Category Archives: Features

Judging Dilemma – When is it Time to Call it a Day?

By Robert Wallace

At what age should a judge retire? In the pipe band world this is set at 75. After that, irrespective of your health, it is time to hang up the clipboard. No more standing in the rain listening to 30 Grade 4b performances and other such delights these dedicated professionals have to endure on the bands’ behalf.

No, it’s straight into the armchair with a bag of peppermints and re-runs of YouTube videos of the Worlds I’m afraid and thanks for the memory. Is this right? Two adjudicators that I know of have had to call it quits this year and they are very fit individuals, brains and hearing as sharp as ever. Should not retirement be predicated on fitness for the job?

The problem with that is when you get someone who clearly can’t hack it round the circle any more – but thinks he can. A major championship is a long day, with perhaps juvenile grades in the morning and then a senior grade later and all of it spent on your feet in all sorts of weathers.

A tap on the shoulder and a word in the shell-like from the adjudicator management board produces the opposite effect than that desired. Instead of resignedly accepting the inevitable, the judge concerned contacts his lawyer and his doctor – not necessarily in that order.

‘Who do they think they are telling me I’m not up to it,’ is the likely opening line. Suddenly the RSPBA has a major problem on its hands; a judge whose faculties are failing but whose stubborn self-belief and consequent high dudgeon clouds the creaking reality that is as plain as pie to everyone else.

We could also have the scenario whereby an individual loses it aged only 70 but is allowed to continue on a rocky path of inconsistency for another five years. Presumably the management board would spot this and could at least steer him away from the majors.

Judges at Braemar: Norman Meldrum (centre) with Angus MacPherson, Invershin, to his left

That aside, I can see the need for a simple cut off point but that doesn’t help the fit men who clearly are still on the ball physically and mentally at 75+. Isn’t there some way of accommodating all that knowledge and experience; a dispensation of a couple of years whereby they are allowed to continue adjudicating until the panel thinks they should call it a day with no appeal or legal recourse when that happens? Remember, today’s 75 is the new 65. We’re living longer; just ask the pensions people.

In the solo scene, in Scotland at least, you can go on adjudicating forever. Unless you actually repeatedly fall asleep on the bench or keel over half way through the Gold Medal it seems the judge’s pencil is yours for as long as you want it. Is this wise? After all, judging a solo contest can be a much more drawn out affair than any single band contest – in Gold and Silver Medals maybe 12 hours of near continuous concentration.

The three-man bench is always a safeguard I suppose but I wonder if it is time for a review. I am told the late James Campbell, Kilberry, refused to judge after the age of 75, this even though he had the sharpest mind ever to grace a piping contest – right to the end of his days too. I suppose my point about the health of the individual is the crucial one and in the solo world promoters will soon know when to stop the invites to anyone who is obviously failing. Word travels fast.

Judging, bands or solo, can be an exhausting business but it is an opportunity for those whose playing days are over to put something back into a game they have derived a lifetime of pleasure from. Being invited on to a bench can, in return, bestow prestige and honour on those chosen to preside over Grade 1 at the Worlds or maybe the ‘big’ MSR at Oban or Gold Medal at Inverness.

RSPBA judges age 75 must hand in the clipboard

It does not come without risk. Listen to the chat in any band hall or beer tent and you will see that a thick skin is required. And it is not pleasant when a top piper such as Roderick MacLeod of the National Piping Centre refuses to play for you as happened to me at the Uist & Barra earlier this year. As I said at the time he clearly thought me either incompetent or corrupt or a combination of both and was happy for the public to know it.

Yet if there are no judges there can be no competitions. Promoters and organisers can and do show concern for the welfare of their adjudicators and that includes making sure facilities are up to scratch and a long day is made as comfortable as possible.

In addition that duty of care should extend to providing an opportunity for judges to continue to contribute to the music as long as they are physically and mentally able to do so – but also to point the way to the fireside for those whose time is up.

Northern Winter School in Germany Comes to a Successful Conclusion

So that is the third annual Northern Winter School over and we are now travelling home, writes the Editor. I think it would be fair to say it has been a success and Principal Ronnie Bromhead has already booked his premises for the next few years ahead. The picture above shows students and instructors.

Many of the students have expressed a wish to have a weekend refresher course a few months hence and that is something Ronnie says he will consider seriously.

