Review of the Grade 1 Competition at the 2017 Scottish Pipe Band Championships

By Robert Wallace

I have to say that I did not agree with the result in Grade 1 at the Scottish Pipe Band Championships at Levengrove Park, Dumbarton, last weekend.

The winners, Inveraray (above) were good, very good, but in my view they were bested in musicality and tone by Field Marshal Montgomery. However, all congratulations to P/M Stuart Liddell on his success. The judges had him first and that is all that matters.

Right up there with these two were St Laurence O’Toole and I would probably have had Boghall in the mix too – they must be the hardest done to band of the 2017 season. Good playing from Fife Police who made the top six again.

Field Marshal at Dumbarton

Before I get to the individual performances a couple of points. I think the way pipe band adjudicators go about their business could be improved. They have to write as a band is playing. I don’t know how they do it because when I write I’m not listening – not with the intensity required anyway.

I watched the judges at close quarters at Levengrove. Those in charge of Grade 1 are worthy of our respect. They have long experience and undisputed knowledge. Yet the pens are out within seconds of the band striking up and the sheets, from what I could see, were invariably filled with writing by the end of the performance and there was the steward on the collecting run. Why is this necessary? The newly introduced consultation dispensation is absolutely vital in such circumstances – if one judge misses something whilst writing then there is a chance a colleague will have picked up on it.

Would a few words of advice or encouragement not suffice, serious errors summed up in a few choice phrases at the conclusion of a performance? Do judges feel a need to justify themselves by writing these fulsome sheets or are they required to do so by the RSPBA? Less would be more in my view and sparse sheet with a few choice bon mots, certainly in the case of the top end of Grade 1, would have just as much impact for the bands as an A4 chock full of ink. Less writing would free up time for listening.

I’m concerned too that our adjudicators are not factoring in quality of content into their decision-making. Too many bands are getting away with playing tunes which are undeserving of that description. Surely if they leave one cold then that must be taken into consideration in the final analysis? Think of the poor audience who love the music and are there to be entertained yet they have to endure these grim pieces only to find that they have actually propelled the protagonist band into the prizelist!

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Anyway, to the contest. In writing the following I will make the usual caveat about not being as close to the playing circle as the judges, though you will have gathered from my comments above that at Dumbarton you can get pretty near to the action. One other point, could the promoters, West Dunbartonshire Council, please make sure Hagar the Horrible and his Viking horn stall is in future positioned as far away from the bands as possible? Like perhaps halfway across the Clyde estuary? More than once were performances interlaced with a snorting trumpet blast.

Grade 1 started at 2.30pm. Conditions were warmish but with occasional heavy showers. The bands coped superbly in the circumstances. Scottish Power kicked us off but were lacklustre in their approach, the pipe major perhaps holding things back given the  weather. Drones drifted a shade after the slow air and the jigs lacked drive. Good sound and high-grade technique.

Fife Police…back in the top six

Fife Police were also sluggish at the start but their set came alive with a very impressive slow air and a scintillating finish of Archie MacKenzie of Dumbarton and the Fiddler’s Rally in 4/4. Sparkling sound and a sense of enjoyment about their playing. Vale of Atholl lacking in precision in technique but solid throughout with no errant tempi. Were some of the tunes a shade too difficult for the pipe corps? Good underpinning from the drummers. Tidy.

Spot on intro from Inveraray; rock solid sound; beautiful strathspeys – great lift with drummers helping (shock!). She Moves through the Fair too paced out and lacking flow – difficult to maintain unison otherwise in this tune but musicality suffers. Peter Macleod will be birling at the treatment given to his John Morrison, Assynt House but Alick C works. Very smooth, controlled playing throughout with incisive fingering.

Buchan Peterson

Buchan Peterson – dull tone; did the opening tune Dark Rum and Crabbies inspire their tartan?; bass too loud; overall off the pace a little in every department but finding their feet well in the grade; few nondescript tunes detracted. Ravara also off the pace. Little Cascade stripped of relevant technique; abrupt change at the end spoiled the melodic line; a better band in Medley than MSR; some pleasant moments in their set but not enough of them.

Johnstone away well but could not get my head round the contorted Piper’s Warning intro, a lack of musical integrity hampering enjoyment from the off. This is a band that needs to simplify its music. They can play all right and do not in any way disgrace the grade, but they are trying too hard. In Bob Shepherd’s immortal words ‘It should be simple but effective every time, son’. PSNI were not quite together with the first E but that may have been Hagar and his tribe. From my position behind the P/M the band’s harmonies often overwhelmed melody. Another nondescript opener, The Mastodon; lovely solid drone tone from the Ulstermen.

Good to see Eric Ward back on the green with his Bleary drum corps

Bleary were the best of the middle to end tablers in my view. Good strong opener with the Pile Driver; drums and pipes noticeably drifting apart in places from about half way; overall steady tempos however and bright, purposeful music; tone thinning towards end. Super sound from Field Marshal, best yet by a way. Absolutely electric hands – not a gracenote out of place; effortless glide through the slow air and into a very strong ending with Fred Morrison’s Hard Drive impressing (not Gordon Duncan’s High Drive as I had earlier); solid, secure performance and what a sound. The band to beat.

Boghall got the worst of the weather but played on manfully and with considerable skill and poise. I liked the tone from the drums and felt it blended nicely with P/M Harvey’s fulsome sounding pipe corps. Fingering suffered by comparison with FM’s (whose wouldn’t) but never fell below top six standard. Roundish jigs at good tempo for this style and the medley wrapped up in slick fashion. Too many weak pieces in Shotts’s set for my money. All perfectly executed and at real Grade 1 tempo but you cannot disguise a tune that lacks melodic integrity no matter how well you play it. Pitch still a wee bit sharp to my ear. Professional delivery in all areas, pipes and drums locked together.

SLoT…ever musical

SLoT had a sound up there with FM, a sound fully manifest in the rebel air Boolavogue – great bass and tenor work here. Overall there was entertaining music throughout this medley with the fingerwork maybe not quite sharp enough for first prize. This band is not capable of playing unmusically however and P/M Tully and L/D Creighton can take credit for that. SLoT are rightly great favourites with the crowd; they know they are going to be entertained royally. Glasgow Police need to do something about their chanters. Their tone seemed muted (too much tape?) and the intervals inaccurate. The band plays well but you can almost see in their body language that the pipers know something is not quite right with the sound. They formed a weird egg-shape in the ‘circle’.

• Get full summaries of the Grade 1 contest here. Stay tuned for our report from G2 later.

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2 thoughts on “Review of the Grade 1 Competition at the 2017 Scottish Pipe Band Championships

  1. Thank you. I do not necessarily agree with your comments or opinions, however an article with something to say , from someone attributable who was clearly present, and is prepared to express an opinion with conviction has some merit. Give some of your backbone to your mystery Grade 2 reviewer.

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