One foot in front of the other …

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DAN NEVANS relates last week’s in-person competitions at Oban and Lochaber from the perspective of a competing piper

Dan Nevans

I’ve never really been one for vacations. I’m just not good at relaxing. I always feel like the sands of my own personal hourglass increase their irreversible passage as soon as I put down the shovel for any real length of time. 

As such, all my attempts at holidaying have also included performing/competitions, from heading across to the US in 2015/16 for Winter Storm, to last week making for Oban. My wife, Katrine, and I took the motorway west out of Glasgow. We planned to play, eat heartily and enjoy being out of the city for a time.

To be eligible to compete at the Argyllshire Gathering you must have a B grading or higher from the Competing Pipers’ Association (CPA) in either ceòl mòr or light music. The Argyllshire Gathering normally hosts the Silver and Gold Medals for ceòl mòr contests, as well as the contest for former winners of the Gold Medal, but due to the ongoing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic there were no medal contests this year. Instead, a 150th anniversary contest was held in the Argyllshire Gathering Halls inviting seven pipers with Argyllshire connections: Willie McCallum (Campbeltown), Finlay Johnston (Tiree), Jamie Forrester (Mull), Stuart Liddell (Inveraray), Angus MacColl (Benderloch), Sarah Muir (Campbelltown), Alasdair Henderson (Dunoon).

After a splendid day of piping covering all aspects of the solo piper’s art the overall champion was Stuart Liddell. Some of my favourite performances from the day included The Earl of Ross’ March performed by Jamie Forrester and Alan Dodds’ Farewell to Scotland, John Roy Stewart and Fiona MacLeod performed by Sarah Muir. Stuart Liddell’s medley showed off not only the superb technical ability of the player but his musical taste/ performance acumen too. I found myself tapping my toes in my shoes and being led through the tunes rather than ‘ticking them off’. Stuart’s talent at putting together interesting and entertaining sets of tunes is one of the aspects that makes him so popular for recital events. 

The Argyllshire Gathering Halls, Oban.

This was my first-time attending Oban. I only qualified in 2020 for the Silver Medal and B light music competitions. Poor timing, I am aware. Competing at Oban in any of the events is a huge deal for me. The fact that it comes at the end of a year and a half-long drought of in-person performances was an extra treat. The day of the games began in it’s usual format with the parade of competing pipers to the games field. To mark the 150th anniversary of the Argyllshire Gathering a composition competition had been held earlier in the year and Pipe Major Iain Lowther (Scots Guards, retired) composed the winning tune.

There’s always a bit of a stramash forming up the pipers for this event. I had intended on standing up the back in the middle but so, too, did the other 59 pipers in attendance. I ended up in a privileged position on the outside of the second rank behind Willie McCallum and in front of Pipe Major Ben Duncan (Royal Scots Dragoon Guards).

Left to right: WIllie McCallum, Dan Nevans, Iain Lowther, Callum Lowther, Jamie Forrester, Alasdair Henderson, Sarah Muir, Jonathon Simpson, Dr. Peter McCalister.

In the photograph, the young man to my left is Callum Lowther, son of Iain. I’m sure this will not be Callum’s last trip up the street at Oban. The parade opened with Iain’s winning tune, Dr Whittlow’s Welcome to the 150th Argyllshire Gathering followed by the classic 6/8 marches Dr. Ross’ Welcome to the 50th Argyllshire Gathering and The Glendaruel Highlanders. The genre-defining retreat march, Lochanside was the last tune before we entered Mossfield Park. We then played round the field to John MacColl’s classic tribute to the games, The Argyllshire Gathering

Some of you may be wondering why Willie took the Pipe Major’s position on the street march. When WIllie won his Oban Gold Medal (in 1995 with Rory MacLoude’s Lament), he was unable to compete on the Thursday due to a work commitment. Since there were no medals this year, it was fitting that this great player got the chance to enjoy the honour that he was unable to receive in the past. As for myself, I was competing in the B March, B Strathspey and Reel and the Open Jigs. 

