Scottish Schools Pipe Band Championships Report

Our correspondent MacStig dug out his old motor car, braved the early snow and got over to yesterday’s Scottish Schools Pipe Band contest. His report tells us he is stretching those legs, sharpening the pen and is all set for the new outdoor season…….. 

By arriving in Livingston before 9am on a Sunday morning, and trying in vain to find a nearby coffee vendor in what is a town of roundabouts, I wondered, why here? The numerous AA roadsigns pointing to ‘The Championships’ were welcome, as I feared even the old sat nav would have me reeling for some considerable time.

‘Please Park Considerately’ signs were around the vicinity and I noted a Chelsea tractor and other vehicles up on the grass verge outside the gates proving that the ability to drive one isn’t necessarily linked to the ability to read. 

I had taken on board a pre-warning about parking availability and did wonder where the camp followers of over one hundred and twenty bands would go. I had considered the planet; I tried not to drive, but public transport from my neck of the woods is random at the best of times, and on a Sunday the replacement bus service is replaced by something no-one has ever seen.

I’d have had to set off the day before to arrive at a time which meant missing half of the Sunday contest……. I got lucky and swooped into a space just as someone was leaving, yes leaving, at 9am.

Before getting into the detail, I have to say the quality of the performances I heard were worth the hassle of getting there – so long as my jalopy was still there at the close….

For newcomers, ‘The Championships’, as the organisers refer to it, is run like an RSPBA event with stewards and most of the adjudicators from the governing body – all putting in a big effort on the day and dedicating long hours of their time.

The organisers, the Scottish Schools Pipes & Drums Trust, arrange all the other parts and another chunk of effort to make things happen. Their media is slick and you will have been unable to avoid any of it if you have an interest in piping and pipe band drumming.

They do wonderful things for tuition and have single handedly trumped Government and local authority funding for tuition. They also picked the venue (the second year here) – although that needs more thought in the context of the cost, attendee accessibility and disruption locally.

I heard from some sources that prior championships, held in Edinburgh, had experienced similar challenges. Schools don’t have significant parking facilities, are generally in residential areas and it’s not like rolling up to a sports or professional music venue. I sympathise in finding a suitably central and inexpensive location. But it’s not Livingston on a Sunday. 

Juvenile winners Dollar Academy on stage

The RSPBA assists the event, with many stewards being well kent faces, but it is not an RSPBA accredited competition. There are three ‘RSPBA looking’ categories – Juvenile, Nov Juv A and Nov Juv B. These contests had the usual names you would recognise, absent a couple of bands that are not ‘schools’. So no Boggies or Mac Cals for instance. 

On the plus side, the ‘Freestyle’ category adds entertainment and taps into the growing interest of this age group in trad/ contemporary performance. The rise of Breabach, the ‘Chillies’, Ali Hutton and a growing cast of modern day Whistlebinkies was confirmed by the packed audience for this contest which ran from 2pm to 4pm.

Ranging from Preston Lodge’s ‘The Battle of Waterloo’, the specially commissioned Lincoln Hilton piece, ‘Dollar Sunrise’ for the school’s bicentenary year, to Royal High delivering Coldplay and Tynecastle High the Stone Roses, perhaps George Watson’s and Sgoil Lionacleit had the most traditional medleys, but Johnstone High School would have brought a tear to the eye with their set, including the ‘Parting Glass’, one of my particular favourites.

No luck this year for Stirling Schools

Over in another hall ran Junior A, Junior B, Debut and Quartet contests for less experienced groups than those in the Juvenile ranks – albeit all are ‘Juvenile’. I had to sacrifice watching the Quartets to sit in on the Freestyle, where the judging panel was loaded with those who should know: Craig Munro, a ‘Chilli’ and pipe maker, the incomparable Lorne MacDougall, Josh Dixon and Craig Anderson.

