Early years of the Glenfiddich: Grant’s Championship 1977


The 50th Glenfiddich Piping Championship is only two days away on October 29, 2023, and one can only hope it matches or exceeds “the best one yet” accolade that Seumas MacNeill gave to the 1977 Championship in his Piping Times report.

However, in Seumas’s report below the reader will find there is some criticism of the 1977 performances, just as there was in 1976 when: “the overall standard did not reach the dizzy heights we might have hoped for”. One wonders if the reports are coloured by the mood Seumas found himself in on the day of each competition?

Dr. Andrew Bova has focussed on a piece of Glenfiddich memorabilia for his Piping History series on The National Piping Centre’s YouTube channel. The episode can be watched below, but don’t forget to click through to visit the YouTube channel and subscribe and ring the bell to be notified when new videos are added to the channel.

Competitors for the 50th Glenfiddich Piping Championship are:

  • Callum Beaumont
  • Alex Gandy
  • Bruce Gandy
  • Alasdair Henderson
  • Finlay Johnston
  • Jack Lee
  • Angus MacColl
  • Willie McCallum
  • Fred Morrison
  • Innes Smith

The draw will be available after it is made on the morning of the event.

Judging this year is:

Piobaireachd: Murray Henderson, Bob Worrall and Jack Taylor
March, Strathspey and Reel: Ian Duncan, Ian McLellan and PM James Banks
Fear An Tighe (Master of Ceremonies) – John Wilson.

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.30, No.3
December, 1977.

Grant’s Whisky Championship

The fourth annual competition organised by Grants Whisky was held at Blair Castle on Saturday, October 29. Undoubtedly this was the best one yet, in all respects. Hard as it must have been to improve on the arrangements of previous years, Grants had somehow managed to achieve this, and the result was a memorable day – and night – of piping, for all concerned.

The Great Hall of the castle is of course an ideal setting, and a very large audience was treated to the veritable feast of piping, purveyed by twelve of the most successful competing pipers this year. As benefits the occasion (but has not always befitted it) there was not a single breakdown, choke or squeal. There were one or two occasions right enough when pipers went off the tune, but although this may have caused grief and sorrow to the judges and other experts following closely, it apparently did not in the slightest detract from the pleasure of those who were there to enjoy themselves.

The Piobaireachd

For the piobaireachd event each player had submitted a list of six tunes of his own choice, one of which he was called on to play. The judges had obviously decided that this was a day for the big tunes, and so we had a chance to hear some of the great music which is not always so readily obtainable. After just over four hours of competition the difficult task of putting artistes in order of merit began.

First prize was awarded to Iain MacFadyen for a truly outstanding interpretation of MacLeod of Colbeck’s Lament. Iain played the same tune for the same prize two years ago at this competition, but his performance this time was even better than before. The only thing slightly suspect was the odd chip down to low A, but otherwise the instrument, the execution and the expression were as near perfection as we are likely to hear.

In second place came Bill Livingstone who had been brought over at Grants’ expense from Canada for the occasion. His tune was The Lament for the Earl of Antrim, and it was well put together by a piper who has all the essential qualifications for greatness – high, clean fingering, crisp execution, cracking taorluaths and a rattling crunluath. He has not yet quite mastered the technique of resting adequately at the ends of the natural phrases in the tune, but the changes between variations were well organised. The drones were going slightly out of tune towards the end, and this was not improved by his addition of a crunluath a mach variation which surely is completely out of place in this fine lament.

It is perhaps not inappropriate to remind pipers of the old story of the Highlander who went to a funeral, and when he returned home his wife asked him how things had gone. “Very well,” he said, “Except that the piper ruined the day by playing a crunluath a mach on the lament.”

The same criticism has to be levelled at the third prize-winner, Hugh MacCallum who strangely seemed to feel that The Lament for Colin Roy MacKenzie was not long enough as it stands. Even with his drones going noticeably out he decided to add on the jazzy finish which is only really suitable for piobaireachds which are battles or salutes or something like that. Hugh’s overall performance in fact was not up to his usual high standard, due perhaps partly to the pipe, but mainly to slow a choice of tempo.

In fourth place came Malcolm MacRae, preparing for next year’s Meetings perhaps, with The Blue Ribbon. The tune was pleasantly presented, although the expression could not at any time be classified as higher than just adequate. His problem with the birl continues and is a major distraction to the enjoyment of the listener.

