Why Is the March Strathspey and Reel Such a Chore for Pipe Bands These Days?

By Robert Wallace

I am very grateful to Dr Jack Taylor for passing on to me a recording of a BBC radio programme from the 1970s. It features my old pipe major Bob Hardie and his band Muirhead and Sons. They had just completed their five Worlds titles in a row 1965 -69, a record for a civilian band yet to be broken, though Field Marshal came dashed close a few years ago.

Bob is interviewed by George McIlwham who was then the leading flautist for the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, a classical music composer of note, and a piper in the Grade 3 Milngavie band.

(George with his super ear would set Milngavie up and it was thanks to him that they won many titles in their grade.) Let’s have a listen to a recording of his programme:

Hearing Bob’s voice again brought back many memories and I can assure you all that his soft spoken, reticent manner was not at all evident at band practice!

The rigour and discipline he demanded from his pipers is clear from what you have just heard. Razor sharp technique and unison unwavering through the most difficult passages, everything pointed and phrased as it should be.

I have railed on about the tempi of marches in solos for the past several years and I thought I would stick the metronome on Brigadier Cheape to check out if there had been any drift downwards in the bands. It comes in at just above 80 beats per minute.

I then listened to Worlds winners Inveraray from 2019. Their tune is the Argyllshire Gathering and P/M Stuart Liddell’s tempo is, remarkably, not a gnat’s crotchet away from Bob’s.

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So on this evidence there has been no change in the of tempo in marches over the past half century – there’s nothing between the Worlds winner of 1966 and the equivalent in 2019. (Though it may be relevant to factor in that the Muirheads recording is from an album and the I’ray one from a contest, the first possibly more relaxed, the second live.)

Turning to the Strathspey and Reel both Muirheads and I’ray again rattle along at roughly the same lick: 115bpm for the S and 90 for the R.

Have a listen to Inveraray at the 2019 Worlds. If I’m wrong in my timings I’m sure you won’t be long in letting me know:

An excellent performance, yet what is it that MSRs in Grade 1 lack these days? Why do we have a reduced interest from the audience? (Check the stands at Glasgow Green if you don’t believe me.)

Clearly it is a rounder style of playing with less emphasis on phrasing and beat notes. Just listen to the lift from Muirheads – real punchy strathspeys that have the feet jumping off the floor.

Today, phrase endings are rolled over, drummers fill in between the four staccato beats in strathspeys. There’s a resulting loss in melodic focus, a suffocating blanket of drabness thrown over the music.

These competition MSR tunes are some of the best music made for the pipes. They are still, in my book, the sternest test of piping and drumming there is. But they are missing the blas.

However, it is not the bands that are at fault. It is the system. The first culprit is ensemble. In order to get pipes and drums working as closely as possible, compromises are made as touched on above.

Second, the structure of the G1 Worlds. ‘Safety first’ is the telling phrase in the MSR. Don’t do anything risky and try for some magic in the Medley.

Third, judges are too lenient on dull interpretation. Everyone can play together if notes are smoothed out. But inject some bite, some dot and cut and you’ll soon separate the good from the not so good.

This approach should be rewarded. It is difficult to do but the standard of player has improved so much that it is almost criminal if the top bands don’t try. Just look at the quality of pipers in that Inveraray line up. Every one of them would walk into the Muirheads band or any other top band of that era, no question.

And I’ll tell you another thing. If RG Hardie had the all the modern gadgetry and synthetic advantages of today’s bands he would give all of them a right good pasting in the MSR.

  • The first pipe band major championship of the season, the British, takes place at Greenock tomorrow. Entry is free but there is limited car parking at Battery Park. The favoured mode of transport is the train. The closest station is Fort Matilda.

5 thoughts on “Why Is the March Strathspey and Reel Such a Chore for Pipe Bands These Days?

  1. Bretón “Bagadou” have had to start from scratch after 1945, when they transitioned between the “biniou koz” + “bombarde” duos to a bigger formation, the “bagad”, basically a Pipe Band plus a “bombarde” section.
    They had to adapt their tunes, but they also borrowed tunes from different piping heritages especially from other celtic traditions. This gave th hem a degree of openness to experiment that Gordon Duncan feared not, and recently the Red Hot Chilli Pipers have taken into “bagrock”. Yet pipe band competitions focus on gettin close to absolute perfection on a few tunes, rather than opening to new sounds and influences. Perhaps including a section in the competitions that require playing music composed less than, for example, 15 years ago, would force pipe bands to open to new tunes. Additionally, having a section of the competition where music from at least two different nations outside of Scotland must be blended with one Scottish tune would challenge the Pipe majors blending ability. Of course, to safeguard the Scottishness of competitions, MSR competitions should also take place next to the new forms of competition. In the Lorient Interceltic Festival, the best piper, The old McCallan, now McCrimmon trophy, requires pipers to plsy music from other Celtic Nations, as well as their own, the best piper being the one who can play all three tunes better than the other pipers.

  2. I believe the most significant challenge in the MSR is to play in unison within the expression of the music. Playing it without expression is meaningless and dull. Clearly, this is the reason for the lack of popularity. The MSR has become an exercise in pyrotechnics with little devotion to the musicality of the set. Robert Wallace is right on.

  3. I have thought this for some time. Perhaps the RSPBA could look at a system where three tunes across the two submitted sets (for Grade 1 majors) must be selected from outside a list of say the 20 most popular marches, strathspeys and reels.

    The RSPBA could look at the last twenty years of submitted tunes and put together a list from which bands can only select one march, one strathspey and one reel across their two sets, thereby forcing them to select at least one March, Strathspey or Reel from outside the popular tunes list. This will mean that a broader selection of tunes is submitted, adding interest to the MSR and perhaps giving more scope for flair and style.

  4. The reduced audience interest in MSR performances can be explained by the same old “safe” tunes being chosen by most of the Grade 1 bands. No-one wants to stand (or sit) in the rain on Glasgow Green and listen to umpteen perfomances of Lord Alexander Kennedy, Susan MacLeod and Mrs McPherson. Let’s hope that the enforced Covid break has allowed bands to refresh their MSR repertoire with some more varied tunes.

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