The Frightening Impact of Having no Pipe Band Competitions in 2021

It was very interesting to read Gilbert Cromie’s recent article about the effect of the COVID-19 virus on the pipe band and related teaching scene in Northern Ireland.  Gilbert’s personal views regarding the difficulties in attempting to reintroduce pipe band competitions in 2021 were also very relevant and concerning. 

For those of us, young and old, who have been involved in piping, pipe band drumming, drum majoring or actual pipe bands for most of our lives, 2020 has been a disaster in many ways. 

By Alistair Aitken OBE,
former RSPBA Adjudicator

Thankfully there have been innovative attempts to keep things active through online teaching and competition initiatives.  None of these, however, can beat face-to-face tuition, the need for proper pipe band practices, or the excitement and rivalry of pipe band competitions. 

The absence of pipe band competitions has also been a major disappointment for spectators.  If the competitive environment cannot be resurrected in some form or other in 2021 it is frightening to even try to envisage the impact there could on this form of traditional music which is enjoyed worldwide.

As Gilbert and others have indicated there are imponderables which affect many countries and Scotland in particular.  These include how quickly a suitable vaccine becomes available; the extent to which the virus surfaces again in different parts of countries worldwide; the degree of compliance with the guidance (mandatory or otherwise) of different governments; the availability of funding for venues for practices and competitions; the availability of suitable transport for large groups of people such as pipe bands; whether pipe band personnel would actually want to travel to competitions; and perhaps not least, the format pipe band competitions would take and how they would be adjudicated. 

Ian Embelton, the RSPBA’s popular Chief Executive, delivers the judges’ verdict. Will we see him do so again in 2021?

Clearly there needs to be a great deal of thought given as soon as possible and certainly before the end of 2020 to some form of forward-looking strategy.  Personally I doubt that this can be left solely to the RSPBA and other pipe band organisations around the world.  This is not the time for the normal politics and bickering within and outwith the membership.  Similarly we cannot rely on national governments to offer a solution. 

In Scotland successive governments, irrespective of their political allegiance, have never been prominent in providing funding and other forms of support for pipe bands.  Like Northern Ireland, local authorities in Scotland are the main funders of pipe band competitions and in the main will be unlikely to view pipe bands as a priority given the massive financial constraints on their budgets due to the virus.  Somehow, therefore, the pipe band community itself needs to come together to try to formulate, agree and implement a way forward.

On the assumption that it will prove possible to devise and fund some form of RSPBA pipe band competition programme in 2021, arguably one of the most difficult areas to be decided will be the format in which the bands would compete and how they would be adjudicated.  The following offers some personal thoughts to throw into the mix.  Some people invariably will disagree but, as Gilbert has already said, it is important to have as many views and ideas as possible out in the open so that their relevance can be considered.  


It has been suggested that it might only be possible to resurrect pipe band competitions next year at local level in the UK (i.e. RSPBA Branch level).  It seems unlikely that there would be sufficient funds in the coffers of Branches, so some form of funding support would inevitably be required from the relevant local authority or other sponsor. 

That would no doubt depend on the number of pipe bands which would be prepared to enter, allied to the grade of these bands as normally it is the participation of at least some of the top pipe bands that attracts the spectators (who probably would also be required to pay an entry fee). 

Funds to meet the cost of prizes and the expenses of adjudicators and officials would probably be a significant problem.  Whether the bands would be prepared to compete with no prize money, and whether adjudicators and officials would waive their expenses on a one-off basis are matters which would have to be addressed.  Some of these measures have been necessary in the past for other reasons but were not popular and it was nothing like the scale of the current situation.

The really big issue is whether the five Major Championships would be possible.  The UK Championships, with the venue now being Northern Ireland, would have its own problems of funding and the number of participating bands due to travel and accommodation difficulties.  It seems likely that there would be similar problems with the Championships earmarked for Paisley, Inverness and Dumbarton.  Much would depend on the likely participation of the bands, whether the original sponsorship would still be available, and how the sponsors and the RSPBA could avoid a potential financial loss.

  • Next: The Worlds, contest format and adjudication.

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