Review of Grade 2 at the UK Pipe Band Championships

Some say his Ulster fry is as dry as an Arabian sand shoe….others that his flashes of brilliance are in his hose tops…..yet more that his utterings and muttering are those of a havering Hector – and anything but heroic. But he is our firm family favourite and you just gotta love him…He is, after all, the one and only MacStig……

He’s watching you

I think it was those 1970s heavy duty philosophers Boney M who sang about the city of Belfast, somewhere I’m sure they never visited. Anyway, to the capital of Northern Ireland in boats, buses, cars and planes went those who were going, as opposed to those who were not. I almost said ‘all’ but there was a distinct number throwing a sickie or having a duvet day. More of that later.

Yes, Stormont and the manicured cricket grounds for the UK Pipe Band Championships, one of my favourite venues where even bad weather days have brightened. It’s not Forres with its sideshows and stalls, but the cricket ground is manicured and well set.

Grade 2 presented an interesting challenge for those venturing forth in the first Medley contest of the season. We had 14 bands listed, as with Paisley and the British Championship, but with two in and two out. Colmcille joined the ranks, as did the US-based Worcester Kiltie. Out went the tales of two cities, City of London and City of Discovery. All 14 played.

Looking ahead to Forres and the European Championship we have 10 G2 bands slated to play. No City of London, nor Ravara nor ManorC – two of which would be in the hunt. No New Ross either.

Grade 2 Adjudicators walking out to the pitch at Stormont were Messrs Moffett, Brown, Wilson & Ms Hutcheon. Weather was blustery with gathering clouds and intermittent sun, although the best was well past in the late morning. It was a stiffening breeze with raindrops as the Grade 1 got underway early with Buchan Petersen over in Arena 1. In the slightly more exposed Arena 2, it was a considerably smaller crowd than at Paisley for this first Medley outing, although it did build through the couple of hours. Keeping the rain off the notebook and holding an umbrella at the same time was just as tricky as it sounds. Then the sun would make the odd appearance. A tuner’s nightmare.



Scottish Fire & Rescue Services first to start the grade at 13.30h and firstly, a big tribute to their colleagues in Glasgow who battled a fire at the Glasgow School of Art overnight into Saturday. Charles Rennie McIntosh’s masterpiece burned again. There is perhaps an advantage to going first, albeit later in a roster might be considered better. My one thought, as I watched SFR in final tuning for maybe 20-30 minutes and really going for it, was just how would the sound and blowing hold up for the run, as they took the brief march over to the line.

Final tuning for SFR

Blustery, overcast, and on they came. Nice touch with the salute to the Ensemble judge, a long gone general protocol. The strike was clean and just a hint of deviation in the third bar. Again another minor issue before the seconds on the intro before Sparky Cherry, on which the sun broke through. C’est la Vie was neatly done and a thundering bass section intro added to it. The Devil was in the Kitchen for real and in due course, off they went. A deserved Ensemble score of 4 underscored the togetherness. 12th overall (14, 13, 13, 4).

Next up Balagan, and though the podcasters still debate how to say it (intonation on the ‘la’ or the ‘ga’) it is easily written. One drummer in a surgical boot (great effort) and try as I might, I couldn’t get a shot of them without ‘number 1 fan’ walking in front – who must now become a local hero. Straight point first, I did think the boom was less than Paisley but crept in from time to time. Cleverly, this was destination Medley playing, and whilst not without some bits and pieces of wandering, it was very musical and clearly thought through. A very obvious ending to the piece. The adjudicators, however, had them bottom of the pile.

Followed by Wallacestone & District with the Pivovar Express and off at the speed of a 125 train. The ‘seconds’ on that are edgy and you’ll either like them or not. The same with ‘Back Atcha’ a tune that stays with you. More harmony in the air and rattling on in The High Drive. The pipe corps stayed more in line versus Paisley, but a few things to work on and maybe the Ensemble judge would have been trying hard to get the percussion from the  vantage point at the head of the circle. I thought it was light coming through. On that High Drive, quite nicely done and one of the shortest stops of the day. (12, 12, 10, 14).

The bigger guns of MacKenzie Caledonian (pictured top celebrating) were getting into order as the W’stone & D folks shook hands and had that immediate post run discussion just outside the arena. MKC’s P/M Nicholson has a very well galvanised band, with that Centenary concert knocking them into shape early. Kicking off with Reverend A. R.  MacKenzie’s Revenge they were off well (that is a tricky tune) and the best tone of the day so far by quite a way. The transitions were all on the money and often less is more in slow air drumming – very effective. Rodney Hull QC (without Emu) well away and a lovely effortless slide into Miss Lily then Ca’ the Ewes. I’ve heard that combo before, maybe in Juvenile some years back. Cunningham’s Fancy and a little reprise to end. More on the ‘reprise’ idiom later. I wrote down that this was the band to beat in my book at this stage. The panel had them clearly first  (2, 1, 4, 1). A first big one for the Mac Cals and rightly deserved.

