Stuart Letford: Echoes of Oban

Stuart Letford

Day 1
The drive from my home in central Perthshire was sublime. By the time I reached Killin, the morning mist cleared and the sun shone brightly. There was not one cloud in the sky.

I stopped briefly at the Green Welly Shop in Tyndrum, the quintessential ‘tea and a pee’ visit. There was a sign in a window that read: ‘Breakfast any time’. I was tempted to order an omelette during the Enlightenment but the prospect of some fresh seafood and fine piping at Oban hastened my stay on this occasion.

The only other stop on my journey was after Connel where I required to fill up my old jalopy. At the petrol station at Dunbeg, I overheard this conversation as I waited to pay:

Tourist paying for his petrol (cut-glass Oxbridge accent; smiling): I didn’t know Albert Camus had a connection with here. Did he visit on holiday, perhaps? I don’t think he had any Scots in him.”

Shop Assistant (with blank expression): “’Scuse me?”

Tourist: “Albert Camus? The French philosopher? … He got the Nobel Prize in 1957? … I’ve just noticed a street sign in the village along the road. Camus Place?

Shop Assistant: [pause] … “Naw, it’s nothing to do with that guy, whoever he is. It’s pronounced kah-mus not kah-moo. It’s the ‘bay’ in Gaelic. Bay. Did ye see the wee bay? The village is near the bay … D’ye need a receipt?”

Tourist (with a somewhat forlorn expression): Oh. Oh! I see. Er, no, thank you. Cheerio.”

I noticed the chap at Mossfield Park the following day. He was still sporting the same forlorn expression. Maybe he thought the whole thing absurd.

I sauntered along Breadalbane Street to the Argyllshire Gathering Halls where Torquil Telfer was standing by the entrance and positively drinking the sunshine. After six years as Piping Steward, this would be Torquil’s last. He was standing chatting with Dugald MacLeod, who like Torquil, was resplendent in the garb. Though I felt somewhat underdressed, clad as I was in shorts and tee-shirt, I felt more comfortable in the heat of the midday sun than they appeared to be. (Dugald clearly felt the same, as a few hours later I noticed he had nipped back to his accommodation in order to change into looser and lighter clothing.)

The Argyllshire Gathering Halls, built in the late 19th century.

It was now nearly noon. The seafood would have to wait. I arrived at the Argyllshire Gathering Halls just as Angus MacColl had commenced Thuair Mi Pòg. A few of us stood, masked, in the anteroom – the bar – outside the hall and waited for him to finish his tune. Judging by Angus’ sound, there were great acoustics in this hall. To quiet applause, he soon finished and we were allowed to enter.

Quiet applause? Well, there weren’t many people inside. The audience, though small was well informed. A cheery nod to those I recogised and it was time for the next piper, Finlay Johnston who gave us Cumha na Cloinne.

The large hall was built in the 1870s specifically for the annual balls held the night before the Gathering. Battered old shields hung from the walls, on which heraldic emblems of various Argyll families were displayed. They may as well be on the walls, I mused. They’re not much use for anything these days, not even for serving scones.

Finlay Johnston.

The six pipers invited to play all had a connection to Argyll. All of them played – and sounded – well.

Overall, the ceòl mòr competition was an enjoyable experience with the only negative being the regurgitation of tired myths and Victoriana surrounding the historical background to some of the tunes we heard. Give us facts but if it’s conjecture you’re relating, say it is conjecture. This was, as I’ve suggested, a knowledgable and informed audience. Also, it irks to hear ceòl mòr described as “classical music”. It is no such thing. It is the classic music of the great highland bagpipe, yes. But it is not classical music and those who call it such do it a disservice, and, in my opinion, merely reinforce the view that the music – rondeau music originally – was taken from the people by anglicised toffs a long time ago.

At the conclusion of the ceòl mòr we had an hour or so to kill before the commencement of the MSR. I took the opportunity to head round the bay to where the seafood stalls were located. The queues were too long, though. My seafood treat would need to wait.

Oban was positively hotchin’ by this point with the hordes ensconced around the bay enjoying the weather, the view, the ice cream and the seafood. I wanted to grab them one by one to tell them about the wonderful piping that was taking place not two minutes from where they sat, the finest music Gaeldom has produced, albeit in the style that has dominated since at least the late 18th century, a style largely divorced form the rhythms of the culture that created it. I heard so many accents and languages as I passed: German, Italian, American, Spanish, French, English, Fife … they would’ve loved to have taken in the piping, surely? Maybe they just didn’t know about it.

Cone you believe it? There’s fantastic piping to be savoured two minutes away.

After a pint in the Tartan Tavern – no doubt soon to be renamed The Jagged Arms – in the good company of Brian Mulhearn, it was back to the piping. The audience was still, disappointingly, small and, became noticeably smaller during the Medley competition that was held after the MSR.

It was well into the evening by the time the competition drew to a conclusion. Stuart Liddell was announced as the overall winner. In the bar afterwards, he gave us a quick blast of Battle of the Somme before he headed off into the night. Around 11:00pm, after being profusely prevailed upon to partake of the social glass, I called it a day, too.