The school is on the north German plain and only a few miles from the Bergen-Belsen camp memorial which unfortunately we had no time to see this time round.

The handsome attendance certificate presented to each student

We had a couple of successful students sitting PDQB exams and next year the NWS will be introducing its own series of small exam certificates.

There were a lot of views of instructor Brian Lamont’s playing at the ceilidh the other night (along with the other instructors) so this time we have Brian on his own playing his signature 2/4 march Bonnie Ann:Brian Lamont from Robert Wallace on Vimeo.

Barry lectures on setting up chanters

It was great to see Barry [Donaldson] back in action teaching once more in Germany. He was, as ever, an immediate hit with his students many of whom had been taught by him at various schools over the past ten years. His contribution to piping education in Germany is significant. Of that there is no doubt

Barry adjusts tape

Another instructor colleague was Craig Munro. Craig is a busy man. He heads to Chile on Tuesday for the South American Pipe Band Championships in Santiago, Chile. Amazing, isn’t it? Pipe bands are everywhere these days. Drumming judge is the well-known tenor maestro Tyler Fry.

Craig’s stories about the incredible success of the Red Hot Chilli Pipers left us all very impressed. He is a regular performer with them though due to business and family commitments he no longer takes part in the big eight-week long international tours (who can blame him). The band must have introduced thousands of people to the bagpipe even if you think their music is too pop scene. They sell out major concert halls wherever they go and have a fully professional team of management and light and sound engineers to back them up. The only time the ‘After the Worlds’ concert has been sold out is when the Chillis have taken the stage at the Fruitmarket in 2011 and the Glasgow ABC in 2016.

Before going I want to mention instructor Jim Semple, a six time Worlds winner with Strathclyde Police and now a respected adjudicator for the RSPBA. Jim was great company on the outward and inward journeys and such was the gratitude of his class that they presented him with a lovely glass covered group photograph. Thanks for making the travel arrangements Jim.

Anyway, that’s it from Germany and thanks to the students and teaching comrades for making it such an enjoyable week.

History: Pipers, Piping and Pipe Music in the Seaforth Highlanders 1778 -1924

Today we begin abridged excerpts from the above book by Ian Hamilton Mackay Scobie. The book was published in 1924 and is now out of print. It contains interesting details on the origins of titles such as ‘Pipe Major’ and the author also comments on drums drowning out pipes, questions whether playing in a band helps the piper’s playing and gives a date for the formation of the first pipe bands. Above is a picture of Seaforth militia pipers in 1880 under P/M Ronald MacKenzie…. 

‘My Loss, My Loss, without Three Hands
Two for the Pipe and One for the Sword’
– Clan MacDougall’s Incitement to Battle (about 1299)

Pipe music has always been fostered and kept up in the 1st Battalion Seaforth Highlanders and the regiment has produced many excellent pipers during its existence. On the raising of the regiment in 1778, each company, and there were ten companies in those days, had its own piper provided and maintained by the captain. In time however, a Pipe Fund was raised and contributed to annually by the officers.

The Earl of Seaforth’s piper was the ‘head piper’ or Piper Major as that position was then called, afterwards changed to Pipe Major and later on officially to Sergeant Piper [in 1822].

In 1920 Sir Bruce Seton wrote in his ‘Pipes of War’: ‘Throughout the Army there is, and always has been, a strong objection to the title of Sergeant Piper which in official parlance is employed instead of Pipe Major. No one ever calls a Pipe Major a Sergeant Piper…and the withdrawal of this modern and indefensible title could result in nothing but good. As there is no financial aspect involved in the change, it would be a graceful and inexpensive concession to a body of men to whom the Army and the nation owe much.’

Pipers, as we shall see later, were not officially recognised in the Army until the year 1854, but they were always kept up and played an important part in the life of all Highland corps, being held in the greatest esteem by officers and men.

The bagpipe has been employed in Scotland and more especially in the Highlands ‘for the purposes of war, to heighten mirth and lighten labour, for marriages, to dance to, as well as to bewail the loss of the brave and the honourable and that, perhaps, from remote antiquity.’ In old times the clan pipers were men of high musical attainments. The courses of training which they underwent, lasting most cases over several years at such piping schools as those of the MacCrimmons and MacArthurs, turned out finished performers.