A building crowd for the next band and with British Champions, Closkelt we all got a close proximity comparison band to the Mac Cals. They had a push on from Manorcunnigham last week so there was a sense of intent from the P/M and his charges. Maybe a waver at the off, I’m sure there was, but they settled well into a more traditional, yet impressive set. The Four Courts was exceptionally nice as was Tommy Tully’s Air. I liked the sparing use of seconds in ‘Courts’ and again in the air. Rock solid sound in the long held phrases.

Closkelt drummers

For all the others with more ‘content’ in their Medley, this was well executed at high precision. All I feared for was that very minor waver at the kick off. Top notch sound. Their fans, resplendent in Wolf Logo kit – get the award for ‘best fans of the day’. Interesting to note some Mac Cals watching intently. So it was to be, with (1, 2, 3, 5) sealing their fate as 2nd overall, tying with the best aggregate score of 3 overall in piping. It was the Ensemble that got them, but well ahead of 3rd and 4th.

Grampian Police opened with Helen Black of Inveran as the sun broke through. I’m always amazed at the minor impact slight body turning has on the sound and co-ordination. Last Tango in Harris was bouncing along and I thought there was a tiny bit of drone angst. Lovely air, rattled along almost Beaches of Harris like. This is a band that doesn’t hang about with uptempo strathspey playing, maybe they were on the 4pm Ferry. I said in a past review that piping is top six in the grade all day long. A great race to the finish. Scoring (4, 7, 12, 3) underscored the piping prowess – inside the top 6 on piping alone,  but it is about piping and drumming. 7th overall.

New Ross head to the line

New Ross & District, with the British Championship winning drum corps, were next and I had heard them as the wind changed and brought final tuning noise to the arena. The snares were rattling away at pace over there. New Ross, new weather, as the rain spotted and spat. I went to the back end to hear these now famous rolls. Also very impressive rolls in crescendo and diminuendo in the slow air. Then an outing for Susan MacLeod, later Lexy McAskill. Highlight for me was The Red Coat, although the run to the end was very accomplished. First in drumming again and I had watched that from close quarters. If you get a chance, watch the upcoming RSPBA YouTube channel. (9, 9, 1, 11) and 8th overall.

Manorcunningham thereafter. More sun and aptly into a bright Angus Ross of Kirktomy. Sweetly in and those Pearl snares were brightly tuned too. Toe tappable and a good sign. Spared use of seconds until Rory MacLeod and thoughtful through The Cliffs of Doneen and Craig A Bodich – very deliberate, lovely tenor score. Simple but very musical. Big licks for North Down and Los Romanes Highlanders and one of those absolute stop, stops. In with a shout for the list was my summation in the old book. (6, 4, 6, 8) 5th on the silverware list.  I wrote down that in that cluster of five bands you might well hear the bulk of the prize list. Of that I was convinced.

Colmcille made their debut in a 2018 Major next. After ‘Reaction Central’ came another outing for Rory MacLeod. This was another old school medley, with a path from start to finish. Some phrase endings did come apart in places but it was full of intent. The top end was thin(ish) here and there but the warming conditions had a hand for sure. I liked Keel Row and the Golden Wedding tune for the Duncan’s is a good one. It was great to see ColmC in the arena. (8, 11, 11, 10) 10th overall.

The ‘goldie’ boys and girls of Islay

They were followed by Kilchoman Distillery Isle of Islay and for once it was grey clouds to start for the band used to bringing a wee goldie. This is a band fast improving with sparks of strong playing and only requiring more consistency. My heart sank on reading the programme and knowing ‘the Water is Wide’ was coming. Full disclosure – I have WIW fatigue. However it was nicely done (one teeny tiny note issue) as was the Devil in the Kitchen strathspey and transition to reel. Not everyone’s cup of tea but there it was. The Kesh Jig to Fuddler was my highlight. One other point, I’m also not sure about Reprises, generally. Kelsey’s Wee Reel was there and then again. It’s also in the Burgh of Stirling Medley and they were up next. Islay (7, 6, 5, 7) 6th on the list and a point from 5th. Well done Kilchoman – which may well have been flowing ever since.

Royal Burgh of Stirling‘s Uphold the Right is a great opener and open they did with a firm getaway. Again I took a backseat to hear this strong drum corps but did think it was slightly off the crispness I had heard at Paisley. To my ears the best set snares of the day though. Further outings for Unknown Air, Kelsey and Seonaidh. Slight freelancing on the latter but rattled on well. Kenny Gillies was a new one on me or I’d forgotten it. Emancipation was well finished and the harmonies worth a listen on video. (11, 10, 8, 12) and 11th.

