In the eight years since I moved to Scotland from Pittsburgh, many of the spoils of life in this new place have long since gone from novel to normal. No longer must I wait until a highland games to purchase piping goods in person; I can pop into a wide variety of shops on my doorstep for my piping needs (though I recommend The Bagpipe Shop for all your piping goodies).
Band practice isn’t a four-and-a-half hour drive once a month – it’s a ten-minute underground journey once a week.
Haggis is no longer a special treat had on rare occasion; it’s end of the month penny-pinching grub.
That’s not to say I don’t appreciate the many perks of the life I’ve made for myself in Glasgow. I most certainly do. But these things are now just that – life – and familiarity breeds complacency. However, one aspect of life in Scotland that has never lost its novelty is the opportunity to attend the Glenfiddich in person every October. Since moving here, I’ve attended the event live in Blair Castle every year, save 2015 and, of course, 2020, although I did watch the livestream both of those years.
What makes the Glenfiddich different? I think a part of what makes the event special to me is the difficulty and dedication in attending for those abroad. Because of the time of year, an international trip to the Glenfiddich is typically a journey dedicated to this singular cause. To that end, not many people make the journey from abroad (massive kudos to those who do), and I’m aware that if I didn’t live here it’s an event I would have likely not had the opportunity to attend in person. Further, and perhaps more importantly, the experience of attending the Glenfiddich has no equal in the piping world.
That’s a bold statement, and I suppose I had better back it up. Allow me, then, to wax lyrical about my experience in attending this year’s Glenfiddich. For international readers, I hope this brings a new dimension to the experience of listening online. For domestic readers, I hope this nudges you into Blair Castle in 2022.
An oft overlooked part of the Glenfiddich experience is the journey to the event. If you’re lucky in the travel companion department, as I was this year, the trip to Perthshire offers picturesque scenery and an opportunity for long overdue catchups. An early start of a 7:45am pickup outside the Station Bar meant two snoozy pipers in the back seat of John Nevans’ car, with myself copiloting John in the front seat. As an aside, the number of times I’ve been picked up outside ‘the Station’ for practices, gigs, and journeys does well and truly make it feel like a transportation hub worthy of its name. John, ever gracious, offered to chauffer three sleeping pipers to Pitlochry, but I saw an opportunity for some chat and to take in the scenery of Scotland that I so missed during the lockdown period. After just under two hours of solving international political issues, discussing our respective pedagogies, and having more than a few laughs, we arrived at Blair Castle just before 9:30.
If you’ve never been to Blair Castle, you’re missing out. It’s worth a dedicated trip of its own. The immaculate grounds offer a scenic stroll at lunch and the castle’s white façade stands in stark contrast to the surrounding hills with their various shades of earthy greens.
After the obligatory Track and Trace check in and a quick scoosh of hand sanitiser, into the ballroom we went for the start of the ceòl mòr competition. Having watched the livestream and seen photos of the event, I must say that the first time I walked into the ballroom of Blair Castle I was shocked by the size of it. The livestream doesn’t always adequately demonstrate the size and majesty of the space. With all the various historical artefacts, stag antlers (has anyone ever successfully counted them? [yes, me: there’s 174 – Editor]), and artwork on the walls of the hall, there exists no shortage of curiosities to take in between tunes. My personal favourite is the Sir Henry Raeburn portrait of the famous Perthshire fiddler, Niel Gow. He sits in his chair just to the left of the competitors, fiddle in hand, as if he’s itching to join in the afternoon MSR playing. The space, with its rich mahogany and buttressed ceiling, truly adds gravitas to the event and the acoustics are stellar. Typically, I sit quite far back in the hall and the pipes never fail to envelope me with their harmonic drones and warm chanters. Again, the livestream serves its important purpose, but to sit and shut one’s eyes and enjoy the tone of the pipes in person is another level of an experience.
The performances don’t require descriptions from me. They can be heard online and you can all form your own opinions. Suffice it to say, the performances kept my attention rapt for the full day. My one and only complaint about the day is that the seats in the hall are rather uncomfortable, so at one point I did excuse myself to the reception area, where the event is streamed, to stretch my legs. But immediate FOMO (the fear of missing out) set in not being in the hall and back in I went for the remainder of the performances. The level of musical expertise on display at the Glenfiddich never ceases to amaze me and, when you consider the price of a ticket, it’s an absolute steal to attend.
Beyond the stellar performances on display, Bob Worrall brought his usual entertaining professionalism to the role of fear an taighe. Many pipers have spoken recently about how difficult and nerve-wracking it is to pipe in front of an audience after such a long spell of playing for flat mates, partners, cats, and dogs but it was, I imagine, equally nerve-wracking to stand in front of a room full of people and speak. To this end, Bob is to be commended for his ‘performance’ as well. He strikes the perfect balance of entertaining, educating, and being respectful of performers as they come on stage. Congratulations also go to John Wilson for his receipt of the Balvenie Medal, a well-deserved award in recognition of his lifetime contribution to piping.
At the conclusion of the day, it was my turn to be the snoozy piper in the backseat as the others in the car discussed the performances of the day, what they enjoyed, what they didn’t enjoy, and what their respective results would have been. Frankly, it wasn’t a conversation I was interested in. I’d enjoyed the performances and didn’t want to spoil them by analysing the nitty gritty. While I’ve been lucky enough to hear plenty of good piping over the last few months, I’m still at a point where I’m basking in the opportunity to hear live music and simply want to enjoy it sans analysis at this point. I’m sure in the coming months my analytical competitor will reemerge but, for now, I’m enjoying enjoyment.
Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the William Grant Foundation and my colleagues at the National Piping Centre (NPC) for the months of hard work and planning that go into putting this event on. The Glenfiddich prep falls outwith my remit at the NPC, but when at work I witness the hours upon hours that Finlay MacDonald, Alberto Laidlaw, Liz Maxwell, Helen Urquhart, Emily Nelson, Lyn Conroy, and many others contribute to this event. If you see these people, please thank them for their efforts. It’s a labour of love from which we all benefit. If you really want to thank them, maybe buy them a dram the next time you see them. Perhaps a Glenfiddich 12 at the Glenfiddich, 2022.