‘MacTavish’ attended the 2018 Glenfiddich. It was his first time at the premier solo piping event and his account was published in the January 2019 Piping Times. With the 2020 Glenfiddich imminent, we reproduce his account here. MacTavish, who was the only amateur piper to be ‘taken on’ by Bob Brown, insists on maintaining his anonymity. A lover of ceòl mòr, MacTavish, wrote his article in the style of a piobaireachd:
Your Editor and MacTavish have much in common and at one of their regular get togethers they realised they both had problems with dates in the late autumn this year. Editor’s problem was that he had un-get-outable commitments that clashed with the Glenfiddich and MacTavish’s problem was that for one reason and another he could not participate in the ‘Battle’s Over’ event [the November 2018 global piping tribute to the pipers of the First World War that was organised by the Piping Times – Editor]. It was agreed to swap roles. The Editor would play the regimental march of The Scottish Horse after When the Battle’s Over at Regimental HQ in the square at Dunkeld where he lives and MacTavish would report on the Glenfiddich.
As in MacTavish’s report on the 1967 Silver Chanter [PT, August 2018], someone else will have reported the results. All MacTavish can do is try to convey the atmosphere in the venue and perhaps how those present, or indeed you, the reader, can ‘tap in’ to this incredible experience.
MacTavish’s day started with the subconscious ground of Tulloch Ard, the gathering call of the MacKenzies, a huge clan. The first call is repeated four times, to the north, to the south, to the east and to the west. Turning to the north he sees a steep hill splashed with autumn colours, the emerald green of young birch trees against the orange of more mature birch against the background of evergreen, bottle green Scots pine. To the south he sees the River Tay (the mighty Tay, the mighty Tay … which Roman could ever say he mistook the Tiber for the Tay?). To the east he looks out on the Neolithic graves (c2000BC) and the cornerstone of a ruined chapel raised by Cassan, an early Christian missionary of approximately 700AD. (Recently, we had a visitor called MacCassan, seeking her roots, whose people had immigrated to America c1880.) To the west, a long view on a clear day to Ben More and Stobinein but today snow-capped and always 70 miles away.
Ah, the subconscious sound of Togail nam Bo, the gathering song of the MacFarlanes, a clan famed for expertise in raiding and lifting cattle based around the western shores of Loch Lomond. The clan operated by the light of the full moon at this time of year. To the Sassenach it is called the Harvest Moon but to us it is known as MacFarlane’s Lantern and it was waning in the west.
MacTavish set off. So far in this story, what has been written could be described as the tuning phrases to get him into ‘writing mode’ and the right frame of mind.
He proceeds past the place of the two gorges (300AD), past the burial place of Dargo (another story and another Fingalian hero, c.300AD) and past the place of the Fion (the hill men) and on to the local village with its own atmosphere. The local place of the Atholl judiciary, with the Hangman’s Tree (despite being an ash tree it crumbled away in the 1960s), the prison in the outbuilding where the Atholl men held Rob Roy MacGregor in c1700AD (A sympathetic local supplied him with the only horse in the district and surreptitiously released him) and he escaped to the west).
This village also housed a very large Poor House for the use of locals in the 19th and 20th centuries, well known and well loved and funded by Atholl and the community. It housed many a grateful person before the days of the Welfare State and one of the last inhabitants was John, a splendid retired farm hand who was allowed pocket money on a Friday to visit the local public house, the Inn, which was one of the oldest in the country. He always timed his visit to coincide with the salmon fishermen coming in for their lunch and therefore very seldom had to spend his pocket money. One day, he was wandering back home – actually, he was lying on the grass bank at the side of the road – when the local Presbyterian minister passed on his bicycle.
Minister: “Aye, aye John … drunk again.”
John: “Aye, minister … so am I, so am I.”
So we turned north up the notorious A9 road, and journeyed across the battlefield of Killiecrankie (1689) – where John Graham of Claverhouse (another song: the Viscount of Dundee!) met his end – and arrive, somewhat late, at Blair Castle. With ticket (no. 208) and programme in hand, ensconced at the back of this magnificent room, MacTavish took his seat.
Atmosphere is described in the dictionary as “a gaseous envelope surrounding the earth or other celestial body”. In this case, the ballroom. This room is very large and can seat some 400 piping enthusiasts with about the same number of mounted stag antlers on the walls. Numerous arms, armour, swords and Lochaber axes abound and various clan and regimental colours hang for all to see and marvel at, and of course the place exudes music. Here also is the portrait of Atholl’s famous fiddler, fiddler-in-chief to the Duke, who lived at Inver near Dunkeld near to Dunkeld House, another Atholl household. Niel Gow was renowned and his memory still revered and one of his best-known compositions was Neil Gow’s Lament For The Death Of His Second Wife. Intensely moving, once heard, the experience will never be forgotten.
Gases, what gases; Atholl gases, the equivalent of Dunvegan voices. What are they? Well, I can share some of them with you. The stag heads on the walls, for instance. Every one can tell its own story but one, and I don’t know which one, must be the one depicted in Landseer’s painting. Landseer was the Victorian artist whose speciality subject was red deer. His world renowned Monarch of the Glen is truly famous and has recently been on tour round the Scottish art galleries. The Atholl painting is hanging in this ballroom. In the 1960s-70s, prints of this splendid picture were reproduced with a restricted print run of 300 and were sold in the castle shop.
Another example: the Duke of the day and his keeper were stalking (hunting stags) one day at the head of Glen Tilt, a long glen going straight up to the vicinity of Deeside and the north. They spied other people stalking on Atholl ground so the Duke, somewhat miffed, sent his keeper to see them off. On his return, the conversation went a bit like this:
Duke: “Well, they’re still there. Why? What on earth did you say to them?”
