The playing at Blair – a look back at the 1988 Glenfiddich

(L. to R.) Mr. Alastair B. Murray (Production Director, William Grant & Sons); Sally Grant Gordon (daughter of William Grant's Chairman, Mr. A. Grant Gordon); Pipe Major Gavin Stoddart and His Grace the Duke of Atholl who presented the prize.

The late 1980s was a period of transition in piping. In 1987 the 78th Fraser Highlanders became the first overseas pipe band to win the World Pipe Band Championships and in 1988 Ottawa-born Amy Garson would be the first female invited to compete at the Glenfiddich.

The 1988 Glenfiddich was itself a transitional event, one that saw a new generation of top class pipers coming through and an older one beginning to fade out. It was held on Saturday, October 22 and by the time the piobaireachd competition was halfway through, it was standing room only in the ballroom of Blair Castle.

The overall champion that year was Pipe Major Gavin Stoddart, edging out on a piobaireachd preference “that bright and shining star”, Roderick J. MacLeod. Third in the championship came the “consistent and formidable” Iain MacFadyen. Seumas MacNeill, who was involved with establishing the iconic competition and who himself was awarded the Balvenie Medal that year (and who judged that year), wrote this entertaining account of the 1988 competition for the December 1988 Piping Times:

The playing at Blair

By Seumas MacNeil.

Seumas MacNeill

It cannot honestly be said that the Glenfiddich competition in Blair Castle comes at the end of the piping season, because there is no end nowadays to the piping season. However, it comes when the summer is not long over, when the traditional Games season is past, and when the two big Meetings with their joys and sorrows are still in our minds. Bringing together as it does ten of the year’s top competitors it provides the fitting climax to the piping season.

Every year since its inception the size of the audience at Blair has increased appreciably, until it is obvious that in 1989 not only will it be “tickets only” for admission but there may well be a brisk black market trade in these desirable dockets.

The morning’s activities of the pipers should have begun at 10.00am with a photocall, but although all ten had been asked well in advance to be present at that time only three actually turned up. It is unbelievable, considering what William Grant & Sons put into piping and how well they treat the pipers (and  their wives) that they should be repaid so shabbily. The photograph of the pipers is one of the principal advertising features, and yet the wishes of Grant’s are treated with a fair degree of contempt. And have been by some of the pipers for a number of years.

Incidentally, we hear that the timekeeping at the prestigious Northern Meeting was extremely sloppy this year, so maybe this is a malaise that has begun generally to affect pipers.

However, the proceedings got off to a prompt start at 11.00am with some words of introduction and welcome by the Fear an Tigh, Malcolm McRae.

Iain MacLeod, Seumas MacNeill and John Allan, receiving final instructions from Malcolm McRae.

And incidentally (number 2), this description of the playing is being written in direct contravention of the rule which was applied this year at the Northern Meeting, namely that judges may not write about any event which they themselves judged. It is also being written probably against the wishes of at least one member of the CPA.

There has however this year been expressed an overwhelming desire for judges to give some kind of adjudication, so we propose in these pages to continue with the policy which has existed long before any of the present day administrators took office, and which has proved so popular in the past.


That being said, the first piper to play in the piobaireachd event was Brian Donaldson, at present Pipe Sergeant in the Scots Guards and making his second appearance at Blair Castle. He qualified by placing first in the Former Winners MSR at Oban, but over the years he has won numerous prizes at major competitions, in all branches of the art.

His tune was The Old Men of the Shells and with it he got the competition off to a splendid start. The tune is, of course, a descriptive piece with a touch of Gianni Schicchi [Puccini’s one-act comic opera – Editor] about it, a descriptive tale with a fair degree of unexpected humour in it. Brian played well but this was surely a half-sized chanter, for the pitch was much too high for comfort.

Second to the platform was Gavin Stoddart, Pipe Major of the Royal Highland Fusiliers and principal instructor under Major John Allen at the Army School of Piping in Edinburgh Castle. His qualification again was in the light music, having won the MSR for former winners at Inverness, but in addition he was fourth in the Senior Piobaireachd at Oban and is a top all-round performer. In 1983 he won the Glenfiddich Championship with maximum points, being first in both events.

