Preview of Saturday’s Grade 2 UK Championship, Stormont, Belfast

Lomond & Clyde took the British title just a few short weeks ago and here we are on the threshold of the second major championship of the year in the beautiful grounds of Stormont Castle [above], writes our Special Correspondent. Runner-up at Paisley, Glasgow Skye, will be looking to go one better, and drumming winners, Manorcunningham, will be looking to repeat that feat and improve their piping scores.

According to the draw, a bigger Eire and Northern Irish contingent will be present this time round from the British roster. However, looking ahead to the European Championship in Forres, the Grade 2 list has no bands travelling from the Emerald Isle at all. No doubt something organisers will have noted.

Back to the prospects for the UK Championships, here is the run down as we see it: Belfast and, more specifically, the beautiful surroundings of Stormont, provide a great backdrop to this Championship. The cricket field is a perfect surface and, whilst the weather forecast looks wet for the whole of this week, and at best ‘mixed’ for Saturday, it will not dampen spirits at this well attended event. As the Scandinavians say, there is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing. The scent of damp wool, anyone?

Grade 2 summary from the UK’s last year

The Friday and Saturday ferries and early Saturday morning flights to Belfast from Edinburgh and Glasgow will all get a passenger boost for this one. Inside knowledge suggests it has been known for early morning travellers to arrive at either Belfast City or Belfast International airport (make sure you know which is which if you are flying) and scoot in to the nearby Stormont Hotel for a fine ‘Norn Irn’ breakfast before crossing the street to the competition. Last year some unconnected Japanese dignitaries were caught up in the  hurly burly of the hotel – returning to the land of the rising sun assuming all in Belfast adorn kilts on a Saturday. 

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Entry to the championship is free, breakfast isn’t. The excursion cost for travelling bands has obviously impacted the entry list, and there will be seven Grade 2 bands absent from the Paisley running order. In saying that, three ‘local’ bands make their first Championship appearances of 2017 to take the draw to 12 bands. The RSPBA will video the entire Grade 2 contest (as it did at Paisley) and the performances will be available for those interested in tier 2.

Grade 2 bands submit two March, Strathspey and Reel sets for this one and a draw is made at the line. This jeopardy adds a bit more tension for the MSR as there will always be a preferred set, regardless of what bands say. It could be linked to which had the best (or poorest) run in the morning or, simply tune preference and complexity. You can practice a Medley exclusively in Grade 2, but you are always hedging the MSR. There is no doubt that this format has the reputation of sorting the wheat from the chaff.

The Adjudicators, barring any late change, will be Messrs Campbell, McCarlie, Steele and Mathieson, for a 2.30pm start.

Absent from the Paisley list: Grampian Police, City of London, Balagan/Denmark, Oban (did not play at Paisley), Dumbarton & District, Isle of Islay, Bucksburn & DistrictLining up for their first Major of this season: Thiepval Memorial, Annsborough, Auchintober.

Closkelt pictured at the Worlds

And so to the competition. We will get a look at the MSR sets on the day and there have been a few public performances at competitions in recent weeks and other days where bands have given them a run out. Closkelt are first off and will be looking at their (5 6 6 8) score from the Medley at the British. The snares were busy that day and the band balance was good. A mid table finish then, and looking to improve.

City of Discovery, from Dundee, might well be smarting at the one painful piping score from Paisley (14 7 4 5). They’ll dust that off though and there is always precision in their MSR. The back end of this band is well led too, and fans of mid sections should take note. On the artistic front, the art work on the bass drum is making news with a great panoramic depiction of the Dundee skyline.

Scottish Fire & Rescue Services step off next and will want to get up the ladder. This band is a mix of experience with fresh faces and is maturing well. Maybe a three to four-year programme in progress as the Novice band start to feed through players to the big band. (7 8 13 11 in Paisley).

Auchintober from County Tyrone, the newly promoted 3A and Worlds Grade 3A runners-up to Worcester Kiltie in 2016, make their first major outing of the season. They obviously have forward momentum from last year and will be one to watch, but, as we’ve said before, the water is indeed wide between Grades 3 and 2.

MacKenzie Caledonian, the third place band at the British is next. They were a fair way back (scoring 8 3 10 3) from the top two bands, but the two 3s should give hope. The Mac Cals will be looking to close the gap and, as this is an MSR contest, it’s a very different kettle of fish.

