Glasgow's Piping Live! festival to return 'with a vengeance'

After two challenging years, the annual piping celebration is poised to revert to its usual, fully-live format, with events ranging from long-established competitions to avant-garde performances. Jim Gilchrist reports

Now in its 19th year, Glasgow’s Piping Live! festival returns after two pandemic years of online-only or “blended” online and live concerts. As its artistic director Finlay MacDonald agrees, they have been challenging times, but now the festival – a week-long countdown to the World Pipe Band Championships, which are also returning to Glasgow Green after a two-year hiatus – is reinstating itself with a vengeance, opening on 6 August with events ranging from long established piping competitions to some fairly avant-garde approaches to piping.

A Ceol Nua – “new music” – concert features the American trio Blarvuster, whose sound, in their own words, “eludes genre trappings”. Interestingly the group’s leader, piper, saxophonist and composer Matthew Welch, cites as an important influence Finlay’s father, the late Pipe Major Iain MacDonald, a widely esteemed and eclectic-minded piping ambassador who led his Neilston Pipe Band across the world. “Matthew sent me a couple of nice messages after Dad passed in 2020,” explains MacDonald, “and he said one of the things that got him thinking differently about piping was my Dad, who was in the States about 30 years ago doing workshops and teaching Breton and Norwegian tunes and things like that.”

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So that broadening of outlook boomerangs back to Glasgow in what should be an ear-opener for those accustomed to more conventional piping. “There have been a couple of times in the past I’ve thought about doing some kind of experimental stuff but it never quite came together,” adds MacDonald, “but this year in particular we need to focus on the future as well as the past and it’s important for us as a festival to encourage new music. It’s maybe challenging, but it makes you think about what we do with the pipes and where it might go.

Also featuring in Ceol Nua is piper and pipemaker Malin Lewis, aka Malin Makes Music, who has been developing innovative playing and composition.

On the more established piping scene, the festival has succeeded in reinstating the highly prestigious Silver Chanter competition to its original setting of the Isle of Skye, following several years when, having lost its longstanding home at Dunvegan Castle, it was hosted by the National Piping Centre, which is the hub of Piping Live! Preceding the main festival, the competition will now be held on 3 August at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, Skye’s Gaelic college. “We were simply custodians for the competition,” says MacDonald, as director of piping at the Piping Centre, “but I was very keen to see it back on Skye. We’ve got good links with Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, so we had some discussions and that’s happening now. We shouldn’t be too Glasgow-centric, but should be reaching out to other, like-minded organisations.”

As well as various other Highland piping competitions, the festival bill offers a host of concerts and recitals, not least the wonderfully titled We’re a Case the Bunch of Us, featuring the renowned piper, tradition-bearer and Gaelic scholar Allan MacDonald, featuring some of the many enduring tunes he has written (including the eponymous We’re A Case…) and featuring a stellar band including Highland fiddler Iain MacFarlane and also Finlay himself, who’s delighted at the chance to play with one of his piping heroes.

He’s also enthusiastic about the return to the festival of two other players he admires hugely, Scottish piper Fred Morrison and Irish uilleann piper Paddy Keenan, of Bothy Band fame, who should guarantee a memorable closing event.

Elsewhere an Emerging Composers night marks 20 years of the National Youth Pipe Band of Scotland, while the festival’s customary hosting of indigenous pipers from far afield will see musicians from countries including Iran, Estonia and Hungary perform in the magisterial acoustic space of Kelvingrove Museum. They’ll also doubtless be cropping up at the Piping Centre’s popular Street Café – where MacDonald hopes to escape from administrative duties and lead the final session, “if I can make it.”

Piping Live! runs from 6-14 August:

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