In the summer of 2008, Senior Judge Malcolm McRae recorded his thoughts as he adjudicated at various highland games around Scotland that year. His diary was serialised in the Piping Times.

A judge’s ramblings – my trip around the games in July 2008

By Malcolm McRae

What a privilege it is to judge piping competitions. However, the privilege carries with it responsibilities, and most competitions involve some soul searching by individual judges when they come to decide an order of merit. We try to be as objective as possible, applying our knowledge of traditional teaching and styles, and taking account of technique, musical expression and quality of instruments. We seek to give credit for musical merit, despite technical flaws and pipes that may go out of tune, but there comes a point at which flawed technique or pipe detracts from the music.

Not every judge will give the same weight to the various facets of a performance, and this lends interest to the task.

Viewed from the position of the pipers, results should not be seen as anything more than a particular order of preference for that day’s performances. The aim of the competing piper should be to play one’s best and to realise one’s musical potential; if the performance is rewarded with a prize, so much the better. Judges wish to hear good performances; they want to give credit for good playing on good pipes, but because their role is to produce a prize list they must take account of weaknesses in performances, as well as strengths, to decide an order of merit. Inevitably, therefore, many of the comments that I note below about individual performances are negative – because they describe shortcomings in performances which resulted in them not all being awarded the first prize.

Allan Russell, winner at Balloch, plays for the author.

My judging tour began at Balloch, Loch Lomond, on July 19. A fair but chilly day, enlivened by the congenial company of Angus MacLellan and some interesting ceòl beag events. Variable standards in the junior competitions, but the best were very good. Among the senior competitors (17 played) Allan Russell stood out, winning both the March and the Strathspey & Reel with bright, accurate playing on a good pipe. A disappointing number of tunes were spoiled by tight – or missed – doublings, clipped tachums, failure to give quavers full value in marches, and poor expression, particularly in strathspeys.

Next day at Rosneath, Rab Wallace and I judged the 18 years and under Piobaireachd, followed by the Senior Piobaireachd. Ten played in each event, and with a prompt start we were finished by late afternoon. An overcast but dry day, which was fortunate, as no shelter against sun or rain was provided for any of the judges.

As is to be expected, the standard varied considerably among the juvenile players. Good execution was often spoiled by poor expression or a poor pipe. Many players did not observe some basic rules of expression, suggesting inadequate instruction. Ross Forrest’s Squinting Patrick was easily the best tune.

Ross Forrest was a clear winner at Rosneath.

Among the seniors, Allan Russell, last to play, produced a good Sobieski’s Salute to win. I thought he could have shown the ends of lines in the singlings of variations to better effect, but the tune moved along well and the pipe was good. The Blind Piper’s Obstinacy gained second prize for William Geddes – another good pipe, first variation rather slow and the last variation unbalanced, but otherwise a satisfactory tune. Gareth Rudolph had a good pipe but flaws in his presentation of The End of the Great Bridge. He was third. Fourth was Finlay Johnston, with light execution and minor blemishes in The MacNab’ Salute.

Of the others, Jonathan Greenlees did not produce the characteristic rhythms of The Vaunting, Simon McKerrell’s technique in The Earl of Ross’s March had rough edges, Fiona Manson’s Battle of Waternish was not up to her usual standards of presentation and technique, Alistair Dunn did not finish The Park Piobaireachd No 2, Jenny Hazzard was affected by the afternoon chill in the later stages of Sobieski’s Salute and Donald MacPhee’s drones parted company with his chanter early in The Old Men of the Shells (which was well played otherwise). All in all, not a very satisfying afternoon.

