A few favourite things in 2021 from some of our greatest contributors
By most measures, 2021 came in like a broken head on the first beat of a three-pace roll and is going out like a saggy drone at the cutoff that just won’t stop flatulating.
the year might be remarkable in history for all the wrong reasons, but, if we look hard, there were bright spots.
We asked a bunch of prominent pipers and drummers if they might be able to pick out one or two positives from their year. They could be specifically piping and drumming-related, or purely personal. Whatever they wanted to say.
In a moment of doubt and pain, we hope that their thoughts will help to raise a smile as you’re reminded that there’s much to appreciate in life’s great pageant.
Field Marshal Montgomery Pipe-Major Richard Parkes
With all flights booked and subsequently rescheduled or credited for 2022, myself and Ruth decided to use our flight to Glasgow for World’s week to take in some of the piping live events and attend some of the usual Glasgow hostelries and restaurants. It would be our only “holiday” trip outside of Northern Ireland in 2021. Also, it was our first time flying during the pandemic and the whole trip was a welcome change to what had become the normal in 2020-’21.
It was great to hear live solo piping at the Alasdair Gillies Memorial Recital Challenge and take in Fred Morrison’s lunchtime recital, both events were excellent. We also met up with the Glasgow Field Marshal Montgomery pipers after a practice on World’s Saturday.
It was all a bit closer to normal and definitely a highlight of 2021.
Two-time Glenfiddich Champion, six-time Silver Chanter winner Iain Speirs
A favourite piping memory this year was a poker night with Edinburgh piping friends at chez Speirs. While Jenny “Pocket Aces” Hazzard and Cameron “Royal Flush” Drummond battled it out to the early hours, Lachie Dick, Tom Peterkin, Colin MacLellan and I (not so good at poker) worked our way through my record collection and more than a few drams.
The “wheels of steel” spun the sublime music, sound and technique of Pipe-Major Angus MacDonald, through to the ridiculous quadraphonic sound experiment of the 9th Regiment of New York. We also reminisced while listening to the incredible John D. Burgess and fingered along to the 78th Fraser Highlanders’ Live in Ireland. The neighbours were no doubt delighted.
Grade 1 Johnstone Pipe-Major Keith Bowes
I loved reading the Piping Times growing up. My grampa’s bedside cabinet is full of them. I’ve spent many afternoons digesting their content. I was delighted at the news of it returning, albeit in a different format and grateful for a ticket for the ReLaunch Concert.
This concert had everything. A quartet from Field Marshal Montgomery, Jarlath Henderson, Angus MacColl and a few sets from Harbour Road. Something for everyone. A great night, full of music, super company, finger food, a cold beer to wash it down and a copy of the new shiny Piping Times. Just what the doctor ordered!
Soloist, recording artist, composer Ross Miller
For me, the release of my first collection of tunes was a massive highlight. It was well received and I continue to get nice comments about it and I think it complements my album, The Roke, well.
Other than that, the return to solo competitions at Oban was very special. It was great to see everyone and compete again in a less pressurized environment. Credit to all the organizers who made the few events happen.
2021 Glenfiddich Champion Jack Lee
I had the opportunity to participate in the 80th anniversary ceremonies in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. On December 7, 1941, the United States was attacked by Japanese forces and it changed the world.
In 2021, 80 years later, there were numerous ceremonies, events and parades. The many lives lost 80 years ago were remembered and honoured. The remains of many unidentified soldiers were laid to rest in a special ceremony. It was a privilege to be part of those events with the Hawaii Caledonian Pipe Band.
My second highlight was sitting in the Great Hall at Blair Castle and hearing Willie McCallum play his MSR in the Glenfiddich Championships. It was an epic performance and I loved every minute of it. I have heard “Susan MacLeod” played many times but I don’t recall ever enjoying it more than when Willie played it that day. Willie was really in incredible form and I am so glad I could be there to witness his fantastic performance.
