Category Archives: Reviews

Review: The 2017 British Pipe Band Championships Grade 1 Performances

By Robert Wallace
One of the first rules of journalism is ‘be there’ and if you want to give a detailed and accurate, albeit subjective, account of an important pipe band contest then that is exactly what you have to do.

No amount of social media chatter, summary sheet perusal or YouTube re-runs is in any way a substitute to actually positioning yourself at a suitable coign of vantage and listening and watching the whole contest from start to finish first hand.

At the British Pipe Band Championships on Saturday it was fairly easy to get close to the action and that is what I did. The Grade 1 contest began at 2.15pm and ended near to 5pm. It was cold to begin with but warmed up as the afternoon wore on. Despite others in the crowd talking throughout some of the performances (how annoying is that?) I was able to get a pretty good impression of the playing.

The grade could be split between those who had the chance of a prize and those who didn’t. Two grades would have been ideal from the 16 bands forward. Grades 1A and 1B anyone? I had InverarayFMM, and SLoT vying for top spot with the first named my preference.

A super fifth place finish for Fife Police’s L/D Mick O’Neil and P/M Douglas Murray
Both British Columbia bands were disappointing and I was surprised Dowco placed above SFU. The cold may have been a factor for both bands but they have been coming to chilly Jockoland for many years and should know what to expect. The three newcomers to the grade, PSNI, Buchan Peterson and Johnstone all acquitted themselves well in their new surroundings. They will get better.

The fare was March, Strathspey and Reel, the discipline which truly exposes the technical and musical ability of a band. It may not be as popular with the crowd as the Medley, but be under no illusion about  where the real test of a band’s prowess lies. The discipline suffers in attraction because of the frequency with which we hear the same tunes, nothing else.

A closer look now at the playing……There was a hushed silence as Inveraray and P/M Stuart Liddell, last on, approached the arena. The air of expectation was almost palpable; we were not disappointed. The first few bars showed we had a solid sound with the breadth in the top hand that every band needs. I was slightly taken aback at the lack of phrasing in places in the Links of Forth but the band really came onto a game with their strathspey The Bob of Fettercairn (who knows what a ‘Bob’ is; a dance?) and the reel, Charlie’s Welcome.

One of the star players in the Inveraray line-up is P/Sgt. Alasdair Henderson
Not the most attractive setting of this tune but handled brilliantly by  P/M Liddell and his pipe corps. And what a corps! With pipers such as Finlay Johnston, Calum Beaumont, Greig Canning and Alasdair Henderson in the ranks he can’t have much teaching to do. I heard later that one piper did not get away – not something obvious from where I was standing. If true, the judges, who can now swap such information, were right to keep it in perspective.

Inveraray were deserved winners though the summaries showed only a one point gap to second placed Field Marshal. Full marks to P/M Parkes for selecting an unusual march in Braes of Badenoch (a march better handled than Inveraray’s ‘Links’) but after that FMM seemed to sink into a slough of despond and there was a distinct lack of panache about the strathspey and reel Blair Drummond and Pretty Marion. Maybe it was the cold. FM were third on when conditions were decidedly inhospitable. They displayed a fine quality of fingering throughout discernible even though bass and tenor work was surprisingly heavy-handed at times.

A number of new judges were on training stints at Paisley, amongst them the former Boghall P/M, Ross Walker
Shotts were placed third. They played beautifully with perfectly judged tempi and quality handwork excepting the tachums in the Smith of Chilliechassie which were very clipped. To my ear the chanters were pitched overly high. This really thinned down the top hand and this seemed to be emphasised by their powerful, rich, drone tone. Maybe the band played too much before going on. Everything else is in place for Shotts. More breadth in the top hand and they may have been challenging for top spot, their playing was that good.

