By Jeannie Campbell MBE
After the 1962 Argyllshire Gathering the Piping Times carried a full report of the event: “Once again the summer games season reached its culmination in the middle of September, and once again, at the beginning of the second week of the month, all roads led to Oban and the Argyllshire Gathering. The seasoned campaigners, who during the summer had travelled the length and breadth of the country in search of contests, fame and fun, were now joined by the occasional competitors, by the new boys breaking into the game, and by a veteran or two showing that he still enjoyed the excitement of the battle.
“Arriving in Oban the night before the contests is always an exhilarating experience. To travel by train is undoubtedly the best way, but the road users only have to step out of their cars to meet others of the fraternity eager to start the interesting discussions over a drop of the cratur. It is a hard decision for the serious contender to make when faced with the choice of early bed or unforgettable discussions. Either way, in fact, it turns out to be a reasonably quiet night, for the heat of battle is still to come. We are a great race for quiet preparation and noisy celebration.
“Once again the first day was a scorcher, and Oban bay from the heights of Drimvargie looked a perfect picture. This Campbell luck with the weather was fortunate in many ways, for the change of timetable, which brought forward the start of the open event to two o’clock meant that for about three hours practically no undercover tuning facilities were available. On the whole, the altered scheme seemed to receive approval, although it meant that nobody could hear all of both competitions.
“Walking from one hall to another was to submerge oneself in a sea of tuning noises, the concrete area between the halls being a noisy scene of pipers doing what they could to prepare the big pipe for the big occasion. Pipers are experts at finding nooks and crannies, but even their ingenuity was taxed to the limit.
“A popular feature at Oban is the bar attached to the Gold Medal hall, although business there is quiet until the results are announced. From then onwards it does a thriving trade. So far as results were concerned, this was Seumas MacNeill’s Oban. In addition to winning the coveted Gold Medal, which has eluded him for so long, he produced another fine performance in the Open Piobaireachd event to gain second place. This, combined with second prize the following day in the March, Strathspey and Reel for former winners, was sufficient to secure for him the Royal Celtic Society’s award for most points in the two senior events.
“Congratulations were also poured on Donald MacPherson, the winner of the Open Piobaireachd. This was the third time Donald had gained custody of the Kenneth Cup and so it became his for good. It now joins the Shirvan Cup, which Donald won in like manner surely a record, which, although we hope it is not yet complete, will never be equalled at Oban.
“John Burgess also took a major prize with a marathon rendering in the March, Strathspey and Reel competition. This is undoubtedly one of the most severe competitions ever devised, with 18 tunes submitted, three chosen and each to be played twice. With his long tunes this meant for John ten minutes playing at the very peak of form.
“The Piping Times is fortunate this month in being able to publish reports of the various competitions given by men who were in fact judges at the Argyllshire Gathering. These comments, from men who are the recognised experts in piping knowledge, are of inestimable value to all aspirants to piping honours, as well as being of general interest to all. “From the horse’s mouth” is the usual expression.”
In the Gold Medal competition, the competitors and their tunes were: Robin Bennett (Lament for Ronald MacDonald of Morar); Hugh C. R. MacRae, Isabel MacKay); Ian F. Clowe, Lament for Patrick Òg MacCrimmon.); Seumas MacNeill, Lament for Patrick Òg MacCrimmon); Finlay MacNeill (The Blind Piper’s Obstinacy); Jimmy Young (Lament for Captain MacDougall); L/Cpl. J. Kerr (Catherine’s Lament); Duncan MacFadyen (Lament for the Departure of King James); Neil MacEachern (Lament for Donald of Laggan); Tommy Pearston (Lament for the Earl of Antrim); Robert A. Barron (The Glen is Mine); John C. Johnston (Mary’s Praise); John MacDougall (I Got a Kiss of the King’s Hand); John Graham (Black Donald’s March); Donald J. MacLeish (Kinlochmoidart’s Lament); Hector MacFadyen (The MacDougall’s Gathering); George Lumsden (The Battle of Waternish);
Result – 1. Seumas MacNeill; 2. Hector MacFadyen; 3. Robert A. Barron; 4. Duncan MacFadyen; 5. Jimmy Young.
Judges: Archie G. Kenneth, Archie MacNab and J. Maxwell MacDonald.
The result of the Open Piobaireachd competition was: 1. Donald MacPherson; 2. Seumas MacNeill; 3. Donald MacLeod; 4. John MacDougall.
Judges: D. R. MacLennan, James Campbell and Charles D. MacTaggart.
The Piping Times correspondent continued: “In the Open Competition there were six set tunes, of which competitors had to submit four. With possibly one exception they were all difficult, and it is perhaps not surprising that the number of satisfying performances were few. The competition served to remind one of the exacting task which the setting of a hard and unfamiliar tune imposes on the competitor. The first and easier part of the task is the memorising and technical mastery of the piece. The second and harder part is concerned with getting inside the tune – poring over it, living with it, playing it over and over again, subjecting it to criticism. The time involved in observing this counsel of perfection is understandably more than many people can spare. But the comment must be made, in discharge of the harsh critical function of a reviewer of the playing at Oban, that in many cases the player was not sufficiently familiar with his tune to do justice to himself.
