Category Archives: Comment

Skye Gathering 2017: Dunvegan Medal Critique

A few free days before the Worlds allowed an escape to the wonderful Isle of Skye and an opportunity to listen to some top class piobaireachd, writes the Editor. Portree was sunny and pleasant when I arrived, though the venue, the Skye Gathering Hall, cool. I missed the first two tunes in the Dunvegan Medal but was fortunate to hear the winning performance by Ian K MacDonald from Toronto. No better tune ever won this award than his Lament for Donald Ban MacCrimmon.

I have heard many a dull plod through this masterpiece by pipers you would think would know better. Not so with Ian K, last year’s double Gold Medallist. Here was someone who fully understood the structure and momentum required to bring out the best in it. The bagpipe was resonant and strong and did not waver in 20 minutes, I kid you not. The only fault I could find was a slight inconsistency in the connecting notes in the T&C singlings. Ian’s first place must have been a very easy decision for the judges to make. He is pictured top on his way to yet more glory.

Runner-up Nick Hudson reflects well in the Gathering Hall mirror

In second we had Nick Hudson now of Texas. Nick’s pipe was high pitched and not exactly locked on low A – but stayed there. His MacLeod of Colbeck was adroitly handled but he dragged the cadences in Variation 1 and lost the song here. Clean technique for a good finish.

Third prize went to Jamie Forrester with a good Battle of Waternish, the ground and first variation well timed and phrased.  Until Ian K came on Jamie had the best pipe of the day – beautiful balance between drones and chanter. I was a little at odds with his over round treatment of Variation 2 (close to what Kilberry shows) and he had a couple of misses on the D taorluath; this may have pegged him back.

Jamie Forrester and twin

Fourth went to German piper Anna Kummerlöw with the King’s Taxes. Anna got to her work in efficient fashion, her timing bringing out the best in this favourite. Unfortunately the pipe was on the weak side of easy when compared with others. Good hands from Anna, and a pipe with more depth may have catapulted her up the rankings. The trick is to stay comfortable but get more volume from the chanter.

Fifth went to P/M Peter MacGregor with A Flame of Wrath for Squinting Patrick. A clipped treatment this, especially in the run down and in the Variation 1 connecting notes, but the pipe was pretty good and there were no misses.

On stage, the Army’s Ben Duncan

Mentions in despatches for Andrew Hall who played the Earl of Ross’s March very well on an indifferent pipe, Alan Clark who had a not so good instrument too but some nice touches in the Groat, Sandy Cameron who may have had one eye on the Worlds and FMM but who also shaped the Earl of Ross well, Ben Duncan who was snappy with MacSwan (low A before the grip in the first phrase especially) the pipe not as good as it has been at the games, Gordon Barclay who played  a very nice MacLeod of Raasay and must have been considered by the judges though there may have been an error in the a mach, and Craig Martin who had a good ground in Donald of Laggan, a sharp F to the chanter and too much emphasis on the first low G of his crunluath.

Skye Piping Convenor Cameron MacFadyen announces the results as Cailean Maclean looks on

Despite several poor instruments this was an enjoyable day’s listening. The great advantage Skye has is that you hear MacCrimmon or MacCrimmon related tunes, all wonderfully melodic and well formed pieces. The competition was efficiently run by the new Skye Gathering Convenor Cameron MacFadyen aided and abetted by his predecessor Cailean Maclean. Judges were: Alan Forbes, Malcolm McRae and Iain Murdo Morrison.

• All the results from Skye here.

Worlds – Grade 2 Review and Thoughts on the Day at Glasgow Green

By MacStig

Some say he wears a glengarry with his pyjamas….others that his kilt was at Culloden….yet more that his dress sense is more Prince, than Charlie. All we know is that he is called MacStig…….

