achieving manhood, had to prove it by downing the contest in one draught. Quite a formidable pair with beautifully wrought silver rims, probably added in the 15th century.
The last voice said, “They have all only heard music, but I have been played by a MacCrimmon and produced such music. I am MacCrimmon’s pipe. What you have heard this evening is not so unlike what we used to play and it was a pleasure to hear the great music again.”
Who was I then to argue? I had no argument. I was there to hear and so were they. They had heard and appreciated, so had I. They already knew, I had learnt. They had inspired these players that evening to play outwith their normal playing. I had heard, I had received the message, never shall I forget the song – I’ve heard I Got A Kiss many a time but never have I heard such as this time. As for Lament for the Earl of Antrim, the music expressed in this really was superb and supported by a pipe which did not waver at all. It gave a most pleasing, rewarding tune. The penny had dropped. Now I knew. The song, the song, the song.
The evening ended all too son but one cannot listen comfortably to such powerful music for too long and the romantic was broken by much speechifying and presentation of filthy lucre, which brought one back with a lump to the rat-racing present and the reek of that very stuff I despised seeing being handed over. I, and no doubt thousands of others would gladly give a lot more than prize-money to be able to express as they had done and while the presentation of that beautiful chandlier should be for all to see perhaps the part-paying of expenses should be left in the background. Let me add, it is a most necessary part of the proceedings, but oh dear!
MacTavish felt rather as if the spring tide had lifted him high and dry but his evening was not yet over. He met and chatted with a few of those selects with who else heard one competition from the games at Portree with moist eye declare that he was not fit to play in such company. What company? The voices or those who were eligible to compete? Or the MacCrimmons themselves? Perhaps he missed hearing the tune, Donald Duaghal which until the player was distracted at the start of the taorluath, was well up with the best. This tune I knew he played but perhaps it was because he had heard it that he was upset. It was a great consolation to me to find someone as emotionally upset as I and it was with large lumps and moist eye I said my goodnight and made to depart.
I bade the voices “Oidhche bha” and gave the Long Sword a special word of encouragement, a cold place that outside hall but at least one can guard the entrance.
MacTavish was waylaid outside and asked by some friends to a house nearby for a ceilidh and after such an emotionally exacting evening the opportunity to become more high and less dry appealed very much.
The story is told except that my friend turned out to be a descendant of the hereditary armour bearers to MacLeod and it was they and theirs who were responsible to William for the well being of his long sword. Does it not prove something that the sword is still there? And so are they!
The evening finished with piping, singing, and one of the most beautiful of all sounds, the playing of the ground of MacLeod of Raasay’s Salute on the Scots fiddle. Played by an expert, this is another of these instruments that can squeeze the last drops of emotion out of an avid listener. Almost the only thing now to hear, and where else other than in Skye, would be to hear the Oran Mor Mhic Leoid, sung to the accompaniment of the clarsach? How true its words, how it pulls at the very heart strings and how I would go out of my way to hear it.
That competition – it rose above that, it was a recital – has left a permanent impression upon my soul and upon my expression.
Expression. To quote: “The soul of musical art and is the act of rendering music so as to make the vehicle of deep and pure emotion; the bringing out of the full significance of a piece of music, the clothing of the music in life and warmth, in beauty and proportion.”
My expression has benefitted. I am the wiser, and I will walk backwards the 300 miles to Skye to hear my tutor ‘switch on’ in these surroundings if necessary.
Little wonder that Dunvegan Castle is called Dun nam Clerich (the castle of the poets) in the oran mòr. Chaidh a chuibhle nam Cuairt, which, freely translated means, the wheel has turned right round.
How true the opening line. Might I add how true, how true, how true.
- William Dubh MacLeod (c. 1415–1480), the seventh chief of Clan MacLeod, was killed leading his clan at the Battle of Bloody Bay (Blàr Bàgh na Fala) on Mull. He was the last MacLeod chief to be buried on Iona and was succeeded by his son, Alasdair Crotach. – Editor