Student wins piping competition

Monday 5 June 2023


A St Catharine’s student has come first in a competition open to any student or member of staff at the University of Cambridge who plays the bagpipes. Calum Rennie, a third-year Law undergraduate, won the James Campbell Piping Competition hosted by Pembroke College.

For Calum, the competition is one of the ways that his piping has been supported during his time at Cambridge:

“I have been delighted to find opportunities to practice and perform alongside my undergraduate studies, which helps me keep in touch with my Scottish heritage when I’m away from home. I’m aware some other colleges don’t allow pipes and another competitor told me they have to travel out of the city to practice in nearby fields, but luckily Catz has been far more supportive. I was initially able to practice in the Chapel and now use the new music room built during the Central Spaces project – apologies to users of the gym next door if I am testing the soundproofing to its limits!

“The James Campbell Piping Competition was established last year and I’ve now competed twice, coming third last year. The competition is a great way to meet other pipers from across the University, who you might not otherwise know. Until the competition came along, the main reason for performing in Cambridge would be Burns Night celebrations in January, when my calendar packed full with requests to play at Burns suppers and ceilidhs.”

Calum has played the bag pipes for over a decade. At the age of nine, he started playing the chanter – a quieter instrument that Calum describes as “nicer sounding to the untrained ear” – before progressing to the goose, which resembles the bag of full bagpipes but without the drones that create their distinctive sound. His early talent was encouraged by his school, George Watson’s College in Edinburgh. He explains:

“The school has a proud history of piping and a well-known piping band, which I was able to join. I was part of the band that came first in the 2019 UK Pipe Band Championships and second in the 2019 World Pipe Band Championships. The Worlds were amazing because I had the chance to see all the other piping traditions and national dress from around the world, from France to Oman and India.”

Two photos of Calum Rennie aged 10 and 21
Calum Rennie aged 10 (left) and more recently piping in the James Campbell Piping Competition (right; credit: Pembroke College)

The James Campbell Piping Competition is named in honour of the late James Campbell MC, a Law Fellow at Pembroke College, a piper and a respected authority on piobaireachd (a particular style of pipe music). Calum was presented with the competition medal by The Rt Hon Lord Smith of Finsbury, Master of Pembroke. The medal is engraved with a portrait of James Campbell, which Calum appreciated:

“Although I never had the opportunity to meet James Campbell, it is poignant to receive a medal in his honour, given that we share much in common: we are both pipers and studied Law at Cambridge! I like to think that he would be pleased to know that I hope to pursue a career in law after graduation, with every intention of keeping up with my pipes alongside work.”

James Campbell Piping Competition prize giving and medal close up
Calum received the James Campbell medal (right) from Pembroke's Master The Rt Hon Lord Smith of Finsbury (left; credit: Pembroke College)

The James Campbell Piping Competition requires competitors play the great Highland bagpipe, but – subject to a time limit – they are welcome to play whatever music they wish. Calum selected the following medley of light music for his winning performance:

  • Angus MacKinnon (6/8 March)
  • Banjo Breakdown (Jig)
  • Glasgow City Police Pipers (Jig)
  • The Dark Island (Slow Air)
  • O'er the Bows to Ballindalloch (Strathspey)
  • Tulloch Castle (Strathspey)
  • The Devil in the Kitchen (Traditional Reel)
  • Lexy McAskill (Traditional Reel)
  • The Ness Pipers (Round Reel)

“The winning medley doesn’t actually include my favourite piece, ‘Flowers of the Forest’, which commemorates the Battle of Flodden in 1513. It’s traditionally played on Remembrance Sunday (including at Catz in 2022) and at funerals, but superstition means that it is bad luck to practice this specific tune so I only rarely get the chance to hear or play it.”

Calum will next be playing the pipes at the St Catharine’s May Week Concert on Main Court on Friday 16 June. All are welcome to meet in the McGrath Centre at 5pm for summer refreshments (Pimm’s and strawberries), before musical performance by students begin at 5.30pm.