St Laurence O’Toole, fourth, had no such chanter worries and tune presentation was top drawer too. I particularly liked the lift and expression in the Shepherd’s Crook especially the way they controlled the run downs beginning with the F to double E at the end of the parts. Maybe they rushed into the reel but it soon settled down. Did the drones drift towards the end or was that a band playing in the nearby Grade 2 arena that I was hearing? This is the advantage the judges have over the critic in the crowd.

One of the greatest drummers of all time, Jim Kilpatrick, spotted in the crowd at the Grade 1 arena
Fife Police, fifth, were big and bold with their work. Going for the jugular from the off, this band showed they were serious about winning. If they faltered then they were not going die wondering. The fact is that they did not falter and were worthy of their fifth prize, perhaps their highest ever placing in a major championship. The only negative for me was a shrillness in the top hand of the chanters. Again it may have been caused by overblowing before the performance. It will be a problem easily solved for a professional reedmaker like P/M Douglas Murray,

I thought the sixth placed band, Scottish Power, had one of the best sounds of the day and well done to them for playing Roderick Campbell’s Edinburgh City Police Pipe Band as their march. Looking at the programme they have ditched the Royal Scottish Pipers Society for 2017; smart move. I thought them a little nervous in the ECPPB however and the phrasing suffered. Like Inveraray, they settled down in the strathspey and reel, and here their precise fingerwork shone through – but are the extra birls in the last part of Loch Carron really necessary? A fine band who can look forward to the other majors with relish.

Of the others, it surely can’t be long before Boghall, unplaced here, start making the list again. I, and others nearby, were impressed with their playing. I thought I heard an early E and again the chanters were high pitched. The BC bands I have already mentioned. SFU did not have the cutting edge sound we associate with them, though the playing was steady if rather uninspiring. Dowco were equally lacking in spirit and the drones drifted quite badly. PSNI had a rock like tone but the unison got ragged the more their set progressed – serious potential in this band. Ravara and Bleary tried hard, had a good initial sound, but everything seemed to regress thereafter with some sloppy playing (particularly from Bleary) in the reels.

Dowco Triumph Street will have better days
Johnstone started well with a bold tone but some pipers were struggling with the technical difficulties of Brigadier Cheape, Tulloch Castle and John Morrison, Assynt House; P/M Bowes slowed the tempo of the reel to help them but that won’t do in G1. Glasgow Police had good, Grade 1 tempi throughout but again it seemed as though some pipers just couldn’t manage the challenge of the Young MacGregor, never mind Blair Drummond and the Smith of Chilliechassie. Vale of Atholl might like to look at the bass and tenor stuff going on in their strathspey; I found it distracting and not in keeping with the complexities of Dora MacLeod. One piper not away. Solid sound, best for a couple of years.

Overall a good, if not great, standard of play affected early on by snell winds and the exposed situation at St James. Aircraft taking off are a minor aural distraction – but a distraction nevertheless. A move to the nearby King George V Playing Fields in Renfrew, as hinted at by RSPBA Chairman Gordon Hamill, might not be a bad idea.
Well done to all those bands who ventured into new territory with seldom heard tunes.

• Keep checking Piping Press for our report on Grade 2. Check the dates of the remaining majors here. Check all band summary sheets from the British here. Inveraray Pipe Major Stuart Liddell is pictured top with the winners trophy courtesy Peter Hazzard RSPBA.

P/M Robert Mathieson and the History of Shotts & Dykehead Caledonia Pipe Band

The highlight of World’s Week this year will be the concert ‘Rise’ to be given by the 2015 World Champions, Shotts & Dykehead Caledonia Pipe Band (above). To set the scene, and help everyone appreciate the history of this iconic band, we are running an interview from eight years ago when they celebrated their centenary. Editor Robert Wallace is in conversation with the then Shotts P/M Robert Mathieson, now a respected figure in the pipe band judging community….

