British Pipe Band Championships 2018 – Review of Grade 2

Some say his birls are legend, or maybe just leg end, others that he knows more about crop circles than the band variety….all we know is he’s called MacStig…

He’s watching you

Cometh the hour, cometh the band, although my spell check almost had ‘comets’… some of these bands are just like that – flashes of brightness and close to the edge. Adjudicators on duty for Grade 2 were Messrs Semple, Worrall, Mordaunt and D Brown, for this March, Strathspey & Reel competition at Paisley. Filmed throughout by the RSPBA, this lot will be available on the YouTube channel in early course. It’s great to be able to have that.

With the sun splitting the skies and some cloud building, the first ‘Major’ was off and running in near perfect conditions. It was breezy enough to blow a helium filled balloon out of the hands of a toddler –  in the shape of a jet, and it soared up into the Paisley sky. It wasn’t the only one in the vicinity as a regular flow of them left Glasgow Airport just over the motorway. The disappointed scream from the child was a perfect E to my cloth ears. I was moderately critical of the venue last year – wide open spaces with motorway and aircraft noise. What a difference a sunny day makes.

Sunny enough to spot the PP Editor from a distance, sporting  his dapper Panama hat at a jaunty angle. He was en route to the G1 contest; I was headed for Grade 2 where the action didn’t disappoint. Ultimately a few surprises, and those that came along were either self-inflicted damage or simply excellent playing.

Rolling into the arena and playing Castle Dangerous in the approach, first off, and bang on 2pm, Isle of Islay, sponsored by the local Kilchoman Distillery. Eight in the front rank in MacDonald of the Isles tartan, off they went at a brisk pace from P/M Morris. They had drawn Set 2 and looked disappointed not to have drawn 1. There is always a preferred set as you will all know – and I suspect they would have chosen the other. 18 pipers, eight snares. They settled well into Hugh Kennedy and, if anything at all, the tempo dropped from a moderately brisker set of rolls. Only a tiny bit, and I did think the drums were playing a little bit of catch up. The Ensemble shone through and this was a better balanced sound than last year by far. The transition and change up to Major David Manson was good, possibly the best of the piece. A good stop and they should be pleased. This band has upped the ante. (6 7 11 7) overall 8th and in the bunch that could strike the lower reaches of the prize list.

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Up next P/M Chesney’s Closkelt (main picture) and a heightened expectation from this performance. One of my ‘in the mix’ group of four or five for the season. The sound is usually exemplary, and so it was again. They drew Set 2 leading with Dugald MacColl’s Farewell to France. It held from the off with modest wandering in the last part. The Shepherd’s Crook was very clean, precise and light. There may have been a blip in the first part of Lt Col DJS – I’d have to listen again. That aside, they were in my book as top contenders, even at this stage. The one to beat. A rocking drum corps to complement one of the best G2 sounds you’ll hear. (1 1 3 4) and first place.

City of London

Third up, City of London, heralded with another blast of Castle Dangerous. Drawing Set 2 (I was wondering if there was a 1 in the bag). By comparison to the Closkelt sound this was less clean and slightly muffled. Part two of the march may have had a piping issue and a modest issue at the end with a premature mover. In the strathspey transition, Dora MacLeod, came in nicely just as a jet took off. Contrast to last season, the drumming was possibly just ahead of piping in my book. I noted that they will ‘have a better day soon and not on the list today’. So it was to be (14 14 7 13) and one from bottom. There was a warm round of applause from a noticeably larger crowd as they counter marched off. In a previous column I had asked folks to do that and it had gone round social media. A nice touch as a sign of respect for the late P/M Westgate

Mac Cals get the big listen

Hot from the great success of their Centenary concert, MacKenzie Caledonian stepped up next. Fresh from Dundee last weekend, Neil Nicholson wheeled them in. There was a bigger crowd, and I’m sure word is out that the MacCals are in the frame for greatness this season. They certainly look more confident and drew Set 1 (proving there was a 1 in the bag),  Highland Wedding  into Susan MacLeod. There was a long  hold into Susan M – and I wrote down that it was effective, but may not be to all tastes. It was neatly pulsed throughout – and then another big hold into the Brown Haired Maid. Some minor blowing perhaps in last part, and the drones sounded good throughout. Certainly in the mix but not enough tho topple Closkelt in sound and piping precision. Very likely to be on the list at tea time, but more about ‘where’ than first. It was to be Second (4 4 4 2) and that Ensemble score demonstrated their togetherness, ahead of all but 1. It’s not far away and they’ll be there at thereabouts next time out.

