Judgment and sorrow

It’s too soon to try to put the death of Alasdair Gillies into any words or perspective. It’s a sad, sad loss for his family and friends. Anyone who knew Alasdair couldn’t help but to like him.

I’ve written about this before: the hardest decision as a journalist aspiring to professional standards is to know when it is appropriate to report news. Our community of pipers and drummers is a far cry from a tabloid paper or even a more respectable broadsheet for a mainstream audience. Several years ago I made a bad judgment call on reporting too quickly on a prominent piper’s death and will regret it forever. But I learned from the mistake of trying to be “first” at the cost of human sensitivity. Our news is different and it takes finesse and sensitivity when the worst sort of information hits you right in the guts.

My guts were hit crossing the Minch. I was on a CalMac ferry back from one of the small isles, where there had been no mobile signal. I will always remember my phone suddenly buzzing alive in my jacket pocket for the first time in two weeks. I opened the phone to see three messages, each with “Alasdair Gillies” in the subject line.

The connection was very slow, so it took several minutes for the body of the messages to come through and, if I were a person of prayer, I would have prayed for something, anything besides the ominous news that I always dread when I see a subject line with only a person’s name.

And then it hit. In that bright sunlit Hebridean morning of August 27, 2011, my worst fear became real, and I exhaled after holding my breath for that agonizingly long wait. My only emotion was pure sadness, and my only thought was with his family and for Alasdair as the extraordinary musician and gentle soul he was.

I can’t say that I knew Alasdair well, but I had the extreme honour of playing alongside him in a pipe band a few years ago and sharing a few exceptional, fleeting moments at the World’s. I will always remember several of his extraordinary Silver Star performances at Eden Court when he was in top form and, just as memorable, the extraordinary hush that fell on the packed hall when he approached the stage, several hundred passionate pipers bracing to be once again dazzled by his virtuosity with a Highland bagpipe – and the ovation explosion when he finished.

pipes|drums will mark Alasdair’s passing in due course, when the time is appropriate. For now, we lament the loss of one of our greatest, and hope that his family and loved ones – for he was clearly loved by many – may eventually find peace.

Recharging

Eilean ChanaighAnother World’s is in the books, and I’d have to say it was the best yet. I think I say that every year, but this one seemed to run spectacularly well. Say what you will about the RSPBA, but these people know how to run some of the most complex events on the pipe band calendar.

After a fun and exhausting week in Glasgow, I’m off to a little island in the Hebrides to create a few altogether different life memories with my girls. Access to the Internet (not to mention my desire to access it) could be scant or even nonexistent, so things could be relatively quiet around these pages for a spell. As always, we’ll try to do our best.

I do hope that you enjoyed the coverage from Piping Live! and the World’s. We’re all indebted to great writers like Pete Aumonier, Michael Grey, Iain MacDonald and Meaghan Proudfoot and many others behind-the-scenes for their pith and insight.

For now, I’m on the West Highland Line to Mallaig, camera and mind trained on things other than pipers and drummers.

Well, at least some of time . . .

Maxville memories

Even though it was my twenty-third in succession and twenty-seventh overall, each Glengarry Highland Games at Maxville is remarkable. I recently compared photos of last year’s event with one from the 1980s and was amazed at how much the piping and drumming and band competitions have grown.

Each year is memorable for different reasons. The exact years often blur, but the memories tend to stay clear. Here are a few of my stand-out positive recollections from the 2011 rendition of Maxville.

Alex Gandy, Maxville 2011.1. Alex Gandy’s March, Strathspey & Reel. I heard maybe six or seven players in the contest, but when I caught Alex’s performance I thought that it could stand up just about anywhere. It emerged the winner of the “Glengarry MSR” against a field of more than 20 other top-flight players. Everything about it was excellent, but most of all the content: Donald MacLeod’s “Duncan MacColl,” Allan MacDonald’s “Crann Tara,” and Fred Morrison’s version of “Alick C. MacGregor,” and compliments to judge Reay Mackay for having the moxie and knowledge to choose them. I’m not sure when the last time was when a competitor won three Professional solo piping events at Maxville, but it’s a rarity.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2rXnv5eoD8E&w=320&h=240]

 

2. Acknowledging our over-achievers. Special Honourary Life Memberships to the Pipers & Pipe Band Society of Ontario were awarded to Reay Mackay and Ed Neigh for their decades of unflagging service to the cause. Bob Worrall and Michael Grey respectively paid tribute to these stalwarts of the art not at some small members-only event, but at the final massed bands ceremony before tens of thousands of pipers, drummers and others. This sort of thing needs to happen more, and I’m pretty sure that it will after starting with these deserving gents.

Maxville Grade 1 commemorative pin.3. Pins for winners. The good folks at the Glengarry games decided this year to create commemorative pins to give to each player in the 2011 North American Champion band. What a great concept. Maxville lost most of its great trophies in a fire several years ago, and marking the achievement this way is a certain treasure for every member, this year, of the Peel Regional Police Pipe Band. Pure class.

4. Logistical brilliance. Coordinating the more than 60 events (51 separate solo contests on Friday alone) is an almost superhuman feat that we often take for granted. There are folks out there at the crack of dawn getting things ready week in and week out in Ontario, and they deserve huge thanks. There are games that have a hard time getting three events to run on time. Sure, there were minor hiccups, but the PPBSO’s volunteer management team for this year’s Maxville deserves huge recognition and credit.

5. Trickle-down creativity. I’ve heard people disparage the Toronto Police Pipe Band’s adventurous medleys of the last few years, saying that, if people liked them then why more bands would immitating them. But my view is that the avant-garde or Haute Couture in art or fashion makes a strong style statement that is rarely imitated, but it instead inspires. It trickles down to become a trend a few years later. Listening to bands, many are now more creative and adventurous than ever, and many times at Maxville I heard inspiration in their new music. There’s a correlation.

Those are a few of my stand-out Maxville memories. What are yours?