The judges for the contests were: John Wilson/ Iain MacFadyen (B March), Barry Donaldson/Ian Duncan (B Strathspey and Reel), and Dr. Angus MacDonald/Colin MacLellan (Open Jigs).

The boyo on the boards at Oban last week.

The tunes I played were: 

  • David Ross of Rosehall – March
  • The Ewe wi’ the Crookit Horn – Strathspey
  • Major David Manson – Reel
  • The Braes of Mellinish/Center’s Bonnet – Jigs

I was pleased enough with the MSR. I had a wee blip of some kind in Center’s Bonnet; I competed the tune but it’s a minor disappointment, really. The Open Jigs is a great contest but I was under no illusion of who I was playing against. I enjoyed this foray back into competition piping. After nearly two years of playing to my iPhone it was great to get out and see old friends, play the tunes, and hear them being played. 

No prizes for me but I was delighted to see my friends and former band mates, Andy Hall (first place in the B March), Steven Leask (first in the A/P March) being rewarded for their hard work and diligent practice. 

The nature of competitive solo piping in Scotland is such that there is a great feeling of fraternity amongst the performers. To quote a well-known player, “If you’ve got the nuts to get up and play the tunes then you’re just as nuts as the rest of us“.

Desiring to get a cold drink and something to eat, Katrine and I headed up the road to Fort William where we would be staying for the next three nights. 

The Lochaber Gathering features two streams: A/P graded piobaireachd and light music and B/C piobaireachd and light music. The prizes for the winners of the piobaireachd are the gold axe (A/P) and the silver axe (B/C). The heads of the axe-shaped kilt pins are made of real gold and silver. Alan MacColl and his family organised the contest for many years. Sadly, Alan passed away in 2020. My thanks go out to the committee of the Lochaber Gathering for holding the contest and doing such a terrific job with the logistics and organisation of the event. 

This year, the piping competitions were held in the cinema in Fort William, the ceòl mòr and light music inside and the 6/8 march and hornpipe/jig on the town square outside. We had incredible weather again so tuning up and performing outside to the gathered crowds was a delight. 

My tunes were:

  • The MacDougall’s Gathering – Piobaireachd
  • Inveran, The Cameronian Rant and Major David Manson – March, Strathspey and Reel
  • Farewell to the Creeks – 6/8 March
  • Willie Rowe and James MacLellan’s Favourite – Hornpipe and Jig
Lochaber 2021. Iain MacFadyen and Alan Forbes judging. Dan Nevans performing.

Sadly, I made an error in my piobaireachd. I swapped a bar from another line into the line I was playing. It happens occasionally. I’m hoping it was just jitters from this being the first physical piobaireachd contest for a while. I’m confident my overall ceòl mòr performance is moving in the right direction. 

It’s important to take these sorts of things on the chin and not blow them out of proportion. Before you know it, you’re bottle is crashing every time you head for the boards. Try to remember that once you’ve paid your entry fee that they must listen to you. It’s your show. There’s more to piping than making the prize list. Playing the tune at the best of your ability can and will be its own reward.

As for the light music, I felt I had a great day. A performer cannot rely on winning prizes as a signpost for development. As I mentioned earlier, every competitor is very good. On some days it can be the thinnest of margins that separates the prize list. I felt I had a good day on the boards and that must be enough. I know what my shortcomings are and I’m working on fixing them. You can only put one foot in front of the other. 

I enjoyed a day off on Saturday doing various tourist things before heading home to Glasgow on Sunday morning to get home for the CPA AGM and then to head across to the National Piping Centre’s Otago Street building for the Piobaireachd Society’s annual recital. 

One foot in front of the other …

• I’d like to congratulate all the prizewinners at Oban and Lochaber. The full results can be found on bagpipe.news

* Next week: ‘Echoes of Oban’ – read Stuart Letford’s account of his experience of the 150th Argyllshire Gathering from the perspective of a listener.