Editor’s Notebook: The Worlds, The Worlds, The Worlds

Glasgow Police in the circle in the 1950s

A few more thoughts from the Green. I must respectfully take issue with one aspect of Alistair Aitken’s excellent article of a couple of weeks ago.

He wrote: ‘…..one of the main reasons for pipe bands traditionally competing in a circle as the original thinking all these years ago was that the circle contains and balances the sounds much better.

I am not sure there was ever any trial done to establish this. Back in the 1930s, the RSPBA, as far as I am aware, merely continued the Army’s parade ground, static band format – the circle – which had been used by regimental pipes and drums since they became prevalent in the 19th century.

This odd arrangement was seen at Cowal and other pre-Association championships in the early 1900s. It has not altered fundamentally in 120 years. 

Alistair goes on: ‘I am conscious of course that many people would now prefer a semi-circle orchestra formation. That format would result in a significantly different sound projection forwards with a more dominant chanter sound.’

Possibly, but the idea that we should listen to the pipes ‘drones first’ is unheard of in any other bagpipe tradition in the world and certainly does not exist in this country in the solo sphere.

Yes a proper, professional presentation facing an audience as above would require a few changes, but that could be easily accommodated. An open circle is not that much different from a closed.

And consider this. The price of a seat is not the only reason there was no one in the stands on August 12/13. For all the professionalism of our Grade 1 pipe bands, they have a distinctly amateur approach to their audience. They turn their backs on them for goodness sake. The last thing on their minds is the listening public and they, the audience, sense it.

Link prizemoney to backsides on seats and watch the change in attitude from band secretaries, treasurers and, more importantly, pipe majors.


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Last Thoughts

I would like to recognise the contribution of Iain Simpson and Gordon Brown both of whom retired at the Worlds after decades of service to Boghall and Bathgate. A well earned rest gents. Your legacy is there for all to see. Young Kerr McQuillan now takes over as leading tip from Gordon. Difficult shoes to fill but the drummers tell me Kerr is well up to the job.


Well done to Colin Mulhern the new RSPBA Chief Executive for standing aside and allowing Ian Embelton to read out the Grade 1 results. A nice mark of respect and one that was applauded by the bands.


Thanks to all my colleagues in the ’70s Tribute Band who made the experience of playing in the Worlds arena so enjoyable. I think when you consider the amount of restricted rehearsal time we had, we put on not a bad show. All credit to P/M David Caldwell and L/D John Scullion.

Tribute band practice….P/M Caldwell sorts Clive MacFarland’s chanter as band secretary Ken Stewart looks on – and big Kevin Rogers and David Bruce discuss the price of a pint

Plaudits for P/M Ben Duncan. He’s leaving the Army next month to take up a teaching post at George Watson’s. Ben led his band, the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, to a World title in Grade 3b. A fine way to sign off.


Lastly, the Worlds 2023 are to be a week later. That’s a good thing. The championship season is ending too early. Remember the Europeans at Shotts in September? No, I am not recommending a return to the dismal Lanarkshire moorland when snow was not underhead of, but the end of August at Cowal would be a good fit. Anyone else wish Dunoon was back on the calendar?


8 thoughts on “Editor’s Notebook: The Worlds, The Worlds, The Worlds

  1. I did take part in pipe bands for about 15 years of my life and in truth the bands were not very good in regards to the competing side of things. The bands took more part in street parades and some of the playing was maybe OK for that and sometimes maybe not. The events were more of a spectacle for interested audiences than them looking for cutting edge performances. I have a recall of my first time in a pipe band and the band having to form a circle. It was termed at the time by the Drum Major who was James Watson an ex-military man, as forming a regimental circle. This was a TA outfit. I didn’t have any idea what a regimental circle was. I got lost in the process and there is a story behind that for some other time. However, I have since leaving the band interest behind me, I have occasionally, but actually rarely, attended pipe band competitions and have armed myself with a camera to take snaps, hoping to capture memorable photographs of acquaintances in the bands, but for the most part end up with views of their backs or a glimpse of recognisable participants. In the hope of catching a decent snap, I would try and position myself to catch the bands as they were leaving the arena as that was the best way of getting snaps capturing recognisable people in the bands, but mostly in the front rank. From a spectacle point of view pipe bands forming an inward looking circle is not attractive. When in the bands that I played in which I admit would have been described as poor, it has to be admitted that pipers got comfort from this formation as they could view their colleagues’ fingering etc lest they went seriously off the tunes played. I was one of those who got some such comfort. The most of those guys in Grade 1 bands are very good players and the pipe majors, such as Mr Parkes ensures with demanding teaching that the troops know their pieces, checking on each piper to see that they do, thus those players don’t need the comfort of forming a ‘regimental circle’. I recall playing at an indoor competition getting a rather blunt rebuke from one of the organisers for wandering about the stage and turning my back on the audience, which of course included the judges. It was the judges I was turning my back on, but the audience which was sizeable got the same view as the judges on the bench. The man who rebuked me, an ex-commander of the Navy, asked me if I ever heard of stage craft? I would still probably turn my back on “judges” for many reasons—but we and pipe bands should think of paying audiences out of respect.

