June 28, 2012

Spirited & lively

Scott MacAulay, 2008.Once or twice each year of judging, something indelibly memorable occurs. Yes, there are good performances that stand out at almost every contest, but I’m thinking here about events that transcend the music, when circumstances converge to make a perfectly magical merger.

I was enjoying a morning of solo competitions this June at the Summerside Highland Gathering at the idyllic Prince Edward Island when one such event was conjured.

The College of Piping is always associated with its first director, the late Scott MacAulay. Scott was a good piping friend and a wonderful piper. His personality was larger-than-life. He found the party and upside in everything, it seemed, and when his life was cut down by cancer it was a huge loss for the scene. We will always miss him.

Scott discovered piobaireachd later than most. In the 1980s, when he was into his late twenties, he found ceol mor or, rather, ceol mor found him. A product of Lewis-born parents, and someone who seemed to enjoy things Hebridean and Gaelic way more than most, even as a teenager it seemed odd to me that Scott focused only on light music and pipe bands. But in the early-1980s he dived head-long into piobaireachd.

After, say, age 18, “discovering” piobaireachd is a difficult thing to do, not because the music can’t be learned, but because your fellow competitors and adjudicators might not take you seriously. Back then, anyway, a certain amount of ceol mor capital had to be banked before the prizes would be paid in dividends.

Scott was as smart a person as you could ever meet. A canny man, one might call him. He could size up a person or an entire room in a second, and work his way in with his incredible wit and charm. One could even say that he charmed his way into piobaireachd. Within a few years he had learned enough tunes and put his musical smarts and technical skills to work his way into the prizes.

He set his sights on winning a Silver Medal, which he did at the Northern Meeting in 1985 just a few years after taking on the big music. He learned up four Silver Medal tunes, and had particular success with “Queen Anne’s Lament.” Going around the Scottish games with him that summer, that tune seemed always to be picked – so often, in fact, that we started to refer to him jokingly as “Queen Anne,” which I remember him laughing at with his unique cackle.

But back to Summerside. Not wanting to lug my piobaireachd books to PEI, I managed to borrow a complete bound Piobaireachd Society Collection from the College. It turned out, though, that the big book had belonged to Scott, with his name custom-embossed on the front and spine in Scott’s typical spare-no-expense style. There were relatively few solo competitors, and some time between each, so I decided to browse through Scott’s old book to check out a few of the tunes I remembered he had played: “Sir James MacDonald of the Isles,” “The Company’s Lament,” and, of course, “Queen Anne’s.”

And then, in the Grade 1 Amateur Piobaireachd event, young Sarah Simpson of Cavendish, PEI, submitted her three tunes. “Queen Anne’s Lament” was one. So, here’s that special confluence of serendipity: College of Piping, misty day, Scott’s book, Scott’s tune. It had to be.

As she built the tune, I found myself rooting for her to see it through, for the pipe and nerves to hold. With a terrific instrument that featured a perfectly tuned and blown high-G, Sarah Simpson delivered a spectacularly musical and almost technically flawless rendition of Scott’s best tune.

Scott MacAulay was all spirit. For 10 minutes or so on that day, on that field, at that time, with that tune, his spirit happily returned.


  1. Very enjoyable read. I didn’t know Scott well, but very much enjoyed our time teaching at some Virginia workshops and jamming at an 80’s Alma ceilidh. Thanks.

  2. This was great , I enjoyed reading it so much !
    I remember the first time Scott scared the bejeppers out of me . It was some years ago during the Open Piobaireachd competition at the College of Piping and it was being held in the main hall that year. It was my first experience watching a Piobaireachd and I thought I would just go in and “catch” the last of a performance. I opened the door at the back of the hall and let it slam behind me and took my seat at the back of the hall. When the piper was finished Scott came down to my seat and it was obvious he was more than a little upset . He started a well deserved scolding and I realized very quickly how inconsiderate my actions were.
    But , I learned three things that day (1) that I love Piobaireachd (2) never enter a small room in the middle of a Piobaireachd
    (3) that Scott MacAulay had a super softie side to him and all you had to do to see it was start bawling !!

