Older, wiser and better – four elite pipers discuss competing in their later years – Part 1
Only a few decades ago, a top-level solo piper competing after age 40 was exceptional, if not rare.
Today, not only are many top solo pipers playing past 40, they’re going into their fifties and sixties, with little sign of slowing up. Not only that, they’re actually getting better as they go and meeting the challenge of much younger pipers head-on with great success.
What’s changed? Why is it that, these days, there appears to be little if any pressure or desire to retire? How is it that nowadays it seems so much more realistic, or even easier, for pipers and drummers to keep up and even advance their playing standards against the inevitable onslaught of age?
pipes|drums set out to find out answers to these and other questions.
As evidence of the trend, there’s no shortage of active competing pipers we could speak with, but we were fortunate to have four of the world’s greatest exponents of the art join us for a video panel discussion on the topic.
None need an introduction, but let’s do it anyway.
Bruce Gandy, at age 58, is playing at the height of his abilities. From his home in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, Gandy makes a living from piping with Bruce Gandy Music, providing private tuition, workshops, judging, endorsements such as the Gandy Solo Chanter from McCallum Bagpipes, and tune commissions. A prolific composer with four collections published, and the author of last year’s best-selling Performance: Delivering Your Own Awesome – winner of pipes|drums Product of the Year Award – he’s won almost everything there is, including both Highland Society of London Gold Medals, the Senior Piobaireachd at the Argyllshire Gathering, the Bratach Gorm at London, and the Silver Star MSR at the Northern Meeting. His Bruce Gandy Bagpiping Development Society is a charity that raises and distributes piping education funds to deserving young players.
Jack Lee, Surrey, British Columbia, is by far history’s most successful competing piper from North America, and at age 64, still seems unstoppable on the boards. He’s won it all, most several times: the Glenfiddich Championship, the Clasp at the Northern Meeting, the Silver Chanter, the Bratach Gorm, and the Silver Star at Inverness, to name a few. He’s committed his life to both solo piping and pipe bands, now in his fifth decade as pipe-sergeant of six times World Champions Simon Fraser University. He’s made piping his career for decades, too, running Lee & Sons Bagpipes, manufacturing pipe bags, instruments and reeds, and his BagpipeMusic.com online property is a bountiful resource of thousands of pipe music manuscripts and recordings. He’s in great demand as a teacher and judge throughout the world.
Simply put, Willie McCallum is a piping legend. Originally from Campbeltown, Scotland, he has lived in Bearsden for many years. He is a living example of the great tradition of piping excellence from the Argyllshire region of Scotland. In terms of the total number of times awarded major prizes, McCallum most likely is untouchable in piping history. To start, he’s won the Glenfiddich Championship a record eight times, and he’s gained just about everything there is on repeat since he started competing in the 1970s. Like Jack Lee, his background is as an accountant. In the early 2000s, he gave up that relatively unexciting professional to make piping his full-time work as the namesake of Willie McCallum Piping. He offers teaching services on solo and workshop levels and has partnered with McCallum Bagpipes on the highly successful MC2 series of pipe chanters. He recently turned 60 and last October competed again at the Glenfiddich, winning the MSR event.
Iain Speirs of Edinburgh, at only 48, is by far the youngest of the group and, like the others, by no means “old.” While the other three have made piping their career, Speirs is the last of a dwindling number who compete at an elite level but only as a pastime. That he has treated piping as still a hobby and managed to win and still compete for the world’s most significant solo prizes is remarkable. Like Gandy, Lee and McCallum, Speirs has won pretty much everything, including the Glenfiddich Championship, the Clasp at Inverness, the Senior Piobaireachd at Oban, the Silver Chanter (six times), and, of course, both Highland Society of London Gold Medals. He comes from rich piping stock as a third-generation top-flight competitor, and his son, John, is continuing the Speirs piping dynasty. He works in marketing and communications with a major financial company in Scotland.
We were reminded of the longevity of pipers after Gandy won the MacCrimmon Cairn for piobaireachd at the 2021 British Columbia Pipers Association’s Annual Gathering, the fifth decade in which he’s gained the prize at least once. This equalled Jack Lee’s record, and the two are the only pipers in history to have captured the same major prize in five separate and consecutive decades. (The legendary Donald MacPherson, who competed successfully into his seventies, won the Senior Piobaireachd at the Argyllshire Gathering in five decades, though not consecutively.) If Lee wins the Cairn in the 2020s, he’ll make it six straight decades.
Not coincidentally, each of these piping legends has been the subject of a full-length pipes|drums Interview, and we invite you to check them out below to learn more about their incredible careers.
We will run this panel discussion in three parts over the next week or so.
Bruce Gandy: the p|d Interview – Part 1
August 6, 2015
Bruce Gandy: the p|d Interview – Part 2
September 14, 2015
Bruce Gandy: the p|d Interview – Part 3
October 11, 2015
Bruce Gandy: the p|d Interview – Part 4
November 8, 2015
Bruce Gandy: the p|d Interview – Part 5
December 6, 2015
Jack Lee: the pipes|drums Interview – Part 1
November 25, 2013
Jack Lee: the pipes|drums Interview – Part 2
December 8, 2013
Jack Lee: the pipes|drums Interview – Part 3
January 12, 2014
Jack Lee: the pipes|drums Interview – Part 4
February 2, 2014
Jack Lee: the pipes|drums Interview – Part 5
February 23, 2014
Willie McCallum: the pipes|drums Interview, Part 1
April 30, 2009
Willie McCallum: the pipes|drums Interview, Part 2
May 31, 2009
Willie McCallum: the pipes|drums Interview, Part 3
June 30, 2009
Willie McCallum: the pipes|drums Interview, Part 4
July 31, 2009
Iain Speirs: the pipes|drums Interview – Part 1
October 11, 2016
Iain Speirs: the pipes|drums Interview – Part 2
October 30, 2016
Iain Speirs: the pipes|drums Interview – Part 3
December 4, 2016
Iain Speirs: the pipes|drums Interview – Part 4
December 18, 2016
Iain Speirs: the pipes|drums Interview – Part 5
January 15, 2017