Review of Grade 2 at the 2018 Scottish Pipe Band Championships

They seek him here, they seek him there…just who is this guy MacStig?….is that wee touch of tartan a clue?…or is it the GlenG at a rakish angle?…..does it really matter? He is a true believer, he stands through rain and shine to bring PP readers the latest from G2…what more can we ask?….

As you will all know by now, Dumbarton’s Levengrove Park was windswept and wet for the start of the day – experiencing more than the forecast ‘showers’ a few days before; it was lashing down at times. Great for the gardeners out there after several weeks of limited water but on this day! It made for sparser crowds (just like last year) and many of the 10am grade starters and others played, then left. No chance for the hopes of tens of thousands turning up to watch, as precious few beyond the players and closest camp followers braved it. Sad to say that some of the Grade 2 bands played to a small scattering of fans. 

It was good to see the RSPBA Twitter and digital guys shooting the G2 and posting one minute or so snapshots of the bands – I’m reckoning full videos will follow later in the week. They also covered G4A and 3B earlier in the day. If you then add Big Rab and his live streaming crew, the online services are way ahead of where they were just two seasons ago.

With the weather ‘mixed’, the brighter spot was the confirmation from the RSPBA that the Grade 2 final at the World Championships in Glasgow will return to Arena 1 in the late afternoon of the big day. Oh yes, with so many ‘overseas’ bands in contention (I’m forecasting six in the final and a few on the prize list) it makes sense to have it broadcast internationally and allow the supporters back home to plan for events. I reckon there will be brunch/lunch events in the North American time zone and very late/or early gatherings in the Antipodes. Dunedin in Florida are one of the first to confirm a special streaming event for the stay-at-homers.

So rejoice, rejoice, the most unpredictable and exciting Grade 2 finale for a few years will be in the main arena and beamed around the globe. The final is slated as a 15.35h (Glasgow) start. So get planning and write to me – using the section below, to broadcast your events, whatever and wherever they may be. I’m sure the Piping Press readership would like to know who is scrambling eggs in Texas and flipping pancakes in Florida. Let me know what you are doing and where you will be watching. I might even come up with a MacStig prize for the best answer.

Back to the shadow of the rock though and Dumbarton’s Scottish Championship. The weather took its toll on tone, error rate and general drudge of marching through churned, previously dried up grass and now soaked ground conditions. Probably a bigger test for P/M’s to hold it together in such conditions and a word of thanks to the long armed tuners out there who battled through the conditions to get things locked in. In that context I’m saying that very little can be taken from these results other than they reflect a snapshot in time and aren’t necessarily a pointer to anything in the next three weeks. Then again, they may very well be just that.

One final point before getting on to performances, there was a considerable effort from the Gang of Four adjudicators on this one. Messrs Stevenson, MacPhee, Coils and Craig braved the changing conditions and theirs are the only opinions to matter. Capes on and off, jackets mostly on and through the looming skies, they stuck to the task. Destined to please only a few, it can be a thankless task. The following thoughts are mine only and subject to the usual caveats of noise, weather, my bad ear and lumbago. You get the idea.

Wallacestone & District got the Grade off to a good start and brightened up a moody sky, which was the backdrop for the 90 minutes or so of the competition. I’m not sure about the seconds in the intro Pivovar but it moved along. Bottom of the pile for the promoted band and they will have to really go some to have any chance of a second run in the afternoon in Glasgow. (13 14 11 13)

Balagan looked like a smaller band in number this time out, but were the most confident I’ve seen them this season. The top end was maybe a bit thin but I can understand why. Both they and W&D were quick into two-part harmonies and it really is widespread in Medleys. I’m wondering if single line precision might make a comeback. There was a bit of the bass boom again into the Strath but this was a good guide to get the pipes and drums into the flow. I know the trend is to throw in the Straths after the slow air these days but I think it’s often very hard to get to the pulse and tempo from an air. Scoring (14 13 14 9) second to last and back to the drawing board.


Manorcunningham arrived at the line next and the tone was there immediately as was the intent. This was one of the more musical and well joined up Medleys of the day. Good Ensemble and it got me forgetting to listen for errors (don’t we all do that) and simply listen to the performance. That’s usually a good sign. In passing, there is a great tenor and bass mix here contributing to a winning drum corps – it’s not all about the snares, or bass, for that matter. As a little exercise, when the video is uploaded, just listen to the tone and beats going on in the intro before they form the circle. First class, as was the hold from the intro to what I think was North Star.

