In 1978 the Argyllshire Gathering introduced a Silver Medal competition. For the Gold Medal competition, first prize winners in this event were excluded and entry was restricted to those who had won a prize in competition for the Gold Medal at a former gathering at Oban or Inverness. The Open competition was open only to previous winners of the Gold Medal at either Oban or Inverness.  The Silver Medal was open to everyone who was not eligible to compete in the Gold or the Open. These rules resulted in an entry of 16 for the Gold, 11 for the Open and 26 for the Silver.

In the programme the events were headed as 1. Piobaireachd, 2. Piobaireachd and 3. Piobaireachd, in each case followed by the starting time and location and then the statement defining who was eligible to play.  However everyone continued to refer to them as the Gold Medal, the Open and the Silver Medal although the Open was no longer open in the former sense. It was not until 1983 that the programme wording was changed to 1. Piobaireachd. The Highland Society of London’s Gold Medal. 2. Piobaireachd. The Senior Piobaireachd Competition. 3. Piobaireachd.  The Argyllshire Gathering’s Silver Medal. Despite this, from 1978 onwards the Piping Times was calling the second event the Senior Piobaireachd.

The set tunes for the Gold were: The Battle of the Pass of Crieff, The Big Spree, The End of the Great Bridge, Patrick Og MacCrimmon’s Lament, The Blue Ribbon, The Earl of Seaforth’s Salute, The MacDougall’s Gathering, The Vaunting, and competitors were required to submit four. In the Open competitors were required to submit five from this list: The Pride of Barra, MacDonald of Kinlochmoidart’s Lament, The Stewarts’ White Banner, MacLeod of Colbeck’s Lament, MacKenzie of Gairloch’s Lament, The MacLeans’ March, Rory MacLeod’s Lament, Mrs MacLeod of Talisker’s Salute, Port Urlar, MacLeod of MacLeod’s Lament. The requirement for the Silver was six tunes of the competitor’s choice.

The Gold Medal was held in the Corran Halls, commencing at 9.30am and the judges were Seumas MacNeill, Dr J. Colin Caird, PM R. MacCallum. In addition to the Gold Medal presented by the Highland Society of London, the money prizes presented by the Piobaireachd Society were: 1st Prize, £50; 2nd Prize, £30; 3rd Prize, £20; 4th Prize, £10 (to be awarded only at the discretion of the Judges).

The competitors in the order they played were: Evan Macrae, Caol, Fort William; Murray Henderson, Eassie, Angus; Duncan J. Watson, Aberdeen; Tom Speirs, Edinburgh; PM J.M. Allan, Army School of Piping, Edinburgh; Ronald McShannon, Campbeltown; John Wilson, Strathclyde Police; Colin Drummond, Bathgate, West Lothian; James McIntosh, Dundee; E. D. Neigh, Wellesley, Ontario; William Livingstone, Whitby, Ontario; Jackie Pincet, Rennes, Brittany; George Lumsden, Edinburgh; Chris Terry, Grahamstown, South Africa; D. B. MacNeill, Cambuslang, Glasgow and PM R.H. MacPhee, Inverness.

The Piobaireachd Open to former Gold Medal winners began at 11am in the Dunollie Halls, Breadalbane Street, with judges John McFadyen and Capt. J. A. MacLellan. The prizes here were: a Cup presented by The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders (to be held for one year), and Money Prizes presented by Mac Kinlay’s Whisky. 1st Prize, £75:  2nd Prize, £35; 3rd Prize. £25; 4th Prize, £15. In addition, a one gallon bottle of MacKinlay’s Whisky will be presented to the winner. The competitors in the order in which they played were: James McIntosh, Dundee; Murray Henderson, Eassie, Angus; William McDonald, Benbecula; John McDougall, Kincaig, Inverness-shire; Duncan MacFadyen, Johnstone, Renfrewshire; Malcolm McRae, Strathglass, Inverness-shire; Hugh MacCallum, Bridge of Allan; John Burgess, Invergordon; George McRae, London; Andrew Wright, Bishopton and William Livingstone, Whitby, Ontario.

