By GERARD McCLUMPHA, Event Coordinator.
Is looking back always a good thing? I’m not 100% sure on that as a rule – but in the case of the past twenty years of the Festival of Juvenile Solo Piping competition I think we can safely say yes!
It all started with the untimely death of the co-founder of the Caledonian Piping Club, Colin McCallum in October 2002 at only 51 years old. He was a local stalwart of piping and teaching youngsters in the towns of Ardrossan, Saltcoats and Stevenston.
Colin learned to play with the then Grade 1 Stevenston Pipe Band, but not long after starting on the pipes he moved away with his first career as a Merchant Seaman. Colin regretted giving up his playing of the pipes, and it wasn’t until about 20 years later, after a chance encounter with a local player that he found his way to Ardneil Pipe Band – a new band to the North Ayrshire area, who were recruiting both learners, and players alike.
When my time came to give up the Pipe Major position and leave Ardneil Pipe Band in the late 90s, Colin decided to leave with me, and the rest they say is history.
There was a year or so, as the Caledonian Piping Society, before it morphed into the Caledonian Piping Club we know today. As founding members together, the ethos was simple: to teach anybody to play the pipes and feed them into the local pipe band scene when the time was right. An ethos which has paid off over the years and is still in effect today.
Colin enjoyed the challenge of preparing youngsters for competition – chanter, or pipes, but was very frustrated with the lack of respect that was shown to the competitors by the organisers, especially to the chanter players, when he accompanied them to the various venues. We have all said, usually in jest: “I could organise a better event than that” – but how many will go away and actually do something about it?
So the Festival of Juvenile Solo Piping Competition ran for 20 years, (minus two events for Covid) and it has been a fantastic journey.
There was an unseen attraction to the Festival – that when you came down once – you were destined to return for as long as you could, which included not only pipers – but parents, judges and volunteers.
Over the 20 years we hosted 545 chanter entries, plus a further 3863 piping entries.
The chanter competitors played for 22 different trophies – over seven age groups; plus a Champion of the Day trophy.
The pipers played for 44 different trophies – over 14 different age groups, plus Junior and Senior Champion of the Day trophies.
We were the first, and amazingly, still the only solo piping competition to offer individual age levels, (not groups, ie, 15-18yr) – which levelled the playing field a whole lot more. We also offered the opportunity to play one age level up – to allow the individual to test their skills against a more experienced player – to gauge how much better they still had to become. Did this make the difference – who knows?
Not only did we attract players from all over Scotland – North; South; East; West; Island and Highlands, but also hosted players from Northern Ireland and Eire, plus one from England.
The standard we have been accustomed to, in playing quality, over our time has been outstanding! Some of the more notable players of the past generation have passed through our arenas, still playing and leading the way today – players like: Connor Sinclair, Gold Medal winner at Northern Meeting and winner of the MSR at the Glenfiddich in 2019; Emmet Conway, P/M Shotts; Donald C. Stewart, P/M Glasgow Skye; Jonathon Graham, globetrotting piper; Emma Buchan, Grade 1 World Pipe Band Champion in 2023 (and mainstay of Scottish Rugby); Dan Nevans, Aillis Sutherland and David Shedden, all professional musicians and full time tutors at The National Piping Centre in Glasgow.
Past competitors still playing in Grade 1 bands: Bradley Parker; Robbie MacIssac; Scott Barrie; Ciaran Sinclair; Scott Figgins; Luke Kennedy; Fraser Hogg; Andrew Clark; Craig Davidson; Gavin Ferguson; Ross MacKay; Gregor Grierson; Ewan Allen; Calum Davidson; Finlay Frame; Stephen Leask; Sarah Muir; Calum Brown; John Dew; Steven Gray; Chris Happs; Chris McCartan. An impressive list, but by no means full, and I apologise to any who have been missed out, (as always happens, as soon as you start to make any list).
I also find it fascinating to trawl through our ‘Roll of Honour’ and chart some of the players who have come through our doors. To highlight just one, (and there are many of the same), a young Christopher Gray played in our very first event, at our very first Festival in 2003 and stayed with us:
- 2003 Ev 1 – Winner – 10yr Chanter, (as a 7yr old)
- 2006 Ev 6 – Winner – 10yr Piping
- 2009 Ev 9 – Winner – 14yr Piping
- 2011 Ev15a – Winner – Jnr Piobaireachd
- 2012 Ev13 – Winner – 17yr Piping
- 2012 Ev16 – Winner – Open Jig
- 2012 – Overall Champion – Senior Piping.
Geoffrey Chaucer wrote: “All good things must come to an end”, and so it has for the Festival of Juvenile Solo Piping Competition. When we mentioned above about pipers; parents; judges and tutors all returning year after year – unbelievably, it is the same for the army of volunteers – who all work tirelessly behind the scenes. And this is the primary reason for retiring the Festival this year. I’m sure this will resonate with a lot of readers, but none of us are getting any younger and our army is almost on its knees. Physically unable to run, or go up and down stairs all day – life has caught up with us all!
Although we tried, numerous businesses, organisations, groups and other pipe bands – we just couldn’t attract anyone to take over the organising and running of the Festival and the exact same outcome was true – to getting a new, younger, super fit army of volunteers.
Special mention should go to Peter Hunt, for supplying the very cream of Judges every year. Judges of the calibre, that the young pipers would want to come and perform for, for their critique – or even some of their heroes, still playing (and winning) at the very highest level themselves today.
Another mention must go to Tommy Bingham, always there – the wise head on the experienced shoulders. The voice of sensibility and the calming manner, with a solution for everything. The perfect person to keep me in check.
Finally, many thanks have to go to my wife Maureen, who suffered for the first fifteen years, tripping over a whole room full of equipment for the Festival – before taking over the job of compiling for the past five years. Always first to criticise.
The Caledonian Piping Club is still to the fore – still teaching youngsters (of all ages), how to play this fantastic instrument. An instrument which can bring so much pleasure in one moment – and so much grief in the next, but what would we all do without it?
What’s next for the Club regarding events? We will rest on our ample laurels for about a month – then concentrate in putting our all into organisational skills into the 97th Ayrshire Music Festival Piping Competition.
If all else fails, keep practicing!