With the 50th anniversary of the Glenfiddich Piping Championship approaching on October 28, we take a look through the Piping Times archives to a report titled Grant’s Championship, as the competition was originally known.
Piping Times was edited by Seumas MacNeill at that time, and although the article below was not credited to him in the magazine, it was most likely written by Seumas – and he was also one of the judges of the piobaireachd event on the day.
Seumas gives a very picturesque view of the event, showing that even in its second year, it was destined to be held in very high regard as the premier piping competition. His awe-filled description of the playing John D. Burgess makes one wish livestreaming and event recording had existed at the time.
The second annual competition sponsored by William Grant and Sons Ltd. was held at Blair Castle, Blair Atholl, home of the Duke of Atholl, on Saturday, October 18, 1975.
It can be no exaggeration to say that this was one of the most momentous competitions of the year. It may be some time before it can reach the status of the Northern Meeting or the Argyllshire Gathering, or even the Silver Chanter, but for an all-round display of piping by experts this stands high among the year’s competitions.
Two things give it a decided advantage. In the first place only the best pipers are allowed to compete, and this adds tremendously to the enjoyment of the audience, the judges – and even the pipers themselves. Secondly, the pipers submit their own list of tunes, and although each arrives with his mind carrying six piobaireachds and eighteen other tunes, the fact that there are no set pieces means that every tune can be presented with confidence and assurance.
The hall itself is perfect for the occasion, and while the Raeburn portrait of Neil Gow may not cast quite the same aura as the speckled pipe of the MacCrimmons, the atmosphere is nevertheless obviously traditional and conducive to the Highland music. With the huge and enthusiastic audience generating appreciation and heat in equal measure, the pipers could have no complaints regarding surroundings and reception.
Tuning facilities are not quite perfect, but they are probably better than anywhere else. When the important problem of adequate heating from an early hour has been solved, the situation will probably be considered perfect by all.
Chairman for the day was John MacFadyen, and he welcomed the audience, pipers and guests shortly after 2.30 p.m. First piper, Duncan MacFadyen, appeared on the platform at 2.45.
The tune chosen for Duncan was Lament for the Duke of Hamilton, a MacCrimmon composition which is notable for the fact that it has three grounds. This was an excellent start to the competition, a fine tune on an excellent instrument by a top performer. Criticism of any of these players is almost invidious in the circumstances, and undoubtedly in this case there are few men in the world who could have given such a splendid rendering of this tune. Nevertheless, there were one or two points of expression which, though personal and intended, were not viewed with the fullest favour by the judges.
Hugh MacCallum, as always, gave a masterly performance. His tune was the big nameless one, Cherede Darieva. This is a very difficult tune to express, but Hugh managed to keep the song going through all the many long and difficult variations. Unfortunately, his drones started to go out at an early stage and become quite disturbing near the end.
The tune prescribed for John Burgess from his list was the great Lament for Ronald MacDonald of Morar. This is another piobaireachd with three grounds, although all much more musical than the Duke of Hamilton. It is probably true to say that hardly anyone in the hall had heard John Burgess play this tune before, certainly not in competition, and there was a certain air of expectancy as he began. It is probably also true to say that few of us had ever heard such a moving interpretation of the tune as John produced. The first half of his performance was right out of the fairy tale, silver chanter and Alastair Crotach era. Thereafter he fell into the unfortunate fault of not holding the theme notes in the taorluath and the crunluath and playing what one former judge used to call “F. B. C.” – fast between cadences.
In a lifetime of listening to piobaireachd however this performance will always stand out.
Pipe Major Iain Morrison of the Queen’s Own Highlanders gave a very enjoyable performance of Lord Lovat’s Lament – taken from the Angus MacKay setting, and not the usual Piobaireachd Society one. This tune of course is not nearly so demanding as many of the others, but Iain made the most of what he had to present.
Another of the great tunes, although not of the MacCrimmon era, was chosen for Iain MacFadyen. This was Lament for MacLeod of Colbeck. Iain had a little bit of trouble in getting the pipe to his satisfaction, but then he set off on the long journey with calmness and assurance. The ground was well presented and expressed and was followed by the variation which incorporates the unusual timing of a siubhal, one of the most attractive features of this tune. The phrasing was handled well, and the tune went on to an excellent finish, marred only by one peculiar sound on an F, due to what must have been a faulty reed.
Again, one had to wonder at the dedication and ability of these pipers, and the splendid recital of Highland classical music which they were presenting.
James MacGregor gave a confident rendering of I got a kiss of the King’s hand, but there was a feeling in this performance that he had been playing it for forty years or so and the freshness had worn off for him. Tempo changes were conspicuous by their absence, but as always, this popular piece played by a popular player was very much enjoyed by everybody.