What it means to win…P/M Mathieson and Shotts seconds after their win was announced in 2003

What does the 100th anniversary of the band actually mean to the band?
Well I think nowadays when any organisation reaches 100 years it is something to celebrate. I think in modern life there’s so often the situation that something is just ‘passing through’ so it is great that the band is still in existence after 100 years. If you think back to the early days of Grade 1 when people used to talk about the ‘big six’, well there’s quite a few of the ‘big six’ no longer here. So for us to  come through and still to be actively competing at the top end of the grade I think is a great achievement in itself.

How is the band managed to sustain this over the years? Has it just been constant competition success. Has that led people to want to join the band?
Yes, I think that is a big contributory factor. One thing we have discovered from the research we have been doing for the anniversary is the number of players that have passed through the band even in the last 30 or 40 years. There is a corps, a nucleus that has been there for a long time, but we’ve never shied away from taking in younger players, overseas people; and that, if they are the right kind of player, keeps the thing fresh. If you are always bringing in fresh blood all the time you’ve a chance of surviving.

P/M Ryan Canning and the current Shotts band

Isn’t it remarkable that a small mining village like Shotts can keep that going. Visitors wouldn’t say it was the bonniest place on earth. In the days of the pits, when men didn’t have much by way of recreation, it was understandable, but nowadays, what drives people to go there twice a week and more for practices?
I wish I could answer that. I don’t really know. There is something magical about playing in Shotts. I remember joining Shotts for the first time from Polkemmet as a young boy. It was like a young footballer going to Old Trafford [Manchester United football club’s ground] just to go up to the Shotts band hall and have a tune with them. I think there is still an element of that nowadays. We get people coming who just want to say they have played in Shotts for a couple of years and then move on, just to say they’ve done it. And long may that continue. We don’t always want to have people like myself who only ever played in two bands. I meet a lot of young people nowadays and they’ve been piping for 10 or 12 years and they’ve been in six bands already. Shotts has been very lucky; we’ve had good members over the years.

When did you take up the reins?
As pipe major I joined the band in 1987 and my first competing season was 1988.

What was the state of affairs then?
Well the band was going through tough times, probably the scariest point in the band’s recent history. We were at the bottom of the grade and down to eight pipers. We were really needing a shake up. I had been playing with Polkemmet at the time having served years in Shotts as a youngster as well. I think the band was on the verge of going to Grade 2 or folding or whatever. I remember when Tom MacAllister approached me about going up to take over the band and I had a think about it and I really felt that I owed the band something because I had learned a lot of band craft up there and I didn’t want to see the band disappear. I’d seen big names disappear like Red Hackle, Muirheads.

I remember listening to them in a tuning park as a youngster and thinking that’s where I want to be; playing at that level. And for them to disappear was very sad and I didn’t want that to happen to Shotts. They actually announced to the Polkemmet band at Cowal that I was going to Shotts. I remember going up for a prize and the band behind us was the RUC and their P/M, Nat Russell, said to me: ‘Is it true what I’ve heard that you’re leaving Polkemmet to go to Shotts?’ I said, ‘yes, it was true’. He said, ‘Why are you doing that?’
Remember Polkemmet was very strong at that point. I remember saying to him that if myself and Jim [Kilpatrick] can’t go back and help Shotts who do we expect to save them? We’d learned so much there.  We decided to do it for that reason because we knew they were going to go down. We thought that we couldn’t complain if we did nothing about it.  

And Jim Kilpatrick was your leading drummer at Polkemmet?

• To be continued. Read more on P/M Robert Mathieson’s success at the Worlds here. Get your tickets for Shotts’ ‘Rise’ concert, to be held in Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, here. Read more about Jim Kilpatrick’s career in the January 2017 Pipe Band Magazine.

Review of the ‘Pipers Meeting’ by Dr Jack Taylor and Patrick Molard

By John KS Frater

The launch of this book has had an impressive impact: inclusion in the Piobaireachd Society (PS) conference programme isn’t surprising, though nonetheless very welcome, but it was great to have significant coverage on the BBC’s ‘Pipeline’ programme.

