Review of Grade 2 at the Scottish Pipe Band Championships

By MacStig

Some say he can’t tie a ghillie brogue without asking for help….others that he thinks a good chanter is a Glasgow pub singer…..whilst more say that to him a Swiss Ruff is a hangover in Geneva….all we can say is that he’s called MacStig…

Reporting from near Dumbarton Rock on a dreich Scottish Saturday. Overcast sky, temperature around 16 to 18C at best, and fresh westerly wind. Showers were present regularly and often. The bright light in the sky made a fleeting guest appearance in the mid to late afternoon but soon evacuated.

What started as a moody day (a term used by tourist guides to bolster their clients) grey, drizzle, and low temperature for the season’s penultimate major, remained mostly dull and inclement for the duration.

Now for the technical part.  The UK is in the grip of a band of persistent low pressure hanging around the west coast and, some forecasters suggest, it could be here for a further three weeks.  Awesome! – not. So, some heavy downpours during the earlier contests of the day and threatening rain thereafter. Welly boots were in order for many as the ground churned up in heavy footfall areas.

Levengrove is a picturesque park, designed in a bygone age, and formally set out by Victorians to allow locals to promenade on Sundays and take in the fresh air on the estuary. It has had a significant, costly upgrade and, but for the weather, was/is a good venue. The roads in and out were well-managed but spectators were limited, and certainly not the expected 25,000 suggested in local newspapers. The numbers dwindled as the afternoon wore on.

I arrived early enough to beat the traffic, park nearby, and also to listen in to the most junior bands in Novice Juvenile B and A. Four of the Grade 2 bands had juniors playing – MacCal, Bucksburn, Dumbarton, Scottish Fire & Rescue and Oban. It was worth going to see what their feeder systems were up to.

There were some judges in training on the day too and Grade 2 had a learner. The new up and coming adjudicators were evident in some of the arenas throughout the day and it was good to see some current and former top drawer Grade 1 players in the mix.

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As for Grade 2 at the Scottish, no Balagan (no entry) and no Manorcunningham (otherwise engaged). Both would be expected to mix it in drumming for sure, their absences probably giving L&C a real chance to nail on at least a second in drumming if Skye delivered their usual performance to win. I’d expect both Balagan and ManorC to be in bottom end of the top six, so this left a couple of otherwise taken berths  available.

And so it began, in a light drizzle. Thiepval Memorial from the Emerald Isle drew Set 2 and stepped off nicely with Stirlingshire Militia, good tempo and a different band at the back end from the one I heard in Belfast some weeks ago. More together and confident, but not without issues. Maybe a tad slower into Maggie Cameron, but controlled well until the slight freelancing in the last part. Bessie MacIntyre reeled along and there was a respectable cut off. Better than they have been, but languishing towards the foot of the table. Overall 12th (11 12 8 13).

City of London head for the line

City of London appeared next, Drew set 2 and got in with it immediately. They have come on leaps and bounds, no nerves visible, and in much better command in the pipe corps. For a first season and a first outing for this set, starting with Hugh Kennedy, it was a tad slow for some tastes perhaps, but nicely constructed in Ensemble. It was wet and ‘slippery when wet’ is a warning – as one drummer on the left flank saw a stick go down. The bass was also well toned down after Forres, (maybe reading this column). The two tenors worked hard to complement. The Smith of Chilliechassie picked up from Dora MacLeod well and I noted that CoL ‘might even be placed today’ – the piping was so much improved. And so it was; first ever placing (5th) and scoring 5 4 7 9.  Certainly enough to be back to the Green in a couple of weeks with some confidence.

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Grampian Police headed over from final tuning and drew set 2 also. John MacDonald of Glencoe bounced along – there was what looked like a slightly depleted snare line of four sides, but it worked. They faced up to a shower from the estuary as they launched into Atholl Cummers and there was a clear lift in tempo in the run for home during Major David Manson. A modest echo might have cost them a piping place, but their best outcome of the year, finishing 6th. Score  7 6 5 8.

Local home team, Dumbarton & District, sounded good in the short march over and held their poise in the start from the line with the Pap of Glencoe. Nicely away and a likeable tempo. The snares were busy rattling and showed good light and shade. I thought they took a good chunk of the March to settle though, and were not in the same place I’ve heard them this season. To borrow a phrase, there was  ‘good tenor voicing’ into Susan MacLeod, although the snares may have disconnected for no more than a bar and a half. Once again ‘the Smith’ was the reel of choice. Phrase endings sounding a little less than together and a slight ‘trailer’ might have been heard my side. They got tough scores and held up the rest of the table. 13 13 11 10. They should now look forward to the big one and aim to get back to their best.

