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Mixed response to competitions

MUSIC COMPETITIONS can be a mixed blessing. There is no doubt that they encourage high standards of playing (at least so far as the judges criteria is concerned), but at one extreme there is the danger that they become the sole motivation for practice – something which, one suspects has tended to happen in the competition-orientated Highland piping scene where, it can be argued, the importance of the competition circuit is one reason why Highland piping, in a peculiar way, has until the past few years stood well apart from the folk music revival currently vivifying other native instrumental forms.

In the case of the LBPS's first competition in Edinburgh in March - indeed it must have been the first competition of its kind in Scotland for as much as two centuries - the atmosphere, happily, was one of amiable if sometimes  bemused fraternity, rather than desperate rivalry.

The standard of proficiency was extremely mixed, as was the diversity of Lowland and Scottish small pipes (already the judges were talking about separate classes for Lowland and small pipes), and there were some who blythely played Highland Pipe selections (some of them excellent) despite the onus on the competitor to include appropriate Lowland/Border material.

Such, however, are the inevitable vagaries of a music just at the beginnings of revival...and a music which in its heyday seems to have been standardised and for which any attempt at standardisation today would be highly questionable.

All this presented an unenviable task for the judges, Northumbrian musician and pipemaker Colin Ross and Peter Cooke of the School of Scottish Studies, who had few yardsticks to go by. Summing up at the end they felt that the standard in the open section had been high and, clearly, this was a time of experimentation in styles and techniques. Colin thought there was evidence of rather too much bellows movement in the novice class, but so far as the open was concerned, he described the overall standard as “excellent, with some very interesting playing in search of different techniques". Peter Cooke added the rider that the competition shouldn't be taken too seriously... “and we should be very careful about forcing people into a mould, This is a time of experimentation."

First prize - the Hamish Moore Quaich – in  the open was taken by Paul Roberts from Leeds, on Lowland pipes, playing the air Tweedside and an impressive set of variations on the jig Holey Ha' penny. His style, said Colin suggested elements of both Irish piping and the cabrette of the Auvergne, and perhaps these, in the future, could be consolidated within what might be identified as a "Border style".

Second in the open was Iain MacInnes from Lewis with a fine set on Scottish small pipes. Unfortunately, the fact that they were very much Highland pipe tunes lost him marks.

Third was David Hannay, playing an old set of Robertson halflongs.

Andy Hunter, playing Scottish smallpipes, took first place in the novice class, winning the Heriot and Allan Quaich; second and third places were taken, respectively, by Jeannie Campbell (smallpipes) and Mike Rowan (Lowland pipes).

The pipes duet class was won by Paul Roberts and Gordon Mooney, both on Lowland pipes, while the winners of the duet (pipes and other instrument) class were Andy Hunter and Mike Ward on an intriguing but very mellow-sounding combination of small pipes and Indian bellows-blown harmonium!


The first Border pipes competition to be held at Newcastleton Folk Festival, at the end of June, turned out to be an embarrassing business, considering that it was the LBPS, who persuaded the organisers to include the competition in what would seem a natural  venue for one, Having lobbied them to hold it, none of the society's better pipers turned up, and the organisers threatened to scrap the competition if no-one entered, Eventually, more out of concern for the competition's future than through any faith in their piping ability, Jim Gilchrist and Robbie Greensitt entered the novice class, Jim Gilchrist winning.

In the open, the judge (Colin Ross) declined to award a prize, the only competitor being a very sporting Highland piper who picked up a set of small pipes - virtually for the first time—and valiantly elbowed out a fairly catastrophic set. The fact that he and the novices entered, however, guaranteed the future of the competition. Let's hope that next year's event gets a response which makes it a showcase, rather than a musical disaster.