The glittering young piping career of Callum Beaumont

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Callum Beaumont reached the pinnacle of piping with his overall win of the Glenfiddich Championship 2023 on Saturday, and the win fulfils a prediction given to him after his first Gold Medal win in 2011. The article below is from Piping Today in 2011 where Callum talks about very successful career till that point, including three Grade 1 World Pipe Band Championship wins.


By JOHN SLAVIN.
Piping Today #54, 2011.

What would you rather win, the Worlds three times in Grade 1 or a Gold Medal?  Callum Beaumont doesn’t have to answer the question as he has achieved both, after winning the prestigious solo honour at the Argyllshire Gathering in Oban on August 24, 2011. However, if pushed, I think he may have swayed towards the Gold Medal, as his young piping career was set out for him as a solo piper.

Callum began piping at home in Bo’ness, West Lothian, aged seven, following in the footsteps of his older brother James, and both were taught by a local piper, Bert Smith. Bert continued to tutor Callum for light music until he was 18 and though Bert was a tutor of the Bo’ness Pipe Band, for Callum’s first five years of learning and playing, he only concentrated on solo piping. “I was really lucky to compete in all the juvenile competitions and win many of the major prizes — every competition that was on, I was at. It was a great experience,” he said. 

Bert was also responsible for pointing Callum in the direction of Tom Speirs for piobaireachd when the young piper reached the age of 10, and five years later, he took Callum to The National Piping Centre for occasional lessons with Willie McCallum.  His tuition with Tom Speirs came to an end two or three years ago once Callum started working at The National Piping Centre and the commute to Edinburgh was not so convenient. Since then, he has continued to meet with Willie McCallum for lessons once a month.

I’m surprised that Callum wasn’t ushered into the Bo’ness Pipe Band by Bert at a young age — although I guess Bert saw a greater potential in him.  For someone who is only 22, Callum has an amazing list of achievements in the pipe band scene. He started at the top at the age of 12 when the then Pipe Major Colin MacLellan asked him if he wanted to join the Lothian and Borders Police Pipe Band in Grade 1.  After three years with Lothian and Borders, Callum joined Shotts and Dykehead Pipe Band for two seasons and won the World Pipe Band Championships with them under Pipe Major Robert Mathieson in 2005. 

Many people would be content to remain in a band who were Grade 1 World Champions but a chance remark by Callum to Steven McWhirter, who was playing side drum with Simon Fraser University Pipe Band at the time, led to pipe major Terry Lee asking Callum to join the Canadian outfit. It didn’t take him long to decide and he explained: “It was a big commitment because of the distance involved and I was still quite young.  I would go out two or three times a year and the first would be for a small indoor competition in February or April just to get all the band together.  I was still at high school at the time, so I would go out for two months in June and July and stay at Jack Lee’s house and then come home with the band for the Worlds.  That lasted for four years and in that time we won the Worlds twice and came second twice.”

•Celebration at the announcement of SFU winning the Grade 1 World Pipe Band Championships 2009. ©JohnSlavin@designfolk.com/Bagpipe.news
•Callum with Jori Chisholm after the World Pipe Band Championships announcements in 2009. ©JohnSlavin@designfolk.com/Bagpipe.news

He said: “Near the end of my time with SFU I had started working at the Centre and it was becoming hard to get the time off, particularly in the summer with Piping Live! going on.  So the chance came up to join Inveraray and District Pipe Band and I just went for it. I joined them just after they had won the Worlds in Grade 2 and got promoted to Grade 1, so this is my second year playing with them.”

The whole of the piping world has been dazzled by the Inveraray phenomenon and it would be fascinating to get the inside story from one of the pipers or drummers who has shared the whole journey from competing in Novice Juvenile in 2005 to coming fourth at the Worlds in Grade 1 in 2011. 

You could forgive them for being big-headed about their achievements but Callum insists that is not the case and the band has a collective down-to-earth attitude which is fostered by the guys in charge.

“Stuart Liddell and Dougie Campbell keep us all on our toes,” said Callum. “When we go to a practice, they won’t talk about all the good things that happened, but rather all the bad things that happened. There are always things that we need to work on. Fourth place at the Worlds this year is a great result and we are delighted with it but we want to get better and better and Stuart and Dougie are great at pushing us on.”

