Dundee City – Competition Report and Grade 2 Review

Some say his para is more ‘handy’ than diddle, others that to him a good reed is a Dan Brown paperback (spelling isn’t his strong suit)… others bemoan his lack of spacial awareness as he tramps with his cromach to the isles. All we know is, he is our favourite, our number one, our very own MacStig…….

Having watched the online performances at Bangor, courtesy of Big Robert (plaudits for that), Closkelt really set the G2 tone ahead of Ravara and Manorcunningham. Interestingly, Ravara took the drumming in G2 and perhaps that form will be important in the weeks ahead.

And so to Dundee to hear what the MacCals and City of Discovery could deliver. Grey skies beckoned, the sun of the previous day a distant memory; the radio gal said Gourock was undoubtedly the brighter prospect. But, hey, the gas guzzler was patched, the oil leak plugged tighter than the tape on an FM pipe chanter and we motored with renewed confidence north across the Tay.

Dundee, once the home of jam, jute and journalism but now revitalised on the riverside with the V&A museum, and close by Caird Hall Square…..and you can still buy a delicious ‘pey’ (meat pie in the local dialect to those in doubt).

Rain reigned in Dundee initially. The Grade 2 contest here included one of the likely picks for the year in the form of Mackenzie Caledonian and, also, their home neighbours, City of Discovery, were on the roster. There being few G2 bands playing over in the west, this was the place to be. It was too good an opportunity to miss before Paisley next week.

Pipe Major David Wilton, of Lomond & Clyde, is also the head of piping at Dundee High School, and had his youngest charges (Novice B) out in the 4B competition. L&C listed on the G1 roster too – missing the hurly burly of Gourock and allowing David to cover his day job. Sadly, L&C were a no-show.

In its second year, this Dundee City contest has rather replaced Kinross as the obvious British Championship warm-up in the region. The bands prepared up Reform Street in the playground of the historic High School of Dundee, then made their way, in stages, to final tuning, before taking to the line in the Concert Hall piazza. I said piazza, not pizza; that came later and is another story for another day.

Aside from that Novice B band from the High School, there was a further Novice B band from the Mac Cals. On top of that we had three bands from Dollar Academy, in both Novice A, B and Juvenile. More about the ‘pesky kids’ later. There were 23 performances expected, versus the 18 of last year.

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The Royal Regiment of Scotland, 7 Scots, had a recruiting presence around the Square and were joined by the Scots Guards providing a mini band to entertain in the interludes. The set up is almost amphitheatre on three sides with the spectators outside a perimeter fence in the square. The hard granite surface did create a bit of echo from the snares in all cases and at certain vantage points there was a bounce back from the Caird Hall itself. The adjudicators were probably close enough to the action to avoid those sound anomalies. A tricky tuning day for all for sure with changeable atmospherics to contend with. The later afternoon saw the best of the sunshine.

Adjudicators were (P) Jennifer Hutcheon, Barry Donaldson, (D)Brian Martin and (E)James Campbell. A lengthy day for all four and the stewards too. 

I had only intended to review the Grade 2 competition, but arrived early enough (no traffic on a Sunday) to pick up the lower grades too. Both Grade 2 bands were scheduled to play up to join Lomond & Clyde in G1. The Editor suggested covering the lot as there is precious little written on the lower grades and a big appetite from readers for all of it. We all love the elite of Grade 1 and, of course, Grade 2 is the current hot ticket, yet there are many, many, more players in Grades 3 and 4 than in the upper levels. Besides, some of these school bands are simply astounding.

GRADE 4 B – March Set
Up stepped the debutant Dundee High School (Novice B) kids who had the local support on their side for sure. I’d say average age 14 or 15 with some much younger and some slightly older. P/M Wilton has knocked them into shape and there are the beginnings of a significant programme here. A further two – three years and there will be real momentum in this organisation. It’s all about the teaching. A nice march set with improvement tocome. Tempo will come up as they progress.

Dundee High School Nov B

Followed on by Dollar Academy Nov B, the school’s third band. Dollar had almost 90 players in three bands across this contest. There was a slight disconnect in the snares at the march on that perhaps more focus on the lead drummer and Pipe Major respectively would assist. That aside, a very young band (average age maybe 12) and whilst not top of the class, showing promise.

Coupar Angus Burgh Grade 4 followed as the first ‘adult band’, albeit with some youngsters in the ranks. Maybe some nerves from the couple of early starters, but they settled in well. The percussion seemed to want to press on and that produced a bit of a tussle until the third march.  First band with seconds on the day – quite subtle but this led to some freelancing just after. Slight challenge at this grade to deliver harmony and then get zipped back into the tune together. The drum corps was solid and worth watching this season.

