The Tunes Bands Had to Play at Cowal’s World Championship in 1932

Clan MacRae, winners of the Worlds at Cowal in 1932

A few weeks ago I said I would take a closer a look at the small book of tunes to be played by bands competing for the World Championship held at Cowal Highland Gathering in 1932, writes the Editor.

The book, published by the Cowal Committee, cost 6d, about 3p today, and has the title ‘Selection of Marches, Strathspeys and Reels to be played by competitors in the World’s Championship Pipe Band Contest at Dunoon 1932’.

Inside we have pictures off the giant Argyll Shield and the ‘Argyll Banner’ which was, I believe, presented to the winning pipe major. Between them is a list of winners from 1906, a list already published on PP and which the RSPBA have pledged to include in this year’s Worlds programme.

The text on the next page reads: ‘Bands competing in the World’s Championship Contest will be required to play any one of the Marches, Strathspeys and Reels that are in this book.

‘The selected….tunes will appear….in the Official Programme. Objects of this departure from the existing method is to induce diligent practice, and to extend the piper’s repertoire, thereby raising the standard of performance at the contest, and also relieving the Pipe Majors from the responsibility of selection.’

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I presume from this that the book must have been issued a year or so before, in 1931. I’m not sure P/Ms would have enjoyed being told what they had to play, but Cowal’s aims regarding repertoire and standards are surely laudable.

The book also has an intimation about a composing competition for a ‘stirring tune’ to be called ‘The Cowal Gathering’. It could be a 2/4 or a 6/8. Entries closed 31st December 1931. The contest was sponsored by the Daily Express newspaper (imagine such a thing today), and the prizes were £20, £10 and £5 with Gold, Silver and Bronze medals to boot.

I am assuming the winner was, appropriately, John MacLellan DCM, Dunoon, whose Cowal Highland Gathering 2/4 is one we don’t hear enough of.

Another may be Inverlochy Castle the first tune in the book, one of GS McLennan’s lesser played works. No dots or tails (scope for different treatment?) and we have the characteristic G gracenote on the birls. I cannot recall ever hearing a band play this tune:

Next comes John MacColl’s classic and ever popular Dugald MacColl’s Farewell to France, written to celebrate his son’s safe return from the WW1 carnage. Scant few dots and tails here either and we have the open style of grip and birls, later discarded under Willie Ross’s standardisation crusade.

Final 2/4 is another classic, the Taking of Beaumont Hamel, now heard regularly on the solo board but not so much in the band arena. I wonder why? It is a fine, rollicking piece with the strong melodic line so characteristic of the composer, John MacLellan, Dunoon. I recommend a visit to Beaumont Hamel in Picardy and that you read the battle story. You will then realise why P/M MacLellan was inspired to produce such a perfect 2/4 march:

There were three, four-part strathspeys the bands had to pick from: Loch Loskin by Roddy Campbell, Edinburgh, Nell o’ the Glen by George Kerr, Cambuslang, and Dorrator Bridge by P/M James Braidwood. I think Mr Kerr must have had a few pals on the selection committee because I’m afraid his tune doesn’t come close to the others. Moreover, the way it is scribed has denuded it of much of its strathspey idiom. You might disagree, but the fact is that 90 years on, the first and third tunes are still popular but Nell o’ has sunk without trace.

Of all the tunes in the book this one has an asterisk pointing to a note which states ‘Gracing left to discretion of bands’. Why this unremarkable piece was so dispensated is not clear

To the reels. The first is the Blackbird, given its Gaelic name An Londubh. The composer is Dr Charles Bannatyne, a controversial figure in piobaireachd circles, but clearly a fine composer of ceòl beag.

This is the sort of reel we should hear from lower grade bands and junior pipers. It allows full expression without great technical difficulty. It is always frustrating to hear young soloists (and some not so young) struggling through Mrs MacPherson and John Morrison when they have tunes such as this before them and with which they could make a better impression.

Our second reel is another by Dr Bannatyne, The Brolum. This falls into the latter category as well. The final tune is Bridge of Bogie by P/M Robert Meldrum, seldom heard and the weakest of the three.

In summary three marches, two strathspeys and two reels the bands at Cowal in 1932 would have enjoyed playing.

From the perspective of the piping judge it would make things very easy. Who handled the technique best and brought out the music whilst maintaining unison? The quality of piper would have been crucial in determining the outcome.

What the audience thought I’m not sure. There were never more than around 20 bands in the premier contest and the repetition would have allowed them to make the same comparative analysis as the judges. Sorry, I forgot; from the stands and terraces at Cowal you can’t hear anything going on in the centre of the field.

The book concludes with what looks like pretty simple drum scores to accompany each tune. I wonder if leading drummers were allowed to alter these to suit their own taste?

The final page has a list of all the Cowal contests of 1932 detailing prizemoney and medals. For the World Championship, won by Clan MacRae, the winner received £20 and a ‘facsimile’ of the Argyll Shield.

3 thoughts on “The Tunes Bands Had to Play at Cowal’s World Championship in 1932

  1. Interesting to hear the comments about the drumming scores. It was about this time that the Fintan Lalor pipe band of Dublin started to regularily travel to Cowal and the impact their drum corps under Paddy Donovan had on pipe band percussion is well known.

  2. A fascinating piece,Robert, for those of us who are interested in times past. Given the history attached to the Cowal Gathering, isn’t it time that the RSPBA and the Gathering Committee had a summit conference to explore the re-instatement of Cowal as a major championship? The season ends too early these days and it’s a bit of a tragedy that such traditions were cast aside for want of a solution being found to challenges with logistics. As my granny used to say, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

    I also wonder about the awards given like the Argyll Banner and the replica Argyll Shields. Like the plaques given out by the News of the World to World Championship winners at one time, where did they all go? Anyone able to report having one?

    Anyway thanks again for a great piece from this history geek!

    1. In my opinion, one of the worst decisions by the RSPBA (in a long list of contenders) was to move the award of Champion of Champions to the same day as the Worlds. This effectively signalled to most bands that middle of August was the end of the pipe band season. Prior to this, there were contests right to the end of September, but sadly these have either been cancelled or have very poor support.

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