A Look Back At The Grade 1 Contest at the Scottish Championships

By Robert Wallace
By Robert Wallace

I didn’t think Saturday’s Grade 1 contest was reflected in the way the summaries eventually showed. For me there were three bands in the mix for first at Dumbarton: Field Marshal, St Laurence and Inveraray. The title could have gone to either one and no one could have complained.

That said, Inveraray’s four straight first places tells its own story and I bow to the superior insight and positioning of the adjudicators Messrs Noble, Dinsdale, Conner and Sloane. P/M Stuart Liddell is pictured above with the G1 trophy (pic. courtesy Peter Hazzard).

Before I get to a look at the individual performances it may be worthwhile pointing out a few home truths as regards the performance of the pipe band March, Strathspey and Reel. It remains the ultimate test of technique, phrasing and expression – of that there can be no doubt.

If these contests have lost their audience attraction over the years it is because of two factors, the first the repetition of tunes. Listeners get sick of hearing Lord Alexander Kennedy and its like ad nauseam and something should be done by the RSPBA’s Music Board to encourage bands to submit less often heard tunes, but ones of equal difficulty and melodic integrity to LAK.

There are plenty around and at Dumbarton it was a pleasure to hear Scottish Power’s Edinburgh Police Pipe Band, Vale of Atholl’s P/M Jim Christie and, making a comeback, Donald Cameron from Glasgow Police. Looking down the programme list of other marches on offer, Inveraray had David Ross of Rosehall, FMM the Braes of Badenoch, Ravara Edinburgh Police Pipe Band, the Vale (again) the Pap of Glencoe, and Boghall Brigadier Cheape.

All we need now is a cull of the Lord Alex’s, Links of Forth, Balmoral Highlanders, Highland Wedding and Clan MacRae and we could be onto something. A few years in the pipe band gulag for these pieces and MSR audiences might have their interest rekindled. The same goes for strathspeys and reels.

My second point is that too many Grade 1 bands have lost the knack of putting over a good MSR, especially towards the bottom of the grade. I believe some of them are ignoring first principles of where the strong beats should fall, two-bar phrasing and steady tempi. Those with weaker pipe corps may struggle to deliver all of this and maintain unison and if so they need to look closely at the level of tunes they are submitting. No sense struggling through John Morrison, Assynt House, when something like the Rejected Suitor would do just as well.

I said on Saturday that I thought that anyone of the top four placed bands could win the Worlds. That does not, of course, preclude bands from overseas. I haven’t heard SFU and they have a Worlds pedigree as good as anyone’s, so look out for them on the big day.

To the performances. Overall I did not think it a great contest and the weather may have played a part. For example Scottish Power and Inveraray got caught in the cold and damp and their sound was adversely affected, though Inveraray’s less so. The sun came out for FM proving yet again that God is an Ulsterman and they profited accordingly.

Overall the Power displayed crisp fingering, especially the bottom hand work in Blair Drummond. Tempos and breaks were all good but the quality of their sound counted against them. Inveraray were slick as a whistle from start to finish with a more powerful tone. I was distracted by their over loud bass drumming however. The top hand of the chanters improved as they went along and by the time they hit the reel were in the smoothest of overdrives. Not as outstandingly impressive as they were at the British but a definite contender.

Field Marshal....impressive sound
Field Marshal at Dumbarton….the sun came out for their performance

The best sound so far belonged to FM. As I said, the sun will have helped. Their playing was impossible to fault but two things struck me regarding the breaks. Though handled well by the pipers, the opening D to B strike in John Roy Stewart is not the most arresting of opening figures for a pipe band strathspey. You are never quite sure if pipers and drummers are hitting it together. I thought Field Marshal nailed it but others might have had different views. I am not a fan of the extended break to the reel as the band gave us going into Charlie’s Welcome. It interrupts flow. That said, the tune was played brilliantly and was one of the highlights of the day with outstanding ensemble touches from the bass and tenor section later on.

SLoT in the circle today
SLoT in the circle at Dumbarton

St Laurence O’Toole, after a fine march, may have been a shade early into their strathspey and at times the rhythm struck me as not always as one with the drummers. However, it was great to hear MacBeth’s Strathspey (difficult for a band but, stick with it please) and their sound and fingering were at least equal to anything on the day.

Shotts were impressive and, like 2015, are coming good at just the right time. They deserve all credit for the way they have overcome their difficulties of last winter. Again I thought the bass over dominant at times and apart from a strident A’, the sound, drones to chanters, something to enjoy. Again the high A broadened out by the time the reel came. This was John Morrison, Assynt House so the high As had to be good. I felt concentration began to go in parts five and six of the tune, but overall, fine playing.

P/M Ross Harvey’s Boghall gave their best performance of the season to my ear, though I didn’t hear them at Stormont. Clean, clear, controlled was their playing. The double Bs in the Smith of Chilliechassie were tight and the flowing rhythm of the reel would be helped if they were more relaxed and played almost like semiquaver/quaver instead of a true doubling. Easier for the drummers too.

Of the others: Glasgow Police started well with a very good sound (I understand a lot of work has been done recently on this). Unfortunately their solid opening was not sustained with tempos seeming to drift in and out and unison and pointing suffering along the way. I said last time that Spirit of Scotland need to work on their unison and phrasing; this remains the case. Their rambling, inchoate Highland Wedding was very disappointing.

Congratulations to Fife Police for finally making the list in a major. At Dumbarton they had a much more confident feel to their playing. The tempos were up, the drummers seemed to respond, and as a result they went back to the Kingdon with a well-earned sixth prize. With a sharper, more focussed Tulloch Castle they might have done better still. I liked Vale of Atholl‘s broad sound (no top hand worries here) and fingerwork, but the continual broken time of the bass upset the band’s rhythmical delivery. To me the first duty of the bass drummer is to underpin a performance with a steady pulse. Shaping the melody with huge mallets is a secondary function and should not supersede the first.

1 Inveraray 2 SLoT 3 Shotts 4 FMM 5 Power 6 Fife

Get full results from Grade 1 and all other grades on the RSPBA’s website here.

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