I arrived early enough at picturesque Grant Park, Forres, to hear the whole of the Juvenile grade. The young bands taking part were asked to play a March, Strathspey and Reel and all did so with considerable aplomb.
Even in my day the Juvenile grade was always very demanding. This brought you on and invariably, once you reached 18, you were ready for Grade 1. So it is today, and RSPBA legislators are right to keep this stringent test going for this grade. The numbers may be low as a result – only five bands played – but the quality is anything but.
The winners were Dollar Academy just ahead, probably on sound, of George Watson’s, the latter’s phrasing and fingerwork (apart from the low G doublings in the Argyllshire Gathering) particularly impressive. In third we had West Lothian Schools with Colin Thomson, Maggie Cameron and Lt. Col. DJS Murray – that’s the sort of stuff these bands submit.
When we played this march (Colin Thomson) we always had to try for the birls from low G in the third part, but WLS have replaced them with low G doublings. Understandable, but this is a fine wee band and young fingers are amazingly adaptable if the issue is forced.
The other two bands in the grade, Boghall Juveniles and Preston Lodge High School were a little bit off the pace set by the first three but gave plucky performances nevertheless. We must always remember that juvenile bands have to continually renew themselves. If they lose a tranche of older members in one go it can be a couple of years before they have players of sufficient seniority to allow the band to challenge once more.
All in all a thoroughly enjoyable contest and congratulations to P/Ms Matt Wilson, Iain Simpson, Lee Moore, Gordon Bruce and Jonathan Simpson, and the battalions of parents involved, for getting their charges to the line in such good order, looking so smart and playing so well. Result: 1 Dollar Academy 2 Geo. Watson’s 3 West Lothian Schools 4 Boghall 5 Preston Lodge; Drumming: G Watson’s.
On to the big boys in G1 where the judges were same as for Juvenile: Robert Mathieson, John McCarlie (both piping), David Brown (drumming) and Gordon Lawrie (ensemble). Overall there was a higher standard here than there had been at the British at Paisley – just what one would expect given that we were on our second medley contest of the season. The winners, as you will all know by now, were St Laurence O’Toole from Dublin (pictured top with trophy) who thus completed a great week for Eire – the Euro win over Italy perhaps inspiring P/M Alen Tully and his band to emulate their soccer heroes. That they certainly did. They gave a beautiful performance.
In every winning medley there has to be one moment during which the audience, judges, the birds in the trees, are transfixed. In Boolavogue, the Irish rebel ballad commemorating the 1798 rising, SLoT gave us just such a moment. Playing from the heart as ever, the band did the memory of the hanged rebel leaders proud and strode off into a more Scottish world, the strathspey, with confidence and brilliant technique – a confidence and brilliance sustained until the Arnish Light finale. The pipe major really has whipped his team into order after what must have been a disappointing start to the season. Here they are on YouTube:
Talking of brilliance brings me to Field Marshal Montgomery. Just a tad behind SLoT in panache I felt, but hard to fault. It is very difficult for any band to live with FMM’s peerless technique. Even with the 24 pipers I counted they sound just like one. That technique is projected to perfection by instruments of clarity and substance. FMM may be slightly frustrated to lose out on this occasion, but they will have been pleased to see their drum corps put any previous difficulties behind them with a very creditable third place.
Inveraray & District, rocked by an early E, recovered well and by the time they reached John Morrison, Assynt House, were really cooking. The drum arrangements for this and Alick C. MacGregor are particularly effective and I am sure were noted by the ensemble adjudicator. As with the first two, I’ray’s fingering is a thrilling listen. The band’s drum corp were placed first for the second time this season.
World Champions Shotts, fourth placed, had been first on and set a fine standard for the others to beat. As last year, Ryan Canning’s band are slowly asserting themselves, gaining ground and confidence as they go. A new drum corps will have wrought the inevitable shifts in arrangements and delivery, but at Forres they gave us a terrific start to the competition. The purity in their chanter sound could not be bettered. If there was any questioning of piping technique it would have been in the strathspeys, but that aside Shotts are, in my book, playing as well as ever.
Scottish Power were fifth with a much better tuned bottom hand than at Paisley and sparkling playing to boot. (All the mixolydian theorising goes for nothing when the low G is off pitch). I particularly enjoyed the relaxed, jaunty drumming from Jake Jørgensen and couldn’t understand why his corps was so lowly placed. Shows how much I know about the percussive art. Good professional tempi from P/M Christopher Armstrong and smooth transitions throughout.
In sixth came Spirit of Scotland who struggled again with unison in the pipe corps – yet it must be difficult to homogenise so many great players into one unit, especially when there seem to be personnel changes every time this band goes out. Still, given time I think they will do much better in this department. And a medley with more melody would help too.
Of those not placed I was very impressed with Vale of Atholl – a different band from Paisley. Better sound and better playing throughout. P/M Adrian Cramb has been working hard. Glasgow Police had a good sound but need more expression and phrasing in their delivery. Boghall played very well but I wonder if they are trying too hard. This medley, Tam Bain’s Lum etc, struck me as being over complex. It was well executed but musically left one a bit cold. No sooner had a tune been established but we were into harmonies and counter melodies. I enjoyed both Bleary and Fife Police, but they lacked conviction, confidence, call it what you will. Both bands are works in progress.
So who will win the Worlds? The top five at Forres, on this showing,
are out on their own. Aside from SFU, I cannot see the title going to anyone else. SLoT, FMM and Inveraray have each won one major and each with a scintillating display. But, as I have written many times, the Worlds is a whole different bag of ferrets. In the final, bands have to impress eight different adjudicators; they have to produce that scintillation in two different disciplines whilst submitting four different packages of music. It is here that the real work is manifest, where the winter’s depth of endeavour comes to the fore.
The band that walks off with the trophy at Glasgow Green will have earned it, of that you can rest assured. For now it is on to the Scottish at Dumbarton for the last clash before biggest day of all.
• The European Pipe Band Championships, Grant Park, Forres, Moray, June 25, 2016. For full results and summaries go to http://www.rspba.org and click on Results.