Grant Park, Forres, looked calm and pristine the night before proceedings, as the vendors were leaving the scene to return in the morning, writes our Special Correspondent. A small ceilidh was going on in the main marquee. The white lines were there to be seen and the circles of four arenas stood by to host the music makers of 110 bands for the 2017 European Championships.
With very little darkness at all so far north and, it being only a few days after midsummer, those traveling in early to the Highland town from all points would have had visibility of the patchy sky, but realised that with a blustery northerly wind, temperatures would struggle to breach 16 degrees and fall to around 10 degrees in the early evening and the long march past. That changing weather pattern led to several instances of frantic goings on in final tuning as the conditions from micro zone to zone varied greatly with tree cover, up or down hill and the ebb and flow of Mr Blue Sky. Ground conditions were good, not quite the cricket manicured lawn of Stormont, Belfast, but neatly done.
This is a championship atmosphere unlike the other four Majors. It is a community event with a large crowds coming in to watch the contest and also enjoy the many other activities going on. Armed Forces Day and regimental representations, a funfair, Highland dancing, food village, craft beers, prosecco bar, yes prosecco bar, courtesy of the local Forres Mechanics Football Club, and much more besides.The RSPBA would do well to hold on to this venue, notwithstanding the number of bands clearly giving it a miss – no Irish bands in Grade 2 for instance. Next year is the last scheduled one in a five-year deal for Forres, so we will see. Now down to the serious business of the third major and the second Grade 2 Medley contest of the 2017 season. We posed the key questions in the preview piece on these pages last week and committed to a head to head result between Glasgow Skye and Lomond & Clyde. We put MacKenzie Caledonian third, reckoned Balagan would be placed, expected City of Discovery in the six and even left the door open for City of London to raise a few eyebrows. The drama unfolding did not veer from the script and so close were the top two that I sent the Editor a photo of both Skye and L&C immediately after the grade finished – minute differences.
Our forecast said the drumming score would come into play, as would ensemble. There was one point between the top two, and even on a ‘draw’ on points, Skye had enough from the ensemble judge that a ‘preference’ would have given them the title anyway. These two bands are such a step away from the rest that it is hard to see how the chasing pack, ably led by the MacCals, can make up the ground this season. However, stranger things have happened. The overseas contingent heading to Scotland in August know who they have to beat, and I’m sure the excellent YouTube coverage of the grade by the RSPBA team will see big hit numbers on those two performances. As an aside, our analysis suggests there could now be 30 or so Grade 2 bands limbering up at the Green. That will be a brutal qualifying regime to make the afternoon final.
With the biggest crowd of the season gathering, the band drawn first to play, Balagan from Denmark, were able to place themselves in final tuning early, although tuning for Arena 2 is in a very busy thoroughfare and bands have to march through a crowd with stewards clearing the way. It might be a bit distracting for the most focused player, and I’d be interested to hear opinions on the matter. The Danes made the march to the entry and up to the line. A warm introduction by the announcer on the microphone (he should be in stand up) introduced the band. Game faces on, and I had watched the lead drummer marshal her troops earlier. They were in the zone.
It is a nicely put together medley, and with the blustery conditions the attack they had practiced many times in tuning, was firm into The Gathering with all pipers away. They bring harmonies in very early and that is a risk until everyone is settled. They aren’t being used to mask anything as is often the fear, but it did cause a little bit of wandering from my what I could hear at my vantage point. Maybe there was a slight slip in the otherwise lovely Mist Covered Mountains. The back end was crisp and assured, and the snares sounded better than the last outing at Paisley. They were rewarded with a 3rd in drumming, and 5th overall (6 7 3 7).
Next up City of Discovery. They navigated the march to the arena with the bass drum beating time. As a personal preference, I reckon that sets the tone better and more effectively that a snare. The sun ebbed, wind dropped and they struck up with a very nice drone sound. What look like previously loved Inveraray snares in distinctive blue fade, sounded flatter than Balagan’s and, for the technical amongst you, have a listen to their top hand into the slow air via the YouTube video. This is a band that grows on you with a nice run to the finish. Incremental improvements each time they are out and upward momentum for sure. Scored 5 4 4 5 and their best of the year and highest placing. Finishing 4th and only three points away from their near geographical neighbours MacCal. Remember, no Irish bands present though.
