MacPhail: piping triumph is tribute to a great tutor

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Like most professions, skills and attributes, it has long been recognised that music passes down the generations.

The piping world is well known for players whose abilities grew from the talents of their forebears. Last weekend this pattern was substantiated yet again when Finlay Johnston was crowned winner of the Glenfiddich Piping Championship 2018 held at Blair Castle in Perthshire.

Seen by many as the premiere prize of the entire piping scene, the Glenfiddich competitors are chosen based on their accumulated achievements in the year leading up to the championship.

Winning among a field of the 10 best competing pipers in the world, is an outstanding achievement.

Finlay has pipe music in his blood. His mother, Anne Johnston (nee Sinclair), had a very successful solo piping career and was the first female winner of the Silver Medal at the Northern Meeting in Inverness. His father, Tommy, was a top pipe-band drummer and is a maker of very fine pipe reeds.

Like Anne, Finlay’s piping began under the tutelage of his grandfather, the late Alasdair Sinclair from Greenhill on the west side of Tiree.

When Finlay was eight years old he spent a summer on Tiree with his grandfather and this was when his road to winning the Glenfiddich began.

His own hard work over the years, along with ever-present guidance from his mother and continued instruction from Ronnie McShannon, combined to grow a champion from that young boy who first played the practice chanter under the watchful and encouraging eye of his grandfather more than 24 years ago.

The following sentence is an excerpt from a column I wrote covering the Tiree Songbook Concert at Celtic Connections in January 2016 at which Anne and Finlay appeared. I was conveying how the presence of the late forebears of those performing could be strongly felt and was envisaging how they might be reacting to the fine music being played and to the atmosphere of the occasion.

‘As Anne and Finlay Johnston played Am Falbh thu leam a Ribhinn Og, their father and grandfather respectively, Alasdair Sinclair, was singing along with a wide grin and a glint in his eye.’

Well, if Alasdair Sinclair could have witnessed his grandson hitting the very pinnacle of the piping world last Saturday, his grin would have been as wide as the open Atlantic behind his house and the glint in his eye brighter than the beam from Skerryvore Lighthouse.

Another of Alasdair’s pupils was Pipe Major Gordon Rowan, who is the current director of the Army School of Piping in Edinburgh. With a grandson who has just been crowned as king of pipers for 2018 and another former pupil holding one of the most prestigious positions in piping, his influence on the contemporary bagpipe world is significant.

Alasdair Ruadh, as he was known, died in November of 1996 but, like many who pass on skills, knowledge, music and art, they render themselves and their memories immortal.

By winning the Glenfiddich, Finlay Johnston has added greatly to the immortality of his grandfather’s memory and to Tiree piping lineage.

Well done, Finlay!