Early years of the Glenfiddich: Grant’s Championship 1976

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In the build up to the 50th Glenfiddich Piping Championship on October 29 we take another look through Piping Times back issues to Seumas MacNeill’s report from the Grant’s Championship in 1976.

Seumas gives the contest a big build up in anticipation of hearing world class performances, but a tinge of disappointment comes through and only John MacDougall, who won the Piobaireachd event and placed third overall, escaped any critical comments.

A special commemorative booklet has been commissioned for the 50th Anniversary this year. The booklet charts all the results from across the first 49 editions of this amazing event. If you cannot attend in person, on the day, and would like a commemorative booklet, these will be available to purchase through The Bagipe Shop here.


Piping Times
Vol.29, No.3
December, 1976.

Grant’s Whisky Championship

The third annual contest sponsored by Grants’ Whisky, was held in Blair Castle, Blair Atholl, on Saturday, October 30. In two short years this competition has grown to be one of the outstanding events of the piper’s calendar, attracting as it does enthusiasts from all over the country to listen to the cream of the competing pipers indulging in one last trial of skill and art before the winter sets in.

Entry is by invitation only, and so this truly is a champion of champions’ event. As a result, the enjoyment experienced by the audience is the best possible, because this is the only occasion when they can sit through a full day’s piping and never hear a bad player.

Chairman for the day was Colonel David Murray, and he did an excellent job of introducing the pipers and the tunes. The judges of the piobaireachd competition were lan C. Cameron, John MacFadyen and Donald MacLeod.

Unfortunately, the first man drawn to play – Pipe Major Angus MacDonald – was late in arriving, and as a result Iain MacFadyen had to play earlier than he had originally expected. Nevertheless, the event finished in good time.

The players in order, with their tunes, were as follows:

  • Iain MacFadyen – The Battle of Auldearn
  • Angus J. MacLellan – Lament for The Viscount of Dundee
  • Malcolm Macrae – Scarce of Fishing
  • Arthur Gillies – MacNeil of Barra’s March
  • James Macintosh – Lament for Donald Duaghal MacKay
  • Duncan MacFadyen – Lament for The Earl of Antrim
  • Hugh MacCallum – Rory MacLeod’s Lament
  • John MacDougall – The Battle of the Pass of Crieff
  • Murray Henderson – The Unjust Incarceration
  • John D. Burgess – The Bells of Perth
  • Tom Speirs – Lady MacDonald’s Lament
  • Pipe-Major Angus MacDonald – MacDougalls’ Gathering

As occasionally happens in a competition of this calibre (and as indeed happened at the Clasp competition in Inverness this year) the overall standard did not reach the dizzy heights we might have hoped for.

Iain MacFadyen gave a good start to the competition with a very enjoyable tune, but there was a feeling that he was not holding his high G sufficiently in the ground. In addition, his D was slightly sharp. Angus MacLellan attacked his tune as if it were anything except a lament and had a few note mistakes. Malcolm MacRae produced some very enjoyable music at times, but the expression seemed a bit contrived in the ground and the taorluath and crunluath movements did not flow freely. Arthur Gillies had considerable trouble with his drones and did not manage to get them quite in tune. This always has an unsettling effect but nevertheless the tune itself was enjoyable. As always, James Macintosh had his own idea about the interpretation of his piece, but most of the audience seemed to enjoy his playing, and both he and Iain must have been nominations for the prize list.

Duncan MacFadyen had an off day and will be glad not to remember this one. On the other hand, Hugh MacCallum broke loose from the shackles which at times seem to bind his expression, and gave us a splendid tune, at the expense of two or three note mistakes. John MacDougall produced a most commendable Pass of Crieff, the early variations particularly being outstandingly beautiful.

Murray Henderson had bad luck with a drone stopping – an event which should never happen in top piping, but regularly does.

Once again John Burgess produced a tune of two parts. The first half was undoubtedly the best music heard throughout the afternoon, but technique again let him down near the end. Tom Speirs in his first top grade competition acquitted himself well without quite setting the heather on fire, and Angus MacDonald playing last gave a confident rendering of MacDougalls’ Gathering although the timing of some of the embris was unusual to say the least.

The result was as follows:

  1. John MacDougall
  2. Angus MacDonald
  3. Hugh MacCallum
  4. John D. Burgess.

March, Strathspey and Reel

The conditions for the light music part of the championship were the same as those at the Argyllshire Gathering six each of marches, strathspeys and reels were submitted by the competitors, the judges chose one of each, and the tunes were played twice over. This is the toughest test so far devised for a piper, but the lads rose to the challenge manfully, and although we had occasional slips there were no breakdowns. Once again however it had to be admitted that the standard did not reach the heights hoped for, but it may just have been one of these days.

First prize was very popularly awarded to John D. Burgess for a forceful and masterly selection. His march Kilbowie Cottage was immaculate, as ever. Delvinside was perhaps a shade on the slow side for some people, but it was tasteful and artistic throughout. There is always a danger that the long and difficult Pretty Marion will get out of hand so far as tempo is concerned, but John, with perhaps a struggle at times, managed to keep it in control.

Second prize went to Iain MacFadyen with a high-class performance, consisting of The Pap of Glencoe which was very good, Arniston Castle which was excellent, and Major Manson which was competent.

One particularly attractive feature about both John and Iain is that they always aim to be first, all the time, and it shows so clearly in their playing.

Angus MacDonald was placed third with a good Leaving Glenurquhart (which improved a good deal the second time round), again Delvinside, a bit fast, but very well played, and Lochiel’s Away to France which sounded a wee bit hurried. Fourth prize went to Arthur Gillies with The Ross-shire Volunteers, Caber Feidh and The Man from Glengarry. There was some clipping in the fourth part of the march and the lack of double F in the reel made it sound a bit naked, but as always Arthur gave a high-class performance.

Of those not on the prize list Malcolm MacRae gave an outstandingly good performance and must have been considered seriously for a place. His Braes of Brecklet was only fair, but The Caledonian Society of London and Alick Cameron were exceptionally good. Anyone who had imagined that Malcolm was in the contest purely on his ability to play piobaireachd must have had a rude awakening. Hugh MacCallum played Edinburgh City Police competently and the reel Doctor MacPhail exceedingly well, but Tulloch Gorm was well below standard.

The judges for this event were Robert G. Hardie, Capt. D. R. MacLennan and Seumas MacNeill.

The Championship

The presentation of the prizes was attended by the Duke of Atholl, the BBC television cameras and a great deal of interest. The result of the championship was at first in fact a tie between Angus MacDonald and the previous holder John D. Burgess, but as preference was given to the one gaining the higher place in the piobaireachd event the new and worthy champion was Angus MacDonald. Both men had given of their best and were well worthy of the ovations they received.

In third place came John MacDougall, then fourth Iain MacFadyen, fifth Hugh MacCallum and sixth Arthur Gillies.

The prizes were presented by the Duke of Atholl. Mr. Allan Denham, on behalf of William Grants’ Ltd., expressed thanks to all who had taken part, and Mr. Alasdair Anderson, president of the Piobaireachd Society, replied suitably.

Apres piping

An outstanding feature of the Grants’ Whisky championship is the hospitality provided for the pipers and others closely concerned with the event. In addition to the magnificent prizes all pipers receive travelling expenses, plus accommodation for themselves and their wives in the Tilt Hotel. The Round House of the Tilt was again set aside for a buffet supper – provided free to participants. Because of some difficulties last year, tickets were also on sale to the general public for this function at a price of £4.00 each, but still the demand was greater than the accommodation. Grants were in the happy position of having attracted more interest and enthusiasm than they could comfortably cope with.