The big question for City of London, could they be more assured than a slightly nervous start in Paisley? Full admiration for this pipe major and what he is trying to do from scratch, albeit with several very experienced erstwhile front-rankers in his pipe corps. It can’t be easy bringing different standards together and giving everyone a go. You either settle for that variable outcome or you drop folks if they aren’t putting in the hours. Time will tell. It was a better start into their version of Lord Alexander Kennedy and the only opinion as to whether it is liked or not rested with the judges around the edge of the circle. In the preview last week we hinted that this band might just raise some eyebrows, and they did, having missed Belfast and this being only their second outing. Unfortunately, they did get a bit of public tannoy interference about an illegally parked car. One point to easily fix: the bass boomed throughout, beating time and was one-dimensional. The blowing held well through The Rose and this was a big step forward for the band. They should march forward in confidence to Dumbarton and the Scottish Championship at the end of July (9 9 8 13).
A noticeable increase in crowd and volume as Lomond & Clyde entered the fray. A nice touch for the pipe major to salute the ensemble judge, a lost art these days, but courtesy shown. Hole in the Sole to start and also featuring at the finale to this well-crafted medley. The slow air is a highlight for me and sounded like one pipe until the harmonies. This P/M knows what he wants in tempo. I did have to really focus in as there were several people in close proximity who were chatting loudly throughout, a bugbear for many I’m sure. The holds in phrasing were good and it might just have been a lack of crispness in the drum link to the last reprise that separated this band from the winning score. First in the combined pipe score aggregate, second in drumming and second overall and a bus ticket width away from a third win. That is how close the top two are.
Oban appeared, making their major competition debut of the season, having missed Paisley and Belfast, and showing off their MacLean of Duart tartan. The growing breeze may have played a part but there were wandering harmonies, albeit the joined up thinking in a traditional medley was good and went with a zing in the second half. The sum of the parts added up to a nine in ensemble, whereas the parts themselves were down the order. (10 12 11 9).
A couple of capes went on elsewhere and it was noticeably colder by now. Then the spitting rain passed after a few drops and the sun came back raising the temperature a touch. A nightmare of days for tuners and pipe majors. That’s the great Highland bagpipe for you.
The MacKenzie Caledonian band came around the corner next. Third in the previous two majors and, it was to be so again. The band is solid and the ‘Steady Eddie’ of the grade. They marched on to a grey sky and marched off some six minutes or so later to a blue one, having had the worst combination of weather so far. Maybe there was a slightly premature switch to the slow air on one side of the corps, but otherwise it was as expected. Piping held and drumming will have to crack on a bit to eat in to the lead the top two have (2 3 6 4).
Glasgow City looked smaller in number, which is not the be all and end all, but they could do with a bigger sound. At my initial count there were maybe 11 pipers and five snares and a mid section. It was better than the run at Paisley, but still firmly at the bottom of the pile. This is the unforgiving area of Grade 2 where minor slips are exposed versus the top slots (13 11 12 12).
Dumbarton & District repeated their medley, the shortest of the day at 4 mins and 45 seconds according to my watch. It was tight, compact and, as I’ve said before, a true traditional medley. No transitions and no frills. It was solid in parts and slightly less assured in others. The snares rattled along though and good enough for a 5th in drumming (11 13 5 10).
The 18 pipers of the Scottish Fire & Rescue Services band all got away and, regardless of the score, it is the best I’ve heard them all season. The tone was better, tempo more on the edge and even with a strengthening wind blowing hard at their backs, they stood up. Of course there were issues and they will take note of the judges’ comments. The high pitched cheers from the crowd, assumed to be members of their Novice band, greeted them as they marched off (12 10 10 11).
