The Highland Society of London’s Bicentenary Piping Competition, 1981

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By Captain John MacLellan

The year 1781 has much more significance to piping than the fact that it was the first time that a properly organised competition for ceòl mòr was held. As to the past, we can only surmise that competitions were held – none are on record. Apart from certain factual events which are sparsely documented, little is known about piping and we rely heavily on the historical notes in Angus MacKay’s book of Ancient Piobaireachd, which relates a certain amount of fact and, in addition, records what was previously oral history. Consequently, prior to 1781 much of piping’s history is a definitely grey area which as was said is highlighted by certain factual evidence, such as the Fraser/Lovat 1743 Indenture, rent/salary payments between various MacCrimmons and their landlords etc.

The competitions organised in 1781 and since then are well documented. In addition, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, various manuscripts were prepared, all of which makes, as it were, an ‘open book of piping’. The Highland Society of London was responsible for igniting the spark which in 1981 – 200 years later – burns brightly as a strong and, in all probability, inextinguishable flame. It is fairly correct to state that more piobaireachd is played worldwide by more pipers on better sounding instruments than at anytime in the history of piping.

As to achievements of musical standards over these 200 years this is an unknown quality. However, by the tricentenary of that first competition in 1781, pipers of 2081 will know how they fare in comparison with the pipes of 1961 and onwards, for extensive recordings are available of leading pipers – if we have the wit to see that such archival material is properly stored for posterity. In fact, in this year of 1981 there is little evidence that a properly thought-out programme of archival recordings is being carried out.

In commemoration of that first competition for ceòl mòr which was held at the Falkirk Tryst on October 12, 1781, the Highland Society held a bicentenary ceòl mòr competition for certain invited leading players and recognising that in 1981 ceòl beag is a notable branch of piping, March, Strathspey and Reel competitions at various levels.

In keeping with the magnitude of the occasion, on the invitation of the Falkirk District Council, the competitions were held in the Town Hall and Municipal Buildings. The B.B.C. arranged to record the proceedings and the Highland Society of London provided a Piping Committee, consisting of William MacPherson of Cluny, Q.C., E.C.F. MacPherson Esq., Angus Nicol Esq., and V.A. Tragear Esq., to organise the event. The Competition Secretary was Seumas MacNeill Esq.

The judges were drawn from experienced exponents of this critical art and are named in the review of the competitions that they judged.

The competitions

Ceòl Mor
As with the 1781 competition, 13 competitors were invited to participate. Each player was required to submit ten tunes of his own choice, one of which the judges, James Campbell, David Murray and John MacLellan would require him to play.

Pipe Major Angus MacDonald MBE.

First to play was John MacDougall from Kincraig, a pupil of the late Bob Brown, John was required to play Beloved Scotland. As one would expect John’s finger technique was near nigh perfect, especially the Crunluath which ripples and cracks out as a perfect embellishment. The bagpipe was also in fine order. The chanter intonation was exactly true with the drones in perfect unison from start to finish.

Piobaireachd playing is about music and perhaps this is the department in which John did not entirely complement pipe sound and fingering. There were quite definitely areas throughout the tune when one could have wished for a less phlegmatic rendering. On the whole, just a shade too careful, but number one on is a hard slot to fill.

Pipe Major Iain Morrison of the Queen’s Own Highlanders was asked to play Lord Lovat’s Lament, a tune which has brought him success before. lain is a product of Pipe Major Donald MacLeod and The Army School of Piping, and on a fine sounding pipe gave an interesting rendering of this melodic tune.

There were times when his presentation could have been said to be over bright for a lament, although the song in the Taorluath variations was admirable despite the actually embellishment being a trifle light.

The next player was Donald MacPherson who always brings a hush to the audience as he intones his great instrument. His tune was Lament for the Children, which is often referred to as being the finest composition in the ceòl mòr repertory. Perhaps Donald MacPherson had a premonition that by the Crunluath variations, these drones, usually rock fast would just take a slight wander, causing him to make his presentation a little on the bright side, thus failing to entirely bring out the great plaintive passages in the Ùrlar and following variations.

Cadences, too, in the Taorluath and Crunluath variations were a shade shorter than normally heard. However, to top it all was that fine finger technique where every embellishment sounds as it should, subjugate to the text notes,

The Daughter’s Lament was chosen for Murray Henderson to play. Good musical presentation is difficult in this piece and the fingering technique requires a crispness which in Murray’s performance, particularly in the Ùrlar was rather open, resulting in a lack of musical flow.

The Taorluath and Crunluath playing as far as technical ability was concerned was well nigh perfect but the ‘sound of the Lament’ was not brought out through too fast a presentation, That final finesse and polish was just lacking to lift the tune into a memorable performance.

lain MacFadyen’s tune was The Rout of the Lowland Captain. He is a pupil of Roderick MacDonald late of the Glasgow Police who sadly died at his home in Glasgow on the day of the competition. Despite this tune being in Angus MacKay’s MSS., it is virtually unknown – that is until lain took it in hand. On an excellent bagpipe he produced a magnificent tune, with a satirical interpretation of the early part of the tune. As it is generally assumed that the Lowland Captain was Johnnie Cope, routed at Prestonpans, there is no doubt that lain produced a musical description of the event. It was a fine performance and no doubt, and, in many ways a repeat of his performance at the Northern Meeting a week or so previously.