Talking point
The Piobaireachd event at Rosneath for those graded B and C by the Competing Pipers Association highlighted a major problem in staging such competitions. These events have been victims of their own success, attracting large numbers of entries (approaching 40 on some occasions), and at Rosneath this led to a decision on the morning of the Games to divide the event into two heats, each to be judged by a single judge, with four from each heat being chosen to play again before the two judges sitting together (Roddy MacLeod and Angus MacLellan). Despite a prompt start to each heat at 10.30am, the event was not concluded until nearly 7.00pm – too long a day for players, judges, stewards, officials and any audience who cared to stay so late. What is the solution? Division of players into heats creates its own problems – more judges are required, unless single judges are to be used; more platforms and stewards are required. How to ensure evenly weighted heats, so that all or most of the best players do not find themselves in the same heat? How to notify the order of play in each heat to ensure players’ punctual attendance?

Are there other solutions? Might players be flagged off if they are considered to be unworthy of a prize (embarrassing to all concerned)? Or a strict limit on tuning time, together with heats? Or exclude some of the lower ranked C Grade players? Or stage separate competitions for each grade?

Perhaps it is for the CPA to identify possible solutions, in consultation with those Games that have experience of running these events. Not to do so may risk the scrapping of these events in their present form.

Next stop, South Uist on July 23, Dry again, despite the cancellation of the previous evening’s flight from Glasgow because of fog. Ian Duncan and I arrived on the first flight on Games Day and were in plenty of time. We judged the Piobaireachd and the Jig. Twenty played in the Piobaireachd. Innes Smith won, playing The Lament for Duaghal MacKay on a pipe that stayed well, although the high A was not blown consistently. Despite some shortcomings in musical presentation, his technique was sound. Robert Gray was second with Lament for MacDonald of Kinlochmoidart (No. 1), at times over-expressed, but generally musical. The drones drifted before the finish. Third was Euan Dewar with Corrienessan’s Salute and Andrew Hall was fourth with The Earl of Ross’ March. Other performances considered for prizes were those of Andrea Boyd, The Groat, and Willie MacIntyre who played the Donald MacDonald setting of The Massacre of Glencoe, but in a mix of styles.

Many of the jigs were too fast and lacked control. John-Angus Smith made up for an untidy piobaireachd with a pleasing Over to Uist on a good pipe. The other prizes went to Andrea Boyd, Euan Dewar, Willie MacIntyre and Duncan Grant. The local Jig was won by Isabel MacDonald.

Next day, Iain MacFadyen and I judged the Young Piper of the Year competition at Linaclate School, Benbecula. Eleven played in the Piobaireachd event. Robert Watt’s Lament for the Children took the first prize. Some aspects of his presentation of the tune were not entirely to our liking, but it was a good performance on a good pipe. Duncan Grant was second with I am Proud to Play a Pipe. (He won the Young Piper of the Year title when the results of all events were tallied later in the day). His pipe was good, as was his technique (with the exception of the hiharin movement, which was too fast and light) and his tune moved along well. Derek Midgely’s Big Spree gained third prize; some shortcomings in expression were offset by a steady pipe and strong execution. Tracey Williams was fourth, with a musical Donald Duaghal MacKay.

Peter MacGregor, pictured at the Northern Meeting, was outstanding at Benbecula.

Of the others, Andrea Boyd and Innes Smith went off their tunes, Fiona MacKay’s low G was very flat and her variations in Kiss of the King’s Hand were too fast throughout, Peter MacGregor’s presentation of MacCrimmon’s Sweetheart did not appeal and he had false changes between hands, Euan Dewar’s Rout of the MacPhees was too slow in taorluath and crunluath variations, Calum MacColl had technical blemishes, and Tom Glover did not get his Too Long in this Condition to flow through the variations. An uneven competition, but the performances in the prize list were all worthy of reward.

The highlight of the light music events was, for me, Peter MacGregor’s Braes of Castle Grant, which was steady and bright, with good technique and an excellent pipe. He won the Marches, with Duncan Grant second, (some short notes clipped in Knightswood Ceilidh, some quavers short and birls too fast, but steady and bright on a good pipe). Calum MacColl was third with a well set out tune, but missed C doublings, and Andrea Boyd fourth (some light doublings, but polished presentation of MacLean of Pennycross).

• Part 2.

* From the November 2008 Piping Times.