The Glasgow Skye Association (pictured top), the challengers, marched on next with a real sense of purpose from the start. The rolls were razor like and the strike was ‘there’, as they cracked on at a fair old tempo to the circle. The difference in drumming from Paisley was very subtle and perhaps the light and shade of the dynamics more obvious. The mid section was enough and not intrusive and the bass was subtle too, proving that it’s not ‘all about the bass’. City of London should watch this one as a case study. I had L&C piping just ahead on feel and technicals but, as expected, the scoring was going to be all about drumming and ensemble. Skye stepped up, delivered a first in drumming and first in ensemble giving a two point differential to L&C, before piping scores – and the key ensemble preference in their sporran if required. Without the Manorcunningham drum corps in the mix, this was poised and delivered almost the closest of margins. A big day for the veteran Lead Drummer Arthur Cook, and no doubt his Pipe Major Ewan Henderson will be saying thank you, or words to that effect, for playing his part in a score of total score of 6 (3 1 1 1 ). As an aside, they moved straight over to play for the drum majors who were trying to control mace throwing on a blustery day.
It is interesting when a Grade 2 band moves from final tuning playing tge Green Hills. On came Grampian Police after an absence in Belfast. They were 10th overall in Paisley at the British, and obviously looking to improve. Maybe I spotted another set of once loved Inveraray drums in the back end as our steward suggested we cheer the local police for obvious reasons. The crowd had wandered and diminished after Skye and the hardy remainers were getting chilled to the bone by now. It was a tidy performance from GramPol and Mrs MacLeod of Raasay is a great winter warmer. Much improved from Paisley and piping tighter and less freelance so they will take heart and bash on to Dumbarton (4 5 9 8).
Bucksburn & District followed and were off the mark this time from what was a first and sixth in piping in Paisley. The pipe sound was thinner this time and maybe the weather had played its part as we reached the tail end of the running order (8 8 7 6).
Thirteenth up and to close the grade, a nice malt in the form of Kilchoman Isle of Islay and longest to wait all day. A band full of young stock and mature players. Short sleeved in the bracing wind and dropping temperature as we approached two hours from the start and closing in on 4.30pm. The tempo did go with a zing and, aside from the freelancing just going into the slow air The Water is Wide, it was neat enough in piping and hung together well. They will be warmed with the 3 in ensemble for sure. Overall 7th and just outside the list (7 6 13 13).
The comedy moment was a balloon dog sculpture from the kids area, blowing around the circle at one point and our man on the microphone and his antics to get out of the shot of people videoing it. He should be on the Comedy Channel and good to see so many people in good spirits and raising the game for the crowd, many of who were locals and tourist taking in their fist band championship. If the band world is to thrive and expand, these efforts to bring in new followers should be applauded.
So endeth the Grade 2 at Forres and the European Championships. A hot drink to thaw out and watch the march past and prizegiving followed.
The Championship wagon parks for a few weeks as peak holiday season gets underway, albeit there will be minor contests all over the place, Scotland, Ireland, Canada and the USA, between now and July 29th. Not forgetting the solo piping scene and the many venues, as that world builds to some of the biggest contests in the world. Dumbarton has 140 bands listed, with Grade 2 up to 16 competitors. We’ll bring you a preview the week before and be there on the day to report afterwards. Will Glasgow Skye march on to take a second major or, will Lomond & Clyde usurp them to make it three majors just before the biggest prize of the year and the overseas bands join the chase in August?
Time for the ‘most annoying feature of the day’ complaint. With a big public attendance the number of pet dogs was high leading to occasional barking skirmishes between pets adding to the odd tannoy announcement for the owner of an illegally parked car. However, the increase in people ‘yapping’ during performances has to be one of the worst breaches of etiquette. Most often it is completely unrelated chat and the things I have overheard are hair-raising. One other thing learned about Forres, if you are aiming for a fish tea in Aviemore, call ahead and place the order, otherwise you will be in line behind several band coaches. Wherever you intend to be between now and July 29th have fun. Over and out.