The climax of the 2017 Pipe Band Season arrived last Saturday at Glasgow Green, the home of the World Championships, with cold, overcast conditions, rain at times yet brightening towards evening. But enough of the weather…… drama was unfolding in many grades and our focus was on the home straight for Grade 2.

For the second tier it was sunny and bright for the final with two Scottish bands who’d led all season going head to head. One fell at the last hurdle and the other won by a head. Add to that drama the dark horses arriving from overseas and, as predicted, we had a Grade 2 classic.

Earlier in the day the qualifiers, in far-flung arenas, threw up some surprises and some disappointments no doubt. However the list of 12 marching to Arena 1 for a late afternoon final, playing a drawn March, Strathspey & Reel set, was broadly in line with the expectations of the neutrals. City of Discovery and Grampian Police, on a better day, would have expected to go through, but the strong candidacy of St Thomas (Texas), Pipe Band Club (Oz), City of Dunedin (Florida) and College of Piping (PEI) shuffled the pack.

I dodged back and forth to hear likely contenders in each arena, until the timetable eased with Heat 2 running on. It was good to hear these medley offerings, remembering that these scores would have no bearing beyond this round. In Qualifier 2, St.Thomas Alumni’s piping was way ahead of what I heard at Bridge of Allan (admittedly a howling day) and they scored 1 1 in Piping and ahead of Skye. In Qualifier 1, both Dunedin and College of Piping (Summerside) beat Lomond & Clyde in Piping with 1 2 and 2 1 respectively. So both of the local big guns were behind the dark horses. Interesting times awaited.

Fallers in Q1 included GramPol who will be disappointed, however the other emergency services band from Scottish Fire & Rescue narrowly missed out pitching in what must have been their best piping performance of the season. Balagan sneaked in ahead of a decent outfit from North Stratton. As expected, Manorcunningham and MacKenzie Caledonia also qualified.

In Q2, the casualties included City of Discovery, expected to go through, but finishing at the bottom of the pile. Kilchoman Isle of Islay pulled out the stops and almost made it, narrowly edged out by Bucksburn & District. MacMillan were nearly there too as were City of London. Dumbarton, propelled by what I think was their best run of the season, qualified fifth on EP.

So to the sunny Grade 1 Arena, and a globally broadcast G2 Final. A decent crowd remained after the exodus following Grade 1. The listeners on the road outside the stands were four or five deep. When the announcement was made on Wednesday that the G2 final would be in Arena 1 there was disappointment that virtually all seats had been sold already, and as those people generally only wanted to watch G1, there would be empty seats – paid for but empty for G2 nonetheless whilst many stood outside looking on. More about seating later.

So on to the final. Would the dark horses mix it with the two favourites, Lomond & Clyde and Glasgow Skye? Could MacKenzie Caledonia repeat the quality of playing in the Medley heard at Bridge of Allan, albeit this was the MSR? More questions than answers, but the answers lay ahead. Adjudicators for the final were Messrs Kerr, MacShannon, Innes and Ronaldson.

Manorcunningham at the line

Manorcunningham rolled down the alley at just before 3.35pm and got off well, having drawn Set 2, Lord Alexander Kennedy, Ewe Wi’ the Crookit Horn and Lt. Col. DJS Murray. They might have run out of steam in the reel and the ending wasn’t as tight as I’ve heard from this tidy band. Drumming was crisp and bright They were placed sixth, (scoring 6 8 5 5) on the list, and should be well pleased with their season. From this listener, thank you ManorC.

Next up MacKenzie Caledonia drawing Set 1 and off into Highland Wedding; good strathspey in Susan MacLeod and finishing with the Brown Haired Maid. Once again a very strong Ensemble, scoring 3. Mixed in Piping scores but overall 5th with a report card reading 8 4 8 3 and not far away from fourth place. Interestingly, third placed of the domestic bands, to add to three more thirds and one fourth in the Majors this year. There’s consistency for you. Thank you MacCals.

