Hearts go out to piper Willie McCallum and his family after the sudden loss of his father at the end of the Donald Macleod Memorial Competition on Friday night.
It had been an amazing day, with great piping and a great turnout, but the joy and delight in the music and the craic turned to terrible sadness when Willie McCallum Senior collapsed and died shortly afterwards. Old Willie, as he was known, had travelled up to Stornoway from Campbeltown to see his son play and told him on Friday night: “That was the best day of my life.”
Willie McCallum has won the P/M Donald Macleod Memorial Competition nine times. This time he was overall runner-up and, poignantly, the trophy given to the runner-up had been donated to the competition by his father in memory of his mother.
The picture above shows Willie with his father, who is holding the silver quaich in memory of his late wife. Willie is holding the cup given to the winner of the March, Strathspey and Reel section. The photograph, now so precious, is used here with Willie’s kind permission.
Along with my father, Dr John Smith — who was Fear an Tighe at the competition and who tried to save Mr McCallum by giving him CPR — I met up with Willie and fellow piper Roddy Macleod on Sunday morning.
Willie was remembering looking for his father in the audience on Friday after he had finished playing his tunes in the March, Strathspey and Reel section.
“It was just a thing I did when I finished,” he said. “I was quite happy myself with it and I looked because we always had a wee connection when I finished. It’s not a thing I thought about. I looked at his face and he was dead chuffed and I thought ‘well, he’s happy with that’.”
Old Willie travelled to almost every competition his son every played in and, without him, he may well not have been a piper today. Willie said: “He was a great supporter but he was a great supporter with all the guys. He knew everybody in the piping world. He was great friends with them all. He knew the kids that came to the junior contest; he could see them coming up and up and he was very kind to them.”
He added: “He was one of the boys; he would just be part of the gang. He would join in the laughs; he just loved life.”
Roddy Macleod, who has an MBE for services to piping, remembered that when others might pop out of a competition for a coffee, Old Willie would always stay listening. “He has probably listened to more piping than anybody else,” he said. “He could go to the Glenfiddich and not miss a note.”
Willie McCallum Snr was an honorary member of the Lewis and Harris Piping Society. He was also an honorary member of the Kintyre Piping Society and both scrolls hung together on a wall in his house.
He was awarded the Balvenie Medal in 2003. Presented to him at the Glenfiddich championship, this is for the person deemed to have made a significant contribution to the piping world, either through teaching or the organisation of competitions. And Mr McCallum, although he didn’t play himself, was always one of its greatest supporters.
Friday had been a great day of competitive piping — piobaireachds, marches, strathspeys, reels, hornpipes and jigs – followed by a dinner and a ceilidh, including the famous pipers’ rally, where they all play together. Given that it’s eight of the current best pipers in the world who play at the Donald Macleod competition by invitation, that’s always quite a sound.
Willie said: “We had a great day and if that was his last day, I’m very happy. He was even up dancing at the ceilidh.”
Dr John Smith said: “It’s very sad. It was almost surreal, really, that Willie McCallum won the trophy that was actually given to the Lewis and Harris Piping Society in memory of his mother, Mrs Margaret McCallum, by his father.”
Mr McCallum had suffered a massive heart attack.
The overall winner of the competition was Stuart Liddell.
The full list of results is: Ceol Mor: 1st Stuart Liddell, 2nd Callum Beaumont, 3rd Willie McCallum, 4th Angus MacColl.
March, Strathspey and Reel: 1st Willie McCallum, 2nd Stuart Liddell, 3rd Angus MacColl, 4th Finlay Johnston
Jig Competition: 1st Angus MacColl, 2nd Stuart Liddell, 3rd Finlay Johnston, 4th Gordon McCready