Renowned soloist, pipe-major, reedmaker, association leader Colin MacLellan
Humility, great sportsmanship, and a never-ending quest for improvement were all on display in the short few words said by Jack in accepting the award.
What an example for everyone to follow.
For me, 2021 was a year of massive change. It was the first year in a decade with (up to October) no band practice. No in-person contests. For my own piping, I was very fortunate to be able to spend a lot of time on new piobaireachds with my tutor, Colin MacLellan. Most years this would’ve been excellent, reviewing classics, and some of his father’s tunes as well.
Above and beyond my review of new tunes, my wife and I welcomed our first son into the world on June 5th: Colin Alexander Gandy. Having my dad write a piobaireachd for “Little C” and receive a prize at the Aboyne Online Games was a superb way to welcome Colin to the world.
Silver Medallist and professional teacher Nick Hudson
James Haddow McIntosh, MBE, 1925-2021. In January, I visited Jimmy one last time. Joyce and Jimmy opened up their home, as they always did for students and visitors. Despite his body failing, I was delighted to see he had his usual quick wit and sharp presence of mind. While different, it also felt like many other visits, with plenty of piobaireachd and merlot. A few weeks later, Jimmy passed on.
Joyce organized two beautiful memorial services, in North Carolina where Jimmy spent his last decade, and another in Pittsburgh where Jimmy spent many decades prior. Mike Cusack, Amy Garson, Andrew Carlisle, and I each played a piobaireachd ground in the church where Jimmy and Joyce married, followed by a ceilidh with many of his former students playing and sharing.
Jimmy lived with energy and passion right to the end. He was always busy with a project: reedmaking, starting the first piping degree, teaching a youth pipe band program, publishing his sight-readable piobaireachd collection based on his time with the Bobs of Balmoral, and endlessly on. This holiday season, I’m looking forward to sitting down with a glass of red and reading one of his final projects, his just-published memoir.
One of Jimmy’s lines, “Play from your heart, not your feet,” has extra resonance as we remember the great man. Thank you, Jimmy.
Renowned soloist, teacher, composer, philanthropist Bruce Gandy
It was terrific to see so many organizations running events just to keep interest going until we could meet again. I judged many of these and I must say it was not, enjoyable in a stale sort of way, but I felt it was important to try to contribute.
However, I can easily think of two shining moments this year from my perspective and if you can believe it, I didn’t play a note at either.
We arrived in Toronto for a short family visit in September and Coburg games was running live, in person, the first games in a long while. Listening to the piobaireachd, I did have a wee urge to play but it is entirely rare that I get to go to a games as a spectator. Seeing friends, and having lots of laughs. But, without doubt the coolest and perhaps slightly selfish, was standing very near the freestyle event where Ian K. Macdonald launched into “Beverley’s Choice.” What a thrill to hear your own composition being by a master and with Beverley there next to me to hear.
The next highlight, which is on most people’s bucket list was this wee event I got to in October. I had planned to go to London for a few days to compete, but the trouble with all of the vaccine and testing requirements added up to it just being easier to go for 10 days to prepare for London. But on Saturday, October 30th, I was indeed fortunate to have a beautiful seat for a no-pressure listen to all 10 of these great players, performing both events that day. I don’t say that lightly after hearing a few people and getting emails and texts from folks saying “I saw you, you’re so lucky.” Indeed I was! To be able to sneak out the side door and run down the back hall to see my friend Jack Lee, the champion just moments after his win was announced made my heart very warm. We have been great friends for 50 years and watching him do what he does on that stage was remarkable.
So while we exit the year with a lot of potential virus scares, we can hopefully look back and find some nice highlights as well. No Highland games also meant I got to play on some great golf courses with friends this year in more comfortable clothing than the 20 pounds of wool we’re used to!
Eight-time Glenfiddich Champion Willie McCallum
2021 was another unusual year. So many events cancelled but at least some events took place.
Being pipe-major of the Argyllshire Gathering parade in August, thanks to Torquil Telfer for making it happen. I always joked about missing this in 1995, but it was an honour especially being from Argyll.
