Highland Dress and Judging the Northern Meeting

By Bill Blacklaw, ex Gordon Highlander

As a consequence of health problems I have not attended (or judged at) solo competitions for some time.  My impressions of dress standards therefore come from photographs in the piping press or the press in general. I was already rather disturbed by the numbers of competitors and prize-winners who were pictured jacketless. Time after time photographs appeared of competitors and prize-winners (indoors and outdoors) not wearing jackets.  On several occasions I was on the point of airing my opinions, especially when the lack of jacket was only one of the many faults on show: overlong kilts, hose too high, sporrans too high or too low, shoes that hadn’t seen polish in recent times.  I know that I am ultra fussy about dress details and so I did not send in my thoughts on the matter.  However, when I read Robert Wallace’s June Editorial, I was horrified at the depths of the decline and felt I had to contribute my “twopence-worth” to the debate.

I now play at very few solo events, although I still play with the Gordon Highlanders Association Drums & Pipes, but I would never have considered playing in anything but full dress (kilt, jacket, waistcoat (optional), waist belt and sporran, shirt and tie with appropriate hose, flashes, brogues and headgear). I must admit to playing in shirtsleeve order during outdoor engagements in high temperatures, but for solo engagements it was always full dress as described above irrespective of temperature.

In the years in which I judged the Turnout and Bearing competitions at the Northern Meeting, no competitor who was not fully dressed was considered for the prize.   Nowadays I judge only Marching and Drill competitions at band competitions.  Over the years I have explained to the bands both verbally and in crit sheets exactly what I am looking for and expect.  Consequently there has been an improvement year on year.

Gavin Stoddart….Sought permission to change dress

At the Northern Meeting there were two competitions, one for the military and one for civilian competitors.  The military competition was relatively simple as the competitors were governed by regimental rules of dress.  Even there some tried to gain a slight advantage over the others. I hope Gavin Stoddart will not mind my disclosing that he gained permission from his CO to play at the Northern Meeting wearing the dress of a sergeant piper playing in the Officers’ Mess (no restrictive plaid, waist or crossbelt). Incidentally, I disqualified Gordon Walker from the competition for appearing in this dress while still a corporal. In the civilian section, however, judging was much more complicated.  Just think how many acceptable forms of Highland Dress exist.  At all times, however, I did not consider any competitor who was not wearing the full form of whichever variation of Highland Dress was chosen. Even at the time I was judging, the rot had already begun to set in among the civilian pipers with prize-winners too lazy or too disrespectful to remain in Highland dress until time for the prize-giving. Even at the Northern Meeting I remember the shock of seeing a major prize-winner collect his prize wearing jeans and a casual top.  Personally I would have withheld the prize until the winner appeared properly dressed.

gordon walker
P/M Gordon Walker, one of Scotland’s finest pipers and among the best dressed on the boards today

Returning to dress for individual pipers, we can not expect a return to the grandeur of John D. Burgess; the expense alone would be prohibitive.  But surely it is not too much to expect competitors to be in possession of complete Highland Dress AND to wear it whenever competing or performing.

You may not agree with my ideas of what constitutes full Highland Dress, but I had my recommendations printed in the final edition of the Piper Press (September, 1999) and the first edition of the Piping Times (incorporating the Piper Press) (November, 1999).  Only last year the Clan Grant Society asked for permission to reprint these for its members.

In an ideal world I would like to see the following requirements at all competitions and engagements:

  1. All competitors/performers to be in full dress if they wish to be considered for the prize list.
  2. Careful attention should be paid to individual items of wear e.g. length of kilt, properly fitting waist belts (where worn), height at which the sporran is worn, nicely cleaned shoes, etc.

I know that these do nothing to enhance the music that a player produces but the lack of them certainly detracts from the appreciation of the performance.

Am I being over-critical of today’s competitors and performers?  I hope not. There are many of today’s leading players who uphold the best traditions of Highland Dress.  Let us hope that the others seek to emulate their appearance as well as their playing standards.

32 thoughts on “Highland Dress and Judging the Northern Meeting

  1. I totally agree, sounding like a piper is so much about looking like a piper!!! Dress standards are important and will only ever add to a performance rather than detract from it!!

  2. If you’re going to do a thing, do it as well as you can. No one turns out in Highland dress better than Gordon Walker. Blacklaw could have used him as the prime example of how to do it right. That’s a sadly missed opportunity. I’d rather hear a finely played bagpipe than see a well worn kilt, but if the piper appears to be cross-dressing because he doesn’t know how or care to wear Highland dress well, then my first impression is “poor fool.”

  3. As a former infantryman and piper of The 1st Battalion, The Royal Highland Fusiliers and having served alongside my dear friend “Wee Gordon”, I can only say how disappointing it is to have seen that someone saw fit to disqualify the man from a dress and deportment competition without knowing the dress code of that regiment.