His tune was the Earl of Seaforth’s Salute and he played it immaculately if perhaps just a shade too carefully. One comment made afterwards was that he “played as if he was in a competition,” the inference being that he did not let the tune go with the confident, wild abandon which one hopes to hear from a man at the peak of his profession.

Iain MacFadyen pictured in 1979.

Next came Iain MacFadyen, winner of the championship in 1977, 1981, 1984 and 1986. He holds the unique record of being the only piper to have played at every championship since its inception, and he has never been out of the prize list. Incidentally (number 3), Hugh MacCallum had the same record up until this year, but unfortunately Hugh has been suffering this summer from an intermittent illness that has kept him away from serious piping. He and Valerie were, however, honoured guest of William Grant & Sons this year.

Iain, with his record, would have qualified even if he had won nothing this year, but he was of course the winner of the Donald MacDonald Quaich at the Clan Donald Centre in August. If anybody can be expected to play with “confident, wild abandon” (it’s always safe to quote yourself) then Iain is the man. Probably no other present day piper can get a piobaireachd so right inside his head and totally master it. When he pauses at the end of a phrase it is really a pause and not just a tentative hesitation. He has the art of pulling out a note just that fraction which can, sustained throughout the whole performance, leave the audience drained emotionally.

Clanranald’s Salute is one of his great tunes but this was not one of his best presentations of it. The drones were slightly wavering from an early stage and it is possible that Iain played a little faster than usual in case they went off disastrously, which they did not.

Roddy MacLeod with the Redfearn National Glass Trophy and Gavin Stoddart with the Balvenie Trophy.

Next came the young champion, Roderick J. MacLeod, winner of the Bratach Gorm in London, the Bi-Centenary Clasp at Inverness and the Gold Medal at Oban this year, not to mention all the seconds and thirds that he also collected. Craigellachie is one of the really big tunes of ceòl mòr and it was astounding to hear how such a comparatively young man could give such a masterly interpretation. The drones did waver very slightly later on and perhaps the concluding variations were slightly monotonous, but that too is one of the attractions of piobaireachd – driving home the message in this Gathering of the Grants.

Incidentally (I’ve lost count), surely this should be a required tune at every Glenfiddich Championship? On second thoughts maybe not, for then somebody might suggest the Duke of Atholl’s Salute as another mandatory piece, and it is — regrettably but definitely — not one of the great pieces of ceòl mòr.

Last before lunch came James McGillivray, all the way from Canada, the qualifier via the Cambridge Championship in Ontario last July. In Praise of Morag is again one of the really big tunes and Jim is obviously one of the world’s great piobaireachd players so we sat back to enjoy a treat, and we were not disappointed. Except (when the review starts complimentarily there almost always has to be an “except”) for some careless technique in the ground.

Perhaps those who fly the Atlantic will always be at some disadvantage through jet-lag, but whatever the reason the standard embellishments were not quite what they should have been, And as one very senior judge was quick to point out, the crunluath movements to low G did not always come off.

After lunch we had a very enjoyable Beloved Scotland from Willie MacCallum, displaying excellent technique even after a choke that might have demoralised a lesser player. The presentation was a bit on the square side but the fingering was absolutely first class.

Dr. Angus MacDonald followed Willie. To paraphrase a previous report, the length of a competition depends to some extent on whether or not Dr. Angus is one of the competitors. Tuning for seven minutes is just a wee bit too much, but we did indeed get a very good rendering of Lament for Ronald MacDonald of Morar after that. When John Burgess played this tune in the same hall in 1975 I reckoned it was one of the best performances I had ever heard, and perhaps any other interpretation will suffer by comparison. Nevertheless this was still a high-class performance, although Angus took an unjustifiable risk in playing a crunluath a-mach variation.

Amy Garson photographed at the 1988 Glenfiddich.

When Murray Henderson came on to play His Father’s Lament for Donald MacKenzie the Voice of Piping was heard to remark “It’s-very hard to make a mess of this tune”. In fact, Murray made an excellent job of it. Most people agree that there are rather too many Variations in the piece, but in the hands of an expert they can all be linked well together.

The penultimate player was John MacDougall, a seasoned and hardened campaigner. His tune was My King has Landed in Moidart, and he played it well but with one or two minor slips.

Last to play was Amy Garson who had qualified by becoming the overall champion at the Colonial Highland Gathering in Maryland this year. There were some who thought that the occasion might be too big for her but their doubts were quickly dispelled. Anyone who can beat Mike Cusack to most points in a competition has to be a top performer. Incidentally, Mike had been invited also but due to his work with the boys in Houston, Texas, was unable to accept.