Ravara last Saturday

Ravara is no longer an unknown on these shores in G2. First off it’s a big sound, a bit of risk taking and full of confidence. Lord Alexander Kennedy, Tulloch Castle and McAllister’s Dirk. There was a ripping along snare score but from my vantage point I thought the bass note was a bit flat. Once I heard it I couldn’t not hear it, if you get my drift. That might have over ridden an otherwise strong back line. The 9th in drumming will have disappointed them after a strong showing at Bangor. The piping was solid, good throughout with some minor issues, although a bit of a jammed ending perhaps, but a very nice race to the finish. Tempo was up. (3 3 9 1). On the list at 3rd and, but for that 9th, who knows, second was in sight. I had said they would be in the hunt for silver all season and that remains the case.

Next up was my surprise of the day, so a bit more time on this one than I would normally devote, as there are great learning points in the performance. I had expected to be listening to a challenger for the bottom of the prize list from the newly promoted Royal Burgh of Stirling (The Burgh according to bass drum head). They played next and the script was far from what I expected and they had hoped. They drew Set 1, starting with Hugh Kennedy and we will get to the playing in a moment. With the most audible P/M before the off, as was the early chanter and a half. It wasn’t just one. Nerves, anxiety who knows – if you’ve been there you know it sometimes just happens to the best. It’s competition and there is no second chance, no time for repercussions or a restart of course, and you must get on with it. We all feel for the player(s) and what is going through their mind, the minds of those around them and of course, the adjudicators. I have no doubt that it unsettled them all – you know what it’s like when it happens and to be playing catch up. Post mortem afterwards no doubt. The groan from some supporters behind me was audible and if you listen to the RSPBA video you’ll hear it too.

Now here is the whole frustrating thing about pipe bands. The drums were settled from the off and sounded exceptional. I had them ahead in my book with the cleanest score and most dynamics. (The dynamics were the only difference between Stirling and New Ross as far as I was concerned). One of the nicest straths of the day as Dora Macleod came out again. I’m not sure about the link to Brown Haired Maiden; at the best of times it’s always a bit insipid for me. This was not Stirling piping at its best – even if you set aside the early one. You know that ‘look’ where the P/M is looking dead straight ahead at the exit. So, if they focus on the attack I expect piping scores to be in single digits and a top six place awaits. (12 11 2 10).

City of Discovery were on next and they drew Set 2 from the yellow bag. John MacDonald of Glencoe away very well and I do like a strong tap at the end of the rolls. No drum ticklers here and good dynamics throughout – that march score is a classic. A cracking tempo at the halt and the Bob of Fettercairn rattled in too, then seemed to slow. Just a little wayward and bitty in the third part. The ‘Dirk’ ran away a touch and some of the endings were clipped as they rattled on. I liked it, but it wasn’t quite as together as I’ve heard this band. (8 6 10 6) 7th place and an inch from glory by three points. P/M McGregor has a poker face so hard to tell if he was pleased or otherwise.

Big was the word of the day for Balagan, as they rolled on with a large band – big personality and big sound from the off. There was no messing around with the new lead tip: straight into a big sound. Set 1 prompted the P/M to dive into the ranks and give the most coaching I’ve seen – it was motivational speaker time. But big isn’t always beautiful, there needs to be control and it ran away in parts. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the sheer joy and enthusiasm, but the licence for freedom of expression given by the P/M needs careful handling. It isn’t a licence to freelance. There was an issue in the early stages of ‘The Smith’. The tenors were going big by then too. Maybe too ‘big’ and not enough variety. Overall, the exuberance was too much and needed to be reigned in here and there. There are the makings of something very good here and refining will be underway. What I did like was the firm idea and intent of the musical journey and clear destination. It was driving and driving to somewhere. They will get better. (10 10 14 12)

Next up and 9th on to the field, Grampian Police Scotland under P/M Whyte. The yellow bag produced Set 2 – John MacDonald of Glencoe,  Atholl Cummers and Major David Manson. Now here is something to do if you get a chance to look at the RSPBA YouTube Channel.  Listen to the Balagan version of the Atholl Cummers strathspey versus this one – it’s an interesting exercise. One scored very much better in piping than the other and it’s always useful to get those sorts of comparative measures. No frills, GPS (they never get lost) delivered the music in a business like way and marched off. I was slightly concerned that the drumming was off the pace and could have a big bearing on the outcome. Being bold, I reckoned they had done enough at to be on the fringes of the list at this stage in the Grade, with a handful to go. They clung on (5 5 12 5) and earned 6th place.

