Stuart Letford: My month

Stuart Letford

It looks like this winter will be a long one. COVID-19 is on the rise again throughout Europe and beyond. Statistics a fortnight ago revaled the UK as the leading region globally for new cases yet this wasn’t mentioned by the country’s state broadcaster, the BBC.

There seems to be a concerted effort to gloss over the uncomfortable fact that, since July, daily numbers of new cases in the UK as a whole have been hovering around the level that Germany has only just started to experience. And Germany appears to be on the verge of locking down once more. I have a few chums who were due to travel there next week to participate in the popular Scottish Music Parade show. This has now been cancelled.

Last January in the UK, saw a large wave of infection that peaked that month with 8,433 weekly deaths registered within 28 days of a positive COVID-19 test.

Of course, naturally all our thoughts turn to next spring. Will we have a longed-for return to live, in-person piping? At this stage, only a fool would suggest so.

Donald Drone from the April 2020 edition of the Piping Times. Click to enlarge.

Scotland’s COVID-19 rate seems to be the lowest in the UK, which is encouraging, but not hugely significant given that we live in a world more connected than at any other time in history. The latest variant – six cases have been found in Scotland as I write – seems to have originated in southern Africa, where I understand vaccination has slowed as a deliberate result of pharmaceutical companies limiting supplies. Shamefully, only 2.5% of the world’s COVID-19 vaccines have gone to African countries.

Can we all at least make an effort to persuade those still reluctant to get vaccinated? If you can get it, then please do so. Imagine if their like had been around when Jenner was discovering the vaccine for smallpox or Salk the polio vaccine?

Last Friday was a cheery night in Glasgow at the Piping Times Annual launch. The thought that it could prove to be the last physical piping event in Scotland this year was never far away.

A quartet from FMM played at the Piping Times Annual launch.

I had been hesitant about attending due to the storm warning but I was glad I went. The evening itself was an excuse to catch up with many people I hadn’t seen in ages such as Fiona and Katrina MacPherson (Donald’s daughters), Lesley Shaw, Logan Tannock, Bob McFie and many more.

Finlay MacDonald, Director of Piping at the National Piping Centre, held the evening together well and we were treated to some good piping, particularly from Uilleann piper, Jarlath Henderson, who, for me, stole the show. This guy has fingers as sensitive as a pickpocket’s.

It’s been many years since I heard Jarlath play. In the early 2000s his was a regular face at my local – The Taybank in Dunkeld – for many years along with two of his sidekicks, Ross Ainslie and Ali Hutton. The latter two worked there intermittently and proved to be a big draw for the punters as they’d invariably start a roaring session during their shifts! Jarlath was, I think, studying medicine at Dundee University at the time. He was a superb piper even then and you just knew that the three of them were destined for greatness.

Jarlath, pictured, now works as a doctor at Gartnavel General Hospital in Glasgow and he arrived at the NPC straight from finishing his shift there. The Armagh lad was in fine form – and in fine voice – and after one of his sets I almost exclaimed, “Eat that!”

As the evening wore on, however, it became apparent that Storm Arwen* was gathering pace. Trains were being cancelled and with that in mind, Logan Tannock and I headed to the train station a little earlier than planned.

It was just as well. All trains heading north of Glasgow had been cancelled. Up to the bus station we trooped. It wasn’t quite like the fall of Saigon but it was a tad hectic.

After being buffeted, quite dramatically at times, up the A9, I arrived later than planned at Perth and picked up my jalopy for the final short journey home. 

* Arwen is apparently a fictional character in Tolkien’s high-fantasy novel, The Lord of the Rings. I’ve never finished the book. To me, it’s indecipherable, childish nonsense … a bit like some modern pipe compositions!

If last week ended at the NPC, it had begun at the Glasgow Art Club where the Glasgow Highland Club held its first House Dinner since COVID-19 restrictions were put in place.

All mitigating safety measures were in place, which resulted in no reduction in enjoyment of the evening.

John Wilson, the Club Piper, was in fine form and played Donald MacLeod’s Salute to the Glasgow Highland Club. John, of course, had only weeks previously been awarded the Balvenie Medal for services to piping.