For all the excitement and chutzpah the Freestyle creates, it’s fiddly as each large ensemble has to come on and go with the associated switch of kit. However the traditionalists have nothing to fear from this popular contest. The blue ribbon traditional event is the Juvenile March, Strathspey and Reel category and it featured George Watson’s College, George Heriot’s School, Preston Lodge High and Dollar Academy.

Four heavyweights with significant teaching programmes, and young players who are veterans of multiple RSPBA Major Championships. These bands were complemented by others from their respective schools – for example, Watson’s had five bands across the contest categories, Dollar four, and both PLHS and Heriots three.

I’d estimate the number of players from these schools alone was approaching 300. Their tutors are all top players and some beyond that, as the rock stars of the medium. 

At the sharp end of this competition is the thrill and honour of winning, but considerable prize money sits on the table too. The aggregate first prize placings pot is over £4000.

Third in Nov Juv A, Lochalsh Schools

In addition, travel assistance is given for the far flung who are nearer to Norway than Edinburgh, others closer to the island of Ireland, underscoring the small size of Scotland and the relative difficulty of getting around, outside the central belt.

As I said we heard quality playing, especially at the Juvenile Grade, with a real buzz inside the venue, but a very long day to 5pm. The hall used was not big enough for all of the competitors who had remained and the supporters squeezed into the corridors.

Plenty had left early heading to all points of the compass and facing lengthy journeys. Not like our US and Canadian brethren who are used to massive mileage, but it’s all relative.

Talking of which, the US Naval Academy, Pipes and Drums, guested between the end of the Freestyle and the Prizegiving and most welcome they were. I’m sure they were watching the Juvenile grade earlier and wondering how such playing can flow from under 18s.

They put on a great show for a thrilled audience and I hope they enjoy the remainder of their tour. For those going to New York for Tartan Day, and I hear North Lanarkshire Schools will be front and centre; the Naval Band will be there too. 

On reflection, it was a good day out, donation to the charity for a programme at entry, and retro dining in the school canteen was like Grange Hill for those of a certain age, and I wonder if having no mobile signal in the dining hall is a deliberate ploy to foil online teenagers.

The standard of playing in many cases is right up there and improving. The ambition and competition ethos is to be commended and more power to those behind it. The Endeavour Award reflects the ethos of working as a team and other important intangibles, in memory of Eilidh MacLeod, the young piper murdered in the Manchester terror attack. 

On walking back to find my skateboard for the overland journey home the light was failing light, the temperature dropping but I reckoned this was a good contest with plenty to be pleased about for all concerned.

If you get an opportunity to go and hear any of these bands during the outdoor season, you won’t be disappointed. As for The Championships, with a growing list of impressive sponsors not ordinarily associated with the art form, it will all happen again next year on March 8th, venue to be announced….. 

Scottish Schools 2019 full results
1 Dollar Academy 2 George Watson’s College 3 George Heriots School
Nov Juv A
1 George Watson’s College 2 West Lothian Schools 3 Lochalsh Junior
Nov Juv B 
1 St Columba’s School 2 George Watson’s College 3 Dollar Academy
1 Dollar Academy 2 Sgoil Lionacleit 3 Preston Lodge High School
Junior A
1 Fettes College 2 Erskine Stewart’s Melville 3 Morrison’s Academy
Junior B
1 Dumfries & Galloway Schools 2 George Watson’s 2 St Columba’s School
1 Isle of Bute Schools 2 Kilmarnock Schools 3 Tynecastle High School
1 Johnstone HS 2 St Andrew’s RC HS 3 Lochgilphead Community Campus
Eilidh MacLeod Endeavour Award: Sanquhar & Upper Nithsdale

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1 thought on “Scottish Schools Pipe Band Championships Report

  1. It’s such a pity that far flung school bands are only able to afford to travel to a few competitions/ the lochalsh Young pipe band missing out on the Belfast competition this year because of the costs involved .
    Surely the competition experience is beneficial to all not just the few from the private schools of the central belt!

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