Round the games in late summer and yet more interminable tuning … we continue with Senior Judge, Malcolm McRae’s diary as he adjudicated at various highland games around Scotland in 2008.
By Malcolm McRae
Into August, and Aboyne was a day of showers and little sunshine. Ronald Clark, Norman Matheson and I judged the Piobaireachd events. The 18 years and Under event was of variable quality, with some disappointing technique, poor presentation of tunes, and lapses. Alistair MacDonald won with MacKay’s Banner, despite hurrying through the Ùrlar and Thumb variation and some missed gracenotes.
There was much room for improvement on the part of all five players in this event. Fifteen played in the senior event, which was won by Gareth Rudolph, with End of the Great Bridge on a good pipe and with better musical presentation than he had achieved with the same tune at Rosneath. Martin Kessler’s Lament for Mary MacLeod gained second prize – a nice pipe, some false changes from bottom to top hand (easily audible in the first variation of this tune), but musical throughout. I am Proud to Play a Pipe gained third place for Nathan Drysdale – the pipe stayed fairly well, but the song of the Ùrlar could have been better expressed.
Fiona Manson was fourth with Battle of Waternish, well fingered, but with shortcomings in musical presentation (always a subjective area, where opinions can differ — hence the desirability of more than one judge on a bench!). Duncan Watson was fifth with Elchies’ Salute (the Donald MacDonald setting of Clan MacNab’s Salute), brightly played on a pipe which went out slightly. Of the others, Andrew Hall, Margaret Dunn, Allan Russell and David Wilton were all unfortunate to go off their tunes, some of them not helped by heavy downpours of rain. Craig Sked seemed to be forcing The Little Spree, Faye Henderson was not finding all the music in The Massacre of Glencoe, Greig Canning’s MacFarlane’s Gathering was also lacking music, and Simon McKerrell had a blemished My King Has Landed.
The following day at Montrose was again dry and not too chilly. Tom Speirs and I judged the 17 years and Under Piobaireachd and the Senior Piobaireachd events. Connor Sinclair won the junior event with The Munros’ Salute on a good pipe. Some minor blemishes did not spoil a musical tune. Billy Stewart was second with MacLeod’s Short Tune, rather slow in the variations and a pipe that did not last. Alistair MacDonald’s Lament for Mary MacLeod seemed too fast throughout, but execution was good. He was third. Alex Duncan’s Lament for Donald of Laggan gained fourth place, despite note errors.
First to play in the Senior Piobaireachd was Douglas Murray with MacDonald of Kinlochmoidart’s Lament, No. 2, a tune that moved along well throughout. This performance set the standard for those that followed, and none surpassed it. Willie MacIntyre was second with Lament for MacSwan of Roaig. His pipe stayed in tune, and although he could have phrased the tune better, it was a good performance. Allan Russell, with The Park Piobaireachd No. 2 was third. Some phrase ends were not shown to best effect, nor did he give sufficient attention to the timing of cadences in the singlings of the variations, but technique was precise.
Fourth was Margaret Dunn with The Stewarts’ White Banner, brightly played on a good pipe, and with a note mistake in the Ùrlar – without which she may have been placed higher. Thirteen played.
The Dunvegan Medal and Col. Jock MacDonald Clasp events at Portree (5th August) are probably still regarded as the first of the important contests leading up to the Argyllshire Gathering and the Northern Meeting, despite the numerous Games events throughout July. The number of players in the Medal event poses a problem for Cailean MacLean and the Skye Piping Society team, because although the entry is capped at 30, there is no limit on tuning time. Some players (who should know better) took almost as long to tune as they took to play their tunes. Despite an 8.30am start and minimal breaks for coffee and a sandwich, the event did not finish until about 6.30pm.
Twenty-nine played, of whom three broke down. We heard only about three tunes each hour, whereas the rate at, say, a Gold Medal event, with four minutes for tuning, should average about 3.75 tunes per hour. Quite apart from the unfairness to the competitor who is next to play (and who likes to know how long he or she has to prepare him or herself, and to settle the pipe), it is discourteous and confusing to the audience to be subjected to interminable tuning. Indeed, if ‘presentation’ (which includes appearance, deportment and establishing a rapport with the audience) were to be part of the competition criteria. (which, I understand, is the case in many other music competitions), many of the pipers at Portree would have fallen at the first hurdle. Surely, a limit on tuning time must become the norm in every event where there are time constraints or where there is an audience to be considered.