A blink of sunshine greeted contenders Ravara but the clouds to the east looked threatening like something from Mordor (check out the main pic up top). If the Digital King from RSPBA captured it on record it will be worth looking at. Yes, contenders from the off and looking very bold and confident too. Neatly in and out of the opener and toes were tapping by the time they kicked in with Piping Hot Summer Drummer. This is a band holding onto some of the old G1 pedigree and I reckon they will be the real deal next season all season long. This was the best I’ve heard from them this year albeit there have been glimmers of brilliance here and there. Into the book as the one to beat. All round performance and pipes and drums together. (1 1 3 3). Deserved its first place and well clear of the chasers.

One to watch….Grampian Police

The quickest delivery is usually from Grampian Police (GPS), but here it was stately almost parade like as they marched into the circle. Purposeful, together and the freelancing of last year ironed out for sure. This is a band growing in stature, catching the ears and eyes of the adjudicators, consistently turning out good music. They got the shower as the rain didn’t quite know which direction to go, but it was managed and I was hugely impressed by the pipe corps togetherness. ‘Certainly in with a chance of silver’ was written down and they surprised on the upside in gaining second place with (2 4 7 2) and best finish I can recall. This sets them up well for three weeks hence.

Umbrellas back down for one of the short odds favourites, Closkelt. I thought I heard a tap between the first tap and second roll but it could have been nothing. As a general point, I do fear for drummers who tap into ‘space’ to count in for the second roll as the adrenaline rushing around at times like this tends to over-pronounce things and many a youngster (or oldster) has accidentally hit the head. A true drone sound, and doing nothing to suggest they would be anywhere but on the list around 6pm with a rock solid Ensemble. A long hold from the opener as transition to what might have been Catlodge, maybe had some thinking about it but was absolutely fine for me. On to the list too, a list congested by several names. Ensemble first place and what will be a disappointing ninth in drumming (maybe there was a ‘tap’) to add to two respectable piping scores. (4 3 9 1) and took third by Ensemble Preference.

Colmcille up next and good to see and hear them. The roll pace was ahead of the opener tempo to my ears but the pace tempo was right. The earliest into the second tune which I recognised as Rory McLeod and no messing about in a very traditionally constructed Medley. I have a lot of time for this band and I hope their recruitment continues. Well deserved eighth. (9 9 6 7)

City of London with a slightly brighter sky returned to the scene of their very first silverware last year with a smaller band, but a good sound. I’m not convinced that the move from the opener is the most elegant and did seem like a bit of a pile up. On they went for a good all round performance, issues for sure but neatly done. The shortened snare line coped very well and the best I’ve heard from them. (10 11 4 14) and tenth overall.

Bucksburn & District followed and aside from liking the cut of the jib of this band, there was a small issue during the march on to Donald Macleod (bar 3, I think) with one wayward note. The band was so together and focused that it jumped out at me and may very well have been enough to challenge the drum championship. The best tuned snares all day for me. Would they clip the underside of the prize list? The answer, yes, sixth overall (6 7 2 8). On to Glasgow and aiming for a place in the final. As an aside, I do wonder what a superband in the North East comprised of Bucks and GPS would be like.

With the Pipey back in charge, City of Discovery marched on. The mark time to the turn seemed constructed and bunched up but no matter it was off and running. The famed Strath playing was quicker than they usually play and maybe getting on and off with changeable atmospherics was the idea. Not good enough to trouble the list this outing and they have a bit to do if making the final in three weeks is on the agenda. Ninth and within one point if eighth overall with (8 8 5 11).

Islay at Dumbarton

The Kilchoman Distillery, Isle Islay always bring a ray of gold and indeed big Donald MacPhee was ‘jaiket off’ as the islanders marched in. There are some hugely talented hands in that pipe corps, yet the P/M has galvanized a team rather than a bunch of individuals. ‘No one is greater than all of us’ mentality and it’s getting them up the lists. Written up in my book for a prize winner in the lower part of the six today. Watch out next season – Islay has momentum and if you were a youngster making the move to seniors, this might be a strong contender for those geographically placed in the West. You’ll learn, get played and contribute. A bit like Johnstone a few seasons back. Ensemble was very strong to my ears and the music jumped out at the crowd. Drumming will need to bash on a fair lick though as the pipes gear up. Fifth overall with piping scores that ranked second – drumming down a shade, but marching to the Green and another aiming at the Final. (3 2 10 6).

