Scottish Schools Pipe Band Championship – Full Report

From our Juvenile Grade correspondent…….With almost 100 band performances across eight competition segments, it was a full pattern and a very positive sight to behold. Band members hustling and bustling along corridors from their respective warm up rooms to final tuning and three performance spaces. A wide spread of Grade 1 superstars coaching their charges and, in amongst those last minute alterations, tuning, coaching and the general buzz, many readers will associate with those busy, often frantic, moments before going to the line or to concert formation, as this whole contest was.

Nerves, for sure, but some of these performers were cucumber cool customers. Many in the Juvenile ranks playing in their sixth of six of these annual championships, and ‘veterans’ too of maybe 20 or more major RSPBA championships on the grass. Bands that have played in Canada, China, USA, the Far East, for royalty, so many many times, the muscle memory is there – if ever there was an advert for the cream of the crop, it was the top end of the Juvenile competition where Dollar Academy were the winners. The band is pictured above under the direction of P/M Matt Wilson.

However, the Quartet competition was also a joy to behold – for the sheer effort and hard work going on. It was a great contest.

North Lanarkshire Schools, Novice B winners

The least experienced bands in the ‘Debut’ section (with an audience of beaming parents, guardians, other family members and siblings) underscored the real work going on at the very roots of the future for this piece of heritage. And a few words about ‘Freestyle’ – the creativity and wider musical talents on show was exceptional. Clearly the likes of Red Hot Chilli Pipers, Ross & Ali, Dougie McCance et al make this cool. There were nods of appreciation to many contemporary acts and Breabach-esque flashes of brilliance. For the purists it might be an abomination, but it is what the younger generation want to play and, more importantly, binds them in to the wider movement, otherwise they and their talents could be lost.

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And for the most poignant performance of the day in the Freestyle category, from Sgoil Lionacleit and its tribute to Eilidh MacLeod, the teenage piper from their ranks, so cruelly murdered in the Manchester arena bombing. If you can, go and find this on YouTube – it will be there soon for sure. It’s here on Facebook. The ensemble played Fair Maid of Barra, a stirring Dawning of the Day, the Wee Man of Skye, Crossing the Minch, The Clumsy Lover and closed with a lone piper reprise of Fair Maid. Few dry eyes in the audience remained. Well played. In a further tribute, the Eilidh MacLeod Endeavour Award will be presented annually. More of that in a moment.

One other key take away from this competition is that tutoring of a very high standard is spreading well beyond hubs of pipe bands in the Independent School sector, excellent as they are and, believe me, Watson’s, Heriot’s and Dollar Academy are very special bands and band organisations. Those three schools combined had around 300 pipers and drummers competing out of 1000.

Make no mistake, there is great work going on within our state schools too. Following the lead of regional groupings like North Lanarkshire Schools getting a great second place in the blue ribbon Juvenile category, we had Edinburgh, Kintyre and West Lothian Schools. Others, like the very entertaining Preston Lodge High School Pipe Band (winning Freestyle), have a number of years building a single school programme behind them, strong teaching and importantly, engagement with the local community. The same goes for those in further flung places in the Highlands and Islands.

Worthy of mention and congratulations to a combined group of ‘Highlanders’ from Ampleforth College and Sedburgh School, from ‘over the Border’ and making a mark in Junior B.

In the Debut category, we had two bands from Kilmarnock Schools, along with Balfron High School (on one of the prize lists) and others from Bute to Aberdeenshire, Tynecastle and Garnock. All starting their respective journeys. In Novice B, Lochalsh Piping certainly caught the ear, as did a rapid and very strong Juvenile tenor section from North Lanarkshire Schools (the band taking second overall)  and another bass section from Preston Lodge – evidence of top drawer tutoring.

The winners of the inaugural Piping Hit award for original composition went to a young man from Dollar Academy. The composer, accordion player a former Mod winner, 14-year-old Archie McKechnie (remember the name), accompanied by Ruiaridh Brown on smallpipes played ‘The 7.53 to Glasgow’ a 2/4 march, composed by Archie. Yes, a beautifully crafted 2/4 at 14 years of age! This is a competition which we can all hope will run and run. The slow air in second was lovely too and a tidy little jig third. All of these fine tunes would slot well into a band medley and we look forward to more public performances of them.

As I said, in the Juvenile competition, last year’s Grand Slammers, Dollar Academy, took the prize to kick off their year with their junior bands placed second and third respectively in Novice A and B. Second placed in Juvenile, North Lanarkshire Schools, impressed and will be hoping to be there or thereabouts when the majors come around – their Novice B took first with George Watson’s College (GWC) third in Juvenile, first in Novice A and second in Novice B.

The joyous awards ceremony, with eight categories and significant prize money (around £10,000), perhaps missed the deadpan delivery of the RSPBA Chief Executive, but in stepped the First Minister to hand over the shields, one particularly large one, where she was pleased to give it to the recipient. At this contest the results announced in reverse order (allowing the smarties to work out the winners in each category before the punchline). It was noisy and exciting all at once.

Archie MacKenzie on accordion, winner of the composer competition

Then came the Endeavour Award, for the band best reflecting the values and qualities of music for all in community and advancing the cause. Now aptly named the Eilidh MacLeod Endeavour Award. Her uncle spoke from the heart about the light Eilidh had been on people’s lives and how the family had its world turned upside down. In a moving speech his grace and dignity touched us all and he recalled the words on the Memorial to the 51st Highland Division at Beaumont-Hamel on the Somme, ‘La a’Blair s’math n Cairdean‘ – ‘Friends are good on the day of battle’. He reflected on how Eilidh’s battle is over. There was a spontaneous standing ovation for his words, and for Eilidh.

Congratulations to all involved in delivering an excellent competition. As an aside, and it’s a minor niggle for those of us not parking in the reserved spaces, the parking was no better than last year, with the facility at the school bursting at the seams by 8am. We did warn attendees of this. Not everyone had it easy with cars scattered in near and not so near residential streets. The locals must have loved that on Mother’s Day. The crush at prize giving had many people sitting on the floor and others standing outside the main hall (which was of a good size). I can only imagine the Edinburgh International Conference Centre or Glasgow Royal Concert Hall offering a better venue in the central belt, from where the vast majority arrived.  Being a ‘schools’ contest, maybe the organisers want it to be in a school,  but I’m sure we would all love to see the best bands on the stage of one of the big venues. And there are sufficient ancillary rooms to deal with it too. I’m sure the SSPDT could garner support from the venues as a gift.

For those further interested in the Juvenile Grade, there is an invitational competition for bands at Hutcheson’s Grammar School, Glasgow, on Sunday 18th March, under the auspices of the Glasgow Highland Club – solos and a band contest.

• For full results from the championships click here and apologies for the slight mix up yesterday. As stated above, Dollar won the Juvenile grade and North Lanarkshire Novice B not the other way round.

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