If Inveraray are true to form and keep making the leaps they have since 2005, then the script is already written and they will win the Worlds, or at least a few majors in the coming seasons.  However, now they are in the rarefied atmosphere of the top six (or top four arguably), there could be an aspect of serving their time involved which may mean a win at the Worlds could be five or 10 years away.

“I hope it is not going to be 10 years,” said Callum. “It is really hard as there is a lot of great bands out there and I would say ScottishPower and ourselves are the two main Scottish bands right now.  I think we are both at the heels of Field Marshal Montgomery and Simon Fraser University. FMM are an excellent band and out in front just now, but not too far away, and I can see Inveraray, ScottishPower and Boghall and Bathgate begin to catch up.

“Placing second at Cowal at the end of the season was a great result for Inveraray, and it will encourage us to work hard to improve again for next season.”

That pretty much sums up Callum’s impressive pipe band history and while I could have devoted the whole of our meeting to discussing his three World Pipe Band Championship wins in more detail, the main purpose of the interview was the not-so-little matter of his Gold Medal win and solo piping career.  

Callum made the step from the Juveniles to the adult B Grade solo competitions at the age of 15, and although he admits it was a bigger challenge and a step up in the quality of competitor, he made his mark right away placing second in the Duncan Johnston Memorial Open competition. He has picked up more successes along the way with his Silver Medal at Oban in 2006, a first in the Open Piobaireachd at Cowal in 2005, runner-up in the London Medallion Former Winners MSR and first in the Open Jig at the Argyllshire Gathering being particular highlights.

He has been working at The National Piping Centre for two years tutoring students and also goes to Fife twice a week to teach the children of Kirkland High School, and associated primaries, for a project called Raising Attainment in Levenmouth. 

The innovative music scheme came about when John McLaughlin, the Area Education Officer for Fife Council, approached The National Piping Centre about getting children involved in piping and drumming. After a presentation by Principal Roddy MacLeod and the staff of The National Piping Centre to schoolchildren in the area, there was a huge response. However, initially, it had to be restricted to 42 children learning the pipes with Callum and 20 children on the drums with David Henderson. Fife Council now have plans to expand the project and John McLaughlin is delighted with the work of both tutors in making it such a success so far.

Callum’s day job, combined with his solo piping and band involvement, give him the commitments of a full-time professional musician but perhaps not the lifestyle, as he has to find his own time to practice which makes for an early start each day.

“The past two months have been non-stop and I can’t remember having dinner in my own house in that time,” explained Callum. “It is easy to get burnt out but at the same time it is great and feels like it is worth it.  I just have to put aside time for everything and then stick to the routine. I come in early in the morning and play pipes before I start work and go to band practice in the evening — I’m hearing pipes all the time so it can be a long day.

“I don’t have set length of time for my practice and if I don’t feel like playing then I won’t play. I always try to do at least 30 minutes, or maybe 40 or 50, but I very rarely pass an hour. It doesn’t need to be long but I try to make sure what I’m playing is correct and it is of a good quality.”

Since leaving SFU, Callum has had the chance to compete around the games in Scotland in the early summer and he believes that has been an important part of his practice routine in preparation for the bigger solo competitions. He won the piobaireachd at Tobermory this year, beating Stuart Liddell and Angus MacColl into second and third place. 

Callum said: “It was good for me to see that I could compete with these guys. I know that when they are at the games they are not trying to play at their very best, though it was still a good confidence boost. The games are good when you are still learning the set tunes for Oban and Inverness and if you make a mistake, it gets it out the way and makes you concentrate more the next time.

“You need to learn four set tunes every year for the Gold Medal and many of these can be new tunes to a player, so the games can be the first chance to properly play a tune. At this stage, you are not on auto-pilot and are still thinking too much about the tune. Once you get to Oban and Inverness, you want be playing as near to auto-pilot as you can be and just thinking about the small things rather than what note comes next. 