  2. While I like the idea of a semi-circle formation (i.e., “concert formation”), one issue I’ve had has been, by a number of bands, is the placement of the drum corps behind the pipes. Perhaps that’s a function of the ridiculous size some bands (mostly Gr1); but drums as part of the semi-circle (e.g., in the center, with pipes on both sides) would provide a better balance.

  3. If bands moved from a circle formation to concert formation, could that then take away the requirement for the old 3 pace rolls to the Performance? Does the performance then move from a straightforward MSR and medley to more of a concert performance? Also, for bands with 8 or 10 pipers setting up in semi circle would look far less impressive than bands with, say, 20 pipers and a lot less sound projection.
    Cowal back on the calendar? The atmosphere of cowal of the 70’s and 80’s is far removed from the atmosphere of the 90’s and early 00’s, the restrictions on bands has ensured that has all changed. From pubs charging “locals prices” and “cowal prices” so they were effectively ripping off the bandsmen and women who chose to frequent them rather than paying the inflated prices at the beer tent to the inability for bands to feed themselves ( I had discussions with councillors and cowal committee in the 90’s on this subject) so bands that are there from the early hours have to pay the costs of a burger van (£4.20 at the worlds for a portion of chips) rather than being allowed to fire up a barbie at a designated area or take camping stoves etc.
    In short, unless there is a major change in attitude to bands, I can’t see cowal back on the calendar in the near future.
    These comments/thoughts are only mine and are not in any way attributable to my current band.

    1. I am talking about Grade 1 Fergus. Lower grade bands enjoy the comfort and security of the circle so we should leave them be.

      1. L&B branch had proposed that G4 bands set up in concert formation and it had been used for lower grade bands at the contests in Princess st gardens pre covid.

  4. Robert, I noted that at the Cowal Games last weekend, there were no grade 1 bands and a single Grade 3 band competing in Grade 2. How the mighty Cowal Pipe Band competitions have fallen. Once the home of the World Championships, it was subsequently the gem in the piping calendar as an RSPBA major Championship. Many pipers and drummers in the 70s and 80s regarded Cowal as the highlight of the season, rather than the Worlds. This was especially true of the many great Irish bands of that time, who prioritised attendance at Cowal to the Worlds. There is a need for a major competition after the Worlds. It is crazy that the band season effectively closes in mid-August. Surely, the RSPBA and the Cowal Organising Committee could get their heads together (after historic disagreements), let bygones be bygones, and organise a return of the Cowal Championships as an RSPBA major contest?

    1. I don’t believe there is a need for a major after the world’s! I would argue that the world’s should be the last major of the season! However I would say that the season is too short and the world’s should be moved to either the end of August or the first weekend in September to help facilitate attendance at smaller contests. (Unfortunatley I’m old enoughth to remember the last major being after Dunoon – Shotts, the first week in September. I’m also of a generation where it was not uncommon for our band to play between 15-20 contests often out on both a Saturday and a Sunday! I wonder how many of today’s 5 major playing band’s members would fancy that schedule)

  5. Cowal back on the calendar? YES please. I was saddened to read the Cowal results for this year. Again hardly any bands competing and the Argyll shield withheld. Surely this is a tragedy for the place where the unofficial Worlds was held for so many years. Can’t the Cowal Committee and the RSPBA get together and create the 6th major in 21st Century surroundings for the bands? It isn’t rocket science; it just requires a bit of creative thinking and willingness from all concerned.

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