Flush with success earlier in the season, Mackenzie Caledonian marched on in majestic fashion, almost regal, but that was as good as it got. From my vantage this was not a parade of the upper echelon in the grade today. A poor day at the office for them. At the turn in there was maybe the slightest hint of something going on far side of the corps but the harmonies came in strong before the shift. Not what I had expected at all and very different from their performances at the Majors and I’m scratching my head a little to work this one out. There was no pointer at Burntisland last week either, with some personnel away in holiday. As I said in my preview piece last week, the drumming score would have to be good enough to shut the door to others. It wasn’t, and the usual piping standard wasn’t there either. Off the list for the first time for many Majors. 7th overall (7 5 12 4). Plenty to get right and work at for three weeks time. The grade just opened up.
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I didn’t hear Royal Burgh of Stirling getting away because of the racket going on near to me – and yes this is another complaint about ‘fans’ who stand at the fence and talk garbage about nonsense, loudly. No, I didn’t want coffee and no I didn’t really care to hear about how the last few days at work had been a nightmare. Back in the circle, the Burgh has grown into Grade 2 since the earliest nervous start at Paisley, but is still on the steep learning curve. They are aiming to be interesting and musical which should be applauded, but the technique has to be consistent and able to deliver. Drumming is ahead of the curve and got 8th. Overall (11 12 8 10) 11th.

Last up, Scottish Fire & Rescue and a run with some issues for sure, but it did have a beginning and destination in mind. I admire that. And the key is execution albeit the age ranges across this group are quite wide. Languishing near the nether regions on the day.  Overall 12th (12 10 13 12).

Upon reflection the weather could have been worse – how is that for finding positives after a near run of several weeks without substantial rain. It was patchy and a couple of bands got the worst of it in final tuning and the circle. Such is the lottery of a Scottish summer. Dried out burned up grass areas and torrential rain. The winner (Ravara) was free and clear on good scoring for pipes and drums. They have been bubbling away in the background and the quality of playing is there for all to hear. The drumming score back in Paisley (9th) now looks like the outlier to the second and thirds racked up.

Islay was next best in piping but a 10th in drumming killed the bid for the top three. The Mac Cals uncharacteristic and wholly unexpected seven and five in piping, coupled to a 12th in drumming, sank the chance of another Major being added to the cabinet in their centenary year.

Those were the three obvious stories of the day, but for me the name to go watch and take another look at is Grampian Police. Quietly taking third at Forres, admittedly with a short field, but rising to second against the best of the domestics and Irish crews, just at the right time. In what was one of the worst segments of weather, they dealt with it and gone were the episodes of freelancing that so often hindered their potential last season. On this form GPS is on the up. Results: 1 Ravara 8 2 Gram Pol 15 3 Closkelt 17 EP 4 Manorcunningham 17 5 Islay 21 6 Bucksburn 23.

The bands are to be applauded for dealing with all of that grizzly weather and delivering what was a prize list segmented into clear cluster groups. The big two or three march on to the Green and will go head to head with the likes of Peel, Dunedin, St Thomas and only on the day will we be able to call it. The MSR is the qualifier at the Green (one from two submitted), but the winner will be the best own choice Medley. The qualifier doesn’t count to final scores and the winner is only judged on the old school book of three – two entered and one drawn at the line. They would all be smart to start practicing timings – MSR sometime around noon and Medley around 15.30/16.00h to understand the cycle and phasing. That kind of prep might seem like overkill or too detailed, but that’s what makes champions.

Look out for coverage from some of the more local contests between now and the Worlds, including Maxville, where the G2 result will have significance, North Berwick and Perth are also on the list. And a watching brief over in Northern Ireland too. A preview of the Worlds’ including a detailed look at those two qualifiers will be along in due course. Over and out.

Let MacStig know what your band is doing for the Worlds; add a comment below or email him here.

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