Arthur Gillies pleased many with The Battle of Bealach nam Brog. Although this was well played on a good bagpipe the timing of the ground left a good deal to be desired. At times it sounded like a compromise between two different styles of playing, and this, of course, can never be successful.
Last to play was last year’s winner, James Macintosh, with the splendid tune, The Battle of the Park No. 2. Jimmy had one bad moment in the ground when either a finger stuck or he had a brief mental blackout, but other than that the tune was presented probably as he intended. There was however a definite lack of battle atmosphere throughout.
The judges for this event were Captain John MacLellan, Lieut. Col. David Murray and Seumas MacNeill. The results were:
- Iain MacFadyen
- Hugh MacCallum
- John D. Burgess
- Iain Morrison
Of those not placed – and it was unfortunate that not all could be awarded prizes – several splendid performances were heard.
Murray Henderson’s tune was the attractive Rory MacLeod’s Lament. This received the fullest approval of the audience, and it was obvious that in a classic contest only the smallest points of detail separate the winners from the rest.
There was a feeling however that Murray was not too sure what to do with the ground of this tune, being particularly tentative in line two of it. The pointing in variations one and two were considered to be just a bit overdone, especially in a lament. Taorluath and crunluath variations were first class.
The other man from down under, Malcolm MacRae, played The Big Spree. Again, this was a most enjoyable performance, but to be pernickety one would have to say that this was not played as a spree, rather as a lament, and that the vigour of variation one and the beauty of variation two were not fully brought out by the rather even timing presented.
Some of the best playing of the competition in the minds of many people came from Pipe Major Angus MacDonald of the Scots Guards. The tune chosen for him was another long and difficult one, The Unjust Incarceration, but he gave an utterly sparkling performance in the ground, even although he had a change of mind at the third line.
Thereafter the tune more or less plays itself, and the only fault one could find up to the end of the crunluath was a certain monotony of tempo, with little change between the variations. At the start of the crunluath a mach however disaster overtook Angus, and after hitting a C for a B he decided to pack up. The disaster was the decision to pack up, not the wrong note.
Kenneth MacDonald was asked to play Scarce of Fishing, but unfortunately went wrong immediately after the ground and stopped playing.
The March, Strathspey and Reel
Unfortunately, the piobaireachd event had run on longer than expected, and in order to finish at a reasonable time it was decided that the tunes in this event would be played once over each. In some way this detracts from the excitement of the contest, because the twice over march, strathspey and reel is probably the biggest test of technical ability there is. However, as was pointed out by several people, the experts are unlikely to be fazed by an increase in the duration of their presentation, and so the results obtained would be the same no matter what the conditions.
The playing was as expected, up to the highest standard. John Burgess was quite outstanding, as he might well be – since he was by far the most experienced competitor in this kind of contest. His long tunes were presented with care and elegance, and at the end the knowledgeable audience gave him an ovation which rattled the spears and shook the banners in this great hall.
Second prize went to Pipe Major Iain Morrison for a very steady and accurate rendering. It was of interest that while playing his march, The Marchioness of Tullibardine, the marchioness herself was gazing down from a portrait on the wall.
Arthur Gillies was placed third with another splendid performance, well-paced, fingered and expressed throughout. In fourth place came Iain MacFadyen (with a flatter pipe due to a changed chanter reed) playing in his usual confident fashion. It was slightly a surprise to note however that Iain’s tunes were all rather simple ones, compared for example to the length and difficulty of those offered by John Burgess.
The results again and tunes were:
- John D. Burgess – The Highland Wedding, Atholl Cummers and Pretty Marion.
- Pipe Major Iain Morrison – The Marchioness of Tullibardine, John Roy Stewart and Traditional Reel.
- Arthur Gillies – MacLean of Pennycross, Atholl Cummers and The Rejected Suitor.
- Iain MacFadyen – Craigendarach, Highland Harry and Thomson’s Dirk.
The judges in this event were Dr. Colin Caird, Mr. Archie Kenneth and Pipe Major Donald MacLeod.
The prize money in each event was, 1st £35, 2nd £25, 3rd £20, 4th £15. When the points were added up it was found that the Grant’s champion for 1975-1976 was John D. Burgess, with Iain MacFadyen second and Pipe Major Iain Morrison third.
The champion received in addition a cheque for £200 and an engraved sgian dubh to keep, plus the custody of a silver chased drinking horn for one year. Runner-up for the championship, Iain MacFadyen, received an additional £100, and the third man, Iain Morrison, received £50.
The prizes were presented by his grace the Duke of Atholl, and speeches of thanks to all concerned were made by Mr. Leslie Hodge of William Grant and Sons Ltd., and by Mr. Alasdair Anderson, president of the Piobaireachd Society. Mr. Anderson in his address urged pipers and others to remember that this magnificent contest was sponsored by Grant’s Whisky, and that if they were in the habit of partaking of the occasional refreshment, they should make a point of asking for Standfast or Glenfiddich.