MacStig Takes a Look at Grade 2 at the Europeans

Some say he would be confused in a round room looking for the corner….yet more that he thinks a sgian dubh is a pigeon on the piste..all we know is….

It was a scenic drive north to the picture postcard setting of Grant Park, Forres, via the highland highway that is the A9…the road, as you know, has dual carriageways with average speed cameras keeping the boy racers like me in check. But you wonder at the sense of having a lower 50 mph limit for lorries, long lines of trailing traffic the result. Still I suppose it gives the truckers more time to chew on those Yorkie bars….

The temperature soared and it was full sun all day. A smaller entry than previous years, for this last of six outings for the European Championship at the Highland town, before moving west along  the road to Inverness for 2019. We can only hope it increases the number of bands travelling. A word about Forres though, a great venue, a whole community event and simply the best peripheral services of all the Majors.

Where else can an extensive craft market (doing great business) sit with a prosecco bar (run by Forres Mechanics FC), and local high quality ‘street food’ vendors. Glengarry duly doffed to the organisers for all of the infrastructure, but don’t listen to me, it was even raised in a debate in Westminster.

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The band contest was highly organised and ran to the usual precision. Only one minor gripe, the arenas were close and for Arena 2, those marching off to play for Drum Majors were very near the arena they had just vacated. The random public announcements about illegally parked cars and lost children did interject from time to time. Otherwise, a truly great day for fans.

I did see Big Rab and his team broadcasting away, and I repeat that he is cruising to ‘Pipe Band Personality of the Year’ – if there isn’t an award, there should be. His sweatshirt (apt for the day) was tied to the railings to save his place at the arena. Good luck with the new radio show big chap.

I’d also commend the RSPBA Twitter coverage (video clips) and full videos too. Very neat when they released the winners with a YouTube link to the winning performances in the grades covered. This is a tremendous resource especially for those not there, but also for post event listening too. What a service and for free –  by enthusiasts for enthusiasts, just like Piping Press.

If you weren’t there it’s hard to describe the near desert like conditions with searing heat, and dust. I heard from my innkeeper that all water use in local gardens was banned as the council prioritised Grant Park to make it lush for the day. What I couldn’t understand was the sight of some bands tuning under trees in shade and then marching in full sun for a few minutes to the line. A tuner’s nightmare with frequencies audibly rising within a moment or too. At peak it was 26 degrees. Not since the Summer of ’76 can I remember such conditions – those of an age will remember the Worlds’ that year. (Perhaps the Editor will pull out the files on that one).

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Very definitely a shirt sleeve day and I did notice one or two without waistcoats/vests. Talking of which, adjudicators got in on that act too, and all credit to them, particularly the ones double shifting on a couple of grades. I hope they remained hydrated. There were a couple of ambulances on site and a couple of spectators carted off due to heat exhaustion.

Grade 2 was slated as a 10 band contest but Closkelt were a no-show and only nine battled it out for the Championship. I can’t remember such a short list in a G2 final – maybe there has been, but not in recent times. My forecast last week had raised Mac Cal and Closkelt as the two to watch with a few others who would feature on the list. With Closkelt on a break until the All Ireland at New Ross, I reckoned it was a Mac Cal win and they could only ‘lose it’. It was closer than they would have wanted, but more of that shortly.

This was the second March, Strathspey & Reel (submit two, draw one at the line) contest of the year. Royal Burgh of Stirling got the grade off to a good start with a blistering tempo. Drawing set two, their march, Clan Macrae Society, bashed along. I wrote that they were very bright and the best start I’ve heard them this season so far. The tone was up but did drift in the heat. Maggie Cameron followed and then into Major David Manson. Could tighten up overall and precision was there mostly. With the Burgh on first, I had managed to follow them in tuning and final tuning. The drums were absolutely on the point. There is a neat video of the warm up @theburghband on Twitter. A solid result from the drum corps and Piping and Ensemble middle(ish) (6, 6, 3, 5) and good enough for 4th on the day. The first silver of the season.

Next up Kilchoman Isle of Islay and arguably one of the most improved bands in the grade from last season. The sun shone on the islanders again, but a strike of misfortune on those shiniest if shiny drums mentioned in my preview last week, with a snare drum head going pop in the march (Hugh Kennedy). Commiserations to the drummer, but on a day like this it could have been anyone. I’m guessing they may have had a comment that the snares were slightly flat in Belfast and cranked the handle. The very fine line between peak and peaked is slim, especially in such temperatures. The drumming score (8th) reflects that unfortunate burst perhaps, and no-one is really sure what the protocol is for such instances. I don’t know either – if the head goes should it impact just like a single piper not getting away or whatever? It was a rapid set and a toe tapper at that. But for that D score and near to bottom Ensemble (2, 4, 8, 7) 5th might have been 4th. They finished 3rd in piping.

Bucksburn drew Set 1 and got away well, and for me this was the best Ensemble of the day so far. The pipes were facing the same challenges as the earlier bands and I did think Islay had set the bar at that stage. The Caledonian Society of London showed off the best of the drum corps for me and well away into Mrs MacPherson. Neil Selbie has knocked this group into a good sound and good enough for second slot on the list and a first in drumming. (4, 3, 1, 3). One point away from Mac Cals in first and one ahead of Gram Pol in 3rd respectively. A good result for the near locals.

Balagan looked overheated from the off. In simple terms it wasn’t their day. They drew Set 1 and the Young MacGregor was quite flat to start. It was going to be a big ask to get the flow going into Atholl Cummers and the P/M was working hard to get there. The momentum was against them and it wasn’t to be. The reel (The Smith of Chilliechassie) was the brightest spot and the joined up thinking between pipes and drums clicked there – maybe giving the better Ensemble score. (9, 8, 9, 6) propping up the grade on the day.

