European Pipe Band Championships: Changes Needed/ Grade 2 Review

Some say his reels are more perky than pinky, his doublet is more barrack room than barathea, and that his timing is ……. out. But when he puts pen to paper there are few blooters from our man at large. Hot footing it from Inverness to Glasto, or maybe he said Glasgow, he’s the pipe band fan’s favourite reviewer, the one and only MacStig……

By MacStig

The pipe band following tribe is a happy and contended cohort in the main, but get in front of a junior pipe major’s mater and pater with only an hour to go before the dress inspection, and you’ll hear adjectives inside verbs and nouns in sentence construction that would make a swarthy sailor blush. I’ll freeze frame that thought and explain shortly. 

In an inauspicious start to proceedings, I arrived at the advertised ‘Park and Ride’ from my nearby lodging to find it was, according to the ‘high vis’ transport executive ‘aff until nine’. My plans of getting to the venue sharp, loading up with a cup of joe and enjoying the beautiful morning sun, crashed there and then.

The prospect of a few miles walk with bag, chair and umbrella (the TV weather chap Sean had foretold of heavy showers later) did not appeal, so I reversed the jalopy out and headed for the Leisure Centre adjacent to Bught Park.

I was in luck and early enough to bag a space and join some other early starters, mostly parents with their talented juvenile offspring. And a further piece of advice, the Leisure Centre offered pristine latrines through the day rather than the random Dr Who boxes on site.

Unbridled joy from European Grade 2 Champions Portlethan

With their competitions kicking of at 10am I was hearing from the chat around me that an 8am muster was the norm – but the organisers would not be opening the gates until 9am. As one band started blowing in the bus park area I heard a supervisor say ‘I’m not sure they can do that here’ – so here is my memo to the organising team: it’s a pipe band contest not an airport security line. 

Simply this, for 2020, get the venue opened earlier and avoid the mayhem that ensued at the ‘main gate’, where the queue stretched across the bus entry road (not safe). Juvenile performers and drum majors have adults with them for a reason.

If you are going to kick their events off at 10am and there is a two hour prep, the responsible adults can’t just stand there. I was reckoning most were hungry or thirsty and the vendors would be delighted to take even more cash in. And this event was a cash taker for sure. 

A £13 entry might be fair and reasonable but for a family it was a steep outlay. Besides, booking online in advance was more expensive than on the day, because of the online booking fee. Doh! That can’t be right, surely?

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The organisers need to review and learn from this: in queue management near busy road intersections, opening earlier and processing visitors faster and more appropriate and consistent security.

I heard of a debate about possible confiscation of a folding chair and aerosol sun cream. It’s an event, but not Glasto, nor is it an airport. Getting out was a faff to have a wristband to get back in and another wristband for the stand upgrade ticket.

Another fiver, but the cheapest umbrella I’ve bought, when the heavens opened in the early afternoon. I reckoned 500 bums on seats at £5 a head, an extra £2500 for the organiser – ka ching! Maybe five thousand in the gates, a further £5 for the programme (which was well written and useful) and you begin to rack up a decent turnover even without the revenue from trader pitches. 

With those glitches aside, this was a real championship venue, good amenities, well served for all tastes and as close to a model venue as you can imagine. It did vacuum the contents of my sporran though, but resolving those entry issues I mentioned, also catering for the early arrivers, it will fly next year. Catching a park and ride bus at 9am for a band contest starting at 10am doesn’t work. 

Right, enough of that ‘Trip Advisor’ nonsense and on to the day job, because I was there to review Grade 2. But one further and last digression. Whilst watching the Juvenile grade, I witnessed Jennifer Hutcheon, the well regarded and experienced adjudicator acting as Ensemble Judge, having to lean over the barrier in the very early bars of a band performance and tell a group of reclining loud mouths to stop yacking.

Well done Jennifer. In hope I ask again, why would you bother spending the time and in this case, money, to come along and talk loudly through performances. It’s simply bonkers. There was a cafe tent for cafe chat. 
Initially the wooden stand, mostly used to host shinty followers at this venue, was sparseley attended but the weather would soon have a hand in adding piles of £5 notes to the takings.

