By Stuart Letford
Ever wondered what it would be like to have a private recital given by our ten best pipers? Well, that’s almost what I experienced last Friday at Blair Castle where this year’s Glenfiddich, the 47th, was held behind closed doors. By now, you will no doubt have enjoyed watching the live recording and you will know who was awarded the overall title. There’s no need for me to cover that ground. Instead, I’d like to offer you a flavour of the day and offer some comments about where the piping world is with this damn virus.
As long-term subscribers to the Piping Times know, just about every report on the Glenfiddich that appeared in its pages since the late 1970s, began by mentioning the beautiful autumnal scenery on display in the journey to this part of Perthshire. Last Friday was no exception. My 20-minute drive to Blair Castle was typically stunning as the landscape changed into its autumn colours. This beautiful, bosky landscape has witnessed just about every major event in Scotland’s turbulent history and last weekend, it was the stage for piping history. I felt privileged to be there and my thanks go to Liz Maxwell, main organiser of what has become our most iconic solo piping event – and it is an event – since 1978.
The best article I’ve ever read on the Glenfiddich was the one written by ‘MacTavish’ on the 2018 competition. It was reproduced here recently. MacTavish did not critique the tunes played by the individual pipers nor did he comment on the quality of their instruments. Instead, he wrote poetically of his journey to Blair Castle – his mental and physical journey – and of the unique atmosphere inside the Ballroom … with virtually no audience last week, I would have my job cut out on that score.
I have attended many Glenfiddich Piping Championships and heard some memorable tunes – and some dull tunes, it should be said – but in any case it is not just the performances that make the Glenfiddich such a ‘must visit’ for any devotee of the art. The social aspect, the meeting of old friends, familiar faces, and the aforementioned atmosphere in the Ballroom, are all part of the experience. The streaming – broadcast live since 2015 – has not reduced interest. It has created interest. For example, I know of pipers in various parts of the world who now gather in each other’s homes – probably not this time – and watch it with a few drams and beers. Some of these will make the visit to Blair Atholl one day. Some already have.
The age of the audience is usually fairly wide, from the young guns to the old hands. I’ve sat with them all, from the teenagers wearing jeans slung so low they threaten to fall down at the wearer’s ankles revealing their bare buttocks to those elderly old soaks – sometimes embellished with tweed, sometimes sporting a kilt – with their jowly cheeks ruddy of complexion, reminiscent of sides of raw bacon … as if they’ve just been slapped hard simultaneously with table tennis bats. Every single person in that audience is passionate about the music and most are knowledgeable. There is the unique atmosphere, yes, but there’s also a discernible ‘energy’ in the ballroom.
Yes, the Glenfiddich is more than a piping competition. Since 1974, it, and the Silver Chanter, has placed our instrument and culture in elevated and beautiful surroundings (the latter was formerly held in Dunvegan Castle but now takes place in Glasgow at the National Piping Centre’s splendid Alexander ‘Greek’ Thomson-designed church in McPhater Street). William Grant & Son continues to support piping in a huge way and the Glenfiddich remains its ‘jewel in the crown’.
With no qualifying competitions able to take place – rightly – this year, Liz Maxwell and her team resolved to pull together a line up that would do the event justice. All ten competitors were either former winners or runners up. The pipers invited covered a wide timeframe. Old hands who first appeared on the stage at Blair Castle as far back as the 1980s, including Jack Lee, Willie McCallum and Roddy MacLeod MBE, through to Angus MacColl, Bruce Gandy, Stuart Liddell and Iain Speirs and right through to the recent crop: Finlay Johnston, Callum Beaumont and Connor Sinclair. Willie McCallum, it was remarked by fear an tighe, John Wilson, had made 30+ appearances here and won on eight occasions. Later, at both the start and end of his pibroch, RAF fighter jets had roared very closely above our heads. Willie, ever the seasoned pro, never even flinched as the jets roared off westwards towards Schiehallion and on to the Blackmount Forest.