Amy played Park Piobaireachd (No. 2) with great confidence and ability, although she was perhaps just a bit too slow and deliberate in the presentation. Though not on the eventual prize list she must have been pretty near it.

The results, announced later in the day, were as follows: 1. Gavin Stoddart, 2. Roderick MacLeod, 3. lain MacFadyen, 4. Dr. Angus MacDonald, 5. Murray Henderson.

The judges were Robert G. Hardie, Captain John MacLellan and Tom Speirs.

March, Strathspey & Reel

With barely 15 minutes for a break, the second event began, which was hard luck on Amy Garson because she had drawn tenth to play in the piobaireachd and first to play in the MSR. Nevertheless she gave a very sound performance, twice through the tunes, each chosen from a list of six. In South Hall she does not play the dros in the third part, which would have pleased the Jolly Boys of long ago who apparently did not know what the movement was supposed to be on one famous occasion.

The standard having been clearly set, Murray Henderson kept it going with a very professional selection although slightly erratic in the timing towards the end of Lonach Gathering. John MacDougall was going well, playing two very difficult tunes — The Ross-shire Volunteers and Delvinside — in good style, but when he reached the simplicity of Lachlan MacPhail and with the winning post in sight he made a brochan that rather destroyed things.

Dr. Angus MacDonald did not last the course, for after giving us the Pap of Glencoe once he then started to play the wrong tune for the repeat. In any case, he had already made a slip in the third part of his march and this may have unsettled him.

Gavin Stoddart gave us a rather dull Marchioness of Tullibardine but what else can you do with this tune? His strathspey and reel however were quite brilliant. Willie MacCallum, whose technique in this event was the best of the day, unfortunately had slips in both the strathspey and the reel.

James McGillivray produced a high standard once again in this event, at least so far as the march and the reel were concerned, The strathspey was a bit rushed at the beginning although he settled down comfortably. Then it was the turn of the most consistent competitor in this competition, Iain MacFadyen, and he gave his usual steady performance, with the drones behaving well this time.

The new young star on the piping scene is obviously Roderick MacLeod. Second-last to play, he gave what was in my opinion the best performance of the day. The fingering and the bagpipe were alike excellent, the expression was in the very good plus bracket.

To close the competition we had Brian Donaldson, not quite at the top of his form because he had a slight slip in the third part of his march first time through.

The results were announced as:

1. Roderick MacLeod (Brigadier Cheape of Tiroran, The Shepherd’s Crook, The Sheepwife); 2. Gavin Stoddart (The Marchioness of Tullibardine, Atholl Cummers Lochiel’s Awa’ to France); 3. James McGillivray (Hugh Kennedy, The Piper’s Bonnet, The Brown Haired Maid); 4. Iain MacFadyen (Arthur Bignold of Lochrosque, The Caledonian Society of London, Bessie MacIntyre); 5. Murray Henderson (Lonach Gathering, John Roy Stewart, Mrs MacPherson of Inveran).

The judges were Major John Allan, Iain MacLeod and Seumas MacNeill.

When the points were added up, and allowing for preference given to piobaireachd, the Glenfiddich Champion for 1988 was Pipe Major Gavin Stoddart.

The close runner up was Roderick J. MacLeod, with Iain MacFadyen in third place. The Duke of Atholl presented the prizes. Alasdair Murray, production manager for William Grant & Sons Ltd, paid tribute to all who had taken part and thanked each for his and her contribution towards making the day such a big success. In his remarks he referred to the survey of top competitions conducted by the Piping Times, and was delighted to point out that the Glenfiddich had been placed top in six of the seven categories by the leading pipers.

He particularly thanked the judges and Malcolm McRae who had been an excellent Fear an Tighe throughout the day, and paid glowing tribute to Liz Maxwell of William Grant who was responsible for the overall running of the event.

(L. to R.) Mr. Alastair B. Murray (Production Director, William Grant & Sons); Sally Grant Gordon (daughter of William Grant’s Chairman, Mr. A. Grant Gordon); Pipe Major Gavin Stoddart and His Grace the Duke of Atholl who presented the prize.

* From the December 1988 Piping Times.