Preview of the Grade 2 European Pipe Band Championship

The major pipe band championship wagon will again roll into the Highland town of Forres this Saturday for the Europeans, writes our Special Correspondent.  Past events have been blessed with improving weather, big crowds and excellent facilities in and around Grant Park.

The local organisers really pull out the stops and bands have been welcomed into the bus park with hampers of goodies, visitors have enjoyed the food festival and craft beer in adjoining areas of the field, with many a side show going on to keep all ages occupied. In spite of that sterling effort, a number of bands tend to choose to opt out of this one and, in Grade 2, there are no Irish bands listed to play at all. Interestingly, last year saw bands from Australia and South Africa in other grades.

For those who don’t know, Forres, it is a former Royal Burgh in Morayshire, and a short stop from the upper extremities of the North Sea, accessed via Inverness or, to the east, Aberdeen. It is the site of Duncan’s Castle in Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’, and those three witches were on a moor, toiling and bubbling not far away. Talking of which, 13 bands are listed for the Grade 2 medley contest – assuming all play.  See the draw here. Judges at the ready will be the experienced quartet of Messrs. Semple, Hunt, Mordaunt and Noble.

In the very first major of the season at Paisley, also a medley contest, we reported on the winning performance of Lomond & Clyde, and the close runner up, Glasgow Skye Association.  Perhaps that one gives us the best steer of what to expect – they repeat their medley sets up north. However, as you all know, it is about delivery on the day and this is another day. We do expect those two to be the first names read out in the early evening. With no Manorcunningham present, winners of the drumming at Paisley, the rest of the slots will be filled by Scots bands and possibly one hailing from Denmark. We may even see City of London in the mix.

The Danes

So on to the specific prospects: The vikings of Balagan, Denmark, get the grade started at 2.30pm, having missed the March Strathspey & Reel contest at Belfast. They will repeat their ‘Gathering’ medley and if you are watching and listening the grade, pay attention to their Mist Covered Mountains and transition to MacBeth’s Strathspey. If they can lock in and avoid any freelance piping, their drums should hold the ensemble together. They will be looking for a placing for sure.

City of Discovery, from Dundee, placed 6th in Belfast in their second year in the grade and demonstrated some good MSR discipline. In this Medley competition the band will have to crack on from the off. A musical medley including Bronnie’s Blue Brozzi usually gets feet tapping. The build from the Easy Club Reel, the Ale is Dear to the favourite the Highlandman Kissed His Mother will be the crux of the matter, and a decent execution there will assist for sure.

A tale of two cities indeed as the running order flits from Dundee to London, with the new kids on the block (albeit many in the band have been around it a few times), City of London up next. Paisley was a long time ago and they will take this one on afresh. Maybe less nerves than at their first outing, and an assured start and overall performance might well be the eyebrow raiser of the grade on Saturday.  There were enough glimpses of something good to suggest this collective has it, so long as it all clicks into place on the day. No pressure then! From the off, their version of Lord Alexander Kennedy will perhaps be a bit ‘marmite’ – it has the ability to split views down the middle. One thing for sure though, it has to be perfectly executed. After Maguire’s Jig they will head into the slow air The Rose which has served other bands well in past years. One to watch.

Lomond & Clyde are two from two in the baseball vernacular of our American cousins. The band will be delighted with that, but also aware of the growing expectation and the pressure that leading the pack brings with it. The very best are the ones able to deal with that and use it positively to improve incrementally each time rather than rest on laurels. The leadership of this band will know what to do and not let the cart get ahead of the horses.

Mental attitude and concentration are key. They had the most musical of medleys at the first outing of the season with real Grade 1 style ‘transitions’ and reprises. From the Hole in the Soul start, which is a great tune, the musicality flows as the tempo ebbs and flows through the set. The haunting Chi Mi’n Gearmaradh is worth listening to alone, yet the set builds to a destination with cleverly joined up thinking, rather than just a few tunes hand knitted together. The drumming score differentials might just hold the balance in this contest.

If the Oban band shows, it will be the first of the year, so there may be a pause as the clock runs down. We hope they are in the circle though. MacKenzie Caledonian plays next, two third places showing their consistency so far this season. They appeared more at home in the March Strathspey and Reel contest in Belfast, with the ‘2’ scored in ensemble underscoring that. Their’s is a well put together set, with stand outs being the intro tune The Day the Co-op Flooded and the Video Kid. Steady as she goes will see them in the mix, risk taking would give them a shot to the top, but the downside of missing the mark completely. That isn’t the MacCals style. It’s one to enjoy.

