What It’s Like Being A Grade Four Groupie and Why the Music Must Go On

A couple of weeks ago we ran a humourous Pipe Band Magazine article in which a pipe major wrote about the trials, tribulations and toil of running a Grade Four band. Today we have an equally humourous response from those pre-mobile phone days. Forty years on the writer’s concluding sentiments still ring very true for all devotees as we endure the worst period in the history of the pipe band movement. Hang on in there folks; the above scene will come again. Thanks to Alistair Aitken for passing the article on.

Unlike your previous corespondent who gave us his ‘View from Grade Four’, I’m not a Pipe Major. In fact I can’t read a note of music, let alone extract one from a chanter. But I do love the sound of pipe bands and I’m what you might call a Grade Four groupie.

As I wait with band members and their families in the pouring rain/freez­ing cold/howling gale on a chilly early-morning for the coach which should have picked us up half an hour ago, I can see the Pipe Major getting twitchy.

One of the pipers who had hurried to the pick-up point without his breakfast because he was late and was afraid of missing the bus, has just headed off towards the newsagents in search of something to eat.

And the same law that makes bread always land butter-side down on the carpet the pipey’s sure that the coach will appear as soon as the piper disappears.

It’s these little anxieties that make him twitch. The band’s already half an hour behind schedule, and although he’s allowed time for delays and unexpect­ed hitches, losing thirty minutes before we’re even on our way is a bit wor­rying.

Fortunately the coach and the hungry piper (who is now eating crisps and chocolate) both arrive at the pick-up point together, so pipes and drums are stowed at the double and we’re on the bus and away. Or are we?

The Pipe Major is doing his good shepherd bit. He’s counting his flock, most of whom have already been picked up. But he discovers that the lead drummer is missing. It isn’t our usual coach driver: this one didn’t know his way around the pick-up points which is why he’s late.

Derrytrasna Pipe Band

And, worst of all, he hadn’t been told where to collect the L/D. We have to make a quick detour to fetch him, cold and crabbit from where he’s been waiting for the past hour. We’re really on our way now…..

The Pipe Major reminds everyone about the timetable for the day and is just about to sit down and relax when there’s another slight panic. The bass drummer’s going to the contest by car and we’re almost cer­tain he’s got the drum with him. But can the Pipe Major rest easy until he’s made a quick call from a roadside phone box? No, so we find one that’s working to make sure, and now we’re definitely on our journey.

Dartmouth & District PB, Nova Scotia

The descriptions of the competitions given by Pipe Majors in earlier magazines certainly ring true. Not only do they have to get the bands set up and ready to play at the appointed time, but they may also find that several bands have scratched at the last minute and stewards are looking to see who’s next on the list.

If it’s a championship and the band’s made the final, they have to go through the hanging about all over again, waiting to do their stuff for the second time – and watching their friends from bands that didn’t make it vanish into the beer tent.

At the end of the day there’s the queue for those pink and yellow sheets, sometimes sheets that don’t seem to relate to our band at all, and sometimes it’s hard to understand how the band that started badly, finished badly (and even looked worse than our band!) has got a prize and we haven’t.

Buchan PB in 2008

But usu­ally the judge’s scribbles are accepted with good grace, and if they’re complimentary scribbles, we’ll want to celebrate. And if we’ve come away with nothing we’ll need to drown our sorrows. Either way we’ll stop on the way home for a fish supper and some liquid refreshment.

Pipe band contests? It takes a lot of hard work by pipers, drummers, Pipe Majors and Pipe Sergeants plus the officials and everyone else who gets it all together on the day. As a Sassenach living in Scotland, I take my hat (or should that be bun­net?) off to you all. I think it’s wonderful that there are so many bands, great and small, with so many people willing to work so hard to make sure that the music goes on.

City of Newcastle Pipe Band

The investment of time and resources, the way older players teach and encourage young ones, the mixture of all kinds and ages of people on the pipe band scene and the good-humoured atmosphere at the events, are a great tribute to the people of Scotland.

And maybe you should be especially proud of the Grade Four bands: they work hard to prepare for the season and it’s often a long, hard slog with­out much to put in the trophy cupboard at the end of it.

But Grade Four bands introduce new young blood into the adult competitions; no one starts out in Grade One. So I say three cheers for the Grade Four bands! Keep playing – some of us are listening.

  • The pictures above were all taken when the featured bands were in G4. Personnel and grade may have changed since.

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