One of the first rules of journalism is ‘be there’ and if you want to give a detailed and accurate, albeit subjective, account of an important pipe band contest then that is exactly what you have to do.
No amount of social media chatter, summary sheet perusal or YouTube re-runs is in any way a substitute to actually positioning yourself at a suitable coign of vantage and listening and watching the whole contest from start to finish first hand.
At the British Pipe Band Championships on Saturday it was fairly easy to get close to the action and that is what I did. The Grade 1 contest began at 2.15pm and ended near to 5pm. It was cold to begin with but warmed up as the afternoon wore on. Despite others in the crowd talking throughout some of the performances (how annoying is that?) I was able to get a pretty good impression of the playing.
The grade could be split between those who had the chance of a prize and those who didn’t. Two grades would have been ideal from the 16 bands forward. Grades 1A and 1B anyone? I had Inveraray, FMM, and SLoT vying for top spot with the first named my preference.
Both British Columbia bands were disappointing and I was surprised Dowco placed above SFU. The cold may have been a factor for both bands but they have been coming to chilly Jockoland for many years and should know what to expect. The three newcomers to the grade, PSNI, Buchan Peterson and Johnstone all acquitted themselves well in their new surroundings. They will get better.
The fare was March, Strathspey and Reel, the discipline which truly exposes the technical and musical ability of a band. It may not be as popular with the crowd as the Medley, but be under no illusion about where the real test of a band’s prowess lies. The discipline suffers in attraction because of the frequency with which we hear the same tunes, nothing else.
A closer look now at the playing……There was a hushed silence as Inveraray and P/M Stuart Liddell, last on, approached the arena. The air of expectation was almost palpable; we were not disappointed. The first few bars showed we had a solid sound with the breadth in the top hand that every band needs. I was slightly taken aback at the lack of phrasing in places in the Links of Forth but the band really came onto a game with their strathspey The Bob of Fettercairn (who knows what a ‘Bob’ is; a dance?) and the reel, Charlie’s Welcome.
Not the most attractive setting of this tune but handled brilliantly by P/M Liddell and his pipe corps. And what a corps! With pipers such as Finlay Johnston, Calum Beaumont, Greig Canning and Alasdair Henderson in the ranks he can’t have much teaching to do. I heard later that one piper did not get away – not something obvious from where I was standing. If true, the judges, who can now swap such information, were right to keep it in perspective.
Inveraray were deserved winners though the summaries showed only a one point gap to second placed Field Marshal. Full marks to P/M Parkes for selecting an unusual march in Braes of Badenoch (a march better handled than Inveraray’s ‘Links’) but after that FMM seemed to sink into a slough of despond and there was a distinct lack of panache about the strathspey and reel Blair Drummond and Pretty Marion. Maybe it was the cold. FM were third on when conditions were decidedly inhospitable. They displayed a fine quality of fingering throughout discernible even though bass and tenor work was surprisingly heavy-handed at times.
Shotts were placed third. They played beautifully with perfectly judged tempi and quality handwork excepting the tachums in the Smith of Chilliechassie which were very clipped. To my ear the chanters were pitched overly high. This really thinned down the top hand and this seemed to be emphasised by their powerful, rich, drone tone. Maybe the band played too much before going on. Everything else is in place for Shotts. More breadth in the top hand and they may have been challenging for top spot, their playing was that good.
St Laurence O’Toole, fourth, had no such chanter worries and tune presentation was top drawer too. I particularly liked the lift and expression in the Shepherd’s Crook especially the way they controlled the run downs beginning with the F to double E at the end of the parts. Maybe they rushed into the reel but it soon settled down. Did the drones drift towards the end or was that a band playing in the nearby Grade 2 arena that I was hearing? This is the advantage the judges have over the critic in the crowd.
Fife Police, fifth, were big and bold with their work. Going for the jugular from the off, this band showed they were serious about winning. If they faltered then they were not going die wondering. The fact is that they did not falter and were worthy of their fifth prize, perhaps their highest ever placing in a major championship. The only negative for me was a shrillness in the top hand of the chanters. Again it may have been caused by overblowing before the performance. It will be a problem easily solved for a professional reedmaker like P/M Douglas Murray,
I thought the sixth placed band, Scottish Power, had one of the best sounds of the day and well done to them for playing Roderick Campbell’s Edinburgh City Police Pipe Band as their march. Looking at the programme they have ditched the Royal Scottish Pipers Society for 2017; smart move. I thought them a little nervous in the ECPPB however and the phrasing suffered. Like Inveraray, they settled down in the strathspey and reel, and here their precise fingerwork shone through – but are the extra birls in the last part of Loch Carron really necessary? A fine band who can look forward to the other majors with relish.
Of the others, it surely can’t be long before Boghall, unplaced here, start making the list again. I, and others nearby, were impressed with their playing. I thought I heard an early E and again the chanters were high pitched. The BC bands I have already mentioned. SFU did not have the cutting edge sound we associate with them, though the playing was steady if rather uninspiring. Dowco were equally lacking in spirit and the drones drifted quite badly. PSNI had a rock like tone but the unison got ragged the more their set progressed – serious potential in this band. Ravara and Bleary tried hard, had a good initial sound, but everything seemed to regress thereafter with some sloppy playing (particularly from Bleary) in the reels.
Johnstone started well with a bold tone but some pipers were struggling with the technical difficulties of Brigadier Cheape, Tulloch Castle and John Morrison, Assynt House; P/M Bowes slowed the tempo of the reel to help them but that won’t do in G1. Glasgow Police had good, Grade 1 tempi throughout but again it seemed as though some pipers just couldn’t manage the challenge of the Young MacGregor, never mind Blair Drummond and the Smith of Chilliechassie. Vale of Atholl might like to look at the bass and tenor stuff going on in their strathspey; I found it distracting and not in keeping with the complexities of Dora MacLeod. One piper not away. Solid sound, best for a couple of years.
Overall a good, if not great, standard of play affected early on by snell winds and the exposed situation at St James. Aircraft taking off are a minor aural distraction – but a distraction nevertheless. A move to the nearby King George V Playing Fields in Renfrew, as hinted at by RSPBA Chairman Gordon Hamill, might not be a bad idea.
Well done to all those bands who ventured into new territory with seldom heard tunes.
• Keep checking Piping Press for our report on Grade 2. Check the dates of the remaining majors here. Check all band summary sheets from the British here. Inveraray Pipe Major Stuart Liddell is pictured top with the winners trophy courtesy Peter Hazzard RSPBA.