Canadians, Jack and Bruce had arrived in Scotland two weeks before, Jack staying at Carnoustie in Angus, Bruce in Crieff in Perthshire. A few weeks previously, Bruce had won the Pipers & Pipe Band Society of Ontario’s annual Glengarry Cup Professional Solo Piping Competition, held online this year. Due to the lack of competitions this year, half of the pipers were not ‘match fit’ but a few others, too, had been on the competitive platform once – at the Silver Chanter in August. Jack had drawn last so headed back to the hotel for a snooze. And why not? Meanwhile, Finlay Johnston, who had received his invite because he is the defending champion, looked, as ever, as calm as a deep river. One of the deep pools of the Ruan Ruarie beat of the Garry flowing half a mile away perhaps? Finlay’s late father, Tommy, co-founded Pipe Dreams with Ronnie McShannon in the mid-1990s and was in the audience whenever Finlay played here. Finlay will shortly leave the National Piping Centre to join Ronnie at Pipe Dreams.
As ever, the castle was closed to the public but it reopened the next day and will remain open until mid-December in an attempt to generate some income from a disastrous tourist season; the summer season is vital for Blair Castle and, indeed, for the whole estate (that covers 143,000 acres of what is charmingly termed Highland Perthshire and doesn’t generate much, if anything, in the way of profit). I arrived at 08:45. Entering the Banvie Hall I washed my hands at the hand-wash pump and with a few elbow bumps I bid a “Good morning” to a handful of people. Within a few minutes, everyone was on site.
Prior to arriving, everyone had read the comprehensive guidance provided by the organisers. One-way signs were laid out clearly. Inside the ballroom were more signs and areas were cordoned off. Three individual tables for each judge were positioned back from the stage. Space for fear an tighe, John Wilson, was sectioned off. I looked towards the stage. I used to work at the castle and have played on that stage a great many times during the winter months when the castle is closed to visitors. Empty then, it was empty now. I wondered how the acoustics and the clarity of sound would be given the ballroom would be virtually empty. A waxwork Atholl Highlander and Niel Gow’s portrait with his (broken) bow and fiddle hung to the left, the 6th Duke’s portrait to the right, beside the piano and another waxwork Atholl Highlander. The curtains were closed, not, to block out the low sun – the sun is at the other end of the room – but because of two separate incidents when firstly, Glenn Brown broke down when one the castle’s resident peacocks leapt onto the window ledge outside, frightening the bejesus out of him, and then again the following year when the same thing happened to Bruce Gandy, although Bruce was able to carry on with his tune.
I sat near the back of the room and took in the view. The first rule of writing, as the late A. A. Gill wrote, is to never try to compose looking at a view that competes with the one in your head. The only things you should ‘see’ when you look up are thoughts and memories. Sitting in that building – built in 1876 for the Atholl Highlanders to hold their annual ball – and surrounded by portraits, instruments, weaponry, flags, antlers and booty (taken by the 8th Duke of Atholl who had served in Kitchener’s expedition to the Sudan in the 1890s) I had plenty of both and so it was quite difficult to write there and then. Far easier to sit back and enjoy the music.
The temperature was neither warm nor cold but, to me, just right. Pleasant. Castle caretaker, George Farron is one of the unsung heroes of the Glenfiddich. For 24 years he has ensured that the temperature in the tuning rooms is close to the temperature in the ballroom – a tremendous aid to the pipers in that old castle with its Victorian plumbing that breaks down just about every winter. Indeed, George can recall the year when the pump broke down at the Glenfiddich. This was in 2014 and the temperature in the Ballroom was cold. It affected the pipers, a couple of whom broke down. “I remember it well,” said George. “It was very frustrating. The ballroom doesn’t have under-floor heating as such, only those old pipes that connect the radiators. It had been a cold few days prior to the competition and the pumps had packed in. It upset me greatly as I know the pipers appreciate the consistent, warm temperature. We’ve never had bother since.
“I was a wee bit worried about last Friday because if it had been a very cold day we may have been in trouble. It takes hours to adjust the heating in the ballroom and for it to be noticed. As it turned out, the weather was warm with no cold winds. Clearly, we didn’t have the body heat from the usual 400 people in the audience but the back doors were also closed and that always helps a little with keeping in what heat there is. You’d be surprised how important those closed doors are to keeping in the heat in that big old hall. And when there’s a draught coming down the two chimneys you know about it!”