Then another impressive Novice B outfit from the MacCals (the ‘mini Macs’). A strong conveyor belt of talent for the G2 band and some real youngsters in piping and others heartily lugging drums half their size. Again early nerves with an early chanter but they settled quickly and well. Very impressive snare line focus on the lead tip others could learn from. All for one and all that. A great band which will do well this season. Top of the class in my book.

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The grade closed with City of St Andrews marching to the tightest circle of the day – I’d suggest some spacing for bands that tend to do this. Well done to the solitary tenor. The six pipers had a go but some tuning issues did persist. The sun was breaking through and must have had a hit on things. Well done St Andrews. Again, good to see some younger players amongst the experienced.

The sun appeared with a drying breeze, no doubt causing tuning headaches and issues up the street. All in the day’s work for P/M, Pipe Sergeant and armies of long armed tuners. You know the stance – perched on tip toes with arm extended upwards – you can always tell a band tuner: one arm’s longer than the other.

MacCals Nov B

The immaculately dressed RAF Central Scotland Pipes & Drums kicked off the March, Strathspey & Reel competition. Pipes down then up before the off took me back and showed excellent drill. Strong bottom hand, slightly thinner top which wavered a pinch in the second part of the strathspey. The home run reel picked up pace neatly at the finish with a whiff of the last minute trailer. A good listen.

Next up a tidy band from Methil & District with a strong pipe corps. I liked the flow and strathspey particularly. I noted in the old notebook that I was looking forward to hearing their Medley in the afternoon. Third to play Dollar Academy Novice A; another band of around 30 marched to the line. Where are all of these kids coming from? Average age probably 13/14, but very experienced and know what they are about. Pipe Major Callum Beaumont, in the school tartan and confirming his concentration on school duties and solo work away from Inveraray this season. A strong set with maybe some minor blowing issues catching up in the reel. There were one or two bars where it was on the edge but the very large pipe corps did well to hold it together. At the top of the pile in my book.

From just down the road, Perth & District closed the grade. A good tone to start and well played. Some issues for sure, but it’s Grade 4. I liked the tone and the drones held up robustly in the slightly breezy conditions. For bass drum watchers – this is a graphic to look out for.


There was a scheduled break and the Scots Guards Pipes & Drums mini band filled it with a display on the square. Number 1s and blazing in red, they came on to an appreciative crowd. A great touch by the organisers to have this between the competition grades. It’s always good to hear a military pipe band go through its paces. The Water is Wide was touching and into old school reel and jig. Well done to the Guardsman on dance duty too, with resounding applause. The Scots Guard are approaching 400 years old and these appearances recreate what has happened over those centuries. Lest we forget.

The Scots Guards pipes, drums and dancer

GRADE 3 – Medley Contest
The second string from Vale of Atholl, its G3A band, stepped up to the line, and you can hear the tone of the G1 band coming through in part. A robust sound in all departments. Very musical, nice to listen to and a solid sound throughout. Not much for the adjudicators to write up other than compliments I would guess – sure, there were some issues. If you were being picky-picky there was minor wavering here and there, but enjoyable.

Next up, yet another 30-player band from the Dollar Academy conveyor belt. The Juvenile band under Field Marshal man Matt Wilson, made up of many experienced major winners, all under 18 and some much younger. Start of season nerves perhaps with the premature chanter on the left flank, but aside from that, and not forgetting that making solid starts, transitions and endings are the fundamentals of winning, the piping was exceptional. Hats off to the tuners. Drumming strong. A medley worth listening to if you get a chance during the season. Good enough to win in my book.

Bowhill (3B) followed admirably. A compact group with a strong resonance of drones. I particularly liked the transition to the strathspey from the slow air, which had held well for its very short duration. Not forced, a neat ‘loud, soft, medium soft’, often missing in performances. Interesting to note the trend in smaller snare lines to have the L/D in old school flank position. Very good performance and Bowhill should take a bow. Drumming was good enough for second.

Dollar Juv – G3 winners

Carnoustie & District stepped up with confidence, bass booming. Top end was solid into the slow air harmonies and very nice indeed. A lot to like here and a good season beckons. Warmly applauded by the growing crowd. The bass could possibly turn it down one notch. Back came RAF Central Scotland Pipes & Drums, with coats off, playing up and having a go at a standard I reckon they could be at. Neatly to the slow air which was quite quick. That was my only thought: that a slower, sedate tempo would set up the strathspey better. It all built nicely to the crescendo however. Tight stop, and off they went.