Skye finish their set

The Glasgow Skye Association, current European Champions,  were next and marched over to the line in a light drizzle which strengthened through the run. The temperature was around 16 degrees, and tuning must have been getting tricky over where most bands were trying to shelter in tents or under the tree canopy. Make no mistake, Skye are an impressive outfit with eyes on the prize. Great drone sound from the off drawing set 2, but they seemed to hit a ropey point mid way into Clan MacRae Society. They started at a rattling tempo, great snares and tenors – the attack of the rolls are worth listening to alone on YouTube for those of you of that persuasion.

The Ewe Wi’ the Crookit Horn was a great example of controlled and light strathspey drumming. The pulsing (loud, soft, medium, soft) I spoke about in my preview, very evident. Unfortunately it accompanied the torrent of water that only waned in the last part and transition to Brown Haired Maid. There might also have been a slight wavering in the last part of MacRae and in the first bar of the strathspey – enough to knock them off a top or second spot in piping. Rain was steady and the band got soaked. Annoyingly, the sky above brightened as the counter march began but they could look forward to being there in drumming at 6pm. Piping has been better earlier in the season. Sure enough, first in drumming and scoring 3 3 1 3. Second overall. I’m sure the work will begin in short order to get them in the groove for the big one.

The sun welcomed Oban as a few capes came off. Drawing Set 1, off they went with Royal Scottish Pipers’ Society. I reckon there were some nerves and they had a slightly muddy start, but perhaps I was impacted by the noise from the competition going on in the arena behind me and a changed wind direction. Caledonian Society of London was nicely delivered and transitioned seamlessly to John MacKechnie – disciplined ending and well held. Drumming needs to crack on a bit more. That weaker score also impacted the Ensemble tally I’m sure: 6 7 13 10. Elsewhere,  the Oban High School bands took 1st in Novice A and B respectively.

Scottish Fire & Rescue drew Set 2 and didn’t seem to settle at all in the early phases. Several freelancing instances and the start of Clan MacRae needed more – maybe running the attacks over and over will iron out the kinks. Once in, it was better and the tenors came alive – much brighter in the last part of the march. The sun made an appearance and Susan MacLeod was better and up a notch. They closed out with John Morrison, Assynt House. SFR have been better and will know what to be doing in the next two weeks. 9 10 10 12.

MacKenzie Cal in the circle at Dumbarton

MacKenzie Caledonia, shown in the programme as Buchan Peterson, drew Set 2, just as they had in Belfast, and started with the Links of Forth – tidy enough but not the ‘steady as she goes’ approach associated with the band. The drumming was the best I’ve heard from them this season though, and got a deserved lift in score to third. I liked the pull back into Cecily Ross. Unfortunately the piping aggregate of 13 (with eight from one judge) was uncharacteristic of them. Scoring 8 5 3 2 and fourth overall. They had to contend with the wettest part of the early afternoon and then the faster drying wind and warmer temperature. That might be the underlying reason for the piping issues.

Glasgow City was a withdrawal, sadly. They are the band that has been holding up the table for most of the Majors. They didn’t show in Belfast either. I have no indication if they are stepping back into competition for the Worlds and they are not slated to play at North Berwick or Bridge of Allan. Hopefully they will be there in their place in Qualifier 1 in due course. This pause saw a near clearing of spectators from the arena who dashed nearby to catch the last bands in Grade 1 in Arena 1.

The dark horses and a band which I thought might just benefit from the absences of Manorcunningham and Balagan, to get on the prize list, Closkelt, drew set 1, starting with David Ross. This is a strong back line to start and complemented by a well organised mid section. A smaller pipe corps than the largest,  but the usual line up led by P/M Chesney. By far the best I’ve heard from them this season and they will be punching the air with the overall outcome. Issues for sure as it’s Grade 2 and, if picky, you could point to some ragged endings in the second part of the march – quickly fixed and all together again thereafter. A neat move to Shepherd’s Crook and again to Cecily Ross. Compact, no longer than needs be and off they went to wait and see where they would be on the prize list, because they were certainly in the mix. Third place, scoring 2 2 4 5. Highest placing this year and great piping outcome.

Bucksburn & District was another withdrawal and the field fell further. We hope to see them in Qualifier 2 of the Worlds.

No big delay as Colmcille, and P/M Hasson, were ready and our thanks to them for getting on with it. No running down of the clock, or I fear the rave music from the ‘shows’ down the hill would have driven me mad. Colmcille looked relaxed with nothing to lose, and came on with three snares two tenors and bass. Nine pipers gelled well and this band will be better next year in their second in the Grade. It was businesslike playing, good tempo throughout Dora MacLeod and Mackay from Skye, and they were on and off with little fuss. Sure, they will know where the pipes need to tighten their playing, but despite the scoring (10 11 9 11) it was probably their best run of the year in my book. They should go and play their hearts out in the Medley qualifier in two weeks time, take some risks and see what happens.

