A Weekend in the North at the European Pipe Band Championships

By the Editor

To the capital of the Highlands for the European Pipe Band Championships, the third ‘major’ of the season. The Friday was a blistering, boiling day. We pulled off the A9 for refreshment. Into the Carrbridge Hotel to find, serendipitously, adjudicator Robert Mathieson and, eventually, his colleagues Bob Worrall and John Wilson. 

They were all looking forward to the Championship, talking excitedly about the prospect of hearing some good playing. I say this to those social media voices ever ready to stick daggers and other things into your judges: don’t kill their enthusiasm. These are experts in the field. Be glad that you have them officiating. Measure your comments accordingly.

We left the three worthies and in cooling temperatures hit the Sneck. Out for dinner and there was Kenny MacLeod with the boys from Annan all set for a good run in G2. They weren’t all called Cowan – thankfully – but who can discount the contribution that that clan has made, and continues make, in the land ‘tween Solway and Sawney Bean?

Inverness: south to north, walk across the main bridge of Ness of an evening and cast your eyes up right and left. Legoland in a grey coat. A beautiful river, a mock-passable castle, trees and vernacular architecture to lean on yet this was the best the town planners could come up with?

The morrow and the G1 contest at vast Bught Park. I was back after 53 years and the Worlds 1966. That year we slept in Cameron Barracks and won the Juvenile; Muirheads won Grade 1, the second of their five in a row and wearing their new Inverness tartan, or was that ’67? The old Bught stand was the same. G2 and G1 played in front maybe 30 yards distant and only yards apart. 

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Now, when doing these reports I usually add the caveat about my not being as close to the action as the judges etc, etc. Well the caveat this time is huge. I couldn’t get near. 

The sun shone for the start of the grade. Picnickers were ten deep at the G1 arena perimeter. I opted for the stand – a mistake. I simply could not hear the detail from there. It poured from half way through the contest; the sandwich brigade fled. The way to the barrier was clear but should I move? To be fair to all bands, early ons and late, I had to stay where I was. 

As the afternoon wore on it was clear G1 and G2 arenas were far too close together. The aural overspill made a stand seat a waste of time for the serious listener. Not that there were many around me. They talked incessantly. Cup the ears and you got something, but not a lot. My usual focus is the piping. This time it had to be the overall effect, the ensemble. I got a superabundance of drumming. 

Boghall should have won it. I said after Paisley that there was no limit to what they could achieve this season. It was no surprise to me that they made second at Inverness. They were the only band that came close to an acoustic balance, the Boggies. 

Boghall at the Euros…first in my book

SLOT, FMM not far behind. But Steven’s drums? – more snare please! Gordon [Brown] on the other had has that mellow skin resonance which works so well with the drones. Not only that but Ross Harvey’s really worked this band into a cohesive unit, confident in its delivery and fearing no one. Nor should they. This band could easily win the Worlds they are that good. Who would deserve it more? They just have to clamp up the noisy PR guy and the road to the top is clear!

SLOT in the rain at Inverness

Yes SLOT were good but those drums did for me. Field Marshal? Two firsts for piping. I can’t comment; I wasn’t close enough, but from those stats Richard’s band is coming good at the right time. I did hear that much. They got hammered on drumming unfortunately but remember Glasgow Green last year when from nowhere they took the big one? Their result will once more ignite the debate: how can a band win piping twice and lose a pipe band contest?

Inveraray. Goodness me they won the competition and I haven’t even mentioned them yet. Again I would have to say that the crashing drums and booming bass took the edge off their musical impact – from where I was sitting.

I heard them in the tuning park beforehand. Those doublings in Argyllshire Gathering were a peach and I was impressed with the way Stuart Liddell let his top players fiddle about with tape and tuning. There are so many accomplished players in his outfit that the P/M can relax, can think about the tempos and breaks. Smooth playing? It slipped past like half a dozen Loch Fyne oysters. A second Worlds beckoning? Stuart is pictured (top) proudly holding the Euros trophy.

The Power? Too much power in their ‘mid section’ and snare line overemphasis. I did hear enough from the piping to be assured that this was a full-on MSR. No easing off as there was at Paisley. Discount this band for the Scottish and Worlds at your peril. Impressive sound from the pipes.

Scottish Power the only band to play in capes in Grade 1

Lower end: Fife Police did not have a tone – chanters sounded sharp on F, high A and B. Shotts a shade fortunate getting sixth but well done to Emmet Conway on his first G1 prize in charge of this iconic band. More work needed getting pipes and drums on the same beat. 

Lomond and Clyde were again in my list. Professional tempos; slick breaks; concentration. Don Bradford has whipped this band into shape in jig time. I was surprised at their lowly showing, but then I couldn’t hear the detail could I? No MSR improvement since Paisley from PSNI, Glasgow Police, Glasgow Skye or Johnstone, but remember that caveat.

Lomond & Clyde…quickly licked into shape by Don Bradford

Judges? Plaudits for Jennifer Hutcheon on Ensemble. She held her ground throughout and, I’m told, even chastised a few spectators behind her for talking! Well done Jen! Piping judges Donald MacPhee and Tony Sloane moved about, side to side, front to back, Tony slowly, Donald rapid. Sometimes they were packed left, other times right.

Can someone explain the rationale behind this random parading of the clipboard? Didn’t the brass band lady think this strange? But these are experienced men; they have their own way of doing things and at least Tony and Donald talked, conferred. The results reflected this and I haven’t heard one whisper of dissent at their placings.  