A mini band from the Army School of Piping and Highland Drumming was in attendance, too, under Pipe Major Reid. Their programme was tasteful and played very well.

Mid-November saw me at Murrayfield for the Scotland v Japan rugby international.

Usually, a few local pipe bands play O Flower of Scotland – a truly awful song, it wasn’t the late, great Roy Williamson’s finest hour – at the start of the home fixtures but recently there’s only been one band in attendance: Boghall & Bathgate Caledonia.

The band also sends one of its pipers above the East Stand to play the solo introduction.

At last month’s game, the band took part in a humorous ‘band off’ with Japanese drummers, which it, of course, won. Well done to the Boggies.

Banzai! The Boggies at Murrayfield two weeks ago.

It has been disappointing in recent years that no pipe bands play at Hampden Park, Scotland’s national football [soccer] stadium any more and it’s left to the country’s rugby counterparts to give the instrument due prominence and respect. Is it not time the suits in Mount Florida followed the example of their counterparts at Murrayfield and brought back the pipe bands?

The interior of Dunkeld Cathedral.

Last month I had the honour of piping at the Remembrance Day service in Dunkeld Cathedral after the usual piper had caught COVID-19.

The acoustics inside this mediaeval edifice are, as you’d expect, quite magnificent. I played the Flowers (natch) then as I commenced the third part, I looked at the beadle and nodded towards the thick, wooden door. He took the hint immediately and opened it, allowing me to march slowly out and finish the tune some distance away in the cathedral’s beautiful grounds.

It was, the minister informed me later, very poignant.

Sometimes I wonder if it’s just me who thinks this but wouldn’t it be a fun idea one time to listen to the piper as he/she wanders off … his pipe become more quiet as he/she wanders … until there’s only silence … and then a loud gun shot?

Also last month, I had the great pleasure of visiting two parts of Scotland, one I hadn’t retuned to for years and the other I hadn’t visited at all.

Colonsay was a place I had never visited before. There’s not much piping on the island these days but it had long been on my bucket list to play Archie MacMillan’s fine 6/8 march, Kiloran Bay on Kiloran Bay. I had a great day for it, too. Older readers will recall the tune from John MacFadyen’s Chanter radio programme.

Of course, any mention of Colonsay and piping brings the name Andrew MacNeill to mind. Andrew was one of the founding Trustees of the Piping Trust that established the National Piping Centre in the early 1990s and his portrait, painted by John Cunningham (1926-1998), can be seen on a stained glass window outside the auditorium. (Coincidentally, one of Cunningham’s many works is a painting of Kiloran Bay).

Andrew MacNeill, pictured, remains was of the very few people to have not one but two pieces of ceòl mòr composed in their name. William Barrie composed one and Donald MacLeod the other. It is pleasing to note that the NPC’s CLASP has set the tune composed by the former in its set tune list for 2023. The last I heard it played was by Simon Fraser University Pipe Band some years ago in concert at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall. And very good it was, too. (MacNeill also has a march named for him as well as a jig.)

Unlike the glorious outward sail a few days previously, the weather on the return to Oban was wet and windy. It was one of those west coast smirrs where one couldn’t see more than two yards, and necessitated being inside for the whole sail. Bored out of my skull, I sat at a table that had a discarded copy of The Times on it. I made a half-hearted attempt at its crossword puzzle. A guy sitting at an adjacent table leaned over: “The Times crossword eh? You look stuck.”

“Hmm,” I replied. “What’s another word for ‘thesaurus’?”

After disembarking at Oban, we paused briefly in town for a light bar meal.

Big mistake.

Optimistically, like many Scottish pubs these days, it had chairs outside, making it resemble Paris after a nuclear war.


I won’t state the name of the establishment but when we entered four members of staff were gathered at the far end of the bar. The setting resembled the cantina scene in Star Wars. It was a scene I had previously encountered in a pub in Dumbarton a decade ago during a major pipe band contest.

I digress.