Dark Horse 1, in the form of Pipe Band Club, Australia (PBC), stepped up next, fresh from success at Bridge of Allan where they caught my eye and ear. North Berwick the day before had been less successful for them but they picked up momentum as the week progressed. The form of the earlier round didn’t show up though and they looked tired launching into Set 2. They were rather slow into John Morrison of Assynt House, and maybe had less confidence on show than I had previously witnessed. An eighth finish belied their earlier form but the score card of 9 and 10 in Piping could not be bailed out by a 2 in drumming. (9 10 2 8). Haste ye back PBC.

Lomond & Clyde, the 2017 Grade 2 Champions of Champions pictured at the Worlds

Pipe Major David Wilton and his Lomond & Clyde band had delivered a great season to date: three of four Majors and poised high on the Champion of Champions table. My antennae were twitching with the Qualifier performance of  the Medley, and post event seeing the third place and two 5s for Piping. In the final though, they drew the same MSR set they have drawn all season – including the lovely reel Arnish Light (played by Shotts in their concert kart week too). L&C’s final didn’t start well, and you can only feel for the piper having the challenge of failing to ‘get away’ . That was probably enough to push them down the score sheet and leave the door open for others. They scored 5 5 1 4. At the conclusion, first in drumming, second place overall, and L&C picked up the G2 Band Champion of Champions. I’m sure the latter would readily be swapped for the Worlds title that slipped through their fingers. Promoted to Grade 1? Surely. I’ll miss this very musical crew next year so thank you L&C. In their words: #montheclyde

Next up the Vikings of Balagan, sneaking into the final and well deserved after their season. Next year we can look forward to them attending all five Majors and that might assist recruitment. Ninth overall and off the pace for their usually strong drum corps. 7 7 9 7. ‘Mange tak’ Balagan.

The sunshine greeting the arrival of Iain Donaldson’s City of Dunedin, wasn’t quite Floridian, but no doubt welcome to a band used to it hot, hot, hot. I happened to be in proximity of a vocal group of super excited supporters, resplendent in their Dunedin T-shirts. The band gave us solid piping and in those ranks, alongside the former 78th and Shotts man Donaldson, were a few known faces and experienced hands. If you get a chance, playback and listen to the reel. They finished fourth, scoring 2 1 7 9. With a steady supply of younger players arriving from the Dunedin School programme and those existing experienced players, this is a band going places. Thank you for making the trip Dunedin, you were a pleasure to listen to.

Watch all video clips from the G2 Worlds Final here courtesy the BBC

Their nearest geographical rivals (by a thousand miles), St Thomas Alumni, qualified strongly with a 1 1 in Piping. They set off at a cracking ‘we mean business’ tempo and this was maintained into the strathspey. Clear contenders in my book. They took third ahead of Dunedin with a more even score across the piece (3 5 4 4). Drumming ably led by Donald Trump (Graham Brown – see my Shotts concert report) and brother Blair on hand.  This band competes rarely and we hope to see them again next year. A steady stream of players from the St Thomas Episcopal school programme should keep the conveyor primed.

Maybe a surprise qualifier were Bucksburn & District, but they are always a nice band to listen to. Making the final was possibly their prize and I happened to be loitering at the needle when the qualifiers were announced. Just observing the joy and excitement was great fun. Into Arena 1 and they seemed tense to start (a big arena and probably the biggest crowd they have played for), but they gave a good performance including a most enjoyable rendition of Donald MacLeod’s Cockerel in the Creel. They finished towards the bottom of the order, but they had their run in the sun – literally. Well done Bucksburn and enjoy the time off before looking forward to 2018.

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The College of Piping, Summerside, pleasantly surprised me in the Qualifier. I had heard them the previous weekend and was thinking that making the final would be a tough ask. Here their MSR was less assured and I simply think they were running on vapour as the set progressed. 10 9 6 10 – finishing 10th. A good trip no doubt, and congratulations to their 4B 2017 World Champion colleagues.