The Campbell Canntaireachd manuscript (CC) is the oldest known collection of piobaireachd, written in vocables, a system for presenting the music in words (not in staff notation), reflecting the teaching of ceol mor by singing; the two volumes of the CC collection have long been a source of tunes and settings, for example in the PS collection.

The ‘Pipers Meeting’, by well-known piobaireachd experts Patrick Molard  and Jack Taylor [pictured top], contains 45 tunes from the CC that are not in current publications, many published in staff notation for the first time, including the eponymous ‘Pipers Meeting’.  Patrick Molard has been working on CC for decades; he gave us a presentation of some of the relatively unknown CC tunes at the 2012 PS conference and this led to the collaboration with Jack Taylor that has brought us this fascinating book.

I am still getting to grips with it; this review gives my initial impressions and thoughts, one of which is that the wealth of material is almost overwhelming!There is a variety of tunes on offer, from short, simple pieces, to the massive Taviltich (you’ll play 238 taorluaths and 238 crunluaths in this tune if my arithmetic is correct!), with plenty in between, offering a breadth of music: attractive tunes, interesting tunes, unusual tunes, sometimes all three together!

The book is physically well presented, A4 size and geared for playing, having a ring binder format that sits open comfortably, hands free. The scores are clear, similar to PS style, but with some differences, notably that taorluaths and crunluaths are not routinely marked with T & C. This and other features suggest the book is not an obvious text for piobaireachd beginners, but, given the subject matter, it’s perhaps reasonable to assume the book is more likely to appeal to seasoned campaigners.

An example of how the book interprets the CC vocables

There are no time signatures, reflecting one of the key differences of the CC from other original sources, but tunes are barred and in lines (lines are also given in the CC), so, effectively, most tunes have the time signature demonstrated.  Phrase structure is not always clear from the CC and, where the authors believe it appropriate, tunes are presented with unusual phrase structures, without aiming for standardisation of pulses or bars per phrase and avoiding the emending that, for example, General Thomason might have undertaken………

Read the full review here. Dr John Frater is a distinguished amateur piper and piobaireachd scholar. He is a member of the Piobaireachd Society’s Music Committee and a winner of the leading amateur piobaireachd prize, the Archie Kenneth Quaich and also the Royal Scottish Pipers’ Society members’ championship.

The book’s co-author, Patrick Molard, discusses his work here. Buy the book here.

Two Days At the Highlands & Islands Festival – Second Instalment

By Robert Wallace

To the contest the following day where I was asked to adjudicate the P/A Piobaireachd and B MSR with Iain MacFadyen. It is always a great pleasure working with Iain and the long hours spent concentrating on the performances seems to fly in.

Iain has done so much for piping, turning out so many fine players and judging at the highest level; he sets an example for us all.

Only nine of the 14 entered played in the piobaireachd. The standard was mixed. The winners played well.

Darach Urquhart continued his fine form (he was second at the SPA Professional earlier this month) with a sparkling rendition of the Earl of Ross’s March to take first. Though it took a few minutes for him to bring the pipe in, it settled and stayed the course no problem. The finger was accurate and crisp, maybe a little over crisp in some of the GDEs and fosgailtes but that was a minor criticism. The hiharin groupings could have done with more differentiation but otherwise the expression and momentum were all that could be asked for.

Second came local lad Angus J MacColl with the End of the Great Bridge. This was mature playing from a young piper, the main fault being a sameness about the tempi in the early parts of the tune and a lack of flow in the a mach. Good pipe and finger and a good performance from first on.

In third we had regular prize-winner Jamie Forrester with a respectable attempt at the difficult MacDougall’s Gathering. Jamie too had a nice instrument and good hands. However the cadences were a shade laboured with too much on the B, and the note after the grip turns in the T & C were over stressed. The runs bottom hand to top at the ends of these variations need to be controlled more too.