A good piper was not easily made and this was fully recognised, for, as the old Gaelic word has it, ‘to the make of a piper go seven years of his own learning, and seven generations before’. After the drastic changes which took place in the Highlands following upon the rising of 1745, the bagpipe fell upon evil days, and, indeed, might even have become extinct but for its continued use in the Highland regiments raised soon after that date.

After a period of depression lasting from about 1747 to 1781, during which time much of the old music was lost, the bagpipe gradually came into its own again and, at the present day is more of a national instrument than ever, while its cult has spread over the world wherever Scotsmen are to be found. In the late world war [WW1] the pipes played an even greater part than they had in past campaigns.

Up to 1854 the position of Pipe Major was a purely honorary one, the holder of it being a Sergeant or a Lance Sergeant, the other pipers being under him for the purposes of music only, while for discipline they were under the Drum Major. The post was paid out of regimental funds, while in order to get the pipers extra pay they were sometimes appointed drummers. The Pipe Major always belonged to the Colonel’s company….

The duties of the day, as is still the case, were marked by the sound of the pipes from ‘sunrise’ to ‘tap-to’. At mess, a piper played to the officers before and during dinner, the regiment assembled to the strains of the pipe, and a piper accompanied all fatigue and market parties to and from the barracks.

The pipes were always used in the Highlands as an aid to labour. When engaged in works of strength and joint tasks such as launching a large boat and the like, the Highlanders commonly employed a piper to regulate the time. Similarly, when thickening the new-proven plaiding or working at the harvest, they did so to the sound of the pipe. In the harvest field the piper generally kept behind the slowest worker. When the inhabitants of Skye were occupied in making roads in the year 1786 each party had a piper.

The drums and fifes and pipes played separately. When fifes were eventually abolished [in Highland regiments], the drum came to be used as an accompaniment to the pipe. Hitherto the pipers had usually played individually when in barracks or in camp. When on the march they had taken post at the head or on the flanks of their company. Only on special occasions did they play together in concert. With the introduction of the drum however the pipe band as we now know it, came into being.

Whether this was to the betterment of the individual piper as a player or not is open to question. To march to, pipes and drums cannot be excelled, the tendency however, being often to drown the pipe with too much drum.

To be continued.

A Tale of Stolen Bagpipes – Don’t Leave them in the Car!

By Chris Terry, South Africa

After reading of Niall Stewart’s stolen pipes a couple of weeks ago, a weird sort of déjà vu!

Over the years, I know of five sets I have made that have been stolen. The set Nicholas Taitz plays here in South Africa were actually stolen out of our house. Nick had given them to me to remount with engraved mounts and they were standing inside our front door in a very smart wooden box ready for me to get started on. We had a break-in during the night. Amongst other things, they took the pipes but fortunately had looked inside the box whilst still in the garden and seeing they were bagpipes had just dumped them there.

Another set I made for David Fick, a pupil of mine, and a very good player. David left school at the end of last year and during our National Arts Festival in early July went busking. Afterwards he went to visit a friend and left his pipes (an engraved set of my manufacture) on the back seat of his locked car. In South Africa it is very foolish to leave anything in the car.

They vanished. Needless to say he was distraught. He and friends and family combed the area, without success. Then about two months later someone spotted a man walking down the street carrying a set of pipes. Knowing the story, he investigated, and David was eventually reunited with his instrument.

Niall happily re-united with his pipes

Recently I finished refurbishing David’s pipes. They must have been lying in bushes for the intervening two months during which time we had had some quite heavy rain here. I think my wife and I were overseas when they were recovered.

David let the pipes dry out (he couldn’t get the joints apart at first), and then brought them to me for refurbishment. He lost two plastic chanters, and the expensive soft case that they were in. The chanters are probably still out there. (Just goes to show, it’s safest to keep your pipes in a really tatty box!)

Below is a picture of one tenor showing what they looked like, and [top] a photo of the redone instrument. (Not the greatest pics!) I thought the varnish had largely flaked off, but what you will see in the picture are grey patches (which I thought were bare wood), but are in fact just badly discoloured varnish from the prolonged soaking in water.

All the combing was discoloured, while the beads were more or less unmarked – presumably water ran off the beads while it lodged in the combing. In fact the varnish was all more or less intact – there were very few places where it had come off at all.