Of those not on the prize-list perhaps Murray Henderson had the best claim to fame. His Park Piobaireachd No. 2 was an exciting presentation, full of life and vigour. The variations were well handled, with full attention to changes of tempo within and between them. His pipe went reasonably well, but it had a disastrously flat F, which obviously cost him dear.

John MacDougall played Lament for the Children competently as always, but he did not seem to be really warmed up for the task, and missed a number of B gracenotes in his taorluath from D. His vedare does not come over correctly and he omitted the cadence at the end of the ground doubling – perhaps intentionally, but if so he should have warned us.

John Burgess gave us The Stewart’s White Banner in a style of unusual brilliance, rather reminiscent of his rendering of “Squinting Patrick” on a famous occasion at Dunvegan Castle. His crunluath movement however, although better than on some recent occasions, is still not quite back to what it ought to be.

Of the others Tom Speirs played a reasonable Battle of Auldearn but the drones were going out from early on and his position of first to play probably did not help. The same might be said for Arthur Gillies who played a rather slow Battle of Bealach nam Brog which was again handicapped by unsteady drones and a slightly flat F. Duncan MacFadyen had considerable difficulty in settling his pipe and his “Vaunting” was much too slow. Iain Morrison unfortunately got a tune to play – The Bells of Perth – which it seems he had learned straight from the book. Iain Clowe got MacDougalls’ Gathering to play but obviously wished he hadn’t. Several slips only confirmed the impression that he wasn’t very sure of this one.

The judges for this event were John MacFadyen, John MacLellan and Mr. C. D. MacTaggart.

March, strathspey and reel

The light music began about seven o’clock and finished two and a half hours later, but it seemed to all of us that the time went past much more quickly than that. Again the advantage of having only good pipers in a competition was greatly appreciated.

First prize in this event was awarded to John Burgess for a splendid rendering of The Highland Wedding, Delvinside and Pretty Marion. In what was in fact a competition of very high standard this was quite an outstanding performance. On very many occasions in the past John’s victories in march, strathspey and reel playing have been built on his impeccable march playing, but this time although the march was very good it was no more than that. What raised the selection to the top was the magic of his strathspey. Playing the four note run down, as in the original setting of the tune, he gave a new dimension to this music of the dance. As always Pretty Marion was a worry, with the danger of a runaway constantly in our minds, but fortunately this did not occur.

In second place came John MacDougall and it was the reel, Mrs. Macpherson of Inveran, which was the prize-winner this time. Lonach Gathering was somewhat dull and uninspiring, and The Caledonian Society of London although full of life and lift had some unusual grips scattered throughout which proved more a distraction than an attraction.

Third place was awarded to Iain Clowe whose lucky day it must have been for although his bagpipe and the execution were splendid throughout, here all praise must cease. His Duke of Roxburgh evoked memories of the outstanding brilliance of Robert Reid’s interpretations of this tune – it was so different.

Iain Morrison was placed fourth with The Edinburgh Volunteers, The Doune of Invernochty and Lochcarron. This was a somewhat unbalanced performance, strathspey and reel being of very high quality, but the march was dull and uninspiring. Of course, it is quite impossible for anyone to produce a rousing rhythm with this dismal tune, but Iain’s marching technique (has he been taking lessons from Hugh Maclnnes?) did absolutely nothing to help.

Of those not placed Murray Henderson might well have thought this was his unlucky day because he gave a very fine rendering of Pipe Major John Stewart, Maggie Cameron and Sandy Cameron, the only complaint which one might have had being that the grips on C in the fourth part of the reel second time through were not as clean and crisp as they should have been.

Bill Livingstone played well again, but again he tried to play too carefully, and surely in a competition of this standard that is just not on. Arthur Gillies perhaps fell into the same trap, with the additional surprise that his march was the weakest of the three instead of, as is usual for him, the strongest.

The judges in this event were Dr. Colin Craig, D. R. MacLennan and Colonel David Murray.

When the points were all added up it was found that, as in the first Grants Whisky Championship, the eight prizes had gone to eight different people. In this event the rule is that preference is given to piobaireachd, and so the Championship of 1977 went to Iain MacFadyen, with John Burgess runner-up and Bill Livingstone in third place.

The prizes were presented at the end by the Duke of Atholl. Mr. Leslie Hodge of Grants Whisky expressed the thanks of his firm to all who had made the day such a successful one. He then presented the Duke with a bottle of twenty-five-year-old Glenfiddich Whisky. Mr. Alastair Anderson, president of the Piobaireachd Society, replied suitably on behalf of the pipers.