At Perth Games on August 10, Jack Taylor and I judged the CPA B & C Grade Piobaireachd. Thirty six had entered, of whom only 24 played. If all 36 had played we would not have finished until about 9.00pm. Despite a prompt 10.00am start we finished at 5.45pm. Again, there was no limit on tuning time, but on this occasion only a few players took an unreasonably long time before starting their tunes. David Wilton was first with The Piper’s Warning to his Master, generally well fingered on a good pipe. Phrases at line ends in the Ùrlar were rushed, and his hiharin movements were very fast, but it was a good tune. Second was Cameron Drummond with The MacDougalls’ Gathering’ – singlings of variations a shade slow, but otherwise well played on a pipe which stayed fairly well. Faye Henderson was third, playing Corrienessan’s Salute, Lyric Todkill fourth with The Little Spree and Matt Pantaleoni fifth with The Big Spree (despite a note error). The general standard of the day’s other performances was disappointing.
Only seven played in the Senior Piobaireachd at Glenfinnan Games on August 16, which John MacDougall and I judged. Martin Kessler played a tuneful Lament for Mary MacLeod on a pleasant pipe for first prize, although false changes were evident. Duncan Grant was second with MacCrimmon’s Sweetheart (false changes also, and light darodo movements; drones not set), Anne Gray third with the nameless tune, Hiharin dro o dro (drones held well; shortcomings in musical presentation), and Matt Pantaleoni fourth (Donald Duaghal MacKay – a flat high A, and points of technique and presentation). We also judged the Junior Piobaireachd, won by Robin Gray (Too Long in this Condition), with Brighde Campbell second (The Field of Gold – this young lady’s technique does not yet match her musicality, but as her hands grow, watch out – she is only 10!).
August 23 at Glenurquhart Games. Another poor turnout of pipers. James Burnet, John Ross and I listened to only six pipers in the Senior Piobaireachd event. James MacHattie won with My King has Landed in Moidart (good pipe; doubling of dithis too fast), Kylie MacHattie was second (Massacre of Glencoe — hiharin too fast, not bringing out all the music in the Ùrlar and thumb variation, but strong taorluath and crunluath variations), Greig Canning third (Duke of Atholl’s Salute – a flat high A distracted and phrase and line ends required more emphasis). Kyle Morton was fourth with Melbank’s Salute (some execution too light, and a flat low G) and Calum MacColl was fifth (The Little Spree – sharp E, inadequate phrasing and a tight fosgailte variation).
Why do so many of the smaller Games fail to attract more piping competitors? Is the prize money too low or is the cost of travel too high? As CPA gradings are an important factor in determining eligibility to compete in the Gold and Silver Medal events at the Argyllshire Gathering and the Northern Meeting, I had thought that winning prizes around the Games and thus establishing a ‘track record’ of competition successes would be seen as Important in improving a player’s grading under the CPA’s system. Many Games this summer have attracted single figure entries and prizes won in such contests should surely count for less (for grading evaluation) than prizes won at well-supported competitions.
John MacDougall and I joined forces again to judge the 15 years and Under Piobaireachd event at Cowal on August 29. Some impressive playing was heard from many of the 17 competitors. Others were evidently less experienced, but the potential was apparent. Scott MacLean seemed much more experienced than the rest and played a strong Battle of Auldearn No. 2, albeit with minor blemishes. Second was Bradley Parker with a musical Black Donald’s March. Andrew McPhee was third with Too Long in this Condition, another musical performance which was rather too slow throughout. Ciaran Sinclair was fourth with Corrienessan’s Salute and Billy Stewart fifth with The Massacre of Glencoe. Too many of the others played pipes that were too strong for their comfort, resulting in tense fingering and too much physical exertion to permit of relaxed music making.
The ‘Dress Code’ for junior pipers at Cowal requires that pipers wear a jacket and a bonnet. Consequently, all the players looked smart and their appearance enhanced the dignity and significance of the occasion. Why is there no similar requirement at some of the other principal events? The Dunvegan Medal event at Portree saw more players in shirtsleeves than wore jackets (and the day was not so warm as to justify a relaxation in standards of dress).
One piper at the Silver Chanter competition played without a jacket, as did two on the stage of the main auditorium at the Northern Meeting in the ‘B’ Grade Strathspey & Reel event. Is it just a matter of time before a piper appears wearing a shirt and braces to hold up his kilt?
And another thing, why do so many pipers wear their kilts so long? Even if one considers the Army piper’s kilt to be slightly short, better that than the hose-top length kilts sported by so many pipers, with nary a glimpse of knee visible. Is this a fashion thing?
* First published in the January 2009 Piping Times.