The Silver Medal commenced at 9.30am in the Phoenix Cinema. The judges were Dr R. Frater and Capt. I. C. Cameron and the prizes were:  a silver medal presented by The Argyllshire Gathering and Money Prizes. 1st Prize £25; 2nd Prize, £12; 3rd Prize, £9; 4th Prize, £5; 5th Prize £4 (to be awarded if 20 or more entrants compete. The competitors were: Iain MacDonald, Paisley; Cpl. Iain Macey, 4th Royal Tank Regiment; James MacDonald, Drumchapel, Glasgow; Neil Gillies, Wishaw; Amy Goble, Ottawa, Ontario; B. Hitchings, 1st 51st Highland Volunteers; Douglas Reid, Golspie, Sutherland; A. D. O. McIntyre, Camberley, Surrey; David Calder, Kingoldrum; Angus, R. Barnes, Anti-Tank Regiment, Northern Ireland; Colin MacLellan, Brockville, Ontario; Michael Cusack, Houston, Texas; Kenneth Garson, Ottawa, Ontario; Euan Anderson, Edinburgh; Christopher Jensen, Park Ridge, Illinois; John MacKenzie, Whitby, Ontario; Patricia Henderson, Eassie, Angus; G. Ross, 1st 51st Highland Volunteers; Anne Stewart, Carnoustie, Angus; Alasdair MacAffer, Australia; Robert Wallace, Steppshill, Glasgow; Patrick Grant, Conon Bridge; Iain Cameron, Edinburgh; L/Cpl. P. Fraser, 1st Btn. Queen’s Own Hldrs; Alastair Munro, Christchurch, New Zealand and George Robertson, Ottawa, Ontario.

•The first ever Silver medal winners in 1978, with Robert Barnes (left) winning at the Argyllshire Gathering and Jim Hardie winning at the Northern Meeting.

The Juvenile March, Strathspey and Reel commenced at 2.30pm in St Columba’s Cathedral, Hall, Esplanade. 1st Prize, Silver Gilt Medal presented by His Grace The Duke of Argyll and Bronze Star presented by the Royal Scottish Pipers’ Society; 2nd Prize, Silver Medal; 3rd Prize, Bronze Medal; 4th Prize, £1 Book Token. The rules stated that it was: “Confined to Boys and Girls under 16 on the day of the competition who are natives of, or resident for the last two years in the County of Argyll (as proved to the satisfaction of the Stewards). Each Competitor must submit with his or her entry a March, Strathspey and Reel all of four parts each and complete the appropriate entry form for this competition.” The judge was Capt. D.R. MacLennan. The fifteen entries were: Gregor Black, Strachur; Angus MacColl, Benderloch; Duncan Luke, Strachur; David Clement, Dalmally; Rosemary MacInnes, Strathlachlan; Mary McLachlan, Strachur; Brian Hutcheson, Dunoon; Alastair Currie, Bowmore, Islay; Billy Kirkham, Oban; Neil MacRaild, Strachur; Donald Black, Strachur; Neil Johnstone, Oban; David Limbert, Strachur; Calum Keen, North Connel and Eilidh Paterson, St. Catherines, Cairndow.

The report in the Piping Times was as follows: ‘Once again the time came round for all roads to lead to Oban, and once again the excitement of attending the first of the premier Meetings was slightly tinged by the regret of knowing that this meant that the summer was nearly over. However on Wednesday, August 30, it still seemed to be high summer, with an almost cloudless sky, hot sunshine and the unforgettable views of Kerrera, Lismore, Mull and Morven as seen from bonny Oban bay.

Once again the impact of seventy-five competing pipers in the town, together with attendant cronies, batmen, judges and camp followers, made a noticeable dent in the normal tourist traffic, but Oban does not quite surrender itself the way Inverness does. Nevertheless, even if the ceilidhs are quieter, the conversations are just as enjoyable and the reunions no less nostalgic.