So to Closkelt, a small but well-formed unit I have enjoyed listening to whenever they have played this season, proving this is not just about mega bands and being too big for the circle. They scored 5 6 10 6 and seventh overall, hitting the bar and missing out on silverware. See you next year. Thank you all.

Glasgow Skye Association (pictured top celebrating their Worlds title) qualified first from their heat and were sitting atop the Drumming Champion of Champion table with this one to go – and already with one Major under the belt. They may not have known that the door to this Championship was left ajar by L&C, but they stepped right through it. Super playing and sound and, after they finished, G2 World Champions in my mind. They delivered on the day. In the kind of juxtaposing that pipe band scoring throws up, they took third in drumming (yet winning the CofC) but 1 and 2 in Piping, where they have chased such scores most of the year. They sealed it with a 1st in Ensemble (1231). Glasgow Skye, World Champions, a worthy season, and surely promotion candidates with their running mates at L&C. Thank you Skye, well deserved.

Dumbarton & District returned to the competition arena this year and made it to the Grade 2 Final after getting through the Qualifier.  They held up the finalists table rankings but they were there. They also have a youth programme and are on a journey. These journeys can often go far with the right people leading and supporting. Just look at the ‘Ascension’ of Inveraray & District as a shining example of hard work and persistence. Shed loads of talent too of course. Welcome back Dumbarton and thank you for getting out there and making it happen.

That closed the Grade, the Championship, the Season and this specific G2 column. Skye demonstrated that success was about diligently sticking to a style and playing for it on the day. Form books don’t count at the Green. Sadly for them L&C, an excellent outfit, hit the same outcome as PSNI in 2016. Both of these bands (Skye and L&C) demonstrated that no one, domestic or overseas, could touch them this season. Both are clearly ahead of the pack and surely prime promotion candidates to that polarising Grade 1 where two tiers are emerging in a natural way, rather than by design. Grade 2 will be poorer for losing them but the resilience is there to create a good contest in 2018. The likes of MacKenzie Caledonia, Manor C, Balagan, Closkelt and the other finalists will see to that as will the likes of City of Discovery, the fast improving City of London, GramPol, Fire & Rescue and Islay not to mention those heading up from 3A.

It has been a great ‘Majors’ season, from that howling day in Paisley and the proximity of the arena to motorway and airport runway. A curtailed entry at scenic Belfast and similarly in Forres. Then another atrocious day, this time in Dumbarton and, finally, a sunny end to the season as the Grade 2 Final was beamed live globally – very special for those watching in to support Dunedin, St Thomas, PBC, Balagan, and the CoP PEI. Five of twelve finalists from overseas, two in the top five.

There were some issues with Arena 1 ticketing. The getting in and out was not ideal, as both single entrance and exit were at the same fixed point. ‘Umbrellagate’ has been written about elsewhere, and I reluctantly had to leave my vuvuzela, barbecue and fluorescent coat in the car. So called ‘Loo Alley’, on the south side and not to be confused with ‘Sphincter Alley’, was foul and the contractor should be cleaning the ‘facilities’  between Friday and Saturday and throughout Saturday. Maybe they were and we are just a mucky lot.

Comedy – Like many of you with a sense of humour, I was heartily entertained by @fakebobworral on Twitter throughout Friday evening and Saturday. If you haven’t ‘followed’ you should go and look. It’s brutally funny and reminded me that this is all supposed to be fun. The only opinions that matter belong to the adjudicators who have the toughest job, and they publish their opinions in the simplest of terms by using numbers. They are scrutinised, everyone is a judge and they are always in the invidious position of disappointing many and pleasing a few.

We should all express a warm thank you to the lady and gentlemen who judged G2 this season in capes and shirt sleeves (but mostly capes). Also to those stalwart stewards who set up, run the timetable, time medleys, draw the sets, and tear down the tents. The compilers, the tech team behind the excellent Twitter stream and video coverage. Grade 2 has been well served this year with the Arena 1 venue the icing on the cake. So endeth 2017, Grade 2.  World Champions – The Glasgow Skye Association; Champion of Champions – Lomond & Clyde.  Over and out.

