Some Early Reflections on a Weather Blessed Pipe Band Season

Pipe band expert Alistair Aitken discusses the pipe band season so far…

By Alistair Aitken OBE

Since the British Pipe Band Championships at Paisley on 19 May there have been numerous local competitions throughout the UK as well as the UK Pipe Band Championships in Belfast. 

What has struck me in particular about the majority of local competitions is the reducing numbers of band entries. Contests which in the past have had significant numbers of bands in all grades have been affected. For example, Bathgate Highland Games on 26 May attracted only nine bands in total with a number of them playing in more than one grade. There were no Grade 1 or Grade 2 bands and only one Grade 3 band. Similarly the contest at Shotts on 2 June attracted a total of seventeen bands but there were only two Grade 2 bands and no Grade 1. The latter is particularly unfortunate as Shotts is one of the hubs of pipe band history and it is an RSPBA Glasgow & West of Scotland Branch contest. The Branch can now boast seven Grade 1 bands within its membership.

There were similar situations at the local competitions at Girvan, Strathmore, Ardrossan, Aberdeen, Lochore, Lesmahagow and Helensburgh. The Edinburgh local competition fared a little better with 40 entries across all the grades and only six dropped out on the day. In years gone by the top bands supported their own Branch competitions and attracted bands from other Branch areas. There were also always significant numbers across all the other grades. There appears to be a similar pattern in Northern Ireland where in the past there were high numbers at most of the local competitions.[polldaddy poll=10029688]

The reasons for the decline in numbers are difficult to identify and it raises the question of whether the RSPBA could, or should, be mounting some form of investigation to get to the root of the problem. Are there too many competitions or too many on the same day or same weekend? Are bands these days only able to support Major Championships in view of the cost? Has some form of apathy set in? Are the increased sizes of the bands in Grades 1 and 2 affecting the number of players available for bands at lower levels?  Are there too many grades? Do some bands in all grades feel they are wasting their time competing because there are certain bands which regularly take the prizes? Are the results too predictable? Are the bands disillusioned by differences in adjudicator results? Should there be more incentives to compete? Perhaps the Editor of Piping Press should consider initiating a debate on the subject. 

The organisers of local events which include pipe band competitions must be disappointed that they are not attracting the numbers of traditional pipe band performances their paying spectators are expecting. One positive aspect about the local competitions held in May and June, however, was that they encountered warmer and sunnier weather than normal. In previous years the weather during these months has not been so kind (see photograph below from Bathgate Highland Games in May 2013).

The second RSPBA Major Championships of the year (the UK Championships) took place in Belfast on 16 June. The significant historical fact about the UKs is that they replaced, in 2014, the Championships previously held in Dunoon as part of the famous Cowal Highland Gathering. Many readers may not know that the first pipe band competitions which were recognised as the World Pipe Band Championships were held in Dunoon as part of the Cowal Games, this between 1906 and 1946 (apart from during WW1 1914-1918 and WW2 1940-1945). 

It was not until 1947 that the World Pipe Band Championships were taken over by the then Scottish Pipe Band Association (SPBA and now the RSPBA) following a great deal of acrimonious politics between the Association and the Cowal Committee. When the dispute was eventually resolved the pipe band part of the Dunoon event became known, from 1948, as the Cowal Pipe Band Championships, one of the RSPBA’s five annual Major Championships.  The Argyll Shield, previously awarded to the winning Grade 1 pipe band at Cowal from 1906, was retained for  Grade 1 at Cowal, and is still awarded to the winning Grade 1 band at what is now an RSPBA West of Scotland Branch local competition run as part of Cowal Games. 

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Many pipe band personnel will remember the annual pilgrimage to Dunoon from far and near, by ferry, bus, train or car; the requirement to play up and down the street to and from the contest arena irrespective of whether they were likely to be or were winners; and also getting back home at totally unrealistic hours.  Times change however, and the event became affected by more politics as well as health and safety and other factors. The tables have also now turned in that fewer bands from the mainland are able to travel to Northern Ireland for the UK Championships whereas there is now an opportunity for more Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland bands to participate. Significantly fewer bands also now attend the local competition at Cowal.

Shotts’ P/M Robert Mathieson collects the coveted Argyll Shield after winning the Grade 1 Championship at Cowal

Looking at the statistics for the UK and Cowal Championships combined over the past 16 years (including 2018), the Grade 1 title has been won by only five pipe band s    Field Marshal Montgomery on 10 occasions, Shotts and Dykehead Caledonia twice, Boghall & Bathgate Caledonia twice, Strathclyde Police once and St Laurence O’Toole once. These statistics again illustrate the dominance of these bands in recent years. This year St Laurence O’Toole took the honours in Grade 1 with Inveraray and Field Marshal maintaining their second and third places respectively at both of this year’s Major Championships to date. Paisley’s winners, Scottish Power, on this occasion fell to fourth place. 

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In Grade 2, first and second places at the British  were reversed with Mackenzie Caledonian overcoming Closkelt, the latter on this occasion hit with a lowly fifth place for Ensemble.  Grade 3A was again won by the Royal Burgh of Annan.  In Grade 3B the first two places were also reversed with St Marys, Derrytrasna this time ahead of Johnstone.  Similarly in Juvenile, George Watson’s College just beat Dollar Academy on Ensemble preference.  Grade 4A was dominated by bands from Northern Ireland but in Grade 4B Mid Argyll held their own by taking second place.  Dollar Academy maintained first place in Novice Juvenile A but unfortunately Novice Juvenile B did not allow a fair comparison as there were only three entries – disappointing as these lower grades provide the platform for the potential top players of the future. 

Overall there was a strong degree of consistency in the top results across the grades but there were some wide differences in adjudicator placings further down which are difficult to explain bearing in mind that the adjudicators now have the opportunity to consult after they have handed in their critique sheet for each performance. Although these sheets have been handed in and cannot be recovered, the adjudicators do not actually decide their results until the end of the contest so in some cases any consultations, if the opportunity is taken, do not appear to be making any difference. In other cases where the results are virtually identical there is the impression that the opportunity to consult has made an impact.

• To be continued.

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