I arrived at Paisley around lunchtime on Saturday and after a coffee, picked up a programme (free) and headed over to the Grade 1 arena for the 2pm start of the British Pipe Band Championship .
Readers will know all the usual caveats about the audience not being as close as the judges are to the bands, extraneous chatter etc, etc and this should be borne in mind when they read this critique. But also bear in mind that the crowd does get pretty near to the circle at the St James Playing Fields. Adjudicator Robert Mathieson could have reached over and shared lumps of his birthday cake with us had he wished to such was his proximity to we mere scribblers. Yes, you have a very good handle on what is going on at Paisley. That said, I remind everyone; it is the judges’ opinions that matter, not mine.
There were three of them out for the first time at a Grade 1 major. These were Messrs Peter Hunt, Lee Innes and Robert Shaw. Was this the wisest decision by the adjudicator selection panel? Would it not be more prudent to blood their tyros one at a time giving the bench a better blend of ‘youth’ and experience, with weighting on the latter?
By and large the judges stood in the same spot throughout the contest, and thus gave each band an equal hearing. The exception would be Mr Shaw who, had there been a small net in his stocking, would have betrayed to the observer a keen interest in lepidoptera such was the energy he expended chasing round the circle in pursuit, if not of the elusive red admiral, then of that dropped gracenote he thought he heard on the other side of the band.
On ensemble was the aforementioned Mr Mathieson, that most gifted and qualified of pipe band experts. He began by marching in with the band and then correctly spent most of his time patrolling the same small area of turf behind the pipe major. However occasionally he would startle the frail and elderly by taking it into his head that he must swirl round the drum corps at a pace which belied his 60 years, before eventually resuming his more static, and surely fairer, stance at the head of the performing band, the signal for us all to relax once more.
I say again, of all the judges, the ensemble adjudicator should be the one who remains fixed throughout a competition (as Robert did for 90% of the time). Only that way can he get the same sound perspective from every band. The moment he moves that perspective alters. The piper playing seconds sounds louder as you draw near, the melody diminishing. The drums dominate as you pass the tenors, the pipes diminishing. Get one of those tennis umpire chairs. Place it at the head of the circle. Have the ensemble judge climb aboard and chain him there for the duration.
There were 13 bands forward for the contest with two withdrawals, Denny & Dunipace (registration issue) and Buchan Peterson (practice issue). But the sun split the sky and even the roar of aircraft engines could not diminish the feelgood factor as the first band on, Glasgow Skye, approached the line. P/M Henderson selected their Gladiator medley from two submitted and we were off. They were careful with this opener; they struggled for unison in the strathspeys and other content was overcomplicated at times. Perhaps the sound could have been honed a bit finer, but the Skye did not disgrace the grade. They are well worthy of their place in it and on this showing should stay up.
The Vale of Atholl were disappointing. This band plays well but the strathspeys were rounded off and at times I simply could not follow the melodic line in their reels. Cabar Feidh was better, but to me this was a band trying too hard with over complex arrangements. On came Boghall, that distinctive drum tone immediately attractive. They had a much more incisive sound than what we had heard so far and the fingering projected beautifully. My only criticism of the Boggies was that I thought the slow air over harmonised and that the jigs overstayed their welcome a shade. As I said, what an improvement over the winter in this band. Top six throughout the summer on this showing.
Inveraray, the current World Champions, seemed so laid back as to be near horizontal. This was ‘park the bus’ pipe band playing, if I can use a football analogy. Crisp hands all round, good sound established now don’t do anything silly and we’ll see out that 1 – 0 advantage. It wasn’t enough, and had P/M Liddell gone for it more he could have taken a trick. Oh and one other thing – She Moved Through the Fair was much too drawn out for my taste.
I didn’t like the opening tune from Shotts but they redeemed themselves in the strathspeys and reels. Unlike I’ray they really went for it. This was clean playing with a minimum of harmony. How refreshing. To me the two pillars of a good medley are an impactful start and climactic finish. Unfortunately Shotts endpiece was anti-climactic and left me on the low end of high. Not what you want.
St Laurence O’Toole had an off day and personally I thought them rather fortunate to get fourth in the judges’ list. The drums lacked snare sound (v metallic) and the piping was okay – just okay. SLoT can be slow starters and will up their game as the season progresses and that Worlds Week concert approaches. They have all the talent and the tone.
The warm, dry weather took its toll on the PSNI‘s sound with the high As shrill and the sound weakening as they worked through their set. P/M Cupples drove them on at good tempi throughout however. I think the harmony in the slow air needs another look, ditto the unison in the Foxhunter.
If Boghall showed a marked improvement on 2017 so did Glasgow Police. The only downsides in this performance were a bad ending and over extended phrases in Mingulay Boat Song. Otherwise it was great to see and hear ‘the Polis’ playing with such confidence and verve. Quality fingers too, well demonstrated in their handling of their strathspeys. Keep this up and they’ll make the list at some point at a major.
G1 novitiates Lomond & Clyde just didn’t have the sound required for this level. Indeed I don’t think their sound at Paisley was as good as it was last year in Grade 2. Perhaps they played too long beforehand or the sun got to the pipes and dried them out. A better sound and they will make a better impression.
Sparkling stuff from Fife Police though I thought the high As and Fs were shading off here and there as their medley progressed. P/M Murray demanded the best from his pipers and he got it. The finger was exemplary even when he pushed the tempi right to where they should be in Grade 1 – on the edge. Well worthy of their top six placing.
Johnstone are becoming more and more established in this grade. They play and sound like they are part of the G1 furniture. On this occasion their tone just did not sustain and it was hard to concentrate on their accomplished technique and expression when the drones and chanters began drifting apart. Given a couple of more years hard work and experience, this band will make the list, I’m sure.
On came Scottish Power with a fine sound and one of our most beautiful marching airs, Dream Valley of Glendaruel by P/M John MacLellan, Dunoon. Whether it is appropriate as an opening for a competition medley is another matter and diving into overwhelming harmonies on the repeat of the first part belied a lack of confidence in tune selection. The bass drummer boomed at times and I didn’t at all like the cannibalisation of the Lament for Mary MacLeod in the middle of this set. It is close on sacrilege; beneath the dignity of one of our great ceol mor masterpieces to carve it around in this fashion. The strathspeys and reels were probably among the best of the day however – brilliant technique and consistent phrasing. The ending with the reprise of Mary MacLeod left me cold, no, frozen.
The final band Field Marshal had, by some distance, the best sound in the competition: clear, sweet, superbly balanced. It provided the perfect platform from which they could project their finger perfect fingerwork and immaculate unison. The Hard Drive to finish was a brilliant demonstration of just that, and when allied to swinging off beats and innovative melodic interweaving, provided a thrilling end to their set.
In summary: To my ear Field Marshal Montgomery had the best tone, the best technique and a delivered a near faultless performance on the day. In second there could have been any one of three bands: Inveraray, Scottish Power (main picture) or Boghall with my preference probably favouring the Lothians. What an improvement in this band on last year!
The actual result:
1 Power 2 Inveraray 3 FM 4 SLoT 5 Boghall 6 Fife Police
Now I have no wish to take the shine off Scottish Power’s victory even if my trade requires that I tell it as I hear it and my conclusions differ from those of the judges. So let me offer all congratulations to the band’s pipers and drummers and in particular to L/D Jake Jørgensen who my percussion experts tell me has added a lot of colour and nuance to the SP corps. P/M Armstrong has been at the helm of this band for more than ten years and is due every bit of silverware that comes his way. If he edged it at Paisley there will have been plenty of days when he lost out undeservedly.