By Bill Blacklaw
I have just got back from a few days holiday and was absolutely horrified to discover the hornet’s nest that had been stirred up over my article on the declining standards of dress at piping competitions and even more horrified to find that some correspondents were regarding it as an attack on or tirade against Gordon Walker.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Ever since I have known Gordon way back in the 1990s, he has been one of my favourite pipers, not only for his excellent playing but also for his never less than immaculate appearance. When I was in hospital at the end of last year recovering from my heart bypass surgery, I was given the opportunity to request a piece of music on the Hospital Radio Request Programme. I asked for Gordon playing The Old Wife of the Mill Dust and John Patterson’s Mare. The DJ was unable to find them but played Gordon’s ‘Powder Horn’ set. Usually, the DJ faded in and out the piece he was playing but, to my surprise and delight, he played the whole set. At the end there was a moment’s silence and then he said, ‘I never knew bagpipes could sound like that!’ and thanked me for requesting it.
If I can go back to the incident which has brought about such a storm in a tea-cup, let me stress that, when I judged the Turnout & Bearing Competition in 1996, 1998, 1999 and 2000, my duties had nothing to do with the piping; the competition was solely for the awarding of two prizes for Turnout & Bearing only, one for civilian competitors and one for serving servicemen/women. Judging the civilian competition was always the most demanding as there are so many acceptable forms of Highland dress. For servicemen the matter was simpler as every regiment had its own dress regulations and when the competition was inaugurated no variations were accepted. However, over the years competitors found ways of circumventing the strict regulations and Gavin Stoddart, later to become Director of the Army School of Piping was one of the first to get permission to play without waistbelt, crossbelt and plaid in competition. Gordon, Brian Donaldson and others did so later. By 2000 it reached the stage where no competitors for the Military section of the prize appeared in full No.1 Dress. I felt strongly enough about the matter to write a letter to the Executive Committee of the Northern Meeting, an extract from which follows:
The original prize was intended to encourage service personnel to appear and compete in the full No.1 Dress Uniform of their respective regiments. Over the years, service competitors have persuaded their COs to allow variations which got rid of tight restrictive waist- and crossbelts and plaids and generally made playing much easier and more comfortable. This was perfectly permissible under the present regulations. In my opinion, however, it satisfied the letter of the regulations but not the spirit – so much so that the only three competitors in uniform last year opted for the beltless, plaidless versions mentioned above. I was very much inclined to recommend withholding the Military Prize but could not justify doing so under the present rules.
I am not certain of the present position, but at the time the prize was a generous one (exceeding the value of the Gold medal). I recommended that the regulation be amended to: Turnout and Bearing (Military Section) Competition A – Servicemen/women in uniform. Precedence will be given to competitors in full No. 1 Dress. (The regulation was not changed.)
Such was the situation when (I should have said) I did not consider Gordon or any other serviceman not in full No.1 Dress for the Military Prize (rather than ‘I disqualified him’.) Gordon must admit that in the years I judged the competition, I always made a point of speaking to all who had been in contention for the prize, civilian or military, before submitting the names of the winners to the Committee.
At any rate, I was not boasting about ‘disqualifying’ Gordon. The editor wanted a good going discussion on the standards of dress and chose to highlight that one sentence. I must admit that Gordon’s rather bitter reply to my original article hurt. My decision was influenced by a former officer in Gordon’s regiment who told me that the dress was incorrect and I mentioned this point to members of the Committee. The decision, however, was mine.
I am well aware of the number of times Gordon won the prize as he knows. After all I was the judge who awarded him two of these wins. To all the others who keep on about apologies, I sent a private email to Gordon on 3 October, shortly after his own letter appeared. However, let me repeat. My decisions had no impact whatsoever on the outcome of the piping competitions at any Northern Meeting at which I judged.