More ‘blue lighters’ in the form of Scottish Fire & Rescue up next. In past times I haven’t hidden my respect for the youth development programme going on and now yielding players into this band. They realised some time ago that a feeder band is a tactical requirement unless you are in the Manchester City or Chelsea class of G1 and can draw the best talent like a magnet. It remains work in progress, but progress is being made. (9 8 8 11). They drew Set 2 starting with Links of Forth and I did think the sound was thinner than I had heard as they marched from final tuning. I’m sure they will be all over that. I’m also not sure what happened at the strike, but it seemed slightly staggered from where I stood. They settled though and it was certainly a build on last year’s incremental improvements competition on competition. The ensemble came apart a little in the Strathspey and Reel. Just a few bits of freelancing and timing here and there. Competition will improve them. Now, a word about fans. I thought the Dunedin Florida band had the loudest last year, but there are new contenders in the (fire) house, with SFR. They win the most boisterous award of the day and it was great to hear unfettered support.


Bucksburn & District, fresh from the Beach Ballroom series of concerts were on next. Pipe Major Selbie drew Set 1, David Ross, Caledonian Society of London & Mrs MacPherson of Inveran.  There was a very warm tone from the off and I remembered that this is a band that cracks on in tempo, no hanging around. I had precious few notes, which is good, and underscores that I was drawn into the music. If I had to come up with one word it would be ‘together’ and that was bourne out by the 3 in Ensemble. Overall  5th and a smidge ahead of their near neighbours Gram Pol. (7 9 6 3).

I had high hopes for the newly promoted Wallacestone & District. In their 131st year and a well liked band, I noticed Mikey McKenna of SLoT appearing at the head of the circle to listen. Neil Henderson drew Set 2, Links of Forth, Bob of Fettercairn & Lochcarron. Surprisingly the step up from 3 to 2  for W&D seemed to be beyond them on the day and the steady assurance as they wheeled in seemed to go as they stepped over the line. The march took some time to settle and there was a slight slowing into ‘the Bob’. I’d have preferred a higher tone in the mid and bass section. By the time the reel came around I feared the chance of clawing back lost ground had gone. Lochcarron was brighter, but that confidence was needed from the off. The stop was a bit smudged and I thought of what might have been and the promise in flashes here and there. I know this is a good band and only they will know what happened to lead them to prop up the grade. (11 13 13 14). Now come on W&D, we know you’ll dust down, reset, work hard and get back in. Roll on the UK Championship Medley contest at Belfast.

Up next was another G3 promotion band, New Ross and District. Could they set aside nerves and join the G2 rodeo at pace? Following W&D and what had gone on there, concerned me.  There was a nervous start at the front end but I could see the drumming adjudicator was right into it from the off. They drew Set 1 and the rolls and taps were firm. I thought the pipers were slightly timid in comparison though. A reasonable sound that thinned as the set progressed and the piping seemed to run out of momentum.  They wavered a bit here and there and I thought it was just a bit nervous and tentative.

New Ross drum corps

The drumming was busy. Busy snares and a tough score. Not the most well known tunes in Set 1 for their S&R and a double-edged sword of course. If you do play the old favourites everyone knows them and knows where the bear traps are. If it’s a lesser played tune it might not be so well received. Once I got over the pointed drumming style the corps roared away. I can see why some adjudicators will have this corps as top of the class and others will be in a different camp. They will be congratulating their drummers  for the win and thanking them for pulling up the average. (13 12 1 9).

Manor C

Last on and one of my top tips for the year, Manorcunningham, from East Donegal. They drew set 1. I hadn’t heard Sinclair Scott in a long time but I remembered the showcase nature of the tune. A brave choice as you open yourselves up and there are few hiding places. With well set pipes it marched in quick time, very nice and into Susan MacLeod. I thought the Mrs MacPherson was the highlight of the set and Gordon Carson should be pleased with the double 2 in piping, well reflecting MC’s quality. I thought the drums were well set and one of the brighter timbres of the day and just right for the grass surface. As an aside, some bands were still showing lingering settings for indoors and hard surfaces. I had MC in the top 3 in my mind and they might be wondering about that 8 for Ensemble. It wasn’t a complete surprise to me as they did seem to have less chemistry between pipes and percussion. Last year they won the drumming prize at this very competition. This year they were off the drumming pace and the piping was a wafer away from top drawer Closkelt. However I’d back them to be up there again in the Medley contest next time out. Overall 4th (2 2 5 8).