The waitress who brought our food had formed the peas to read, “Get me out of here!”

It was woeful, it was awful; there wasn’t even one ROFL

We left quickly.

Our journey back to Perthshire took in a detour to the charming clachan of Inveraray. A poem of Keats, the Romantic poet, came to mind, one I hadn’t read for many a year:

On hearing the bagpipe and seeing ‘The Stranger*’ played at Inverary

Of late two dainties were before me plac’d,
Sweet, holy, pure, sacred, and innocent,
From the ninth sphere to me benignly sent
That Gods might know my own particular taste:
First the soft bagpipe mourn’d with zealous haste,
The Stranger next with head on bosom bent
Sigh’d; rueful again the piteous bagpipe went,
Again the Stranger sightings fresh did waste.
O Bagpipe, thou didst steal my heart away –
O Stranger, thou my nerves from Pipe didst charm –
O Bagpipe, thous didst re-assert thy away –
Again thou, Stranger, gav’st me fresh alarm –
Alas! I could not choose. Ah! My poor heart,
Mumchance art thou with both oblig’d to part.

(July 18, 1818).

The poem was included in John Middleton Hurry’s, The Poems and Verses of John Keats (London, 1949). In a letter to his brother Tom, Keats wrote: “On entering Inverary we saw a play bill … so I went to the barn alone where I saw The Stranger* accompanied by a bagpipe. There they went on about ‘interesting creaters’ and ‘human nater’ till the curtain fell, and then came the bagpipe. When Mrs Haller fainted, down went the curtain and out came the bagpipe – at the heartrending, shoemending reconciliation the piper blew amain. I never read or saw this play before; not the bagpipe nor the wretched players themselves were little (sic? much) in comparison with it – thank heaven in has been scoffed at lately almost to a fashion.”

* The Stranger was an English translation of the 1798 five-act play, Menschenhass und Reue (Misanthropy and Repentance) by August von Kotzebue.

I didn’t know if Torcuil the Chooky was at home, nor did I care. We pushed on.

It seems everywhere in Argyll has a pub or hotel called The Argyll Arms. Maybe, I mused, there will soon be a clutch of inns renamed The Jagged Arms – “Have your vaccine passport ready for inspection”.

Wester Ross was the next destination for a weekend visit. I hadn’t been there for a decade but formerly it was a place I visited regularly and got to know very well indeed.

I’d been involved with a committee that instigated an annual junior piping festival in the village of Gairloch. One of the many other things we did was to have a cairn built in the Flowerdale Glen for which we commissioned a local stonemason. The cairn, pictured, was built on the site of Iain Dàll MacKay’s ruined home at Brienrie, a 20-minute walk up the glen from the harbour.

Back then, despite its illustrious piping history, piping had largely been neglected in the area until the likes of Bridget and Alick MacKenzie, John D. Burgess, Norman Gillies, Roy Wentworth, John MacDougall, Niall Matheson, Alasdair Pearson, Iain Blake and Ishbel MacAskill among many others stepped in. Most of those involved are now, sadly, dead.

It was simply great to be back there, though, and the good weather served to enhance the stunning beauty of the area. The place hadn’t changed much at all.

 It won’t be another decade until we visit again … and I’ll take the pipes next time.

I hear next spring’s Archie Kenneth Quaich competition is to be held for the first time in the Scots Guards Club in Haymarket, Edinburgh. The rooms at the Scots Guards Club have better ventilation than the usual venue, the rooms of the Royal Scottish Pipers’ Society.

The AKQ is one of the best piping competitions around and much of its attraction is due to it being held in those splendid rooms.

Let us hope matters can be rectified for 2023 and onwards so that the competition will return to its home in Rose Street.

Maybe by then, organisers will have followed the example set by their counterparts at the Donald MacDonald Cuach and spelt the name of the competition/trophy in the more appropriate way?

I’ve bored you for long enough. I wish you a happy St. Andrew’s Day.

… and thank you for reading. It was entirely your pleasure.

• The views expressed in all blogs that appear on Bagpipe.News are not necessarily the views of the National Piping Centre.