• Read the PP Grade 1 review here and a huge thanks to our correspondent MacStig for his fine coverage of this very competitive and entertaining grade throughout the season. Please message him below with any comments.

Changes at the College and the Funding of Piping

Just when things seemed to be settling down at the College of Piping we hear of another departure, that of General Manager Fraser MacInnes, writes the Editor. My information is that the parting was not as harmonious as it might have been.

There must have been personality issues here for, according to the Office of Scottish Charities Register (OSCR), the College’s profit last year was £21,000. The old place seemed to be doing alright under Mr MacInnes’s guidance, however business will now be conducted jointly by Piping Times Editor Stuart Letford and Piping Director Colin MacLellan with the firm hand of Chairman Colin MacNeill conducting traffic from Edinburgh.

Unconfirmed rumours are that the College’s magazine, the Piping Times, has seen a fall in circulation to under 600 per month. This would give it a readership of 2,400 max. but the decline is not surprising and is in line with what is happening in many other areas of print journalism. (The Scotsman newspaper only sells 19,000 copies a day from a heyday high of more than four times that only a few years ago). The only way to counteract the online onslaught is with excellence in content and quality writing. You have to make the product unique and worth buying. We can contrast the PT readership with that of Piping Press (and I’m sure other online piping magazines) where the monthly viewing figures are a minimum of TEN times the PT total. Not hubris; fact. But people like a paper read. If a magazine is good enough it will sell (Economist, Private Eye, Spectator), so there is hope for the PT.

The other way it could hit back would be by becoming a free offering; print thousands, flood the market. That way you boost circulation and keep the advertisers happy. The downside is that there is no income from the cover price and, given the international nature of the piping and pipe band worlds, there are hefty mailing charges to consider. PT cover price income is already pretty low and when added to advertising revenue will, from my calculations, hardly be covering the current editor’s salary never mind paying for the print run.

The College’s overall wages bill must be pretty high too. My unconfirmed information is that the Director of Piping is being paid £10,000 a year for one day a week, though it has to be said that when I was there I found my responsibilities were 24/7 so it would be wrong to assess his salary on a strict time basis.

I hope the new arrangement works for the College and it is about time those great supporters of piping, the William Grant Foundation (WGF), offered them some funding. Here we have an institution (the College) dedicated to teaching piping at grass-roots level, not only at home but abroad, with an unparalelled record in offering lessons for free to disadvantaged youngsters. Yet the Foundation continues to ignore it just as its predecessors at Glenfiddich did. This was a recurring annoyance for me during my 15 years at Otago Street, why should the National Piping Centre (NPC) get all the cash? the repeated refrain.

According to OSCR the National Piping Centre showed a surplus of circa. £12,000 in 2016. Income streams included £250,000 from the Scottish Government’s agency Creative Scotland (£100,000 for the National Youth Pipe Band of Scotland) and £150,000 from Glenfiddich.

Recently there was a hush-hush meeting convened to discuss the Foundation’s future funding of piping with emphasis on solo competitions. I presume the College was invited to this pow-wow, or at least sent a copy of the detailed discussion document prepared by NPC Director of Piping Roderick MacLeod.


A Look Back at the Worlds and in Particular the Playing in Grade 1

By Robert Wallace

Firstly, congratulations to all the bands who made the prizes last Saturday and commiserations to those who didn’t. The latter can console themselves with the fact that they made their contribution to what was a spectacular occasion carried off with some elan by the Royal Scottish Pipe Band Association and its army of dedicated officials and adjudicators.

This is the biggest participative musical event in the country with 8,000 bandsmen and women and it all went as smoothly as could be hoped for. The weather was kind too, things  warming up nicely in the afternoon and giving the photographers some sunshine to play with.