On surveying the field I did think Arena 1 and 2 were too close to each other when the big guns of G1 coincided with G2, with maybe 50 yards separating them. An additional 20 yards would assist and also reduce the PA announcements cross contaminating. It proved to be the case later. 

A bright, sunny start, although it grew more overcast as the morning progressed. For Grade 2 there were some hefty downpours and a couple of spectacular car wash moments. As I stepped into the stand a steward was handing out ponchos to his colleagues, and they weren’t planning a spaghetti western.

Ominous clouds gathered and I heard the chatter of Closkelt not travelling and a Facebook post very late (or early) on Friday stating they wouldn’t be coming due to travel issues, and so withdrew. The last of the island of Ireland bands in the Grade.

Such is life and the list was shortened as were the odds for a home Scottish win with a full domestic field. There will be naysayers who might aim to devalue this one as a quasi ‘Scottish Championship’ but bands can only compete against what is in front of them.

It was a pity that strong bands like Ravara, ManorC and Closkelt didn’t play, as much for the fans, but I’m acutely aware of the cost in doing this thing called pipe bands and challenges of logistics and funding do occur. 
So to the competition. 

Listen to Portlethan’s winning performance courtesy the RSPBA’s YouTube channel:

City of Discovery stood practicing in final tuning on a long blow. I feared in the heat they might have gone on too much: wrong. The strike and into Siege of Dubrovnik. Setting off at a cracking pace and on into Rakes of Kildare. This was licking along and the classy strathspey drumming really shone though in the best I’ve heard from them, particularly the tenors. I wrote that it was good music and RattlenRum it did. Aside from well set snares, a great mid and bass section to my ears. (10 10 3 7) for ninth, but within distance of getting of the prize winner’s list and just reward for a strong showing from the drum corps. 

From the City of Discovery to their Dundee neighbours Mackenzie Caledonian. After a smart salute to the Ensemble judge and counting in, the P/M got going but the ‘Busy Body’ didn’t do it for me with perhaps too much bottom hand that could be muddy. Very well pulled into the Strathspey King though by the middle of the medley, whilst over in Arena 1 the heavy snare beating from Glasgow Skye was louder than Mac Cal. 

I had to vacate the stand at this stage as the sound contamination was overwhelming, but I knew that the judges at ground level would be hearing a completely different sound. My apologies to readers as I have to admit that I was distracted in moving to the barrier but I thought the band didn’t settle particularly well, nor reach the heights of their March, Strathspey & Reel in Lurgan. Scoring 8 6 7 3 it was enough to sneak in and take fifth place overall. Better days will come along and this is work in progress. I’d stick my neck out and say a return to form at Dumbarton will have them up there. 

I could see Royal Burgh of Annan coming over from Final Tuning and Stirling rolling into the vacant bay. Annan moved confidently on to the circle and The Greatness underscored the intent. I liked that, but the bass was one dimensional in parts otherwise they might well have been further up the drumming list. The tone was not as impressive as I’ve heard this season and weather must have had an impact. It is clear Annan is going for it and from time to time that risk taking will deliver less wanted outcomes, but they should persevere. Scoring 6 5 4 5 and taking third place is progress. It was good to hear them and see the risk taking rewarded.

Before the deluge….Royal Burgh of Annan

Stirling next and it seemed like the rain worsened. I decided to get back under cover to the main stand, where, ironically, you can sit. (Why is a stand a stand when you sit there?) Umbrellas went up and the queue for the £5 stand tickets lengthened. I liked this medley a lot and regardless of scores, it did get a strong reaction from the crowd. I wrote that the ‘very good drumming might just overpower the Ensemble score’. Drumming was rewarded and their overall scores of 12 12 2 12. In consolation, the most ones and twos in any score on the day. 

Uddingston Strathclyde next with the opener 91st Brigade after smart salute to the Ensemble judge, as did MacCals (thank you). Six snares in this corps was fewer than I remembered from Paisley with six tenors too. There was a hefty downpour and as folks scrambled for cover a bit of an exodus happened before my eyes. Any neutral visitor might well have been heading to the hills; this changeable weather is such an annoyance. From US, this was the best I’ve heard and two notches up from the same medley at Paisley and I believe momentum is turning in piping and in the rain they held form, tone and style. The drumming was busy, maybe less is more in Grade 2. They should be delighted in tying in second in aggregate piping scores. With 3 2 9 2, second place, and their best outcome to date. Noted that both US and Porty, both up from Grade 3 this year, finished first and second. 

