Highland Dress Adjudicator Responds to Comments

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 incomparable Gordon Walker in full Army fig
The imaculate Gordon Walker in full Army fig

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.

4 thoughts on “Highland Dress Adjudicator Responds to Comments

  1. i have followed this ddebate since your article appeared and yes you should have chosen your wording more carefully.A good editor will instinctivly pick out a piece that will enhance a storyline for his readers and and use it as a heading, that is exactly what Robert Wallace being a good editor did. You Mr Blacklaw gave him the amnunition he cleaverly picked out and used for your story. I have noticed that Robert has since appologised for using your statement as a heading however I havn’t to date saw any apology coming you and it was you yourself who started all this. I would at this point like to stress that Gordon Walker did not at any time persuade his CO into allowing him to wear the blue patrol Jacket,so let us get that quite clear. Gordon has already told you that he was invited to wear that jacket as a privilege for all the recognition he had brought to his regiment in solo competitions, and if the army it,s self can drop it,s regulation standard of dress for solo piping maybe just maybe the nothern meeting and any other competition that awards dress and deportment to military personell should be doing likewise. Incidentaly Gordon hasn,t to date recieved any private email correspondace from you Mr Blacklaw so we have no idea where you sent this email, and I think it would have been nicer after publicaly insulting Gordon for his dress to have said sorry publicaly now you have been furnished with the facts about his blue patrol and admitted Mr Blacklaw that you were wrong all those years ago to disqualify him or as you now say eliminate him . As they say it,s never too late to say sorry even if you thought it was right at the time and then some 22years + have passed and you have now been furnished with the true facts.

    1. Mr Blacklaw has sent me the following re Mrs Walker and it will be the last comment on this topic. I think everyone has had a fair crack of the whip and I’d like to thank you all for your contributions, especially Mr Blacklaw. I am sure everyone shares his concern about the declining standards of Highland dress generally and we should applaud him for doing something about it. Here is his final comment:

      ‘I will not be commenting further on special military dress whether authorised by COs or not. I was asked to write an article on dress standards which unfortunately contained an ill-judged sentence highlighted by the editor. This brought several replies from people with no knowledge of the regulations governing the Northern Meeting Turnout & Bearing competition. If you believe this warrants an apology you may take this to be one.
      ‘I have never insulted Gordon for his dress. In fact, judging by the friendly chats we had in the past, I had always regarded him as a good acquaintance and friend and a model for all aspiring competitors, although I have not met him since I stopped judging at the Northern Meeting.
      ‘I sent him an e-mail on 3 October to the address given me by Robert Wallace when I had read Gordon’s response to my article. I sent a second e-mail on 19 October on my return from Fife with a copy of my last article (Highland Dress Adjudicator Responds to Comments) as I had promised him I would let him have a preview of any further comment I submitted.
      ‘As I said earlier I judged the Turnout & Bearing Competition at the Northern Meeting according to the rules AS THEY WERE AT THE TIME. I have no idea if they have since been changed as I no longer travel to the Northern Meeting. My final word on this matter, though, is to say that I have no cause to say sorry. I judged the competition as the existing rules demanded.
      ‘The competitors knew the rules when they entered (or should have). By not appearing in the full No.1 Dress of their regiment, they automatically excluded themselves from the prize list.
      I do not question Gordon’s right to wear the uniform he graced for so many years. If Gordon has not yet received the e-mails I sent, please get in touch with me and I will re-send them.’

  2. You have obviously made up your mind about the rights and wrongs of this situation and nothing I say is going to get through to you. I was asked to contribute an article on dress standards. The editor chose to headline an ill-chosen phrase which has been seized on.

    This time you accuse me of judging by my own standards. What you conveniently ignore are the original rules of the competition which referred to competitors in full No.1 Dress. No other dress was acceptable at that time. The fact that competing military pipers persuaded their own CO’s to allow them to wear something different did not affect the rules of the Turnout & Bearing competitions which I did my best to adhere to.

  3. If a piper has permission from his regiment to wear X, how can an adjudicator simply decide, off his own personal opinion, that anyone not in number 1 dress is “improperly dressed”. If the regimental authorities have given permission, then they have given permission. It’s like being absent form the army base – with permission, it’s called leave, and without, it’s an offence. The explanation from Mr Blacklaw actually makes this whole matter worse, as he is now telling us how he applied his own, personal, standards of dress and insisted on number 1, when it seems he was aware pipers had permission not to wear number 1! This is really unacceptable. The important point when you are a judge is to apply the rules, not your own personal rules. No doubt this whole matter is insignifcant except to emphasise to judges to apply to objective rules, not their own rules.

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