The Worlds is also a social occasion and I would like to thank all of those from all over the world who were kind enough to offer their gratitude and compliments to Piping Press for the quality piping and pipe band journalism we supply free of charge.

So that’s the good guy stuff out of the way……….

I am sure there were many like me who felt for the eight Grade 1 bands who were excluded from the Saturday after failing to qualify on the Friday, the overseas bands in particular. Something must now be done to accommodate them on the main day. Personally I would favour a ‘best of the rest contest’, a Grade 1b, using retired judges. There must be a suitable patch of grass on Glasgow Green for an extra ring. Piping Press will help organise a trophy if needs be. We cannot have bands travelling thousands of miles to Glasgow and not have them involved on the Saturday. Auckland & District, a good band, travelled 12,000 miles from New Zealand, spent thousands of dollars and yet come 4.30pm on Friday Aug 11th it was all over for them.

To the Grade 1 arena now. With this March, Strathspey and Reel contest I believe we hit a new low in the discipline. The standard was poor with only the prizewinners producing anything like the music we should be entitled to expect at the Worlds. The half empty stands told their own story. The public can’t be bothered with the MSR. There are too many runs of the same tunes and too many bands are playing safe.

Though sold out, the half-empty stands for the MSR told their own story

The MSR is the most stringent test of playing yet I believe it has now become a rather dull hors d’oeuvre to the medley main course. Talking to SFU’s lead drummer Reid Maxwell, he suggested bands be required to submit one four-parted and one six-parted set. Reid’s logic is sound. There are very few six-parted MSRs but stacks of four-parters. Instantly we would have more variety.

Bands today have super sound, massive corps. Give that to the bands of the 60s, 70s and 80s and they would show how it should be done. Urgent action is needed. Let’s have MSR Preference in the event of any tie. That might sharpen things up a bit and give us something better to listen to. Now the weather didn’t help. It was cold and damp and some bands got the worst of the rain. But that shouldn’t be put forward as an excuse for the underlying musical malaise that stalks the MSR arena.

Like the two piping judges I had Field Marshal in pole position with Inveraray close by. Shotts were first on with a high pitch but strong drones. Well fingered but sluggish playing. Inveraray had a much better sound but again were on the cautious side of safe. I wrote in my book ‘can be beat’.

Glasgow Police did well to make the final

I was delighted Glasgow Police made the final but on the day had a weak sound, pipes just not good enough. Fife Police were the poorest I’ve heard them all season. They came alive a little in the strathspey with very good bottom hand work. The reel was slow with drums and pipes fighting each other.

Dowco had the brightest tempo to their march so far but sacrificed precision in technique. Good on them for playing closer to the edge than many. They need to smooth out the runs in Caledonian Society of London. Playing ragged by the end; ditto the tone.

PSNI had good lift in Balmoral Highlanders (joy o’ joys!) but thereafter things became a struggle, cohesion lacking. High A suspect? SLoT gave us the first correct tempo for the march (Balmoral Highlanders) but I wasn’t sure about their sound. In the stands you can get all sorts of noises bleeding in from other arenas. Overall a good attempt. The Vale next and nice drones and a good tempo at the start; fingering suspect in strathspey and overdone broken time from bass failing to provide required pulse.

Good breaks from Boghall but the strathspey lacked lift and the tone  was thin. Superb bottom hand work from Field Marshal in their strathspey. Lovely drones and fingering throughout. Could have been on edge more however. SFU were another of the few bands who set a correct tempo for the march. I thought bass and tenor a bit overpowering at times. Tone suffered when they got the worst of the weather but I wrote in my book ‘this band is back’.

Scottish Power had a fine sound and precise execution but should have gone for it more. They could have won it had they done so.

In summary, a poor contest not helped by the weather. My final notebook entry? ‘The art of MSR playing is dead.’