Playing at the Glenfiddich Championship in October and winning the MSR event for the tenth time. An honour just to play and could only dream about that as a wee boy learning the pipes.
Seeing my piping students have great improvement and many having great success through their hard work, talent and determination at this difficult time. Immensely proud of them. They are friends as well which is hugely important to me.
Turning 60 in April during lockdown. I remember at 35 thinking I might not be competing past 40!
My beloved Rangers returning to the top of Scottish football, in an unbeaten season. ’55’ was special indeed. Made lockdown a bit easier.
2021 Scots Trad Music Awards Teacher of the Year Craig Muirhead
My first highlight is a non-piping one, but I know it pleased so many pipers across the world (and annoyed a few too). That was seeing Glasgow Rangers win their 55th league title and stopping Celtic’s chances of 10 in a row.
My second highlight was receiving an email telling me that a project I started in January called the Lockdown Piping Club had been commended in the Scottish Parliament for introducing so many new people to piping.
Grade 1 Manawatu Scottish Pipe-Major Stewart McKenzie
The undoubted highlight in New Zealand was the largely uninterrupted 20/21 contest season, culminating in the National Championships in March. To hear five Grade 1 bands playing to a good international standard without overseas based players, a strong juvenile grade, and plenty of good stuff in between was testament to the resilience of Kiwi bands and the way New Zealand has handled the pandemic. There was even a craic’n beer tent, so it felt just like the good old days.
It was a pity but inevitable that the 2021-’22 contest season has been canceled because of the pandemic. A chance for a breather and a refresh, so not all bad, but the challenge for Kiwi bands will be picking up where they left off. The challenge of closing the gap with the top bands in the UK never goes away, and from my own band’s perspective I’m optimistic we can get back amongst the action in 2023.
Silver Medallist Jenny Hazzard
The Argyllshire Gathering – the whole thing, from driving west across the stunning scenery of Argyll, to an early morning walk through Oban, to seeing friends in the long-missed setting of a Highland games, with the cacophony of tuning notes as a backdrop to catching-up chats, and remembering how it feels to play in front of judges. But I think my favourite little moment was sitting on the grass, in the warm sunshine (clearly the piping weather gods recognized we needed it), listening to great piping in a live setting, and feeling grateful. Days at the games aren’t always that pleasant, but when they are, they’re hard to beat. I so hope there will be more of these in 2022.
Family – getting “home” to Canada for a visit that should have happened in April 2020. Skype and WhatsApp are great, but nothing beats sitting together, laughing, and having a proper good blether.
Band practice – it can sometimes seem like a big effort in a busy week, but, wow, have I missed it. It was brilliant to get back at regular practices this autumn – seeing people, laughing, getting new music going, getting back in shape, and remembering how sustaining it is to be part of something really good.
Top soloist and doctor Jim Feeney
I think the highlight for me was just after the New Year when the vaccines were becoming widely available. I had a feeling that we were going to climb out of the pandemic and that there was a hope for a return to normal. I remember thinking that we would finally be able to get back to travel and gatherings and family and friends. My optimism for 2021 was, shall we say, misplaced. I still don’t fully understand the vaccine hesitancy in many parts of the world which, coupled with a short-sighted policy for rich countries to keep vaccines widely available (for people who don’t even want them) has led to mutations and variants which now can, at least partially, evade the vaccine. The result is a higher death toll – in the US, at least – in 2021 than in 2020.
From the piping side, the only bright spot for me has been online competition. Even though we can’t travel, with just a few hours or a few days, and at our leisure, we can still “gather” virtually, put our best forward, and try to keep our traditions and skills alive on a new platform. Even after we return to in person performances and competitions, I will continue to use the new recording skills I’ve learned to improve and grow as a player and performer. I sincerely hope we continue to compete in both formats going forward.
What were some of your favourite moments of 2021?
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Here’s to a 2022 with many more positives!