“The tune I won the Gold Medal with at Oban this year, Keppoch’s March, I first played at Killin in front of Tom Speirs and I missed out a full variation — which is two or three minutes of the tune.  I didn’t know I had done it till I had finished but it was a good learning experience, and I was better prepared the next time I came to play it.”

The day of the Argyllshire Gathering at Oban this year started in relaxed fashion for Callum and it was to be a feeling he maintained for most of the day.  He was drawn to play second last, in late afternoon, so he had a long lie followed by a leisurely drive to Oban, picking up Glenn Brown on the way, and arriving around 1pm. 

He said: “I was feeling quite relaxed, and I tried not to think about the tunes, as I get nervous quickly when I do that. Once I was registered, I went for a walk and listened to other competitions but I didn’t listen to any other Gold Medal competitors and stayed away from the room till it was my turn.  

“With about an hour to go I got ready and started to go through the tunes in my head.  In the final tuning room, the pipes were going well. It is the most relaxed I have ever been at Oban or Inverness — which was a big help.

“From knowing what other players had played before me, I had a feeling that I was going to be asked to play Keppoch’s March, and I was right. I was quite happy with the four tunes I had prepared for this year and I didn’t mind which tune the judges asked me to play, although Keppoch’s March was probably the tune which I was least keen on. It is the hardest tune to get the music out of and at times just looks like a series of notes.  It is not easy to find the wee phrases which allow you to bring out the music, but sometimes that can be good as it makes you put more thought into the tune — and it obviously worked for me this year.”

•Callum leads the march to the Argyllshire Gathering Games at Oban after winning the Gold Medal in 2011.

Last year in the Gold Medal, the competitors were required to submit eight tunes of their own choice and they would be asked to play one. This year, players could choose any four tunes from a list of eight set by the Piobaireachd Society. So which method does Callum prefer?

“I prefer being told which tunes to play, as if it is your own choice then you think too much about it and hope to get one or two tunes which are real favourites and can become distracted,” he admitted. “It was fun last year and I had previously played five of the eight tunes I submitted so only had to learn another three from scratch and all my favourites were in there. However, I would prefer to be told which tunes to play and know that I had to do the best that I could with only those four tunes.”

Callum was informed that he had won this year while he was chatting with his dad, friends and fellow competitors. An official came over to him, flicked over a sheet of paper and gave him quick look at the results. Callum explained: “I had to look at it a few times and ask him if he was sure, and it was my dad who reacted first by giving out a big shout of ‘Yes!’. That is as much as I remember and it took me 10 minutes before I did anything else really. It was weird, but great, and I’m still trying to remember what happened in those first 10 minutes.  After I got my bearings, the first thing I did was call my brother in Canada and let him know.

“This is what I have been working towards throughout my piping career, and it is what most solo pipers want to win, so to have it now is great. 

“The Glenfiddich is a bonus, and I’m really looking forward to it. Getting to play against the greatest pipers in the world, whom I have looked up to for the past 15 years — including my tutor, Willie McCallum, will be a fantastic experience.

“The Glenfiddich is the home of piping, and where it all happens, and I just hope I can enjoy it and not get too nervous. I have occasionally played at Oban and Inverness and they were the last places I wanted to be because I was not prepared. It showed because I didn’t play as well as I might have or I made mistakes. As long as I prepare well, I should be confident as I only really get nervous when I know I have not put the work and preparation in before a competition.

•The Glenfiddich Piping Championship 2023 competitors from left: Innes Smith, Alex Gandy, Fred Morrison, Angus MacColl, Jack Lee, Bruce Gandy, Willie McCallum, Alasdair Henderson, Callum Beaumont and Finlay Johnston. Photo: Derek Maxwell.

“When you listen to the players who regularly compete at Glenfiddich, their playing is immaculate.  At the Silver and Gold Medal competitions, there are small points which can be improved or mistakes which might happen during a performance, but the guys at the Glenfiddich are the best musically and are 100 per cent sure of what they are doing.  I have been told that I now just need to mature for another 10 or 15 years to reach that next level with my playing and I’m delighted to have won the Gold Medal now to give myself that time to take the next step.” 

•A ‘mature’ Callum Beaumont holding the trophy that was predicted would take him 10 to 15 years to win – he did it in 12. Photo: Derek Maxwell