Closing Grade 3, Methil & District, also playing up. In the march to the line Campbeltown Loch got big licks. You could hear a good sound from there. Another good job by the pipe major and the tuning team but the sound weakened towards the end. The weather was grey overcast but had settled from the morning rain. Well played Methil, good quick tempo throughout, held together although the strathspey was pulsed on a fair bit for my palate. Again the slow air was sound, but quick. Over in a flash and away they went. Job done.

Grade 2 March, Strathspey & Reel
Now this is where it got very interesting – G2 was the main reason for my trip. MacKenzie Caledonian, flush with the success of their Centenary concert marched on first. As expected, a well-rounded solid sound for a well-kent tune posing all sorts of bear traps. They avoided them all and steamed on. A good number of youngsters refreshed things – vibrant and with a spring in the step. Watch out Closkelt et al. Next week will be a great contest. A neat touch to counter march off with Bonnie Dundee in the Centenary year. Certainly the one to beat on their home turf.

The former Boys’ Brigade Band that became City Of Discovery came up next. Another home team, possibly a bit bigger in size than last year. Maybe not, but a very good sound in the march up to the line. It held. Lord Alexander Kennedy to start is such a great tune. Ripping along and flying fingers. They didn’t tire to my ears apart from a tiny bit of wavering just towards the end of the reel. Solid, well appreciated. Another additional treat with a play off march – maybe this is a new trend? The crowd enjoyed it.

Playing up, Dollar Academy Juvenile were back in the circle. Assured as any G2 band you’ll see, you just wonder what the youngsters do with their nerves. Leave them with the pipe and drum cases obviously. This was a professional performance, well practiced, thoroughly rehearsed, in the zone. A solid run of their March, Strathspey & Reel ahead of Paisley. Second place.

Carnoustie & District closed the grade. I especially liked the precision in the strathspey. A smidge quicker overall would have been just the ticket but the performance held well.

 GRADE 1 / OPEN – Medley
Sadly, Lomond & Clyde, as I said, were a no-show in the Grade. MacKenzie Caledonian were, as the form books would suggest, best, but more than that, the sound is better than 2017. I don’t know if there is a change in reeds, or set up, but the tone is richer, fuller and a shade higher in pitch. Maybe that was the stonework surroundings, but I’d lock it in. As an aside, great sustain through the slow air into the strathspeys. The drive to the end was good. Seconds there and held well too. The sun shone on the Mac Cals as they played off. As I said earlier, look out Closkelt, Ravara and ManorC, the bonnets are coming.

City Of Discovery have certainly put the bad memory of the Worlds’ qualifier in 2017 away. This too is a fresher sound. I thought the snares could be brought up a smidgen and probably will be for this coming weekend. A very minor wandering in piping unison from my vantage point but the acoustics were tricky with hard surfaces all round. I liked it a lot. This band must be looking to get top six all season.

In conclusion, a fine day in all but weather terms in the early morning, and a competition growing in stature. The local amenities were better this year. (Strong recommendation of coffee shop BUBU as in Yogi’s friend.)Umbrellas up and down initially, mostly down, and a fine afternoon in weather and playing.

Watching the Grade 3 & 4 contests there were some basics lacking. The pace set by the P/M then the rolls, should lead to the tempo of the piece. Quite often it doesn’t. Too often the rolls are clipped, the tap unclear and there are early chanters. The early promise of a brisk tempo loses momentum. I’d reckon fixing that lot would be a great start for some.

A few days and we’ll all be in Paisley when the phoney war ends and it suddenly becomes very real. I wonder if Ian Embelton spends the next few days rehearsing his flattest, drolest voice to build the suspense as he reads the results out. That nano second pause between what is being won and who is winning it, must be the longest part of the week for all of you standing waiting. It’s all about the way you tell them; Frank Carson, News at Ten.

My old Glengarry is off in tribute to the team behind the Dundee event – well done. The preview for G2 at Paisley will be published later in the week. Now, I could do with a pipe band for a wedding I’m going to next Saturday night in Windsor; anybody available? Over and out.

Dundee City results:
Grade 4B: 1 Mac Cal Nov B; Coupar Angus;Dollar Nov B
Grade 4A: 1 Dollar Nov A; 2 RAF Central Scotland; 3 Methil
Grade 3: 1 Dollar Juv; 2 Vale of Atholl; 3 Carnoustie
Grade 2: 1 Mac Cal; 2 Dollar Juv; 3 City of Discovery
Grade 1/Open: 1Mac Cal; 2 City of Discovery

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