As the Piping Times always acknowledged, sometimes its Letters pages contained more enjoyable reading than the rest of the magazine. Here is an example. It is a letter written by Allan Hamilton – he of Pipers’ Persuasion – to Seumas MacNeill and published in the June 1996 PT. Allan had just returned from the ‘Uist & Barra’ – held at the Henry Wood Hall in Glasgow – and on his mind were the pipers who took an overlong time to tune their drones …

Dear Seumas,

The Uist & Barra Annual Piping Competition for Professionals, Rule 6, [states]: “Ample tuning rooms … will be provided. However, curtailment of tuning on the platform must be kept to a minimum.”

Unfortunately, I don’t have the benefit of the Gaelic to give me a fuller insight into these matters but the above smacks of a Glasgow double negative, which in my former line of business I was witness to, “I never done nothing, honest mister.”

And so being suitably advised in advance, our crème de la crème of the pipers took a fortnight each to twist, pull, screw and microscopically massage the wood perched on their loving shoulders.

There’s only so much nail biting, nose picking and other such ruminating that the audience can do on hard wooden seats before wondering how else to put in time before the tune starts.

By the second piper you turn round, and while he’s stroking wood you give those around you some calls of, “kummeraha” and “hakumma” – after which you face the front and dream of the boat crossing the Minch to Uist and Barra. I had completed the journey and was in amongst my third dream half after landing at Barra when the second tune started.

By the fourth tuner I had worked out the stratagem and carried out the task of replacing the cylinder head gasket on a diesel engine (impossible? right pal, so’s this tuning lark).

“… microscopically massage the wood perched on their loving shoulders.”

Round about lunchtime, a competitor came on, put up his pipes and starting screwing. I left, went down with Chris and had a plate of lentil soup followed by an excellent steak pie and a small Whyte & Mackay (only brand available, but it’s OK with water). We then returned in time to hear the man start the ground of an excellent tune.

Are you starting to get the drift or are you asleep? Are you bored and ready to scan the next article? Well here’s the crux of the matter.

Pipe bands with large numbers of pipers, matched chanters, tuned drones (in rain and cold), march several hundred yards; pipes down; attenshun; pipes up; butter up the judge; smile courageously at the official starter; poke the right hand into the ballot bag; draw out No. 2 set (dammit no’ again) and begin. Great pipes, no hassle. Same amount of nerves. Not ready to go? Disqualified.

How about this? A big egg timer. With a big hole in the middle so the sand gushes through in thirty seconds … when the large grain’s gone then so’re you pal. Or a six foot second hand clock perched on stage with mirrors all around the competitor displaying elapsed time. Thirty seconds and you’re off. Now there’s excitement. See that March editorial about gettin’ the punters in tae watch piping –they’d be pushin’ and shovin’ at the door from about 04:30 onwards.

Time, they say, is the most precious thing in the world. Why waste it? Just think – you could have a lot more competitors playing. Even old has-beens and never weres so that the audience could have real quality time at the bar.

The Henry Wood Hall was the venue for a time in the 1900s for the ‘Uist & Barra’. The pipers entered from the tuning areas below, circled in red.

How about a slow air from the pipers (two parts) with no double forte, 40 seconds to tune then start. Cowal took a strong stance and succeeded with order of play so why not try this? One important point, however: the tuning rooms must be at the same temperature as the competition chamber. There appeared to be some doubt regarding that with this venue as some of the players felt that individual rooms were somewhat hotter than the main hall. I also noted the marching board had been muffled, thus providing an easier platform for sound by eliminating back echoes.

All the piping was first class as usual with a high standard of dress and deportment with the prize for jackets going to Jimmy Stewart with a nice powder blue number. While wee Arthur [Gillies] was tuning for the MSR, Big Bella the Barmaid hauled on her green wellies, belted down North St, launched the row boat, leaped in, rowed out to midstream, screwed off her wedding ring, put it into a net, placed same in the river. Down at Erskine, Sammy the salmon saw the glint of the ring and fairly flew upstream and clamped his champers like Jaws round it. Big Bella raced for shore; grabbed Sammy, sprinted up North St, gave it a left into Berkeley St, into the Henry Wood Hall. There she ran down into the kitchen and poured some Whyte and M. down wee Sammy’s throat tae kill the pain when she left him fair gutted to recover herring (auld Glesca custom this). She flung the best of Sammy intae a black bag labelled it “Second prize tae Big Hammy for the Raffle” and flung it into the fridge.

Bella then raced upstairs in time tae see wee Arthur start the March with a sharp F, E and D and a croaky High A when he eased off to compensate.

Yours Aye,

Allan W. Hamilton,

PS. Penny the Pussy says that there’s nothin’ like a guid Glesca fish supper.

PPS: Sgt McIntyre being last on in the MSR got the job of ceremonially destroying the platform with karate kicks in time to his stirring music. No doubt the piping convener Ronnie Morrison has a new style in mind to aid tuning for next year’s very excellently organised competition. Super day meeting wonderful friends. I must go back if they’ll let me in.