By MacGregor Kennedy
If they should enquire of you, “Why do you love old Scotland so?” it will be apparent that they have never encountered the bright prospect of making for the Vale of Atholl on a brilliant autumn day such as we had on our way to the 14th Annual Meeting of the Glenfiddich Piping Championship. It coincided with the centenary of Grant’s inspired craftsmanship in the distilling of uisge beatha. Truly, a noble calling.
Skelping over the sparkling Sherrifmuir, scene of the drawn battle of 1715 — “Some say that we wan, some say that they wan, some say we a’ ran awa’, man!” — we were in high spirits in anticipation of the delights to come, having left for the venue rather earlier than is our wont. This at the behest of Bob Forbes, who was keen to visit the smallest distillery in Scotland at Edradour. Once more the magical combination of hills and woods, rivers and lochs benign beneath an azure sky, the colours of the leaves rivalling the sun’s glory, cast that inexplicable spell over hearts and minds that inspires true content.
After an excellent lunch, we repaired to the picturesque Edradour, myself trying to suppress an odd feeling of disloyality that was dispelled by a generous dram. With a capacity of 600 gallons a week, this bijou establishment is not in the same quantitative league as its larger contemporaries but all the essential elements and mistique of whisky production are here. Well worth a visit. It will be remembered that the clachan has a connection with the MacGregors of Clann nan Sgeulaichd in Glen Lyon, the celebrated piping family.
Reluctant to forego any least part of the magnificent weather we took a turn up on the high muir and into Glen Brerachan where our Texan pointed out some of the favourite haunts of his youth, when he was inclined to take the long way home from school. He was a fit laddie and no mistake.
On our return to Scotland’s Hotel [pictured] it was to find that the bars and lounges were filling up with the faithful, spiritual and profane. Many were the touching reunions to be observed among the enthusiastic throng. It is with regret that I am compelled to report that on the Friday night a grave shortage of kilties still persists, despite our best efforts. Nevertheless, it is always interesting to meet — especially in such proximity to Hallowe’en — a real life witch. These ladies are usually well aware of their powers so it came as a surprise to me to discover that this one was apparently completely innocent of the influences which she would be able bring to bear on given circumstances and she willing it. The widow of a redoubtable west highland councilor who in his time was the scourge of bureaucracy and the pinstriped mind, it was some time after I was introduced to her that I suspected what she might be. Thrown a little by the fact that she lives in that gem of the western seaboard, Plockton, I had doubted my instincts, but in the course of conversation it transpired that she was a native of Kirkcaldy. All the world knows that the Kingdom of Fife is the very place for ‘other folk’. It was only when, under close questioning, she admitted that she had never had any success in growing rowan trees that she realised the implications. If only I had had my football coupon for the following week on me.
Awakening in the morning to a fairly hard frost and an all-enveloping mist we knew that the day would blossom as the sun rose. On the drive up to Blair Castle the silvery mist, shot through with shafts of golden sunlight turning the Braes of Atholl to an unimaginable emerald, is a sight of which one can never tire. It is remarkable to reflect that the magnificent larch woods that are the piece de resistance of the estate are the result of three seedlings planted at Dunkeld in 1737 in anticipation of a shortage of oak for shipbuilding. The 28-gun frigate, Atholl — what else? — was launched at Woolwich in 1820; she remained in the Navy lists as a ship of the line for forty-five years, thus proving that — had events in the form of ironclads not overtaken the venture — the larch would have proved to be a profitable alternative. Blair Castle was sparkling in its new coat of white and rivalling the clouds sailing overhead like some celestial Great St. Michael. I was astonished to discover that the powers that be are not satisfied with the finish and propose to go over the entire structure with another coat. C’est magnifique!
The popularity of the Glenfiddich is evident in that there is looming a problem of accommodation. It may be possible to squeeze another 50 chairs into the Great Hall [Ballroom – Editor] but that would appear to be the limit of expansion. Is there a black market in tickets in prospect for the future?
While we in the audience sit and savour performances — and this year the piobaireachds chosen were particularly tuneful — that often border on the inspired, a great deal of organisational activity still goes on undetected by the public. The lovely ladies of Grants dispense tickets, programmes, answer queries and distribute hospitality with cheerfulness and tact. I was personally much taken by Liz Maxwell’s designer suntan, acquired at Lanzarote earlier in the month. The statuesque Alma MacLintock irresistibly reminds me of my Swedish grand-daughter, her name is Alma too, and when Margaret MacKay bestows her dazzling smile on one, it’s like being away your holidays. The Three Graces, indeed.
Hoards of hungry enthusiasts are expertly provisioned by the castle’s catering staff. Stewards ensure that competitors are to hand without undue delay or panic. Press and television crews are marshaled and advised with aplomb. It swings.
The unobtrusive skill with which the Atholl Highlanders keep a finger on the pulse of the event was graphically illustrated for me by an incident that would have been unobserved except that the two gentlemen concerned were in the Kennedy tartan and thus attracted my attention. One of them had perhaps been imbibing rather too freely and been overheard to complain somewhat loudly and truculently that the sergeant and private of the Atholl Highlanders who appear to be on permanent sentry-go on the platform persisted in staring at him. He was gently but firmly invited to avail himself of a breath of refreshing air outside and escorted with tact and firmness to the door. As they passed me in the corridor I heard the recalcitrant’s companion wail, plaintively. “You should think black, burning shame, Lachie. You were right out of order. It wis Neil Gow that wis staring”.
The subject of the famous portrait that dominates the stage of the Hall, commemorating the celebrated fiddler’s association with Blair Castle, is buried in the kirkyard at Little Dunkeld where a new gravestone was unveiled in June of this year to replace the original of 1808. This much-weathered stone is now housed in the Cathedral of Dunkeld Chapter House.
Even the best regulated events have the odd hiccup and it caused some degree of amusement when the fear an tighe for the day, Alasdair Milne, former Director General of the BBC, found that the microphone was initially on the blink. It wouldn’t have happened in his time, I warrant.
• From the January 1988 Piping Times.