Wallacestone, another saluter, for which thank you, had tuned in the downpour and looked thoroughly drookit by the time of their walk. By now the grade was, whisper it, running a few minutes behind schedule. Compact bijou and straight to the point, within the required time, this is a traditional weaving of tunes, finishing with High Drive. With 11 pipers the sound was thinner. Good sections here and there but freelancing too, although there was some joined up thinking, neatly done, but in my book not in the running for silverware. Judges had them dead last on 13 11 11 13. 

Further rain and the Scottish Fire and Rescue crew made their way over from final tuning, demonstrating a richer sound than the band exiting and, before catching my ear, the eye catching tenor skins looked ace matching the bass logo. There was imbalance with six snares and 14 pipers – I heard more from St Laurence’s back line in the adjacent arena. To the music HMS Endeavour, nickname Morse, was a strong part within the race to the finish. Alistair’s Big Reel had too many contra harmonies for me and the link to AC MacGregor clunked a bit. The sound held well as the drizzle continued and very well played SFR; it is getting there and a positive work in progress. Much appreciated by the loudest supporters. 11 8 12 9.

There was plenty of vocal support for Portlethan & District too, in what I’ll refer to as the north/ north east of Scotland segment of the contest, only interloped by the good fellows and lassies of Islay. Porty didn’t hang around, out of the gate quickly delivering a very good sound, and in my mind the one to beat so far. Puert a Buel then it brightened. This was sweet and very enjoyable and I was expecting silverware for them on this performance for sure. It was really a matter of who might beat them from here. No one did and the 1 1 5 1 was more than good enough to lift the European trophy, a great outcome for this recently upgraded band. 

Victory calling….Portlethan before the circle at Inverness

From Porty to Bucksburn and quite a difference in tone – you might get that from the online feed from RSPBA Twitter maestro who was uploading the first minute of each. There might have been a starting issue, but hard to say without VAR (there’s a thought) and studying the footage. Bucksburn was different from the newly promoted Porty who had just played, not as rich sounding to my ears. Gardens of Skye moved from the attack quickly and it was a very stately entry, perhaps a shade too much so. It geared up after Jane Campbell and was particularly good and held very well through the incoming harmonies. Out of the ‘slowie’ which always reminds me of Coulter’s Candy (but isn’t) to Bill Gregory’s Jig and zipped along to Rory MacLeod – have I said it’s an old favourite of mine? Yes I have. The end syncopation was mostly neat, but not without the odd thing here and there, with good bass and tenors. Not in the running for a mention later, in my book. 9 13 6 8 scores to place them 10th.

They make them tough up here and Highland Granite rolled in with P/M Oliphant guiding them around the corner. Still drizzling rain at this stage and in the lull I just happened to hear a fragment of the Boggies in Arena 1 (wow, great sound over there). Back to business and Song for Chanter hit the spot and tunes came thick and fast. The Millstead, Curlew and I Have it Somewhere to rattle on further. I was enjoying this and wrote little in the old book as it simply delivered good music to my ears. On the list but not going to trouble Porty. 5 9 8 4 to take sixth and get a notch on the aggregate board for their first season. Well done Granite and I’m sure even better days await. 

Tough stuff…Highland Granite are used to the rain

The distillery set to music, Kilchoman, Isle of Islay, fresh from success of a drumming win in Lurgan, joined the fray as the rain remained a constant. Ian McMaster in very straight time for starters and then the grand jig, Kesh. This is an enjoyable medley, bright, inventive and mostly avoids the clichéd harmonics, forced transitions (apart from a clever one) and reprise malarkey. Poignant Islay Tune and the Devil in the Kitchen strath to reel which is marmite, but well done in my view. Golden Chanter was lightning quick and cleverly done. In the top six for piping – yes, nailed on in my summary, with a tiny bit of freelancing here and there. I didn’t have the drum corps in the reckoning though. The scribblers had them 4 4 10 10 for seventh and just outside the list. As a consolation they win my ‘best beards’ award – ‘awesome’ as the Yankees say. 

