There is no doubt that the year 2020 was a total disaster for the piping and pipe band community in many respects as a result of COVID-19, but one positive aspect which did emerge was the tremendous interest, fellowship and community spirit which exists in piping and pipe band music worldwide.
This depth of interest may not normally be publicised widely and may not be well understood by members of the public in general, not even in Scotland; but the effect of the pandemic has demonstrated very clearly the unity, desire, resilience, support, ingenuity, innovation and determination of the piping and pipe band community across the globe in finding ways of keeping alive teaching, practicing, forms of competition and efforts never before thought to be necessary to maintain interest. Who knows what is likely to happen in 2021.
By Alistair Aitken OBE
The COVID-19 situation certainly does not look very good in Scotland at the moment, but I have no doubt that the efforts here and worldwide will continue to try to ensure a return to some form of normality as soon as possible. Over time the experience of the virus may even result in lessons being learned which can lead to improvements in the piping/pipe band scene never considered before.
It may even help to illustrate to the movers and shakers in Scotland the extent to which this form of Scottish traditional music extends to other countries; the benefits to tourism and hospitality, financially and in other respects, which the RSPBA’s Major Championships bring to Scotland and the wider UK; and crucially the important role which Scotland needs to play in seeking to get things back to normal.
Although pipe bands have been part of my life since I was nine years old I suppose I have only gradually become more and more aware over the almost 70 years since of the considerable interest in piping and pipe band music throughout the world. As a very young Scottish Office civil servant working in St Andrew’s House in Edinburgh I probably first started to appreciate that there was an international dimension through working as a (very poorly paid) steward at the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo during the 1960s, brief lunchtime walks during the Edinburgh International Festival and occasionally seeing the daily parade of the famous Edinburgh City Police Pipe Band along Princes Street during the Festival (never even imagining at that time that I would later become a member of that particular pipe band as a long-term guest player).
When competing during the 1960s with the Colinton and Currie Pipe Band, based close to Edinburgh, I probably also started to become more aware of the growing number of pipe bands from other countries which came to Scotland for the World Pipe Band Championships in particular. Actually appreciating the full extent of the international dimension, however, only became more apparent after I was invited to join the Edinburgh City Police band (which became Lothian and Borders Police Pipe Band after regionalisation in Scotland in 1975) and during my time as an RSPBA adjudicator.
I learned even more through my involvement as a member of the former RSPBA Historical Research Group. There have been many claimed reasons for the international expansion of pipe bands. There are historical references to the boundaries of the music being extended when Scottish troops served around the world as the British Empire expanded. Scots who emigrated to other countries for various reasons from the late 1700s onwards inevitably spread Scotland’s culture and traditional music.
There will be many other reasons, including the formation of the Scottish Pipe Band Association (now the RSPBA) and Pipe Band Associations outwith Scotland; the higher profile of the World Pipe Band Championships in more recent years particularly; the expansion of teaching methods worldwide; and the emergence of pipe band competitions in many other countries. All of these will have contributed to generating the strong international interest in piping and pipe band music which exists today.
I was privileged to enjoy many memorable, and unexpected, international experiences during my pipe band and adjudication career. As examples of what has been missing across the world, readers of Piping Press may find it of interest to hear about some of the countries I visited where piping and pipe band activities normally take place on an annual basis. These of course are only a few of the countries involved worldwide.
For example, I should make it clear from the outset that Australia is not included, which of course is one of the countries with the strongest interest in Scottish culture and traditions. Unfortunately circumstances dictated that I had to turn down invitations to adjudicate in Australia. Australia has a vast number of pipe bands across New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia, Western Australia and Tasmania. The country also organises its own Australian Pipe Band Championships.
I have also not included the Republic of Ireland in view of its proximity to the UK as many of its numerous pipe bands, including its top band St Laurence O’Toole, compete regularly in Northern Ireland competitions and at RSPBA Major Championships. There are also pipe bands in a variety of other countries such as South Africa, Oman, India, Pakistan, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Uruguay and European countries I have not mentioned. I am sure there will be other countries I have missed, so my apologies in advance for any not referred to.
Next: My Travels Begin