The Senior Piobaireachd

It is a bit difficult to decide what to call this event. At one time it was an “open” contest, but like the Clasp at Inverness it is now necessary for the competitors to have won the Gold Medal either at Oban or at Inverness in a previous year. In any case it should come first in order of importance, since only the very best pipers are allowed to compete in it.

This year a total of eleven players entered of whom one did not turn up (it is rumoured that he was not eligible for the contest anyway) and John Burgess made his annual protest at the lack of tuning facilities by turning up but not competing.

Of the remaining nine it cannot be said with justification that they all gave of their best. Certainly this was an event of set tunes, the players having to submit four from a list of ten. But the ten had all been set in fairly recent years and at least half of them were worth retaining in a permanent place of the repertoire, so really the kings of the competing world should have entertained us more royally than they did.

Exempt from criticism however, is the winner, John MacDougall from Kincraig. In the past it has sometimes been suggested that John plays in rather too straight-forward a manner, depending on the greatness of the tune to come across without adding too much of his own personality to it. No such fault – if fault it is – existed here, because John MacDougall tookThe MacLeans’ March in  his two capable hands and gave us the most exciting interpretation of it we have heard at any time, and certainly the best tune we have had from John for many years. He was a worthy winner of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders’ Cup, the 1st prize of £75 and the gallon bottle of MacKinlay’s whisky.

Second prize went to William Livingstone from Whitby, Ontario, playing one of the least popular of the set pieces, Port Urlar. This is a hard tune to phrase and link together, especially since (as we discovered at the Piobaireachd Society Conference in 1977) the bar lines in the ground tend to obscure the melody rather than collect it in sensible dollops. Bill however had made a careful study of the composition and did not fall into any of the dangerous pitfalls. As always his fingering was quite immaculate, but the pipe was not just quite up to his usual standard.

In third place, but a bit below the first two in standard came the seasoned and respected Hugh MacCallum from Bridge of Allan. Hugh’s lot was the later MacCrimmon composition Mrs. MacLeod of Talisker’s Salute, and to be fair to Hugh, this is probably the least exciting of all the tunes on the list. Like holding seven diamonds to the jack, it is best described as length without strength. The variations have just too many bars in them and there are too many of them in any case.

Fourth prize went to Duncan MacFadyen, whose tune was the one which grows in popularity with every year, Rory MacLeod’s Lament. We are always hoping to hear someone try the David Murray interpretation of it, as explained at that same Piobaireachd Society Conference last year, but Duncan was having no truck with these modern ideas and he gave us it straight from the book. He had one small fluff early on, and he probably realised that there was no point in being careful from then onwards, with the result that he gave us some fine playing, up to the very best standard.

It is probably a kindness not to mention any of the other competitors. They have still another chance at the Northern Meeting to show us what they can really do.

The judges in this event were John MacFadyen and Captain John A. MacLellan.

The Gold Medal

This year the stewards had decided that entry to the Gold Medal must be restricted, and in view of the ten hour marathon of recent years, nobody could quibble with their decision. The method employed was to restrict entry to those who had won a prize (other than first) in a previous Gold Medal event at either Oban or Inverness. As a result, sixteen pipers entered and played, every one of them being of sufficient calibre to win a medal, provided he got the right tune on the right day.

Inevitably the standard was very high, since there were no poor players, no chancers, no people there just to gain experience. On the other hand there was no really outstanding tune which brought the audience to their feet with delight, or made the judges lean back with smiles of relief. Any one of the four prize­winners could possibly have had the coveted medal, but in fact the choice went to James MacIntosh from Dundee, and the result seemed a popular one.

A list of eight tunes had been prescribed for the event, and the competitors were required to submit four. All of the tunes were of the medal-winning type, and so the choice of tune was relatively unimportant.

Jimmy MacIntosh’s tune was The Big Spree, and like the other two people who played this piece he chose to give us the Ceol Mor setting of it. In addition he followed the guide-line given in the foreword to the Kilberry book, where the tune is described as a lament.  It has also been suggested that the mood of the piece is alcoholic remorse on the morning after, and certainly there was a good deal of regretful nostalgia in his interpretation.