There you have it and the small clusters of bands in final scores is almost more interesting than the placings.

  1. Closkelt 9
  2. Mac Cal 14
  3. Ravara 16
  4. ManorC 17
  5. Bucksburn 25
  6. Gram Pol 27

Closkelt was ahead of the pack, then MacCal Ravara and Manor C in the chasing group,  with little between them. Ravara might well be thinking a better Drumming score (than 9) would have out them closer to a win. Then Manor C will be smarting at the 8 in Ensemble.

The best band on the day won in my book. On reflection and talking of scores, there are some comments to make on the actual versus those you might have expected. Let me be clear, the Adjudicators score what they hear from their vantage points and can freely move around. They have a material advantage on those of us scribblers in the extremities. Closkelt were well ahead in G2, with enough blue water between them and the next three bands. That cluster of Mac Cals, Ravara and Manor C all showed intent this past weekend and were really going for it. In the next cluster only 11 points separate the 7 bands. They could all knock a few marks off and be aiming to have a go at the top 4. There were no major upsets, although Wallacestone will be wondering what just happened. From flying high in G3 to propping up the table in G2. They will come back for sure.

Firstly, in a straight piping contest the first five places were absolutely agreed by both piping judges. The judge discussion was happening for sure and I’m sure we all welcome that and avoid the chatter that can go alongside disparate scores. In sixth place and lower it was more freelance but certainly no large differences – two places being the maximum.

In drumming, two of the promoted bands New Ross and Stirling brought their previous season ding-dong to take 1st and 2nd respectively, placing the best of the Grade 2 from last year down the order. Closkelt picked up 3rd and City of London vastly improving on last year, to take 7th. Interestingly, Ravara didn’t repeat the form of Bangor and took 9th as mentioned.

The Ensemble scores threw up some interesting points worth highlighting too. For instance, you might have scored relatively well in both piping and/or drumming, yet not demonstrated the joined up thinking in the Ensemble. The E judge can, in tight contests, be the champion maker (or breaker) as the score almost acts like a bonus (or away goal in football parlance) in a ‘draw’. As a statistic for those of you who are excited by such things, there were 26 ‘Ensemble Preferences’ across the whole British Championship on Saturday, not least the G1 Champions.

The historical data often shows that the Ensemble ranking very often bears a close resemblance to the overall outcome. Of course there are exceptions, but it generally holds true. If a band scores a hideous Ensemble number it is highly unlikely to come back from that to win. I was looking at Grade 1 to check the thesis out and there it was. 2662 Squadron in 3A proved it also.

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On a lighter note, the weather was great and there were plenty of red armed pipers at the March Past. Some red noses too. The bus parking set up was better and there was more space between the arenas, avoiding near noise contamination. The lavatory cubicles – well, the least said the better.

MacStig’s award for the most annoying thing of the day – a balloon seller (from a hold-all and obviously not official) with a ballon that you bounce off your hand via an elastic band,  and it rattles some beads inside. I’m sure the parents of the proud owners will be disposing of them already. It was head bursting after a few minutes listening to it before the one near to me burst (the power of prayer)  – oh dear, I thought. Also, which bright spark thought it wise to licence a vendor selling referee whistles? Outstanding lack of thought. I suppose rattling balloons and whistles are better than vuvuzelas, which are, of course, banned from the Worlds’ arena.

Vendor of the day was the artisan coffee van, next to the outdoor climbing wall. Very appropriate, as after two large espressos you needn’t have worried about finding a wall to climb. It was also the picnic table area where a number of ‘dropped’ pipers and drummers were sitting dejectedly. It still smarts and hurts even if you ‘know’ it’s coming.

It’s Belfast next, so be there or be a square sausage. Now I’ll pretend to be writing this for a couple of hours longer in my room under the stairs, as the wedding I managed to miss yesterday is currently being re-run on the screen next door. Good wishes to the couple and all that, but do I really need to see what Victoria Beckham is wearing, other than a scowl? Or Sir Elton’s helmet hair? Over and out.

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