  3. So I’m wondering now—to what extent did the good serendipity, the fact that she presented Queen Annes, the Scott book in your hands, the location–in other words the great positive associations to the man, the place, the book, the tune–contribute to your positive view of Sarah’s performance? From the comments above, it sounds as though she was a well deserved prize winner, but say a judge was listening to a tune which reminded him of a bad experience, and he was holding a score in his hands that had the writing of someone he disliked or had done him a bad turn, and he was judging in a place that he had bad associations to or memories of —-can that affect the marks sheet? I’m not for a moment doubting YOUR neutrality or objectivity, nor doubting SARAH’S playing or pipe, but how sure can we be, that in all cases of judging, those very things above don’t influence the result quite a bit?

  4. Knew Scott well. My favorite memory is from Kansas City games in the 80’s. He was the dance piper. Wanted to compete in solos but did not want to use the dance pipes. He asked to borrow my pipes ( George center drones, Sinclair chanter ) before I took the inveraan band on the field. He taped up almost every hole, had the pipe sounding great, played and won and gave the pipe back sans tape just as he had received it. Had a couple of drinks on his tab afterwards. Miss him…

  5. Martin — great additional example of Scott’s personality, but your memory eludes you a bit. It was my pipes he borrowed! He was playing for the dancing, decided to enter on the spot for the open piping, which I was playing in, got a loan of them, taped them up, won all the light music.
    Janette – none. There were three in it. Her tune would have stood up well in a Professional event.

  6. Having read the book – I just had to look. And the commendation from Monsieur Hayes only heightened my piqued curiosity. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ohw7NVDWxq0&feature=youtu.be How ungentlemanly of Janette to suggest a Judge could be biased. Goodness.

    I taught 2 of Scott’s nieces and was long curious as to where his impish sense of mischievousness arose. From those dour (just kidding) Western Isles ? I sense a lot may have stemmed from the confidence lent by those gifted and magic, blazing hands of his, as well as the innate cleverness you ascribe, Andrew. Not all were impressed in the aftermath (fallout) as they picked up strewn pieces left askew in Scott’s wake. But if we can’t laugh at ourselves, who do we allow to laugh at us? Giant figure in the Canadian scene and I was very glad I got to see Neil Dickie and Scott as originators of Kitchen Piping (something about those aspiring lawyers and piping music) let it all out at the Montreal Beer Tent in 1981/2 (I believe) – with the peripatetic Neil (Duncan Johnstone taught) being in the distant Eastern Provinces then. It was also fun to compete at the 1991 starting Highland Games at Summerside, where an also sometimes impish John Burgess (MBE and only King of the HIGHLAND pipers, alas) had the audacity to award the very large and enticing Piobaireachd prize money to a young and adept Iain Speirs.

  7. I think it was a fair comment and observation from Jannette to ask and suggest that Andrew may have got caught up in his nostalgia. Truth is there is no such thing as any sense of true objectivity, EVERYTHING IS SUBJECTIVE, and we all do the best we can, that said I am sure Andrew made the correct decision, and the video of the girl doesn’t prove she was the best (as the other two weren’t there to be seen, and besides, unless they had howlers of performances perhaps another judge may have in earnest “objectively” awarded the prize to one of the other competitors. The video just proves she was certainly able to live up to Andrew’s review.

  8. Is Scott’s collection of pipe music still being published? If it isn’t, it should be! He was a genius at light music composition with tunes like Emily Kate MacLellan and Calum and the Princess. I remember it had a black cover with white lettering and was one of the first books to use an early type of bagpipe music writer.

  9. Andrew,
    You captured Scott’s personality in your latest blog, excellent job. It too brought back many memories I had with him over the years and a lot of the stories told at his memorial service.
    John Recknagel



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