All but a dying art

On Saturday the 30th of October, the Glenfiddich Piping Championships 2010 took place at Blair Castle. SF-reporter Ryan Claus made a visit and gives you this in-depth report.

With cars reading licence plates from Canada, Holland, Sweden and even Hawaii rolling in on the stunning grounds of Blair Castle just before ten o’clock on a beautiful Perthshire morning, the anticipation and atmosphere is heavy in the air, almost to be tasted when inhaling the unspoilt air of this breathtaking surrounding. Today, on Saturday October the 30th, renowned whisky expert Glenfiddich is hosting it’s annual Glenfiddich Piping Championships.

For the 37th year in a row, the highly respected Piping Championships are held amidst the astonishing surroundings of Blair Atholl, the picturesque village in the heart of the autumn infested Perthshire. The heralded competition was established in 1974 as a way of bringing together the world’s ten finest solo pipers and have them compete against one another in two separate parts; Piobaireachd, a legendary form of historic bag pipe music, and the more uplifting March, Strathspey & Reel. Open to competitors only to have had prestigious competitive successes earlier in the same year, the Championships are often deemed as the ultimate accolade of piping. Thirty-six years later, in 2010, the Championships are attracting more visitors than ever before, proving more than anything that the marvellous talent of bag piping is all but a dying art.











ontesting piper Willie McCallum warming up in front of Blair Castle

The competitors of the Glenfiddich Piping Championships are generally of Scottish descent, although some would call this year’s Championship an international revolution. For the 8th time in his career, Bruce Gandy has travelled up to the Scottish Highlands for the Championships from Novia Scotia, while Andrew Hayes and Jack Lee represent Canada. Even of greater historical importance for this year’s edition is the remarkable participation of Miss Faye Henderson, the first ever woman to compete alongside the old, wise men of piping. The eighteen year old is nonetheless well prepared, having received bag pipe training from the tender age of four. Returning champion Stuart Liddell is also among the ten contestants, whom you can read about here, in our in-depth interview with the current title-holder. The other contestants include Roderick MacLeod from Glasgow, Angus MacColl from Oban, Iain Speirs from Edinburgh, William McCallum from Campbeltown and Dr. Angus Macdonald from Glenuig, Moidart.










Sisters Faye and Fiona Henderson

When walking across the Blair Castle grounds, you can’t help but be amazed at every square metre surrounding the historic piece of architecture. Peaceful streams harmonize with gangling tree’s and gentle, green hills. It’s all adding to the wonderful, historic sense of this great day, where Scottish culture is celebrated in its purest form. At ten o’clock, the number of empty seats in the dramatic ballroom of Blair Castle are rapidly decreasing. The rich mixture of audience in the room here today puts a smile on my face, as it is just another reminder that piping is not exclusively for lonely, kilted highlanders on a mountaintop, blowing away their lungs for a handful of lost tourists. Young, old, rich, poor, Scottish, foreign, passionate and casual faces are aimed at the stage when the ‘Bean An Tighe’, or M.C., Rona Lightfoot is announced to come forth and introduce the 2010 Glenfiddich Piping Championships. A true Gael, Rona was one the first female pipers permitted to compete at the Argyllshire Gathering and Northern Meeting, 25 years ago. The characteristic host sets the mood in her trademark Highland accent, by welcoming the visitors and telling tales of the previous contests that went down in the same ballroom. Rona will appear in between every act of the day, announcing the next piper and sharing a brief background on the historic tunes.

Just before the clock marks 10.30 AM, the first piper of the day, Dr. Angus MacDonald takes to the stage. The piobaireachd, or Ceòl Mór (Gaelic for ‘Great Music’) is an historic art form, centred around complex compositions and formal elaborations. It is not the most accessible music to listen to for newcomers and outsiders, as it is certainly not your average CD-music playing in your favourite restaurant or hotel lobby. No one can, however, deny the ultimate skill and ability these pipers have to remember in order to play these 15-20 minute musical pieces from the top of their heads. Not to mention the fact that each piper hands in six piobaireachd tunes, only to have one of these favourites selected by the judges on the night before the showdown. It’s one of the many aspects I witness here today that separates the weak from the obsolete.