Both of those Scottish bands had points to prove. Islay were not far from the list at Paisley and Stirling needed to show a rock solid piping attack to complement their stronger drumming. In both cases, to roll out on the day what is routinely done in practice is about confidence and belief.

Next up our far travelled visitors from the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. Worcester Kiltie from New England. Promoted from G3 the season before last and for some, you heard them in the G2 qualifier at Glasgow last August. A great effort to come over for this and they were warmly welcomed. It puts a few journeys made, and those not made, into the shade. Good from the off and highly confident. It was a very traditional set with eight named tunes.

Worcester at the line

A classic Hurlock’s Air did ping along. Rose Among the Heather might have had more loud, soft, medium, soft intonation but I liked it. Another example of transition with Hogties Waltz and Reel. I leave it to you dear reader to decide if transitions are this years Grade 2 accessory. I got into this set as it went along and even enjoyed the reprise. My GlenG is doffed to P/M Methven and the Kiltie organisation. I hope they had a chance to enjoy wider Belfast over the weekend. Heck of a journey for less than six minutes of game time. Kiltie rewarded with 3rd (5, 3, 7, 2) to fly back home with and must have raised their profile, just in case they are returning in August. Topped some of the domestics and locals and probably pinged the radar over in Houston and Dunedin.

The tidy and brisk band from Bucksburn were the penultimate (oh, that word) to play. They impressed me at Paisley, no nonsense and simply deliver the set.  P/M Selbie doesn’t hang around. Good to go and off they went. Donald MacLeod and that wily old Rodney Hull QC again. There was some great work going in here and if ever a P/M looked around encouragingly this was it. Plenty of Jig in Bill Gregory’s and I particularly liked their version of Rory MacLeod. Over in a flash and off they went. (10, 8, 9, 6) out of the prize list at 9th and a way from near neighbours Gram Pol on points.

Last up Ravara, another one on the look out for prizes and closing the Grade. Now I must make mention of the Canadian influence and the nod to the long running SFU summer school in Silver Star, Canada. Piping Hot Summer Drummer is the name of the two-week school (starting soon) and the name of the tune incorporated into this crafted Medley. Hats off to P/M Connolly for this compendium of toe tappers and good tunes. Perhaps this is the quality of the old Grade 1 DNA of the band but the quality did show here and I added Ravara to my list of names to be called in a couple of hours. Scoring (3, 5, 2, 9) it probably eradicated the thought of the drumming score in Paisley. Plenty to work on and 4th but chasing 3rd by a short margin

I did detect a number of bands missing from across the grades at Stormont -. not just in Grade 2. The Novice grades particularly (only three bands in Nov B). Now, don’t get me wrong,  I understand it’s expensive (I paid many shillings to go myself) and for bands to travel, particularly those with young adults, additional supervision and chaperones are required not least to manage behaviour and conduct whilst ‘away’.

MacStig’s crash hat comes in handy when he’s on his despatch bike

Similarly the numbers for the last Forres gathering are down this year too. I note it falls after many schools are already on summer holiday and some families may well be gone. It means the outcome of some of these grades will be the best of those playing on the day, not the ‘full list’ and, it may well be August before we get the whole lot turning up at the Green for the big one.  And we will, with Peel, Dunedin, St Thomas and a whole host of others arriving. ‘It’s going to be great’, to paraphrase a President.

What did I take from the Belfast competition? I had been in three minds about travel. The gas guzzler isn’t ideal, and as a recovering sailor the big boat isn’t the best. Flying is my least favourite, so it might have been a coracle. Move over St Columba. The ‘boat’ won one way and Belfast was a grand day out, although paying a queen’s ransoms for a mediocre sandwich on the ferry, merely to see it heading into the frisky Irish Sea an hour later was not the most satisfying episode of the weekend. I could have cut out the middleman and thrown it overboard in one ‘piece’. So to speak.

After a taxi journey in a car that was either a) stolen or I was in b) a getaway car, the return flight was packed with kilts, bonhomie and crammed in libations within the 25 minute hop. Twittersphere chatter at results time was great. One word on that – the RSPBA digital team does a great job on Twitter and filming the earliest parts of the competitions. The camera warriors like Big Rab et al too. I saw the latter chap very early on although I remained incognito. He is certainly cruising to the pipe band personality of the year award.

A few other things, G2 tuning was just too close for comfort for those at the back of the competition arena – prevailing wind changes made it ebb and flow. The vendors were sparse and whilst they may have liked it for commercial reasons (little competition), the choices were limited. Oh to have been upstairs in the pavilion and the VIP’s tucking into foie gras and beluga (as if). There were rather a lot of adjudicators around, including some not on the roster. I’m guessing there was some kind of adjudicator forum, so stand by for ideas and views in due course. That was Grade 2, that was Belfast and now on to Forres for a different roster of bands. Over and out.


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