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Jock Agnew reports on the rewarding evening provided by the society’s Recital Competition, held in Edinburgh’s oldest concert hall

THE LAST time, and the first (2003), we had an Invitation Recital Competition, I wrote briefly of the event (Common Stock Vol 18 No1). Now, in 2006, it falls to me again to describe its successor. So what has changed? Well, not the winner. Gary West once more walked away with a cheque for £150. Allan MacDonald came second - he also was there on the last occasion - and Ali Hutton was third, these two picking up cheques for £100 and £50 respectively. But for the audience the evening was not really about prize money nor about winners and non-winners (there were no losers). It was a celebration of the pipes, a demon- stration of the music, and an example of the skills of some of the top players of Border pipes and Scottish small pipes.

What was new then? Well four of the players had not been in the 2003 competition: Stuart Cassells, Ali Hutton, Carol-Anne Mackay and Simon McKerrell. New, also, was the venue - St Cecilia’s Hall, Edinburgh’s first ever concert hall, which, although in an adjacent street, was a far cry from St Anne’s Hall that hosted the previous event.

Let me introduce the players: Stuart Cassells from Falkirk. A champion junior soloist, he was the first graduate in piping from the RSAMD’s Scottish music degree, and was 2005 Radio Scotland Young Traditional Musician of the Year. As well as playing on The


Darkness’s latest album, he featured on the current film soundtrack and fronts a shamelessly soft-metal band, The Red Hot Chilli Pipers.

Ali Hutton, from Methven in Perthshire, studied Scottish Music at the RSAMD and also plays guitar, whistle, bouzouki and bodhran. Ali has a considerable amount of experience, playing pipes/whistles for Deaf Shepherd, Cantrip, the Gordon Duncan Band and the Scot- tish Fiddle Orchestra, as well as playing bodhran with Glasgow- Irish instrumental trad band Beneche.

One of the three piping Macdonald brothers of Glenuig, Allan MacDonald was raised in the isolated Gaelic-speaking community. He pursued a competitive career which included winning the Inverness Clasp on two occasions, but soon became ambivalent towards the competitive discipline of piping and was at the forefront of efforts to introduce alternative styles of playing light music in the 1970s and 80s. In the “classical” genre of ceol mor, he set out to explore the extent to which modern styles of piobaireachd playing differ from those of the early 18th century. This he did by re-uniting piobaireachd with Gaelic language rhythms in song, thereby placing the tunes in their original socio- linguistic context.

Carol-Anne Mackay has notched up many years of performing and competitive piping. After graduating in 1999 with a degree in Scottish music from the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, Carol-Anne spent a year studying Gaelic at Sabhal Mor Ostaig, the Gaelic College in Skye, then became a piping tutor in the Wester Ross schools.

Simon McKerrell plays the Highland, uilleann and Border bagpipes and is in regular demand as a session musician and recitalist. He was recently appointed as head of piping studies at the National Piping Centre in Glasgow and continues to develop the BA (Scottish Music - Piping) degree. His album credits include two albums with the group Back of the Moon, Jim Malcolm’s Home and Tam O’Shanter recordings and Blair Douglas’s latest solo album, Angels from the Ashes.

From Pitlochry, Perthshire, Gary West learned his piping with the much acclaimed Vale of Atholl pipe band, which won both the Scottish and European Championships. In the late 1980s, Gary began to play a prominent role in the folk music scene joining Ceolbeg in 1988, and becoming a founder member of the Scottish “supergroup” Clan Alba in 1991, playing alongside such luminaries as Dick Gaughan and Brian McNeil. He also presents Radio Scotland’s Pipeline programme

So, back to the evening’s entertainment. The setting was impressive, with chairs laid out in rows down the oval shaped hall and around the walls. And every one of those seats was occupied. The semi-circular stage was laid out Mastermind-style, with the “victim’s” chair taking central position. Microphones were clustered around it - in that moderately sized hall? Ah yes, those were for the BBC, who recorded and subsequently broadcast the event.

I am not a fan of microphones. Their trailing wires and picket-fence-like stands add nothing to any atmosphere created by the artists. Still less did I like the squares of old cardboard used, I presume, to insulate those stands from the polished wood floor.


A further slab of cardboard, covered by a rug. was positioned in front of the chair to deaden (again my presumption) the tapping of the piper’s toe (now there’s a good name for a tune!). We watched in fascination as some of the competitors tried to control that rug and its urge to move skittishly around.

But where were the judges? Well, we had a hall full of them. Each member of the audience was provided with a pencil to mark the tear-off slip on the programme with first, second and third place against the competitors’ names. As one competitor ingenuously declared “It is a daunting prospect sitting here in front of 250 judges’”

Each piper was permitted 15 minutes in which to introduce and play music of his or her own choice. This is in contrast to the last Recital Competition, when the pipers were re- quired to include a certain amount of Border music in each set. Their stop time was marked by a yellow lamp that flashed when the 15 minutes was nearly up.

And this year, again in contrast to 2003, there were no over-runs - so no penalty points. As Julian Goodacre, past chairman of the LBPS and compere for the evening, pointed out, at least two of the players hadn’t even been born when the LBPS was started. And one of them had studied piping under one of the other competitors. Incestuous business, piping!

As one would expect with players of this quality, it was a professional and inspired per- formance. Each piper introduced his or her set in a chatty, informal style. Dress of course, was informal. One competitor commented that with Highland piping competitions, the kilt is de rigueur, which leaves the competitor with one less thing to ponder on. So the rig was, in a sort of sop to the Lowland influence of the evening, largely jeans and open-neck shirts.

It was good to see Carol-Anne Mackay and Stewart Cassells bring on both Border and small pipes, choosing to use whichever suited a particular set of tunes. Border pipes were fa- voured by Ali and Simon, while Allan and Gary played small pipes. Allan entertained us with Barbara Allen sung to the pipes (in a foreign language, he pointed out, having been brought up with the Gaelic), and Gary West ... hadn’t I heard some of his set previously? Ah yes, at the Invitation Recital Competition he won in 2003. Why change a winning formula!

As the first player, Carol-Anne Mackay probably had the most difficult spot, having to set the scene, as it were. I enjoyed not only her piping, but also the relaxed informal way in which she bonded with the audience and smoothed the way for the other competitors.

The LBPS must be very encouraged by the success of this Recital Competition. It attracted a big audience, and the pipers themselves put on an amazing performance that can only help add to the growing popularity of Border pipes and Scottish small pipes.

Everyone attending the evening had a lot for which to thank the organisers, and Nigel Bridges was, I know, in the forefront of those busy behind the scenes.