Keeper: “I didn’t say very much, your Grace. I thought you might not want me to.”
Duke: ”Why ever not?”
Keeper: “It was the king.”
There is still the original Atholl oatmeal mill, driven by a waterwheel powered by the water of the River Tilt in Blair Atholl. This today supplies oatmeal and flour in its various guises and is probably the source of the main ingredient in Atholl Brose. What is Atholl Brose? Well, it was a concoction of whisky and oatmeal, sorry, is a concoction of whisky, oatmeal and honey originally used by the locals to get the better of a rogue who terrorised the district long ago. He lived in a cave beside a well. The locals replaced the water with Atholl Brose and when the rogue returned and drank his fill he quickly ended up like the aforementioned John, and was duly dealt with.
These gases swirl about the earth or whatever and solidify into a solid core and it is this core that the reader, the listeners, the players and the judges are all trying to tap into, to understand the meaning and appreciate the song of the music they’re about to hear. Also from the dictionary, atmosphere is further described as “the prevailing tone or mood of a symphony, novel, painting or other piece of art” or “a general persuasive feeling or mood and elation.”
Now to the recital – sorry, competition. You must remember that these ten pipers are among the top players of our generation and they are all experts in their own field. Their pipes were all beautifully tuned and were all very steady. They each sang their own song to the best of their ability and while the fear an tighe (the master of ceremonies) read out their individual battle honours before playing, I would rather suggest he tells us of the pìobaireachd each player has been assigned to play. After all, their battle honours were printed in the programme and every member of the audience has one.
For those who are perhaps unfamiliar with a competitor coming on to the platform to give us his rendition, he/she enters and is introduced by name and the tune allocated. There follows a tuning phase where the piper tunes his instrument and adjusts him/herself to the situation. To me, they use this tuning phase to stamp their authority on the listener. These periods are sometimes overly long, invariably, excerpts of other tunes are used as a ‘warmer up’. The result is often a statement: ‘This is who I am, this is what I can do, listen carefully.’ Sometimes the warming up is very musical and pleasing to listen to and the message is conveyed more clearly than in their chosen piece. I had one piper marked as ’10/10’ for his tuning phase. It was beautiful, absolutely beautiful.
MacTavish was only able to listen to seven players as he had to leave early but the atmosphere was the same and I hope I have managed to give the reader an insight. All the performers played their various tunes/songs and, honestly, it is a matter of personal preference as to whom was better than the other. The winner of the Pìobaireachd was asked to play My Dearest on Earth, Give Me Your Kiss. I had heard this piece before at a piper’s wedding in Scone near Perth. Without doubt, this rendition was outstanding. It was closely followed, in my opinion, by the Bells of Perth, another beautifully executed tune. In third place, I had In Praise of Morag. I had no experience of this song but still recognised the player’s expertise and beautiful song. Quite pleased with my results, the judges agreed with my top three but I had second and third the wrong way around.
Make no mistake, everybody played extremely well. The pipes were all good and steady. The judges must have had a difficult job sorting them out. A real feast of pìobaireachd.
Lastly, MacTavish mentioned he’d heard the winning song previously at a wedding. It wasn’t ‘the piper’s warning to his master’ although some might interpret it that way but, rather, it was ‘the master’s tribute to his pupil’. Congratulations and thank you, Finlay Johnston on playing this tune so beautifully and reminding MacTavish of that glorious occasion in Scone, 47 years ago almost to the day when he was the pupil and the bridegroom. Thank you.
Suas leis a’ phìobaireachd.
Suas le Gleann Fiadhaich.
RETURN TO THE ÙRLAR
In 1842, the year before Donald MacKay made Ms Angier’s unique silver-mounted bagpipe (see the August 2018 Piping Times), Queen Victoria completed her first journey to Scotland. This was followed by her second visit, to “Blair Athole” in 1844. Arriving in mid-September, she left Blair Castle on the first of October. At some stage, Queen Victoria visited Taymouth Castle, the seat of the Breadalbane Campbells, and it is retracing her route between Blair and Taymouth that MacTavish resumes his journey.
So to the west we proceed, through Clan Donnachie country, past their church at Old Struan and on to meet up with General Wade’s military road (c1729) at Tummel Bridge and south over the eastern shoulder of Schiehallion, past the Hill of the Dead Men and the graves of half a dozen of Frasers of Foyers retreating clansmen who had been on a raid to the south … but the Campbells caught up with them (circa early 1600s). Past the impregnable keep of the Wolf of Badenoch (1343-1394) with its tiny prison cell where the Menzies was imprisoned for far too long (c15th century), past the old house of Menzies and past the Ford of Lyon (the River Lyon, out of Glen Lyon). This ford was the rendezvous for the marauders from the west to meet up with their northern friends prior to raiding Strathmore, Glenalmond, Strathearn and indeed any lowland property with good prospects. MacTavish has seen the letters (housed in the museum at Fort William) where Chief 1 sends the written word to Chief 2, ‘Let us meet up at the ford of Lyon on X date in October at dawn and go from there.’
On past the standing stones in the Appin of Dull and on to the Bridge of Tay and the park where during the spring of 1740 The Black Watch was mustered and embodied.
A memorable trip. A memorable song. One large, circuitous journey of some 60 miles accompanied by the memories of the ghosts of the past.
* Due to the cornoavirus pandemic this year’s Glenfiddich is being held at Blair Castle behind closed doors. As in recent years, however, it will be broadcast online. Tickets to watch online are £15 and all ticket purchasers will be entered into a draw to win one of two sets of pipes – SL4 MacRae pipes from McCallum Bagpipes and PH1HT pipes from R.G Hardie. Go to www.thepipingcentre.co.uk/glenfiddich to register to watch.