The Grants Championship, 1981. Many of those in the photograph also competed in the HSL Bicentenary Piping Competition of 1981.

Lament for MacSwan of Roaig is said to be one of our earliest MacCrimmon compositions and certainly it is a fine tune. Tom Speirs was asked to play it. He handled the tune well, though there was a pedantic feel to the 1st Variation Singling and Doubling. His fine sounding pipe was complemented by equally fine fingering and he was unlucky to sustain at least two slight squeaks coming from high to low G, which is such a strong field of contenders would be on the debit side.

Pipe Major Angus MacDonald of the Scots Guards was asked to play The Earl of Seaforth’s Salute. Like so many of the other competitors Angus’s pipe and fingers were in fine form and his bright interpretation was well set in the mood of a Salute, although the Urlar was perhaps a shade up tempo but there- after apart from a finger indiscretion in the Crunluath Breabach he was the master of the piece. It was a very good performance,

The Lament for MacLeod of Colbecks is probably John MacKay’s (Raasay) best composition and it was this fine tune which was asked from Malcolm McRae who gave a good performance of this testing piece on a well-tuned pipe which stayed the course throughout. Malcolm’s great piping attribute is that he is a good interpreter of the musical score and his tune flowed along nicely from passage to passage. However, at times, and this was one of them, especially when intricate work is called for, his fingering tends to be on the soft and open side. On this occasion the Crunluath a-Mach lacked its most essential crispness.

Angus J. MacLellan who played Mary’s Praise did not get off to a good start. The pipe was not completely settled and remained unsettled throughout the tune, This obviously upset him and what should have been a tune with the spirit of a salute never really rose to the heights expected from this experienced piper. It was only in the doublings of the middle variations that Angus really showed his mettle.

William Livingstone was the only representative from the overseas piping contingents who nowadays jet into Scotland from far-off places, bringing with them considerable expertise, the result of dedication on the one hand and the fruit of expert tuition which ‘jetted’ overseas from Scotland on the other, The tune asked from his was Rory McLoude’s Lament. Everything seemed to be in his favour, fine pipe and very good fingering and on the whole a very well presented tune which was entirely let down by a too round and completely uninspiring second variation which in contrast to the remainder of the performance was indeed surprising.

That fine tune, Lament for the Earl of Antrim is seldom heard these days. It was the judges’ choice for Hugh MacCallum, pictured, who as usual had a perfect sounding instrument and performed with his fine fingering which is always a model of clarity and crispness.

Apart from a first Variation that lacked brightness, this was a tune of high merit and one that would deserve a degree of consideration from the judges.

Lachlan MacNeill of Kintarbert’s Fancy was chosen for John Wilson from Strathclyde Police, who like his police colleague, Angus MacLellan, is a pupil of Pipe Major Donald MacLeod. On a strong sounding and well balanced pipe with clear fingering, John produced a very well presented tune which was lively from start to finish – undoubtedly a tune of quality.

It fell to Andrew Wright to conclude the Ceòl Mòr competition with Lament for Colin Roy MacKenzie. Andrew has kept to the older bagpipe pitch, disdaining the modern trend to a higher pitch, which often lacks resonance and tends to be strident. There is no doubt that his pipe was one of the five best of the competition and with the chanter’s lower register being mainly employed in Colin Roy the result was most harmonious. The general presentation of the tune was good, especially in the Taorluath variations that were particularly tuneful. The final Crunluath variations had a number of misses and this probably led Andrew to leave out the Crunluath a-Mach which seemed a surprising omission.

After due deliberation the prize-list arrived at by the judges was:

1. Pipe Major Angus MacDonald (Scots Guards); 2. John Wilson; 3. lain MacFadyen; 4 Pipe Major lain Morrison (Q.O. Highlanders); 5. Hugh A. MacCallum.

The Ceòl Beag competitions were judged by John Burgess, John MacKenzie and Andrew Pitkeathly, lan C, Cameron, Donald MacLeod and Ian McLeod, D.R. MacLennan and John Roe. The results were:

March Strathspey and Reel — 1. Pipe Major Angus MacDonald; 2 lain MacFadyen; 3. John MacDougall; 4. Donald MacPherson; 5. John Wilson.
Marches — 1. Murray Henderson; 2. Norman Gillies; 3. Walter Cowan; 4. lan Plunkett; 5. Anne Spalding.
Strathspeys and Reels — 1. Sir Patrick Grant; 2. Murray Henderson; 3. Alfred Morrison; 4. Colin Drummond; 5. lan Plunkett.

 The cash prizes and trophies in Caithness Glass, were presented by Major General Freddie Graham, late of the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders and Lord Lieutenant of Stirlingshire.

• First published in the October 1981 edition of The International Piper.