Glasgow City was a no show in Belfast and should be up next in the Forres running order. Their medley showed solid composition in Paisley. We liked the Rory MacLeod jig then, but it wasn’t their day. They will be looking to crank it up this time out.

Dumbarton and District played Paisley but skipped Belfast. This reinstated band had a relatively assured performance of a very traditional medley last time out, and the shortest of the day. Immediate thoughts were that a higher risk rating would see them up the ranks but, the experienced pipe major knows what his band is capable of.  It’s easy for commentators to suggest trying this or that of course. In any event, the grade has benefitted with the return of this band.

Scottish Fire and Rescue Services will undoubtedly get a strong welcome as most looking on will be grateful for the very services they represent. The band will be looking to improve again as they take to the field in this medley contest. I’m looking forward to hear the Sparky Cherry and Jamphlar’s Jig. This senior band will be watching their young Novice Juvenile B band, kicking off the whole day in that Grade at 10am.

Championship challengers, Glasgow Skye Association (pictured top), should start with Murdo Nicholson of Camusluinnie and into Gary Cheddy’s Jig. Also look out for Tommy Tully’s Air as a feature point in the set. Can the Skye go one better and take first place to add to this season’s two seconds? If you think the pressure is on Lomond & Clyde, just pause for thought for Skye. They have to break the pattern, otherwise it will be clear where the forward momentum resides. Make no mistake; this is a solid band with a good sound and high expectations. If their drumming kicks on, with no Manorcunningham present, the import of that score and probably the ensemble will make this a fascinating table to look at after the results.

Near locals from Aberdeenshire, Grampian Police,  will make a welcome return to the contest, having missed Belfast. Their medley  (Uphold the Right) was well received last time out and has the toe tapping Mrs MacLeod of Raasay, Dancing Feet and concluding with Bungee Jumper. We suspect they are aiming for a top 6, after their 10th at the British. Bucksburn & District will be back in the circle, also having missed Belfast. In Paisley they had a 6th and 1st in piping, so there is something to listen to here. It is a tight pipe corp and should not be overlooked. They might think the 12th in ensemble was harsh and this is the chance to open up and aim higher.

Isle of Islay will close out the grade at around 4.20pm, albeit the stewards will have it exactly right at 4.18pm.  The sun shone for them at Paisley, skipped Belfast, and this is the second major run out of their medley which includes the Welsh Dragon, the Kesh Jig and The Fuddler.  Any set with the Devil in the Kitchen is good for me.

That will be the grade and, we very much look forward to a great competition. The very best of fortune to each and every band playing on Saturday. The weather looks to be overcast and cloudy in the few days leading up to Saturday and the area looks prone to early morning showers on the day itself. Have capes at the ready and umbrella volunteers may be required alongside the growing tented village appearing contest by contest. That was the forecast on BBC TV ‘Countryfile’, which a farming friend swears by – often in a bad way. However, bring the sun cream, as what’s now known as ‘a Belfast’ (being sunburnt) is possible.

The RSPBA video camera team will be out in force again and the whole grade will be on YouTube fairly soon after. Watch out for updates on the @rspbahq Twitter feed during the day too – short clips of each band as they strike up. This has been a great service for those interested in the grade and, for those unable to be there on the day. The Grade 1 contest is well served with coverage by ‘Big Rab’ broadcasting live (the prize giving is always a good watch), DroneChorus adding his considerable expertise and excellent filming, and UlsterScot with his unique behind the scenes looks at tuning. As an aside, wasn’t the film footage of Inveraray and District’s chanter practice at Belfast simply fascinating?

So, for those of you traveling to Forres we wish you a safe journey. Stopping points in Pitlochry, Aviemore and elsewhere will be busy on the Saturday morning for those going early. Others may well be in the vicinity the night before for practice and some social time. Remember the average speed cameras on the main route from Dunblane roundabout. Drive safe, be careful and, have a great time at Grant Park in Forres.  It’s a short drive to fish and chips in Aviemore on the way home! Along with several thousand others doing the same thing……

For those of you reading overseas and not attending this contest, we will have a report during next week and well before the mid season break and breather, ahead of that gap to the Scottish Championship on 29th July. From there it will crank up with contests piling in, including North Berwick (closing date for entries 2nd July, draw on 6th July) and, Bridge of Allan (closing date 23rd July – draw on 24th).  Note that North Berwick has a Grade 2 Medley and combined Grade 1 & 2 March, Strathspey and Reel contest. Bridge of Allan is a Grade 2 Medley. Of course, playing up to Grade 1 (2x MSR with draw at line) is also an option. Over and out.