Cuach 2018: Dr. Angus MacDonald’s perspective
By Dr. Angus MacDonald
The 32nd Donald MacDonald Cuach took place at Armadale, at the Clan Donald Centre in Skye on Friday, June 15th. As in previous years, five pipers were invited. This years’ pipers were Callum Beaumont, Glenn Brown, Alasdair Henderson, Iain Speirs and Craig Sutherland, each receiving a £1000 appearance fee.
This event was started in order to stimulate pipers to look at other styles of Ceol Mor, rather than being restricted to the standard settings in the Piobaireachd Society and the Kilberry publications. The sources used are Donald MacDonald’s published work, and his now published manuscript along with the MacArthur manuscript. This is an event that is a challenge to pipers who have become accustomed to modern day piobaireachd interpretation.
Over the years since its inception pipers have tried to decipher the differing ornamentations as notated by Donald Macdonald some 40 years before Angus MacKay produced a more standardized collection of piobaireachd, which has been the greatest influence on how the music is written and played today. Some of the Donald MacDonald settings, such as “Cille Chriosda,” are now regularly heard in other prestigious competitions.
There can be few occasions in any musical genre where a musician is so challenged. In this case the piper competitor is asked to choose a composition from manuscript and perform it from memory, using in passages, technique that is relearned and on an instrument that is challenging in itself.
The tunes chosen by the pipers to play this year were “The Lament for Finlay,” “The Lament for Padruig Og,” “The Lament for Samuel,” “The Groat” and the rarely heard “Boisdale’s Salute.”
In “Padruig Og” and “Lament for Samuel” (“The Stewarts’ White Banner”), we heard some of the only four-note cascading cadences or runs that are very effective musically, but did not survive to the Angus MacKay era. “Boisdale’s Salute” is demanding in that the urlar is repeated twice in the tune and again at the end. “The Groat” has the Urlar at the beginning and the end only, and having a tripling and crunluath fosgailte avoids the player having to decide how to interpret the Taorluath and Crunluath as written by Donald MacDonald.
The instruments were outstanding as was the technique displayed by each piper. A recipient of the Cuach had to be selected balancing the technical with the merits of each composition as well as appraising musical expression. Iain Speirs was rewarded for clear phrasing and progression of the rhythm and melody throughout his tune.
The winning tune was “The Groat” as performed by Iain Speirs. Donald MacDonald erroneously ascribes this composition to the occasion of the birth of Ruaraidh Mor of Dunvegan, who was revered and lamented by his clan on his death.
The loss of the Silver Chanter competition from Skye brings to mind the poetry of An Clarsair Dall, the blind harper who is unambiguous when, in his Oran Mor, he vents his displeasure on a new young chief, grandson of Ruaraidh Mor, who became an absentee landlord, spending his time extravagantly in the south and no longer supporting Gaelic culture.
Chaidh a chuibhle mun cuairt, ghrad thionndaidh gu fuachd am blaths . . .
The wheel (of fortune) has come full circle,
Warmth has suddenly turned cold . . .
Echo is dejected in the hall where music was wont to sound, in the place resorted to by poet bands, now without mirth or pleasure or drinking, without merriment or entertainment . . .
The wheel has indeed turned. Instead of supporting the Silver Chanter event, MacLeod of Dunvegan charged an exorbitant fee for the use of the castle making it financially non-viable. Not so the Clan Donald Lands Trust who are to be applauded for hosting this and other cultural events with their policy of supporting the Gaelic arts.
A resident of Skye, Dr. Angus MacDonald organizes the Donald MacDonald Quach event each year. He is one of the most accomplished pipers of the last 50 years, and is the subject of a five-part pipes|drums Interview, currently running for subscribers to the magazine.