top professional pipers to judge, and so I found myself assigned the Open Marches.
I’d heard a few players, and I looked up for a second from writing my scoresheets, when a very small child whizzed by wearing full Glasgow Rangers kit – the socks, the boots, the shorts, and the famous light blue shirt – and a head of the reddest hair I’d ever seen. I’d never met young Norrie Gillies before, and ordinarily I wouldn’t have a clue who that young child was, but there was no mistaking him.
And sure enough, a few players later, up came Alasdair to play. And play he did, “John MacDonald of Glencoe,” faultlessly. I wasn’t an experienced judge then, but the decision of course was easy. But when I saw Alasdair afterwards he asked me if I thought that he’d played, as he put it, “Okay.” I remember telling him, “Look, I’m not here to tell you anything about your playing, I’m not sure if you really would be all that interested – but I’m only here for one thing, to decide who played the best, and who played the second best, and so on.”
We talked about that, about how a judge should just decide the result and we agreed on that. I always remember that chat whenever I judge.
As almost everyone knows, Alasdair became the one and only person in piping history to achieve the rather infamous distinction of having been flagged off of the boards via the red tuning light, at Inverness around 1990. I think Alasdair came to revel in the whole history of the incident, although at the time he was considerably upset by it.
The description of the incident is well documented elsewhere. There was a sequel however, which provided Alasdair and me a great amount of laughter and fun for the rest of the years that I knew him. The evening of the day in question, Alasdair had won the Silver Star again, thus easing his hurt somewhat, and the next morning I had to arrive early at the Eden Court because I had been drawn (for the third time in a row, I think!) first to play in the Clasp. I got in very early, so much so that there was only myself and the people who opened the place up in the building.
I thought I would familiarize myself with the stage, and was wandering about when I looked at the judges table, and saw the lights, and I thought about the incident of the day before. I really don’t know what got into me, but an impulse voice went off inside me saying, “Well, Colin my boy, you are not getting red light today,” and I looked around quickly to confirm that no one else was in the hall.
Quick as a flash the red light (one of those wee stubby, squat ones) was out of its socket and into the pocket of my kilt jacket, where it remained even as I played my tune about an hour later. The irony was that when I did appear to play on the stage, they’d sent someone out to the hardware store and had bought another one! However, as I tuned the BBC people were still hammering in cables into the floor and the judges told me to take as much time in tuning as I wanted in recompense. The next editorial of the Piping Times thundered on about the perpetrator of the rather heinous light bulb crime being caught and punished for having “brought the game of piping into disrepute” (Seumas MacNeill was one of the judges).
Around two years later I remembered to bring the red light bulb with me to one of those invitational competitions to give to Alasdair. I remember his quizzical expression as I explained to him that I had a gift for him which he would be most appreciative of, and he nearly fell over when I pulled the light out of my pocket and gave it to him.
We laughed for years about it, and the red light bulb had pride of place in the centre of his vast array of medals and awards. We often joked that when one of us was no longer around then the other could make the story public.
Sadly, that time is now here.
The last time I ever heard Alasdair play was at the Invergordon Games the year before last. I’d taken my wife Jenny and Alex Gandy up in the car, and we were delighted to see Alasdair roll up and sign in. He was in his best form, as good as ever, and he won the Marches playing “The 91st at Modder River,” this time twice through, the same magnificent clockwise march around the perimeter of the boards, the same steady, rhythmical phrasing, and the same glorious finger technique. Civilian kit this time though; but as smart as ever. He won the strathspeys & reels as well and also the piobaireachd. Nearly 25 years had gone by since I had first heard him play. He was supreme as a competitor.
The next week at the Northern Meeting I bade him farewell, never having inkling that this was the last time that I would ever see him. One of Alasdair’s very close friends just last week told me that he had never really been able to escape his terrible illness, and that we had lost him “quite a while ago.”
We were lucky to have him while we did, and I will remember him, always, as a gentle and kind friend, and as one of the most magnificent pipers who ever lived. He has found his peace at last and our world has become a better place because of his life. We will all miss him, terribly.
Colin MacLellan is one of the world’s greatest all-round pipers. A solo competitor of the highest accomplishment for more than 30 years, a Grade 1 pipe-major, an association leader, a reedmaker, a teacher and now an in-demand judge, he lives in Edinburgh.