Review – Grade 2 at the 2017 UK Pipe Band Championships, Belfast

There may have been some turbulent arrivals into both Belfast airports early on, and the young stars of the future in the novice grades probably faced the cloudiest and most inclement elements of the day, writes our Special Correspondent. A brightening sky and warming breeze blew the clouds out of Stormont and the cricket field was at its best as lunchtime arrived.

Grade 2 started at 2.30pm in Arena 2, a full one hour after the Grade 1 contest was underway in Arena 1. First, a few words about layout and aspect; this is a great surface, a cricket pitch rather than a park. Manicured, with the wicket being protected and off-limits to the many enjoying the spectacle for free. Protected all around by a perimeter of hedging, this venue is rather bowl like and has ideal topography.

The locals did turn out in good numbers and the support network of vendors was excellent. They were doing brisk trade, and speaking with a few, they confirmed it was a commercially viable day for them. Frothy coffee and crepes – changed days from a couple of decades ago. The ice cream vendors were busy in the afternoon, indicating the temperature.

With that improving Belfast weather which truly defied both the long and short-term forecasts, the Grade 2 bands were preparing in the area close to the bus park. It was a short march through to the final tuning zone and spacing was just right. Proximity produced no issues – unlike at Paisley. The weather is a key factor though, and there must be a more accurate forecast available ahead of such competitions. If any reader has a reliable source we would be happy to spread the word.

A judge’s eye view of the Grade 2 arena

On to the contest, a March, Strathspey and Reel, two sets submitted and one drawn at the line. Oh yes, a bit of jeopardy to add to the nerves as the bands march up to the line. Which will it be? As we said in the Preview piece last week, there is always a preferred choice, regardless of what band members might say – there is always a favourite.

Most common tunes of the day included the march, Clan MacRae Society,  the strathspey Susan MacLeod and the reel Lt Col DJS Murray, but it was also good to hear some less popular tunes in the mix, as described later.  There were two ‘no shows’, Glasgow City and Aughintober, cutting the running order to 10. With seven other bands absent from the Paisley list, albeit Oban didn’t play that day, a fair old number of the grade were not in the field.

The first seven bands drew Set 2 and only by the eighth did we know there was a ‘one’ in the bag.

With Messrs Campbell, McCarlie, Steele and Mathieson on duty with the clipboard, on came Closkelt drawing Set 2 (Dugald MacColl’s Farewell to France, Shepherd’s Crook and Lt Col DJS Murray).  A compact band, confident enough from the off and the sum of the parts in ensemble was possibly better than the piping and drumming elements in isolation. A long way adrift in points terms from the top of the Grade but a commendable 5th place finish. (6 6 5 4)

City of Discovery, Dundee, in their second year in the Grade also looked confident and purposeful as they drew Set 2 (P/M Willie Gray’s Farewell to the Glasgow Police, Bob o’ Fettercairn, and McAllister’s Dirk). The artwork on the bass drumhead (below) has been commented upon and the band is also being talked about as a solid Grade 2 player working their way up the table. There was perhaps a slightly slower start and the march might have been a lick quicker, but they soon settled and the P/M was marching at the halt for a fair time. I’ve pointed to their drum corps before and, whilst not challenging for the top prize (8th in drumming), the strathspey playing was worth listening to. Clearly in contention for a top six finish and, in due course, this was confirmed when the results were announced. Sixth overall (5 5 6 8). The piping was equally scored and buries the ghost of the 14 and 7 at Paisley.

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Scottish Fire & Rescue Services stepped off next and, as said after Paisley, a band of experienced players with some young faces too. Their novice band did not travel (there were only two bands in Novice Juvenile B) this time. They drew Set 2 and Clan MacRae Society had its first airing of the day. Maybe a better day at the office than Paisley, with drumming and ensemble improving against this field. The tempo was up and dynamics better from Paisley’s Medley: (8 9 7 6) to finish seventh.

As I said, Aughintober from County Tyrone were a ‘no show’ and disappointing not to see the newly promoted 3A and 2016 Worlds Grade 3A runners-up (second to Worcester Kilties) make their debut in a major this season.