The purist might suggest that more change of tempo between variations one and two would have helped, but nobody could have found fault with his siubhal and doubling. The triplets in the penultimate variation were certainly not crisp, but the whole presentation, on the best bagpipe of the competition, was of a very high standard.

Second prize went to Murray Henderson from Eassie playing the same tune. His start to the piece was not quite so attractive, in that he did this business of being quick off the low A following a G gracenote on E – a trick which is becoming very commonly used at every opportunity instead of  just on the occasions when that particular technique is suitable.

That apart, Murray played an excellent tune, reflective and introspective – not my way, but a good way. His whole performance showed a maturity which up till now has seemed lacking

in his interpretations.  In the past we have had the feeling that he was presenting someone else’s interpretation as best as he could remember it. This time, in this tune, he stepped up to a different level.

In third place came Chris Terry from South Africa playing The Lament for Patrick Og MacCrimmon. It was a bit surprising to hear a piper practising the throws from low G to high G before starting his tune. Many of us may have worried about this awkward movement in Patrick Og, but surely the platform is not the place to do the final practising. There was a tendency to come off the cadence E’s too quickly and the ends of phrases could have been more clearly indicated, but on the whole this was a better interpretation than the ones we have been hearing recently. There was some clipping of the taorluath singling but excellent endings of all the variations. The performance could possibly have been placed higher but for a terribly flat low G ­– useful perhaps when playing The Red Speckled Bull but a drawback here. The omission of a crunluath a mach variation was quite a surprise. We all know of course that an a mach should not be played on a lament, but Patrick Og is the exception. Presumably the variation is traditionally added to show that we are only kidding, for Patrick Og is not dead at all.

The remaining prize went to Jacques Pincet from Rennes in Brittany, who is undoubtedly one of the most musical interpreters of piobaireachd among the present day competitors. He knows all about changing tempo within and between variations, and in his overall presentation of a tune he is almost the master. The piece chosen for him was The Earl of Seaforth’s Salute and his main drawback was the timing of the crunluath breabach variation.  There was some slight rushing at times in the ground and he, like several other competitors, has the unfortunate habit of changing from blowing to squeezing in the middle of a note. This can be heard quite distinctly in most cases, and certainly spoils the enjoyment for the keen listener. Jackie will win a Gold Medal some day.

Of those not placed, probably Tom Speirs deserved most consideration, with a very competent Battle of the Pass of Crieff. His main fault was a lack of change of tempo, there being only two changes in the whole tune. The crunluath timing was just a little too close to the book, but on the whole it was an enjoyable performance.

As an aside, and nothing to do with the result of the competition, a most unusual acoustic phenomenon was heard while he tuned, and in the early part of his playing. At fairly regular intervals the drones gave off a pinging sound, the pitch of the ping being the note C of the chanter. It seemed as if the ping occurred as Tom took a breath but the phenomenon disappeared before this could be clearly established. If anyone can explain it, or has ever heard it before, we would be glad to know.

Of the others Dugald MacNeill played a good strong End of the Great Bridge but at the same tempo throughout. Bill Livingstone played the notes of The Vaunting but he did not seem to know where the ends of the phrases occur. And to our utter astonishment he seems not to have heard this tune or to have played it to a knowledgeable piper, because he has misread a low G gracenote between an echo beat on B and a low A, in bar one and other places of the   ground. This particular gracenote has two tails only, showing that it should be as heavy as the last low G of hihorodo.  Duncan Watson did exactly the same thing.

Pipe Major John Allan played a reasonably good Earl of Seaforth but again he is a great one for taking a breath in the middle of a note. And going for consistency of fingering in high G and high A is not a success. The high G is only a passing note anyway and fingering it in the usual non-piobaireachd manner would give better fluency without causing any worry about high G’s of different pitch or quality.