Regular prize-winner Jamie Forrester is pictured after his success in the John MacLellan contest

I have heard it said recently that this tune is too short for a Gold Medal competition. I beg to differ. It is about ten minutes long, requires consummate technique, a quality pipe for those high Gs and the other top hand work, and an understanding of the complex rhythms involved in bringing out the best in the melody. Anyone who can satisfy the judges on all of that deserves a Gold Medal, no question.

Fourth went to Craig Sutherland who produced a lovely pipe for the taxing Nameless, Cherede Darievea. The ground could have been phrased more and Variation 1 doubling was snappy. Otherwise Craig can be well pleased with his progress with this long, challenging piece. Super finger.

Dr Peter McCalister was fifth with the King’s Taxes. Peter had an excellent instrument, the drones particularly resonant and full. More could have been made of the echo in the double echo movements in the ground and Variation 1 was staccato in feel, especially the doubling. More attention to the semiquavers at the end of the three note groupings is the cure. He could also focus more on the beat notes in the T & C.

Of the others Gordon Bruce started well in I Gave a Kiss to the King’s Hand but lost the pipe half way through and concentration with it. Faye Henderson had a good instrument but seemed unsure  in the Park Piobaireachd No2. Usually unflappable, Faye had a hesitancy on D in the rundown and an occasional open dare. Perhaps unsettled by this she went off in the taorluath and stopped.

Allan Russell was random in his approach to the Prince’s Salute. He wandered through this bold melody without a care in the world – and without the chance of a prize; a waste of a very fine finger and pipe. Greig Canning had an off day with Donald MacLeod’s Lament for John Morrison of Assynt House, the rough pipe not doing him any favours.

Greig and Jonathan, winners in the B MSR

After lunch it was on to the B Grade MSR where 14 competed for honours. The clear winner was Jonathan Simpson of Boghall & Bathgate Caledonia PIpe Band – assured handling throughout with clear technique enhancing the melodic line. Second went to Greig Canning of Inveraray. The pipe was much better than in the ceol mor, just the occasional lapse in pointing putting him behind Jonathan.

In third we had Edward Gaul who had one of the best pipes of the day. A few small technical indiscretions had to be taken into account, but this was enjoyable ceol beag from Eddie. Fourth went to Peter McCalister. Again a rock steady bagpipe but I felt Mrs John MacColl proved too much of a handful and the phrasing suffered accordingly. Peter came onto a game in the S&R and was well worth his prize. All the way from Ulster came Andy Wilson. Andy gave us correct, if a little staid, music on a good, nicely balanced instrument. Had he gone for it more he may have done better.

Of those who didn’t make it: despite occasionally erratic timing young Connor Jardine showed some poise and promise in his set; Brighde Chaimbeul will do much better when  she selects better tunes and stops tuning her drones whilst sounding D; Stuart McCallum can play alright but the nerves just got the better of him; Chris Lee needs more definition in his finger work; ditto Cameron MacDougall; Caitlin MacDonald is on the comeback trail and better double Fs will help get her back to where she was before her lay off; John MacDonald‘s chanter was screaming at us on F and high A; Calum Wynd lacked control, especially in his reel; Jamie Elder will do much better when he opens up his fingerwork.

Senior Champion, Angus J MacColl

In the final analysis Angus J MacColl emerged as overall senior winner for the day which, as his father Angus D told me later, was quite an achievement given that he had been lambing all week on the Dunacht estate – yes the same estate where their distant relative the great John MacColl used to ply his trade.

Another nice touch was Angus J winning the trophy for runner-up in the P/A Piobaireachd, a trophy in memory of his grandfather Dougie. We all remember Dougie in the early days of the Festival where he was a willing steward, efficient and quick to offer encouragement. Hard to believe that was all of 30+ years ago.

• Read the first instalment in this article here. Click here for results from the Highland & Islands Festival piping. The solo games season gets into full swing at the end of this month. Check out the Piping Press Guide to the Games here.