The damaged drone top before refurb

Best of all, despite the soaking they must have had, (and from the marking of the wood, one side obviously lay in dampness while the top side dried out) – all the pieces were still absolutely straight. I had really feared for the worst with warping under those conditions. It shows the value of the slow process I follow, turning the parts down and leaving them oversize, waiting a couple of months and doing this again, before finally doing the finish turning. Any slight warping, as stresses in the wood are relieved, has happened by then.

The night I finished the set I went to bed happy. The next morning I read about Niall’s pipes and the following day that they had been recovered, though very wet. I must say when I first read about them being missing I feared the worst. My first thoughts were that they were likely to have been stolen because in Scotland the thief knew what he was taking and its potential value. It followed from that that they were unlikely to be recovered. (How glad I was to be proved wrong.) In SA you know that the thief really won’t appreciate what he has taken so once he discovers what he has it will most likely be chucked into bushes or burnt.

I can only imagine Niall’s relief at his pipe being recovered. We pipers do get very attached to our instruments.

PP Ed’s Blog: Glenfiddich/ Strachur/ Bobby MacLeod/ Scots Guards KO

‘Charlie’ posted a comment on the Glenfiddich results report asking if I will be doing a critique on this year’s performances. The answer is no Charlie. They don’t invite me I’m afraid. The last time I was there, in 2014, I had to ask for a press pass. People might not realise it but behind all the smiles and bonhomie on display …..

My report that year mentioned that the audience seating was sore on the backside and that it was time they had tuning lights, and on another occasion I reported that it was time they stopped allowing the competitors to submit the same ‘pot boiler’ tunes year after year. None of that went down too well. You would have thought that after forty odd years they would be mature enough to accept fair comment.

2017 Glenfiddich Champion Jack Lee

Anyway, my situation is unimportant and I would like join with all our readers in offering congratulations to Jack Lee on his success.  Some good news too for the Canadian west coast still in grief after the tragic loss of Andrew Bonar. After winning the Former Winners’ MSR at Oban Jack hinted that he might only be competing for one more year ‘to see how that goes’. Clearly there’s a lot of good playing left in the man so let’s hope he keeps at it for a few years more and I should imagine he’ll be back to defend his G’fidd title next year.

Congratulations are also in order for Sandy Jones on winning the Balvenie Medal for Services to Piping. Sandy has done an inordinate amount of work spreading the piping word throughout North America with his academy of piping and drumming. Forty-five years and still going strong.

Talking of the Balvenie Medal, I was up in Strachur at the weekend for a benefit gig for the village’s Old Smiddy Museum. Members of the audience spoke of the good work being done by Balvenie recipient and piping instructor Kate Paton. One of her pupils, young Jamie Campbell, was there for a listen. Jamie is the grandson of Niall Campbell (Mr Niall) the first schools piping instructor in the area who I knew well. Good to see Jamie continuing his family’s piping tradition.

One of the tunes we played during the concert was the 6/8 MacLeod of Mull written by P/M Donald MacLeod for that doyen of accordion players, Bobby MacLeod. By coincidence Bobby’s son, ‘young’ Bobby, was doing the Take the Floor session this weekend on BBC Radio Scotland. Good to hear so many pipe tunes played so well on the box. Bobby regularly keeps us well looked after, musically and otherwise, at the Tobermory après games activities.

Talking of Tobermory, Mull’s school’s piping tutor Calum MacLean was the star man on a recent BBC documentary ‘The County Council’ featuring Argyll & Bute. Calum was filmed getting on and off boats on his way to various schools. These included the one on the island of Iona where he has only one student but who looks forward to her lessons just like all the other kids in his catchment area. I liked Calum’s description of the west coast rain as ‘liquid sunshine’! Calum is pictured below and up top with his kids in the Tobermory Schools Pipe Band as shown on the tv show.

Calum on the telly

P/M Jimmy Banks MBE on yesterday’s Scots Guards KO: ‘The heat on Sunday 29 October saw Ben  Duncan winning through in our KO  against John Dew in front of an audience 60+. What a good day; very good piping; great crowd; both played extremely well; a close result.’

Sixty plus crowd! Well done to all concerned and to Ben and John for putting on such a good show.