My list:
1 Boghall
2 equal (what happens when you can’t hear properly) FMM, Inveraray, Scottish Power, SLOT,
6 Lomond & Clyde

The list that matters:
1 Inveraray
2 Boghall
4 Scottish Power
6 Shotts

Major rethink needed by the promoters.
1 Don’t sell stand seating and then baffle the audience eardrums with a G2/G1 mix. 
2 Get the bands as close to the stand barrier as possible; block off the running track.
3 Keep one side of the arena only for picnickers. Designate, and police, standing space on the other.
4 Queues at entry points and long walks to get to the action – see comments on our results article.

  • Would you like to say something on the success or otherwise of the Bught Park set up? Please do so below. Stay tuned to PP for MacStig’s take on Grade 2 and other things.

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5 thoughts on “A Weekend in the North at the European Pipe Band Championships

  1. Agree with D. McCready 100%. Could it be that the organisers of pipe band competitions more often than not have little or no experience of walking to the line in the first place. Why should they even have to think about the bands or the spectators.
    There is another way.

  2. Robert,

    Would it be possible to have some expert commentary on the drum corp performances of Grade 1 bands?

    Many thanks,

    Robert Semple

    1. We need someone to write it Robert and we would certainly give it due exposure. Will give it some thought. Ed.

  3. Just a few thoughts on how I experience pipe band competitions.
    There is usually difficulty finding a proper standing or seated position that enables one to properly hear the bands performance. The barriers are too far from the band circle. The towels at the pool syndrome seems to reign supreme.
    The remedy for this is quite simple.
    The grass area between circle and barrier could be utilised for a SPECIAL LISTENING ZONE. This proposed zone could be reasonably marked out so as not to infringe on adjudicators space. If seated , the main audience should not be affected. Strict rules would need to apply. Recordings could also be made from this area.
    A substantial fee could be charged for tickets to this zone. This fee should be high enough to deter non serious and casual listeners.
    Most importantly, a no noise , no picnic, no children, rule should apply. These are the problems that ruin the ability to hear the performance.
    When at the All Ireland competition in Londonderry a few years ago I was serenaded by a running commentary by a few around me, who invariably spoiled the performances by partially getting involved in a full blown conversation about god knows what.
    I hope this idea does not appear too selfish. If a pipe band supporter travels to a competition, perhaps by air perhaps by a long road trip , the very least they should get would be an opportunity to hear precisely the performance in detail.
    I would have no doubt the funds raised by the creation of such a listening zone could be put to good use by the RSPBA
    Yours Hopefully David Mc Cready
    Tel 07790572263

  4. It seems that the stand location was good—for the purpose of taking photographs of the bands playing their drum rolls and then starting their tunes to get into the time honoured circles. The cameras can then be put away as the performers become anonymous to audience members familiar to the performers It does not surprise me that re the comment of the G1 area being too close to the G2 area. Silly me, I stood for a while next to the G1 arena, but between the two jousting areas. I did hear the early G1 bands but with the background sound from the G2 performers, I had to try and eliminate the extraneous sound from the G2 people. I am sure they were worth hearing and am not demeaning them. I did speak to one knowledgeable gent and queried how on earth accurate judging could be achieved with the mixture of sounds. He suggested that with the judges being closer to the bands, they would manage. I suppose I accepted this, but I did travel from Aberdeen to the venue where the common parlance is sometimes ‘Neear eenuff’ meaning ‘that will do.’ The judges are there to do a job, but as a paying audience member like thousands of others there ‘neear eenuff’ is not good enough when maybe they want to hear and appreciate performers who have prepared their craft to a very high standard. Knowing the area, I was expecting the stand to have bounded the playing area of the G1 arena. It is obviously tiered and useful for the taking of photographs and maybe could be a good vantage point to hear the performances in detail. Too much to expect perhaps, but the organisers might have considered a sound test prior to the event using some of the local bands as a test bed. Of course there are spectators there for the spectacle rather than listening intently to the playing. It is a pity the weather broke down and this drove me for shelter. On return, I was between the G1 ring and the stand and heard less of the G2 bands there. I cannot comment on the playing as the bands sounded all very good to me although there were perhaps technical issues that I was a little surprised about.
    Not meaning to steal anything from other writers, I wonder what the purpose is of judges wandering round the perimeter of the bands. I have not been in pipe bands for a long time, but do recall judges doing this and being close to the players and being able to detect if drones were stopped, probably deliberately at times or if they ceased during the performance. Mistakes both minor and more serious could be heard and judged upon. As far as I understand, the judges have to keep some distance from the circle of pipers. Is this wandering around a throw back to an aspect of solo piping in looking for errors of various kinds, such as drone problems or identifying weaker technique in some individuals? For the G1 people, pipers with weaker technique is unlikely to be a problem. In any case when the judges are at opposite sides of such big bands errors which will be minor, might not be heard by both judges. Are they dependent on their fellow judges identifying errors? For the most part those who accept those assignments are sharp enough to make up their own minds. If there is a very obvious or significant error it will be heard anyway, unless there are extraneous sounds clouding the issue. Reading comments from the person referring to the PARK AND RIDE arrangement and the chap who found the cost of a burger and chips a bit expensive, I would hope that the organisers do take note of such comments. Granted it is not an easy task to arrange this sort of thing and it is easy to make unwarranted criticism, but the paying public has to be given consideration perhaps more than is evident as some may not return.

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