The Duke of Atholl allows five of his Atholl Highlanders to act as stewards, This year, due to the need to reduce numbers for COVID reasons, there were two: Pipe Sergeant Angus Clarke and Pipe Corporal Logan Tannock. Apart from stewarding, they let the pipers know continually what the temperature is in the ballroom as the day progresses. They did a superb job. The castle’s cleaners, Donna Hood and Ailsa Gillespie, should also be mentioned in dispatches. These fine, conscientious women ensured that each tuning room was cleaned before and after each piper.
In 1974, at the first Glenfiddich– or Grant’s Piping Championship as it was known – I believe only two rows of seats were laid out and the audience numbered around 30. Last Friday, about a dozen chairs were scattered at the back of the room. The competing pipers would sit there later when the day concluded with John Wilson delivering the results.
“It almost feels like we’re here for a rehearsal,” remarked someone just as John Wilson’s voice echoed around the room. It was 10:00am. Apart from the three judges – Jack Taylor, Iain MacFadyen and Willie Morrison – there were at that point four people in the ballroom. Of course, John wasn’t greeting us. He was greeting the thousands who would be tuning in online the following day. At 10:13, the piper who had drawn first, Callum Beaumont, appeared. His tune, The Daughter’s Lament, has a local association as it was apparently written for James Graham of Claverhouse’s daughter; her father was killed one mile from here shortly after the conclusion of the Battle of Killiecrankie in 1689. Callum settled himself and his instrument then began his tune. The Ceòl Mòr contest was under way.
Throughout the day, as each piper ascended the stage, I wondered if any of them had thoughts about aerosol at the back of their minds? I don’t think so. Nor did most of them find it daunting to compete in an empty hall. One told me he found it more intimidating but for most of them, there were no distractions and that made it easier for them to focus. All professional pipers, of course, should be able to play in all conditions and scenarios. All ten – and the six judges – focused on the task in hand with a high degree of professionalism.
My earlier thoughts about how the sound of the pipes would be in a virtually empty room proved to be correct: there was a clarity and projection not usually heard here. This is because sound on the ground is absorbed (mutilated) by any material including people, and it tends to reduce the higher frequencies first, causing a muffled sound. So, while it was surreal to listen to ten of our leading pipers almost on my own, it was satisfying to hear the improved sound quality.
I should say that all ten instruments sounded superb, but Stuart Liddell’s had an extra something. Indeed, although this essay isn’t about the pipers’ performances, I would like to record that in the Ceòl Mòr competition, Stuart’s tune – In Praise of Morag , Alasdair MacMhaighstir Alasdair’s paean to the ’45 and to BPC* – was intense and serious, like it had read loads of Proust and understood too much of it. A serious tune on a serious subject. And played on a seriously good pipe, rich in harmonics. It was outstanding. Riveting. Full of tension. As he rattled through the crunluath a-mach, he had an air almost of nonchalance. “MacTavish would’ve loved this,” I thought at the time.
A wave of thunderous applause usually greets each piper as he/she finishes their performance. Clearly, there was no such approbation this time. Rather, the pipers left the stage to the thin applause of half-a-dozen pairs of hands echoing in the hall. Indeed, at times, the whole thing seemed a bit like a private recital for a small group of family and friends, which in a way it was. Inevitably.
The day, though, was an unqualified success. Watching the broadcast the following day, I felt it was a nice touch to have John Dew play R. S. MacDonald’s recent composition, Lament for Alex Duncan as the prize-list was worked out. Alex was the castle’s main daily Duty Piper during most of my tenure at the castle. It was always enjoyable to cock an ear to the window as he played – always superbly – outside for the visitors and tourists. “Listen to that!” I’d say to my colleagues. I had the pleasure of standing next to him for a season when we both played in the Vale of Atholl. As a member of the Atholl Highlanders, Alex was no stranger to playing in this old ballroom either. I noticed a photograph of him in a collage on a poster in the Stone Passageway (next to the Ballroom). Alex was well liked by staff at the castle and will be remembered fondly.
With online viewing figures in the thousands and with feedback being unanimously positive, could last weekend show the way for future events? Whether other major solo piping competitions should follow suit may be debatable. The Glenfiddich isn’t simply a leading solo piping competition, it is a recital, too. The Northern Meeting, The Argyllshire Gathering, and the London Competition are out-and-out competitions, success at which earns an invite to the de facto ‘World Solo Piping Championship’ at Blair Castle. However, maybe a way could be found to run these in a similar way to this year’s Glenfiddich? After all, we may have to get used to piping behind closed doors for a while yet.