‘Open to competitors only to have had prestigious competitive successes earlier in the same year, the Championships are often deemed as the ultimate accolade of piping’

All pipers put down excellent performances. Bearsden-native William McCallum especially stands out, both musically and physically. His back straightened and leaning slightly back; it is almost as if this man takes the most pride out of every piper in the world in his passion. A truly majestic performance, followed by Canadian Bruce Gandy. In between the byzantine playing of the extremely focused musicians, Rona easily succeeds in maintaining everyone’s interest with risible anecdotes and captivating facts, and with a sleeping child resting on his father’s shoulder and a retired piper going through last Tuesday’s newspaper, it’s far from a crime to have the first round of today’s musical performances talked together by a woman as spirited as Rona. Still, for the biggest part of the piobaireachd section, all heads are thoroughly aimed at the stage, with some spectators looking more focused than the pipers themselves. Of all contestants, it is Angus MacColl who genuinely impresses with his ‘End of the Great Bridge’. His striking performance not only moves the visitors; the judges are also easily convinced. Oban-bred Angus takes first place in the piobaireachd section.

The ten contestants of the Glenfiddich Piping Championships 2010

After the scrumptious venison, mashed potato and apple-pudding lunch, where pipers, journalist and proud family members get the chance to share opinions and verdicts, the two remaining contestants take to the stage for their exhibition of the Great Music. Number nine of the day is Faye Henderson, and it is truly terrific to see how the teen from Kirriemuir holds up against her more experienced male counterparts. The few seats vacant during the first eight plays seem to have filled up, with standing onlookers even blocking the way out to catch a glimpse of the piping lassie. Titleholder Stuart Liddell concludes the Piobaireachd section with his outstanding version of ‘Lament for Donald Ban MacCrimmon’.

After a short break, the tournament quickly commences with the March, Strathspey & Reel. A more common type of bag pipe music, this trio of piping disciplines is often described as Ceòl Beag, Gaelic for ‘Light Music’. Accompanied by a background drumming sound, initiated by the pipers tapping their feet on the wooden floor, the second half of the day sounds more rhythmic and therefore more approachable. This personal theory of mine is backed by the many nodding heads and tapping feet throughout the enticed audience, visibly enjoying the uplifting marches of the world’s ten finest pipers. Again it is Angus MacColl who stands out, along with Stuart Liddell and Roderick MacLeod. It’s five o’clock when all pipers have given it their absolute best and leave it up to the notes and thoughts of the six judges to announce the winner of the 2010 Glenfiddich Piping Championships.

Winner Angus MacColl (right) and last years champion Stuart Liddell

It has been a day of superb piping, with every contestant showcasing nothing but pure quality. But, as a wise man once said, there can only be one winner, and that winner, today, is Angus MacColl of Benderloch, Oban. It is Angus’ third time winning the Glenfiddich Piping title, having won the trophy twice before in 2006 and 1995. The piper was naturally delighted with his newest award, saying: “You don’t expect to win. When you’re competing, you don’t get a good chance to listen to the other competitors, but the performances of this year were of a good standard. It’s the biggest competition of the year, and the most important one. I don’t think any of us see it as competing against each other, we just come together and put down the best performance we possibly can. As long as you’re playing you’re best, you have a good time. I am absolutely delighted to have won this year’s Glenfiddich title. In the professional world of solo-piping it is without doubt the most sought after prize and it has been an incredible honour not just to win, but to compete alongside such exceptional talent. I’ll definitely be celebrating this evening!”

Like Angus, I am too delighted, for visiting this magnificent event. A huge fan of Scottish culture and life, this proved a fantastic way of expanding my interest. Like Peter Gordon, Chairman of William Grant and Sons Limited, said: “On behalf of all of us at Glenfiddich, we wish to thank everyone who has made this year’s competition another fantastic one to remember.” Until next year.

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