Back to the North, Buchan Peterson and another likely silverware winner from the form book. It had been a long wait though at approaching 3.30pm from a 1.45pm start. Over in Arena 1 I could see Scottish Power in capes for their run. Not for Buchan, tough up north and not the central belt softies. Note – that was a joke, before the Editor gets a lawyer’s letter. The Quakers Wife did indeed dance merrily and the Long Island Jig was tremendous. I also like a ‘less is more’ slow air as it coasts along like a meandering river and they delivered although maybe a hint of blowing askew. Much to smile about however, from this well constructed medley and worth listening to once it’s up there online for those not at the event. There was just one scintilla of concern as a hold back into the final section was just a nano second longer and I held my breath, but it launched, and possibly some of the nimblest playing of the day. The local support made it clear that this was appreciated. On the list? No doubt, but where? The drum corps got their reward for what I thought near to the best sounding set up of the day and overall scores of 7 7 1 6, overall fourth but only one point off third.

In the gathering gloom, Buchan P, Euro drumming champions

From the west coast, the town of Oban has delivered much to piping over the centuries and here was the current Grade 2 band under the direction of Dan Johnstone. As they glided over there was no Closkelt moving to tuning, and the west coasters would close the competition. Oban delivered a Medley crammed with content and time signatures, but remaining musical and quite traditional. Piping very strong from the off and I did think they were cruising to top of the list, but not as out there as Porty had been earlier. And there is that ‘Duncan family Golden Wedding’ tune. I enjoyed it greatly and reckoned this pipe corps was going to make it a close run thing. The judges scored second and third in piping for an aggregate joint second, but adding in drums and ensemble took them to 8th, off the list, but in a cluster of scores all within a point or so, and could just as easily have been fifth or sixth in the lower reaches of the silverware roster. For the record they were scored 2 3 13 11. Thank you Oban. 

Overall a strong contest between those who were there but my comments earlier about those who were missing will give rise to chatter and chat, making the Scottish Championship at Dumbarton more interesting. All the big guns will be on the start line after the shortened running orders in Lurgan and Inverness. Seventeen bands will compete and then the weekend madness of North Berwick. It’s only four weeks away. 

In closing there were Australian bands aplenty across a few grades, so well done, great effort and I’m sure the trip will have been enjoyable for all. I also mentioned the event programme, a really useful read, particularly the explanation notes on how adjudicators score. Before you wags out there say it – yes they have all read it. And remaining on the Aussie attendance point, I saw young gun Lincoln Hilton listening in to the Dollar Academy, having composed a winning tune for them. He is hugely followed by the younger brigade and worth looking up some of his YouTube files. 

That was Inverness, a good day overall, weather excepted, and the wagon takes a break for a few weeks before we all gather in the shadow of the rock in Dumbarton. In the meantime enjoy the break, keep the pipes blown, hands going and I’ll see you there. Over and out.

  • Read more on the Euros here. Got a comment? Please post below.
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2 thoughts on “European Pipe Band Championships: Changes Needed/ Grade 2 Review

  1. What a fantastic review as per usual. I always look forward to reading it after the contest. Well written, humorous and very insightful.
    There is one small thing I’d like to highlight. You rightly congratulate the newly promoted bands on their amazing step up to the new grade and I too would like to do so also but I’d also like to point out that Buchan Peterson is practically also a new band. When the band competed at Paisley there were no fewer than 27 players making their major debut with the band. I feel this is significant and note worthy.
    Keep up the fantastic G2 preview and review

    1. Thank you for taking the time to comment James. I’m indebted to all the bands and their followers for giving me access and encouraging the coverage. I try and report on what is happening around the contest and add a bit of observational commentary too. The human condition is fascinating.

      Noted re Buchan P, indeed they are almost brand new given the musical chairs in your neck of the woods in the close season. The whole scene there is in rude health and so far the number of bands (quantity) hasn’t affected quality, although I was sad to not to see Grampian Police appear this season.

      Long may the robustness in the area continue, and it must be partly due to the build up of strong teaching – which is the key to long term success. Almost anyone with talent can run a fly in band (although it presents different challenges) but long term sustainability is driven by good tutors and an encouraging teaching style.

      Thanks again Mr May, and pass my regards to Messrs Clarkson and Hammond.

      Over and out.


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