The pipe band world is, of course, different, and the beleaguered Royal Scottish Pipe Band Association is trying to find a way to hold at least the major championships in some format next year. Perhaps the resolve shown by the Glenfiddich organisers can inspire it to find a way of putting together competitions next season? Apparently, it has already agreed a new format for Grades 1 and 4 at the European Pipe Band Championships in Inverness. We shall await details in due course.
There’s nothing remotely surprising about a second wave of COVID-19 given it’s an infectious disease we don’t yet have a vaccine for. What would be surprising – and unforgivable – is if we in the west handle it as badly as the first wave, with huge numbers of COVID and non-COVID deaths and economic carnage. Locally, the previous week saw infection rates rise in Dundee while a pub in nearby Blairgowrie was the source of a local rise after it opened its doors for football fans to watch the Old Firm football [soccer] match.
If piping – indeed, life! – is to return to some degree of normality next year, we must all act and behave better. It’s probably a good idea to avoid news programmes as well. Clearly, I only have experience of Scotland’s media, and if you’re reading this forth of Scotland, I hope your media is better. Scotland’s is obsessed with broadcasting vox pops with people unqualified to offer an opinion on complicated subjects such as this virus, and it only pushes the effects restrictions are having on pubs but not on those whose lives have been saved. I wish we were listening to the doctors and scientists, and maybe some of the survivors, too. Increasingly, there is no sense of balance. In a free and open society, debate is important but unsound thinking from fringe elements is constantly given the same standing as educated and informed opinions. “My opinion is a good as anyone else’s!” No, it isn’t. The only person whose opinion I want to hear in a pandemic is that of a virologist not that of a pub owner or a football pundit, a plumber, an actor … or a piper. I find it astonishing that last week there were almost 370 COVID deaths per day in the UK with a daily toll that may well surpass that of the spring, yet a lot of people don’t seem to be even acknowledging it. (I may be wrong, of course, because I live in a fairly small village in rural Perthshire and have been working from home for months. I hope I’m wrong.)
The airwaves, though, are brimming with the voices of commentators who claim to know what is happening and what to do about it, occasionally backed up by the opinions of cherry-picked experts. They speak as if they have never been more certain of anything in their lives. From where do they gain their confidence and certainty? Peer-reviewed science is, after all, very much in its infancy. From what I gather, it’s doubtful we’ll ever have herd immunity to this virus but one day we might have sufficient herd resistance for it to be just one of the many common causes of death each year.
At the time of writing (November 3), Scotland has introduced a five-tier system of movement restrictions and may enter lockdown next week. All of England has already returned to lockdown and the virus is once again rampant across Europe and further afield. We’re starting to see re-infections, something that makes population immunity/resistance without a vaccine unlikely. A summer has been squandered and it’s going to be a long winter.
We all look forward to our summer of piping, accumulating memories and sensations that, when the depths of winter arrive allow us to still feel that, in Albert Camus’ words, “within me there lay an invincible summer.” Well, it didn’t happen this year. We have no piping memories of 2020 to reflect on, to take inspiration from, to learn from. Piping will return, though. A full house at Blair Castle will return. But first, stay safe. Look after yourself and others. Do as you’re told. Get yourself fitter and healthier. Wash your hands. Keep the heid. And keep the pipes going.
I’ll leave you with the words of William A. Haseltine, Ph.D, an ex-professor at Harvard Medical School:
“Now, as then with AIDS, many will die as a result of a belief in an unfounded and dangerous hypothesis. Now, like then, a falsehood is being adopted as truth by national leaders for reasons grounded in political expediency, not a desire to control the pandemic. Herd immunity is not an option, and never will be. To equate the sound public health measures we know will work with the fantasy of one day achieving herd immunity is a false equivalency. As scientists, we are trained to accept that any hypothesis can have value. But when we speak of hypotheses we speak of educated assumptions. When it comes to herd immunity and COVID-19, the approach has no value.”
* BPC: Bonnie Prince Charlie.
• With thanks to Liz Maxwell. Thanks also to the staff of the National Piping Centre and Blair Castle
The views expressed on Bagpipe.News do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Piping Centre.