MacKenzie Caledonian, the third place band at the British, were next. The sun shone but a slight wind picked up as they drew Set 2 (Links of Forth, Shepherd’s Crook and Cecily Ross). We said in our Grade 2 review last week that the March, Strathspey & Reel discipline is a different kettle of fish to the Medley and this suits the MacCals. The 2 in Ensemble speaks volumes about the performance and, the hugely improved drumming score. Finishing 3rd (again) with (4 3 4 2). This took them to within four points of second placed Glasgow Skye. A good day for them, the only band in the Mackenzie Caledonian family travelling over the sea.

Manorcunningham’s drum corps looked spritely in final tuning with the British title under their belts. What they do they do well and their dynamics show good light and shade. They drew Set 2 (Lord Alexander Kennedy, Ewe wi’ the Crookit’ Horn and Lt Col DJS Murray). Blasting off with good tempo, I particularly liked the snare pullbacks in LAK, it was a vaguely familiar Grade 1 type score. A good, full, sound from 10 pipers and they finished 4th overall (3 4 3 5). That ensemble score might point to 9 snares with 10 pipers and balance. The piping scores of 15 and 1 in Paisley were forgotten – 3rd and 4th in Belfast.

Thiepval Memorial’s first ‘major’ appearance of the season drew set 1 (The Conundrum, Susan MacLeod and the popular Lt Col DJS Murray). Prior to their arrival at the line, I could see over to the final tuning and there was some busy activity going on just as the sun waned a little and the light wind picked up. I reckon this band got the worst combination of weather in the transition from tuning over in the bus park, to final tuning and thence to the line, and this may well have impacted on the overall tone. Eleven pipers, four snares and four tenors and bass made this one of the smaller bands on the day. They finished next to bottom (10 8 9 9) – good to hear the Conundrum though.

Glasgow City were a ‘no-show’ on the day but we are pleased to see the name on the roster for Forres.

The newly minted British Champions of three weeks ago, Lomond & Clyde, stepped up next and here we had a night and day comparison with some of the smaller bands. This is a big outfit with a big sound and they are certainly aiming high. Admittedly, they are now out of the shadows of three names going up to Grade 1 in 2016, but there is a marked step forward in standard from L&C this year. Knowing that Glasgow Skye was only one point behind in Paisley and had a better drumming score clearly spurred preparations on and this performance gave them two majors from two. As we prompted last week, the drumming would have to crack on a notch and the MSR lock in on the day. Both were delivered at Stormont and they won the drumming with a clean sweep across the table. The played Set 2 – a very traditional Highland Wedding, Susan MacLeod and lesser-played Arnish Light. Four 1s and the UK Championship. A special well done to the youngsters in the ranks.

Annsborough from County Down were up next. You wouldn’t have thought they had had a gap year from winning Grade 3 in 2015. However, the much used ‘water is wide’ phrase applies between these two grades. Despite the last place in drumming, the three sevens might give heart. The band is not rostered for the Europeans at Forres so it might be Dumbarton before we see them out again. (7 7 10 7)

Second placed Glasgow Skye

Predictably, there was a buzz around as Glasgow Skye, one of the big guns in the grade, arrived at the line. They pulled Set 2 from the bag and set off with another airing of Clan MacRae, then Ewe Wi’ the Crookit Horn and a very nice version of the Brown Haired Maid. But for the third place in Ensemble it was 2s all the way. Second overall, second in drumming – a modest improvement from the Paisley score of 10, with 9 on the day. Still contenders for a big one (2 2 2 3).

Colmcille had the pleasure of closing the grade. As mentioned in previous reports, this is a smaller band, but with two tenors this time out. With their newly promoted status Grade 2 is a big ask and whilst their John McDonald of Glencoe was musical, Maggie Cameron and Major David Manson followed (9 10 8 10) in less inspiring fashion. They aren’t listed for Forres but may be back for the Scottish in July.

So farewell to Belfast where, rather than rain lashed, some went home sun burnt. There were 10 bands in Grade 2 with one clear winner, and both Glasgow Skye and MacCals have some work to do to catch up with them. Lomond & Clyde picked up drumming too after a fifth at Paisley. As such they were ahead of Skye here too and it should be noted that the latter won two drumming titles last year in the face of tougher opposition from the now promoted PSNI, Buchan Peterson and Johnstone.

At Forres in less than two weeks time we revert to a Medley competition and we will have names like Balagan, City of London and Grampian Police back in the G2 fray, albeit with no Irish bands at all. A preview of this championships will appear in these pages in the run up to that competition on Saturday 24th June.

• Have a listen to the Grade 2 contest courtesy the RSPBA here.

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