Competitions – ‘The devil is in the detail’

It is impossible to deny the central position occupied by competitions in today’s piping world.  Nor that it is a subject that has led to many firmly held opinions, as evidenced by this website. When raising the question of how did we reach the current position, it is rather like a version of the old joke about being lost on the way to ‘X’ and stopping and asking for directions from an obvious local admiring his cattle over a dyke, who scratches his head and replies, ‘Well, I would not start from here’.

But we do have to start from somewhere. So, let us begin  with the very first piping competition held in 1781. Significantly, it occurred during what was turning into a prolonged military engagement between the UK and some independently minded colonists in North America, one (when viewed from this side of the pond) which was not going well. Indeed, it had turned into a complete disaster for the British side following the surrender at Yorktown, even before the second piping competition was held in 1782.

The start of that revolutionary war in 1775 had resulted in the raising of a number of new ‘Highland’ Regiments which were officially given establishments which included two pipers. Although they were raised by or in the name of senior members of the ‘Highland’ aristocracy, who usually were also appointed as the Colonel, that position did not involve active engagement.  In fact, they were more likely to be found at functions of the Highland Society of London. However, they were certainly acutely aware of the difficulties there had been in finding pipers for those new regimental positions.

Although subsequent and much later accounts of the decline in numbers of pipers come with the added baggage of being connected to the ’45, the contemporary accounts surrounding the Highland Society and its motives treat the problem more simply as one of supply and demand. In reality ‘Highland Pipers’ (a somewhat elastic definition in any case) had been, and probably entering the second half of the 18th C still were, a minority of the total Scottish piping population. As a result of a changing world the numbers of pipers generally were starting to decline. For example, the Burgh pipers were the first to disappear.

In the case of finding Highland pipers for those regiments raised from 1775, once those pipers who were already too old for military service or had a comfortable sinecure were discounted, the younger pipers who would have been more likely to enlist were simply too few to meet that sudden extra demand. It was to fulfill this military aspect which fashioned the Highland Society’s approach to the early competitions. From the start the emphasis was on raising the numbers of pipers by encouraging the growth of those ‘Highland’ pipers by effectively dangling the carrot of worthwhile prizes (a valuable bagpipe for first place, as well as quite large cash sums both for the winner and runners up).

Of course for the ‘carrot’ to be effective there had to be the maximum chance of winning a prize. Hence the principle that competitors could only win a prize higher than won previously. Once the top prize of the prize pipe had been won, that was the end of your competitive career.

There is one example of what might have happened otherwise when in 1783, after the Highland Society Competition in Falkirk, most of those involved moved onto Edinburgh where a special ‘Exhibition’ competition was held. As it seemed to be uniformly agreed that ‘Prof’ John MacArthur was by far and away the best piper attending, a special handsome pipe was ordered for him and the rest of the pipers set to without his competition. The winner of that prize pipe was Donald MacIntyre, son of John MacIntyre, who had as a young man been sent to first Rankin on Mull then to MacCrummon in Skye for tuition. However, as the ‘Exhibition’ competition was not held under the auspices of  Highland Society of London, Donald MacIntyre was still eligible to compete in the official Highland Society of London series and in 1785, where he won their prize pipe as well. After which, of course, he was finally removed from any further competitions.

The decision to make the top prize a special bagpipe had from the organizers point of view two other advantages. Firstly, it ensured that there was a regular addition to the numbers of bagpipes in circulation.  Secondly, it ensured that the ‘highland pipe’ was the three droned mouth blown version that was becoming more associated with the military. When during the early years of the competitions players of bellows pipes turned up they were usually given some expense money and sent away. Not because they could not play ‘pibroch’, but because they had the ‘wrong’ instrument. Judging by some surviving bagpipes, this resulted in a number of common stock bellows pipes being converted into multiple stock mouth blown instruments.

Once started, the competition’s success then (as often happens) tended to develop a momentum of its own. Initially all the pipers played twice with one tune common to all. In the interests of the time available to accommodate all who turned up to compete, that common tune was the first to go, to be later followed by the practice of repeating the ground between variations. It has been said that following the latter the pipers (feeling cheated of playing time) deliberately slowed their performances to compensate for that loss of playing time. While plausible, it has never been clear if that has any really solid background evidence behind it.  Ironically, some years later, with the numbers of pipers wanting to compete still increasing, playing twice was effectively brought back in when a preliminary ‘assessment’ was performed the day before to select those pipers who were to appear at the actual competition.

The standardizing effects of competition also led to the demise of two droned pipes when circa 1822 their use was ‘discouraged’. It was never an officially-minuted decision of the Highland Society, and as by that time the players of two drone pipes were likely to have been a decreasing minority was probably a result of peer pressure from the other competitors. Once again, there are a number of old pipes from that era which have clearly had an extra bass drone added.

It is, of course, somewhat ironic that, while in the cause of encouraging the growth of the number of ‘highland pipers’ the structure of those early competitions was deliberately biased towards that aim, the actual competition and its judging could be viewed as more open than today. Although Donald MacDonald’s book appeared in 1819 and Angus MacKay’s not long before the particular competition structure came to an end, neither could possibly have functioned as a ‘judging tool’, and the pipers would have played their tunes exactly as they felt the tunes should go. Nor for most of the period before the Sir Walter Scott effect and Balmoralisation kick in were the judges the piping ignoramuses that has been claimed, although a full review of the judging side is a study still waiting to be done.

There can be little doubt that the aims of the Highland Society to increase the numbers of highland pipers, initially through the military, were achieved. Nor can they be blamed for how what they may have initiated later evolved through the hands of others. Looking back from this modern standardizing and competitive world, the inherent distorting side effects of the design of those first competitions is easily overlooked. A good example of that to end with is to look at the case of John MacKay, father of Angus.

That John MacKay was good enough to be taken under the wing of Malcolm MacLeod of Eyre and then MacLeod of Raasay indicates he must have had a high degree of competence, even before he was appointed to the prestigious post at Drummond Castle. He was also among the few pipers of his generation who composed tunes which are still in today’s repertoire. So, to suggest that the fact he won the prize pipe in 1792 adds nothing of real worth to that reputation verges on sacrilege. However, to place my argument in context, consider that by that date the competition had been running for over ten years. That means that, after removing some pipers through death or infirmity, there must have still been at least five former winners of the prize pipe not therefore able to compete against him. Likewise, having won that year’s prize pipe John MacKay himself was removed from any further competitions.

But apart from the thinning out at the top end of the competition, the bottom also has to be considered. At that time, apart from the prize pipe there were two other prizes. According to the contemporary accounts which were very specific about it, the third prize was won by a ten year old boy.  Angus MacKay, in his edited records of the competitions, tweaks the age up to twelve (sort of adding spin in modern terms).  While third prize being won by a ten year old indicates that the Highland Society’s efforts through competitions to encourage new pipers was working, it does little to suggest that the quality of competition facing John MacKay was very high.

That past cannot be recreated, and it often becomes even more distorted when viewed through modern eyes. Even when hard facts do appear, context is of great importance. John MacKay’s reputation was already secure from the brief bio I started with. But consider: if the only information about him we had to go on was that competition record and my deconstruct, how different it would be. The competition record is a fact, but facts without a good solid context can be extremely misleading.


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