Manorcunningham on parade at the Worlds

Manorcunningham‘s drum corps came back with a bang, taking the title at Paisley and shading the highly rated Glasgow Skye drum corps. A clear contrast in numbers of players between the two, so maybe, just maybe, the wider dynamics of soft and loud differences gave it to ManorC that day. Despite that drumming win, they came 7th overall (15 5 1 7) and that group of scores will give the P/M some sleepless nights, trying to sort out what the piping judges were hearing.

A famous name, with dignified associations and a famous band, Thiepval Memorial, is no doubt aiming to make it through to the Worlds’ qualifier and make the Final on Glasgow Green in August. The band skipped the British in Paisley and is next on the roster for Belfast, so we wait to see what they come up with this first time out.

Glasgow City makes the short hop to Belfast after a poor day in Paisley, ending bottom of the pile. This is a different day, a different contest and the March, Strathspey and Reel discipline. They will be looking to tighten up and improve.

The newly minted British Champions of three weeks ago, Lomond & Clyde, are up next and might well be considering their win as a good day to win a first time major championship in the grade. Glasgow Skye were just one point behind though. As we said in the season preview, these two are head to head for the big prizes and we remain in that camp. The L&C Medley was cleverly composed and we thought the transitions and build to the end very musical. They scored (1 2 5 1) underscoring the joined up thinking and playing between pipes and drums in the ensemble placing.   Drumming will have to crack on a notch and, so long as the MSR locks in on the day, they will be holding their collective breaths as the RSPBA chief executive starts to read out the Grade 2 results in the evening.

Next brings Annsborough from County Down out. Another newly returning band having won the Grade 3 World Championship in 2015 and then promoted to Grade 2. Taking a year out might prove to be a wise move, to gear up for the challenges of the higher grade. This is the first major outing of the season, having missed Paisley a couple of weeks ago.

The crowd will increase as it has a tendency to ebb and flow with Grade 2 whilst the running order progresses. Up will step Glasgow Skye (pictured), second in drumming and second overall in the British (2 4 2 2), looking to improve tiny margins in this first MSR of the majors’ season. For that reason, it is too close to call it at this stage and we leave it to the experts with the clipboards. Barring a disaster, this band will be named in the top six list come teatime on Saturday.

Colmcille has the pleasure of closing the grade out. A smaller band, with one solo tenor (soon to be famous,  and you should go and say ‘well done’) in Paisley, stepping into their newly promoted status and scoring near the bottom of the order, but drumming 9th of 16.

That’s the list, assuming all play. Will it be another L&C v Glasgow Skye head to head in this first March, Strathspey and Reel contest?

NY Metro

Further afield, the overseas bands limbering up and eying the prize on the Green in August are the names we suggested in the season’s preview. A welcome name, New York Metro, is also throwing its collective glengarry into the circle too. At the last look, we forecast around 20/22 Grade 2 bands are currently on track for August. A medley qualifier, with drawn MSR final later in the day will keep us busy. We expect both preliminary opportunities to hear the bands at North Berwick and Bridge of Allan, the week ahead of the big one, will be ‘murder, polis’ with the high number of Grade 2 combatants who want a run out.

If you are overseas and planning the trip to Scotland let us know, and we’ll be glad to include you in our preview and follow your local progress as the season unfolds. We are hoping that this year will be a cracking Grade 2 season, culminating on the big day in August. Drop a line to the Editor via the link on this page and we’ll create a roll call.

We recognise getting to Glasgow is a significant spend of money, time and sheer effort. Note new flights by Delta to Glasgow from New York, some options with Norwegian (albeit out of smaller city airports), and a couple of Canadian options too (West Jet included). Just watch out for hand luggage regulations and hold baggage costs.

The currency exchange will be helping overseas visitors of course, but tell us your plans, how you are funding the trip, where you are being accommodated and venues for practice rehearsals in Scotland. We’ll cover all the remaining Grade 2 Majors and report from both North Berwick and Bridge of Allan in the week leading up to the big one.

Finally, the very best of fortune to all of you stepping off in Grade 2 at Belfast.

• Click here for news of possible traffic hold-ups near Stormont.

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