Grampian Police Scotland (GPS) set the dial, and as expected with their rapid delivery, drew Set 2 and were off. The tempo was up (as it was for most on the day) in John MacDonald of Glencoe. There were swift and efficient transitions to Atholl Cummers and Major David Manson and it was all together throughout. The snares might have been slightly off top ping rate but with others bursting heads I could understand caution. Off they went and finished third, behind near neighbours Bucksburn – and only one point away. (3, 2, 5, 2). Interestingly, they finished second in piping.

From tuning I could hear the Mackenzie Caledonian band approaching. With Closkelt not in the running this was theirs to lose, based on recent weeks – but hold that thought. Drawing Set 1 it was a great strike into Highland Wedding. I’ve already reported a significant shift in sound this year from last, and it’s not just equipment. There’s also a spring in the step of the P/M, percolating through the band, with some youngsters in the ranks. With the piping off and running I like to watch the drumming judge – he was writing a lot and that quite often bodes negatively, especially early in a set – although I’ve seen adjudicators write very little and it turns out to be killer stuff. Eight word assassins exist, you’ve all read those sheets. The break into Susan MacLeod was quicker as was Brown Haired Maiden. Not much wrong here at all and if I had to be picky, maybe the reel had most minute of wandering as the tone thinned. Number 1 in piping so far in the old jotter and only that drumming thing in the back of my mind. Off they marched to accompany the D/Ms just over my shoulder. (Too close really). European Champions  (1, 1, 7, 1) by one point and they were dangerously close to losing it. But they didn’t and the Mac Cals took their second Major of the season.

Scottish Fire & Rescue Services paraded around the corner from tuning and it was a nice sound. Our comedian compère on the PA tested the audience and the underwear of the band standing at the line by announcing the tunes drawn for the previous band – a few shocked faces in the SFRS ranks.

The mistaken MC

Panic over, they marched in with Clan Macrae Society at the speed of a fire appliance.  The strathspey (Dora MacLeod) rattled on too but with little by way of pulsing – almost straight time but an easy fix. The drum corps got it and it was the best part of the set from them. The phrase endings were clipped a little, but nice bottom hand work in John Morrison of Assynt House. The pace quickened and I reckon the cold beers, for those over 18, were calling. (5, 7, 4, 9). Seventh overall. There were a few squealers in the crowd but not up to the usual Fire Service volume. The beers had to wait as they marched over to perform for the DMs. Just what you want on a hot summer day.

City of Discovery….2nd in drumming

Next up City of Discovery, having missed the Medley contest in Belfast. They do get the prize for the best fans of the day, all whooping and clapping at the end. Now a word for the stand in pipey, in the absence of main man Ross McGregor. I heard that Ross had diary challenges and was trying to watch (via Twitter) from vacation in Canada. Something about weeks being mixed up and Forres being a week later. Anyhow, the Pipe Sergeant stepped in to draw Set 2 starting with John MacDonald of Glencoe. Into the Bob of Fettercairn and McAllister’s Dirk. Maybe they prefer Set 1, but it was a good effort. Drum corps was a stand out and I had them up at the top on the day. Piping had a tough time and they will forensically look at the recordings. Plenty to work on for the Scottish in a few weeks time. Sixth on the list, but remember it was out of nine and with some names absent. 

Wallacestone & Dist

Wallacestone & District drew Set 2 for another Links of Forth and into another Bob of Fettercairn. Unfortunately, they did get an illegal parking announcement right through the strathspey to reel (Lochcarron), and even a couple of the adjudicators looked at the speakers perched at the corner of the arena. It was better than recent showings from W&D and they will just need to dig in and keep working. I had a close up look and reckon this was their best run of the season. They finished eighth scoring (8, 6,  5, 8).

Sadly, Closkelt, as I said, were a no-show and would have marched onto the list. They did say they would be taking a short break, via their Facebook page, on 23rd June, but were listed to play on the programme, so did enter. They will be back at the All Irelands at New Ross on July 7th. The debut of the new ‘wolf’ logo bass heads will have to wait until then.

Mac Cals were worthy winners and well ahead on piping and Ensemble, but they left the door ajar to win by only one point when they should have been free and clear from the pack.

All systems go for bands playing at New Ross and several local more competitions before the next Major rolls into Dumbarton at the end of July.  My final take on Forres, after six happy years, is a sad farewell. It was the most picturesque, most community driven gathering and had a great feel to it. Not for everyone though, as attendance of bands fell, although gate receipts were up year on year. It certainly fulfilled the RSPBA objective of spreading the movement and its musical side further and wider.

Looking to next year, I hope Inverness doesn’t fall foul of traffic issues (it’s a nightmare at peak hours) and parking shortages. It might be worth parking on the main rail route and taking s train in. Will the venue really change the mind set of those who didn’t travel to Forres? I suspect not, and I’m forecasting that Northern Ireland’s new U.K. Championship venue next year might see a further drop off from furthest flung Scottish bands.

As for the summer, I’m off to recharge, listen to Andean pipes and chill on an Atlas Mountain. I’d have gone to the Western Isles as usual, but the  MacStig Midge Index (MMI) is likely to be off the scale just as soon as this high pressure sunny weather subsides and Mr Blue Sky heads to continental Europe. The rain will come down, the wee biting beastie will return in biblical plague proportions, and be chomping on everything in close proximity. It will make the footage from World Cup matches look like nothing.

One final thing before I sign off for a few weeks. If you are out there and listening to bands, try to listen . Keep the chat down near the arena or walk away. We have two ears and one mouth and that proportion suggests listening twice as much as we speak. Unless you are Piers Morgan or Vincent Van Gogh. Over and out.

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