Lomond & Clyde [main picture top, marching off with their trophy] were not immediately on the horizon as the drizzle fell again. We were ahead of schedule and it was more than 10 minutes ahead of their start time. A P/M of this calibre is planning to the last few minutes and also the weather shift would no doubt be causing a few headaches.  An hour or more apart from rival Skye, they hit the same dose of heavier rain as they drew Set 2 (as in Belfast) going off with Highland Wedding, but I had Arena 3 just kicking off over my shoulder and didn’t get a clean listen to their start. Otherwise a fine march and transition to Susan MacLeod. Arnish Light is a lovely reel, often overlooked. I could see P/M Wilton say ‘very good’ as he ordered pipes down. Off they went to wait and see – clearly ahead of Skye and all comers in my book, but the key decision makers would have had a closer listen. Sure enough a near  sweep with 1 1 2 1, which would not be threatened on the day. They march on to Glasgow knowing what to do. They will be cautious though, knowing a clean sweeping Police Service of Northern Ireland fell at the last big hurdle of the season in 2016 when everyone thought it was simply their title to take.

Kilchoman Isle of Islay, drew Set 1, and marched to the circle with John MacDonald of Glencoe. I know there was a three scored in Ensemble at Forres in the Europeans, but even with a wide-ranging (4 9 12 6), this is the best I’ve heard from them this season. They were on and off with little fuss and finished 8th overall.

Being listed to play last is a tough gig in Grade 2, with all but the hardy followers and band specific fans left around the arena. A long wait in howling weather is not good for chanters, drones or drum heads. City of Discovery pulled Set 2 from the bag. Simply put, this was not their day (12 8 6 4); out of the top 6, after being in it twice with a stronger field, finishing 7th overall. The wide scores will no doubt be agonised over just as much as the wide split in piping they got way back in the British at Paisley (14 and 7). The comfort from the fourth in Ensemble will help. Perhaps. They will knuckle down and get set for Glasgow, knowing they will have to be at their very best to qualify from the very competitive Heat 2.

Nice touch…centre bands from Grade 2

That was the Grade and it was a nice touch to have the centre bands for the March past made up of some Grade 2 Bands, including Skye, City of London, Oban and Grampian Police. In a look ahead, we will get a proper listen at the overseas competitors this coming weekend and beyond. I’ll be seeking out their practices too. From advance research City of Dunedin (Florida) will be well marshalled by Iain Donaldson using his years of experience from the 78th Frasers and Shotts. He added Eric MacNeill as lead tip, the former Oran Mor and SFU man, and there are some grey hairs in the ranks too. Their challenge will be the adaptation to local weather when they hit Stirling (Dunedin is twinned with Stirling) from the 90 degree plus and high humidity of a Florida summer. They aren’t listed for either North Berwick or BofA.

St Thomas Alumni (NB, BA) will also be in the mix, and that snare line was well viewed last year under ex-Shotts man, Graeme Brown. Again the local weather might be a rude awakening to the Houstonians and their pipes. They are slated to play both weekend gigs, so we shall see.

New York Metro are not listed at either so we will await their arrival. They will be joined by Worcester Kiltie (up from winning Grade 3), North Stratton, MacMillan and Midlothian Scottish. However, arriving earlier and taking part as indicated, College of Piping PEI (NB + BA), Pipe Band Club (NB BA), St Andrews (NB BA) and, of course, the Vikings of Balagan, Denmark (BA). There will be more about the others from USA, Canada and Australia as we get it.

Final thoughts going into the Worlds: Lomond & Clyde is a World Championship winning band in waiting so long as they do what they do. On the best of form they would mix it with the newer Grade 1 bands, and some of the oldest. However, that upper echelon is already demonstrating differentiation at top to bottom. Many have written about Gradings and just how many Grade 1 bands can be sustained. Aside from that, Glasgow Skye is a solid outfit and the drumming would compete at Grade 1, which should be no surprise, with a former world solo champion at the helm. Piping would need more consistency and if achieved, could hack it.

And finally…..Most annoying feature of the Dumbarton day, excluding the rain the quad bike ride going on down the hill, with its incessant honking horns was the litter! Discarded water bottles and coffee cups ankle deep in some places, when there were trash points all over the place. Comedy moment of the day. Programme misprints with Buchan Peterson in Grade 2, instead of the MacCals and, that well known Italian Reel, Sicily Ross. The one where the Pipe Major makes an offer you can’t refuse.

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4 thoughts on “Review of Grade 2 at the Scottish Pipe Band Championships

  1. Enjoyed the commentary but even more enjoy the brief glimpses of the adverts for Bagpipe Tutor1 in which Amazing Grace and The Green Hills are scored with the upbeats in the correct place. What a difference it makes. I hope many people are buying these tutor books.

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