The last major piping events at the Argyllshire Gathering (AG), Oban, and the Northern Meeting (NM), Inverness, were in 2019 and the next such events will be, hopefully, in 2022. We will all be three years older by the time we sit down to listen once more to these great competitions.
Looking at past programmes of the Northern Meeting it is surprising how the names of the players change in a relatively short period. Younger pipers appear and the older ones drop out.
Perhaps in a period of three years these differences will not be significant, but there could be noticeable changes nevertheless – and there will be changes to the audience too.
By Duncan Watson
Despite ceòl mòr being a minority interest, it is nevertheless the main motivator for pipers who wish to play at these competitions. The current system of grading was introduced in 1976 or 1977 to address the explosion in numbers wishing to take part in the events, particularly the Gold Medal.
To accommodate those who didn’t gain entry, the Silver Medal competitions were instigated.
The grading system for them has undergone a few changes since its inception but despite some anomalies has been largely accepted over the years.
During the hiatus caused by the pandemic there have been a number of online competitions and some might consider results emanating from those competitions the basis for grading.
For several reasons these online competitions should not be regarded as a means of acceptance into the AG and NM events. Bagpipe sound cannot be properly judged online, for example.
The most pressing concern is in respect of the Silver Medals. The Senior Piobaireachd at the AG and the Clasp Competition at the NM, and indeed the Gold Medal competitions at both venues, are, given their strict criteria for entry, relatively easily managed.
But the Silver Medal is a different matter. These competitions may require some consideration as to how applicants may be accepted in the future.
‘A+’ and ‘A’ graded pipers have a good chance of getting into the Gold. The numbers of ‘A minus’ and ‘B’ players who wish to take part in the Silver far outnumber the 25 or 30 allocated places. Usually about half with these grades are refused the opportunity to take part.
In 2019 events a qualifying system was introduced. Winners in designated competitons would go forward to the 2020 Silver Medals. The system fell down when there were very few competitors or the standard was poor.
Of course the events did not take place in 2020 thus problems did not materialise and were deferred to the future. Unfortunately, those events for 2021 have also been cancelled. Those likely problems have thus been further deferred.
The Silver Medals are treasured as prizes, but the main motivation for taking part is the hope that success provides entry to the Gold Medal. Winning just one gets the piper access but another way is by having a good track record.
A succession of signifiant prizes and perhaps a placing in the Silver Medal is often good enough to hoist a piper up the rankings and into the Gold.
It is not known what the state of piping will be in 2022 and as far ahead as 14 months from the time of this writing.
It would be very disappointing if the Silver Medal lists for 2022 were based on who were successful for the 2020 competition. It can easily be foreseen that such disappointment could cause a few to cease taking part altogether and the pipes being put into the loft or under the bed.
Is there a way forward? Have the organisers and the different interested parties in solo piping given sufficient thought to this, or is it a case of just living in hope?
I have already proposed a solution to the Joint Committee [the body which represents solo pipers, judges and promoters]. It may have been discussed, but was not adopted.
I repeat it here. The idea is simply to deal with the Silver Medal competitions as separate entities. The capped number of competitors remains the same, but instead of the same pipers having two competitions to play in, 25 play in one (at Oban), and 25 the other (at Inverness).
This would effectively allow about 60 pipers to play in the Silver Medal competitions and perhaps gain entry to the Gold.
Grading can be quite divisive between the differing grades and this is exacerbated when it occurs within a specific grade.
I would suggest my proposal should be seriously discussed with the pipers who are considering applying to play at the SM competitions in 2022.
There may be other solutions or ideas which might be explored but this is one solution which includes everyone in the Silver Medal category. If there are 20 ‘A minus’ players then these would be seeded, ten playing in one contest and the rest in the other.
I am relatively young, but over the years have seen how interest fluctuates in piping. This is evidenced by the varying entries at Highland games competitions.
More than anything I believe an inclusive solution would help offset the damage done to our solo piping by the enforced pandemic lay-offs and re-set the situation giving Gold and Silver Medal aspirants a much-needed boost.