Ronald McShannon played the slowest MacDougalls’ Gathering on record, taking two and a half minutes for eighteen bars of the ground. He missed the odd throw and gracenote, but the worst feature of his performance was the drum accompaniment he gives with his feet.  If he feels the need of a rhythmic backing then he should join a pipe band. There is at least one judge who will be difficult to persuade to consider him for a prize so long as he uses the wrong end of his body to drive the message home.

Ed Neigh played a Patrick Og which was good in parts and finished with an excellent crunluath a mach. Unfortunately the early parts were all wrong, with not enough rest on low G and low A in the ground, no rest on the end of phrases, and variation one and doubling were cut to pieces – a bit reminiscent of Bill Livingstone’s performance of the same tune at the Silver Chanter.

John Wilson also played The Big Spree but he omitted a bar from line 2 of the ground. Then, most surprising event of the decade, he played a crunluath a mach variation in the usual form after a fosgailte!  Now what is meant by a mach in his tune is of course keeping the C, B, etc., open when doing the dre movement of the fosgailte.  But the book says ‘In the usual form’ so John was perhaps a victim of pipers’ jargon. So also were Colin Drummond and R. H. MacPhee with The Blue Ribbon.

The judges were Dr. Colin Caird, Pipe Major Ronald MacCallum and Seumas MacNeill.

The Silver Medal

The third piobaireachd competition, for those not eligible to compete in either of the other two, ran simultaneously with the Gold Medal event and attracted an entry of twenty-six competitors. There used to be a silver medal competition at Oban before the war, but the system was slightly different then. If memory serves right, pipers had a choice of playing either in the Gold Medal event or in what was called the “Junior competition”. The term “junior” had no age significance to it. The tunes prescribed for it were the same as those for the Gold Medal competition at Inverness.

The standard of playing this year was somewhat naturally not all that wonderful, but good playing was heard from all the prizewinners. In first place came Robert Barnes with a nice interpretation of The Lament for Patrick Og MacCrimmon. Colin MacLellan, a much improved player, was placed second with Lament for the Viscount of Dundee. Third prize went to Alastair Munro from Christchurch, New Zealand, a player with a lot of style to his interpretations.  His tune was Kinlochmoidart’s Lament No. 1. Fourth place went to Euan Anderson from Edinburgh who improves with every outing, playing Lament for Donald of Laggan, and fifth prize went to Miss Anne Stewart from Carnoustie for an enjoyable rendering of Lament for Sir James MacDonald of the Isles.

Of those not placed the best must surely have been Chris Jensen from Parkridge, Illinois, with a very good Massacre of Glencoe. Iain Cameron of Edinburgh was good also but lacked emphasis in his interpretation of Salute to Donald, and enjoyable performances were given by Patricia Henderson, Lament for Mary MacLeod, and Mike Cusack, MacLeod’s Controversy.

The judges in this event were Dr. Robert Frater and Captain I. C. Cameron.

The Games

The fine weather of Wednesday proved to be a snare and a delusion, because the pipers wakened up on Thursday morning to the familiar sight of rain coming down like stair rods. The density of the precipitation and the rate of fall diminished considerably by the time the parade moved off, but it was never much of a day weather-wise, and the competitors had to face the additional hazard of cold fingers throughout all the competitions.

March, strathspey and reel

The premier event in the light music, confined to former winners of either the march or the strathspey and reel, was held in the forenoon on the number one platform.  At any time this is the supreme test of a piper’s strength, endurance and sheer determination. Ability can be taken for granted, because nobody gets into the competition by accident.

Overall the standard was not as high as in many previous years – but the prize-winners as always showed top quality and provided excitement for all those who could get near enough to hear.

First prize went very deservedly to John MacDougall, making this an excellent double for him. He thus became the clear winner of the £10 special prize presented by the Royal Celtic Society, giving him an income for the gathering of £112 and a gallon of whisky – not quite back to the days of John MacColl yet, but coming on.

Second prize went to John Wilson of the Glasgow Police whose brilliant fingers seemed in no way affected by the weather conditions. Tom Speirs who displays remarkable consistency was awarded third prize.