On reflection, we have a winner.

Day 2:
Despite glorious sunshine greeting me as I peered through the curtains of my accommodation the next morning, I was in a foul mood. I had lost my tie. I needed one as I would be joining the March to the Games Field. Tweed jacket on, kilt on … no tie. I had no time to break my fast. Instead, I broke sweat as I searched Oban for a men’s clothing shop. Entering one, possibly the only one in Oban, I asked the assistant if he had any ties for sale.

“No, I’m afraid not. Oban is rubbish for men’s clothing. Your best bet is Tesco.”

“Tesco!??! For a tie?”

“Aye. It’s about a 20 minute walk from here …”

“Er, thanks.”

Just before the sea front I met Iain Lowther and his son, Callum. “Your best bet is that tourist shop at the square near the railway,” he suggested.

It was 10:20 when I arrived at Station Square. Angus MacColl was busy tuning up the Oban High School band. Some of the competing pipers had a blow, too. I made my way inside the shop. There were plenty of ties with various clan tartan patterns but I really didn’t want one of those garish things around my neck. Happily, a smiling assistant pointed me to the plain ties. I grabbed one quickly, a green number, and took it to the till.

“Can you remove the packaging please? I asked the assistant. “I’ll wear it just now.”

“There you go,” she said. “That’ll be £32 please.” I was standing with a tenner in my hand. I paused and a puzzled expression must have appeared on my countenance.

“Aye, they’re a wee bit expensive, eh?” the assistant said cheerfully.

“F-f-for a tie?” I spluttered. When I found myself in a similar situation in Portugal four years ago, I was charged £5. I put away my cash and brought out the plastic. “I’ll need to take it.”

Willie McCallum chats with the Duke of Argyll and his mother.

The march was about to set off. Willie McCallum was, fittingly, in the Pipe Major’s position and, as the parade began, I detected a swell of pride on his face. Willie was playing his uncle Hugh’s pipes that he had played when in the same position in 1972. In fact, those pipes, a set of silver and ivory Hendersons made in 1909 that were bought by Willie’s grandfather (the original owner didn’t survive the First World War), were also played here by two of his uncles, Archie and Ronald (Ronald was Willie’s main teacher). Willie would be the fourth member of his family to play these pipes in the March to the Games Field.

The throng arrived at Mossfield Park about 30 minutes later to a warm reception. They looked puggled. Drams were dispensed to the pipers, some of whom declined the offer, as they were about to compete. The Duke of Argyll was introduced to Willie McCallum and Princess Anne was introduced to the Stewards before heading off to listen to the piping. She has taste, does Anne.

I bumped into Jeannie Campbell and Tabby Angier sitting at the Members’ Tent. Jeannie told me her book – a comprehensive history of the pipe band movement – should be on sale from next week. It had been, she said, a huge undertaking but a worthwhile one.

After a chat and a dram, it was then off to listen to some piping. The competitors seemed quite relaxed. This year, none of the results would count towards gradings, of course, but I sense that it was simply ‘being there’ and playing after all this time that made them so relaxed.

Lunchtime beckoned. I had a ticket for the Members’ Tent but on seeing the queue – mostly of teenagers dressed like 40 years olds – I decided instead to visit one of the food stalls dotted along the south end of the park. I was a shade disappointed that the seafood stallholder wasn’t there this year. I was in the mood for moules marinière. No doubt, he was making a roaring trade down at the harbour, where I’d be heading later. A bacon and egg roll sufficed. It was memorable. Not, though, as memorable as the time I had a double yolker in a cafè out in Yoker.

Back to the piping. There were red faces everywhere. Not, you understand, due to any blooters being made but from the searing sun. You will have read Dan Nevans’ article here last week on playing at the games. If not, you can read it here.

Soon, it was time to find out the results and then head home … but not before a stop at the harbour for some seafood. I stood in a long queue in the sweltering heat for half an hour. Everyone seemed to be ordering large seafood platters. Eventually, at long last, I was devouring the sweetest, freshest, tastiest mussels (with white wine and cream sauce) I had tasted in years.

As I sauntered (Oban is a great place for a saunter) past Argyll Street, I was asked by a passer-by for the time, only to spill some of the sauce down my new tie as I made for my iPhone!

“£32!!!” I wailed. … “It’s four o’clock,” I muffled as I mopped the sauce.

The guy smiled, thanked me walked away stifling a chuckle.

As I pulled out of Oban I had the sounds of the two days echoing around my head: the playing of the kids of Oban High School Pipe Band under Angus MacColl’s tutelage, Jamie Forrester’s crunluath fosgailte in the Earl of Ross’s March, the competing pipers all playing Iain Lowther’s excellent 2/4 march that he composed as part of the 150 anniversary, Ally Henderson’s superb Atholl Highlanders – which raised a smile from its Pipe Major sitting on the judges’ bench – John MacColl’s The Argyllshire Gathering as played by the competing pipers as they entered the games field, Steven Leask’s perfect 2/4 march … these echoes of Oban will linger long in the memory.

On the down side, the smell of mussel sauce will unfortunately linger long in my tie …

• Here’s a short video of Day 2:


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