“Exempt from this criticism is Donald MacPherson, who was the first prize-winner with the Nameless tune. One need say no more than that his performance came up to the standard he set in his rendering of the same tune on his well-remembered first appearance at Inverness in 1950. Exempt, too, is Seumas MacNeill, who was at home with the Lament for the Departure of King James and welded the numerous variations into a harmonious whole. Exempt, too, is Donald MacLeod, in that his ground and first two variations were carefully thought out and admirably expressed. But his playing of his taorluath and crunluath variations was much too slow. Full effect can surely be given to the principle of slowing down in the singlings of these variations without sending the tune to sleep, and the view is offered that MacLeod exaggerated the slowing down process to the point of tedium. The same criticism must be made of William MacDonald’s playing of Patrick Òg, a tune which has previously won him a first place on at least one memorable occasion, when there was no hint or suggestion of this defect.
“Of the remainder, no one was free from error, and there were seven breakdowns. For the first time this year there was an overlap of the two piobaireachd competitions at Oban. The Open Competition began in a second hall at 2pm. The general opinion was that this was an improvement in the previous arrangement under which the competitions being run consecutively the end was delayed till 9 or 10pm. The new system has the drawback, however, that no one person can hear the whole of both competitions, and my account of the Gold Medal must be incomplete for that reason.
“… Starting the open event at 2pm meant that the competitions were finished by about 6 o’clock, and this left the evening free for a pipers’ ceilidh organised by Major Archie MacNab. The old ceilidhs in the Commercial have been sadly missed of late, and this innovation certainly proved very successful. According to fairly unreliable reports circulating next day, the festivities lasted until at least 3am.”
The traditional march to the games field took place the following day. J. B. Robertson was in the Pipe Major’s position. The clutch of stewards didn’t get more than 30 yards in front of the pride of pipers.
In the same issue of the PT, Captain D. R. MacLennan reported on the March competition: “I have no wish to be associated with the type of broglan who goes around telling competing pipers that they can’t march or can’t play and who, using a pencil or fountain pen as their medium, demonstrate how the tune should have been played. Having said that, I would voice my opinion that the March competition was a poor one by Oban standards. There was no outstanding performance from any one of the eighteen competitors. Would this be on account of having to play the march twice over with no short leet? I wonder!
‘Outwith the prize-winners, the following made fairly good performances but marred by errors which could easily have been avoided: L/Corporal J. Kerr, who simply would not blow out a clear A; Kenneth Macdonald, who had a choke and was missing his high A grip; Iain Clowe (a bonnie piper in playing, turnout and deportment), who had one really bad skirl-cum-choke: Duncan MacFadyen, whose pointing in the Argyllshire Gathering left much to be desired (the high A’s in this tune should have been much longer to bring out the beauty of the melody); Iain MacFadyen, who missed his little finger no less than three times in his rendering of Inveran; and finally, Angus Lawrie, who had two chokes in his otherwise well played Lord Alexander Kennedy.
“Among the prize-winners, George Lumsden played Abercairney Highlanders with no major error and was placed first. The Stirlingshire Militia, played in a fine sprightly manner by Donald MacLeish from Sydney, Australia, was well worthy of his being placed second, even though he had the semblance of a choke. It was most gratifying to hear this man from the Antipodes playing so well in spite of his having to wear a deaf aid. The third place went to James Young, who played Southall. This again with no major error, but in no way up to his usual standard. Has the Deep South of the U.S.A. slowed up his coordination? Willie MacDonald (Inverness) I thought played a good march in his John MacDonald of Glencoe, but, alas, was woefully weak on his C to E grips in the second last bar of each part. He was placed fourth.
“Another pre-war competitor was placed fifth. This was John MacKenzie (Campbeltown) who played Johnnie MacColl’s tune, Mrs. John MacColl. His drones could have done with being tuned down at least an eighth of an inch, and although his fingering was excellent, the tempo of his tune was much too slow, even by Johnnie MacColl’s standards. The weather was good throughout the competition, and it was nice to hear the tunes being played twice over as in days of yore.”
The Strathspey and Reel competition was also reported to be a disappointing one. It was judged by J. Graham Campbell, Charles D. MacTaggart, and Archie Kenneth.
The result was – 1. Ronald Lawrie, Oban; 2. Jimmy Young, Perth; 3. Kenneth MacDonald, Glasgow; 4. William MacDonald, Inverness; 5. John M. MacKenzie, Doune.
The Former Winners’ event. saw a record entry of 13. The competition was held in the early afternoon, which was a change from recent practice. The day was fine and dry. Third prize went to Pipe Major John A. MacLellan, who played The Pap of Glencoe, Maggie Cameron and The Smith of Chilliechassie. Second prize was won by Seumas MacNeill playing John MacDonald of Glencoe, Lady Loudon and The Rejected Suitor. The first prize was awarded to John D. Burgess for his playing of The Highland Wedding, Athole Cummers and Pretty Marion.
Ian F. Clowe was born in 1931 near Melbourne in Australia but the family returned to Scotland early in his life. His uncle, Francis Clowe taught him. In 1951 he joined the King’s Own Scottish Borderers then transferred to the Scots Guards in 1952, serving until 1956. By profession he was a cabinetmaker and French polisher and after returning to Dumfries after his discharge he specialised in the restoration of antique furniture. In 1976 he had an appointment as a piping instructor with the Scots College in Bathurst, NSW, Australia. He died in 2014.
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