Of the others in this impressive field Bill Livingstone played well and must have been considered for a place. Two from whom much was expected did not produce the dazzling form their supporters had hoped for. Pipe Major Angus MacDonald of the Scots Guards sagged badly in his strathspey playing, and John Burgess never seemed to get the tunes going the way he used to.

The result then was 1. John MacDougall, Pipe Major John Stewart, Blair Drummond and John Morrison of Assynt House; 2. John Wilson, The Pap of Glencoe, The Caledonian Society of London and Ca’ the Ewes; 3. Tom Speirs, The Duchess of Edinburgh, Inveraray Castle and Bessie MacIntyre.

The March

Forty-four competitors took part in this event and one can only hope that the light music will be given the same treatment as ceol mor has received.  Forty-four is just about twice as many as is the maximum for a good competition, and the judges’ prayers must surely be for a division of this event into two for next year.

Each piper played his tune once over, a short leet of eight pipers was chosen, and then they played another tune from their list of six, twice over this time.

In the leet first to play was Patrick Grant who had given a good interpretation of John MacFadyen of Melfort (albeit with a somewhat unusual ending to the fourth part) played The Duke of Roxburgh but unfortunately went off the tune.

Murray Henderson, whose competent Lonach Gathering had brought him this far, was given  the favourite 74th’s Farewell to Edinburgh. Although he played it well his chanter began to choke and this eliminated him from the prize list. Incidentally one choke is understandable, but surely to choke again is unforgiveable?  Once the warning has been given you are supposed to blow like hell.

The other player in the leet who did not reach the prize list was John Wilson who played a good Willie MacLean and then a not quite so good 93rd (or is it 9lst?) at Modder River. This had, as D. R. says, “No major error,” but it had not quite the swing of the other competitors.

First prize in fact went to Ed Neigh from Wellesley, Ontario, which continues to hammer home the message that it’s not only piping that is spreading throughout the world – it is top piping.

It has been suggested that Ed rather scraped into the short leet but this is not our own opinion. True his South Hall had the odd suspicion of careless fingering, but Ed is one who puts his whole soul into a performance and he certainly forced himself well into the leet. Once there he made an excellent job of Colin Thomson, obviously going for the top award from the first note.

In second place came Colin MacLellan whose tunes were Captain Carswell and then The Ross-shire Volunteers. He was a bit hesitant at times but at least he gave us an outstandingly good double C, which is more than can be said for even some of the players in the former winners contest.

A good third was Walter Cowan although his drones, like Colin’s, did not quite last the distance. Walter’s tunes were Kantara to El Arish, and The Duchess of Edinburgh.

In fourth place came Colin Drummond who could probably do a great deal better if he concentrated a bit more on the finer details of his tunes.  He plays a grand swinging march,  but just a bit casually at times.

Robert Wallace, another consistent performer, gained fifth prize with Mrs. John MacColl and The Argyllshire Gathering. Astronger blow on the top hand would have helped and he could get more of a swing to his marches if he stretched his legs and went round the boards. The judges were Captain Iain C. Cameron, John MacFadyen and Seumas MacNeill.

Strathspey and reel

This event was delayed until the local competitions had been completed and so it went on after all else had finished. The tunes were played once through each and there was no short leet. Again the result was a victory for the overseas pipers for, even counting Murray Henderson as a Scot, they captured two of the five prizes. The result was 1. William Livingstone, Whitby, Ontario; 2. Murray Henderson; 3. Robert Barnes; 4. Robert Wallace; 5. Alastair Munro. The judges were Dr. Robert Frater and PM Ronald MacCallum.

Junior Contest

The junior competition was won for the third year in succession by young Neil Johnstone of Oban, a pupil of Ronald Lawrie. The event was judged by D.R. MacLennan who was very impressed by the high standard of playing throughout. The result was 1. Neil Johnstone, MacLean of Pennycross, Cameronian Rant and The Little Cascade; 2. Brian Hutcheson, Dunoon; 3. Billy Kirkham, Oban; 4. David Clement, Dalmally.

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