    As Gordon said, permission was granted for him to wear the blue patrol while competing on behalf of the regiment and anyone who knew anything about Army pipers should know that we do not take it upon ourselves to wear highland dress that does not conform to the regiments wishes.

    While I served with The Battalion, I was fortunate enough to have been given permission to compete at Oban and Inverness having been selected but while also performing at The Edinburgh, Royal Military Tattoo and the regiment was proud once again to have another piper competing at this level alongside Gordon. It will therefore not come as a surprise to learn that I too wore the blue patrol while competing on behalf of the regiment and it was only with their permission once again and that of the regimental QuarterMaster that I was fitted for one, as a “PRIVATE”.

    To suggest that this dress is more comfortable than that of any other shows the lack of knowledge and experience of this critic, as I have played for Her Majesty The Queen at Braemar, Horse Guards Parade and the Tattoo in full No.1 Dress not to mention hundreds of other competitions and events throughout the World and believe me neither uniform is comfortable while playing the pipes.

    To have raised this subject after such a long time and in such a manner, the critic from what I can see has left himself wide open for the comments made by others and as expected the piping fraternity has responded in its support for one of this country’s greatest pipers who’s dress and deportment are “second to none”.

    Yours Aye
    Gary Stronach

  4. For me, and most other competitors I suspect, the real bone of contention is the wearing of jackets. While I personally feel that a well-fitted jacket will not inhibit my playing under most circumstances, when it is too hot, the level of discomfort can certainly affect my performance. And surely no competitor, organiser, judge or member of the audience wants to hear a performance adversely affected by an item of clothing which, at least in theory, is worn primarily to keep the wearer comfortable when it is wet or cold!

    At one major competition I performed at this year (where jackets are required), the room became so hot that the organisers contemplated allowing competitors the option of playing without jackets, however decided against it for fear of giving some players an advantage over others who were not allowed the same choice earlier on! Sadly for those competitors who played later (like yours truly, here), the room became hotter and hotter and it was they who suffered most.

    Here is my view: at those particular competitions where competitors are required to wear jackets whilst performing, organisers and committees must equally be expected to provide an environment which maintains an acceptable temperature for the wearing of a wool jacket whilst performing. This would simply require the use of a thermometer. If, for whatever reason, the heating of room became uncontrollable and exceeded the agreed temperature, then the steward would inform competitors that they would have the option of wearing a jacket or not.

    I think that this issue comes down to understanding and respect which ought to flow both ways between competitors and competition organisers.

  5. Well boys and girls, I wish I could look smart. I could spend a great deal of time and money on Highland dress and I still look like a sack of tatties. I am not very photogenic in any clothes! I am young but old enough to recall pipers who could not afford highland dress, other than an old army kilt and perhaps an ill-fitting tweed jacket. It is nice to see people who are smartly turned out, but some of us are not made that way As long as a performer is as neat and tidy as he can be within his comfort zone and appropriately dressed, judging persons’ on looks and awarding prizes to the ‘best dressed’ and who can walk nicely is something akin to a beauty contest. (Miss World?) The worst dressed might be better to get the money prize in order to obtain something more appropriate. There is reference to the way some pipers played at a games in South Uist and their dress. The writer was Lt Col David Murray and the pipers were dressed in wellington boots and other sorts of working clothes. They passed round a set of pipes and rattled out some good jigs apparently. The only kilt on parade was worn by David Murray. The story is in The Judges’ Companion.. Such attire is not appropriate at the more formal affairs, such as indoor competitions and indeed most highland games and I am not suggesting that we turn up in wellie boots. Appropriate dress is required by most promoters and this should be respected and should be within reason. A piper can be appropriately dressed and well dressed without wearing headgear. In recent times I saw a critique of pipers wearing a Glengarry as it was not part of traditional highland dress. Do we have to worry too much about this. I would not discourage a young person from playing at a competition or at any type of performance on the basis of what he can afford or his parents can afford.
    Who knows? I might yet win a money prize for being the worst dressed piper and that would .”make me proud” and maybe I would spend the money on drink to kill the pain.
    Duncan Watson

  6. My late piping instructor of 25 years, Jimmy Greig (Edinburgh Police, Clan MacFarlane Pipe Band) learned his piping from 1945 to 1952 in the 1st Battalion The Black Watch, under Pipe Major James Jenkinson. Jimmy once described his former P.M. to me as “spit and polish from arsehole to eyebrow…..and his playing was the very same.” My teacher felt (as do I) that the two go hand in hand, and I can’t think of a finer exponent of this philosophy than Pipe Major Gordon Walker. The man is consistently immaculate in both categories, and I have held him up to my own pupils as an example to be emulated. And as far as the blue patrol jacket in question is concerned: I’ve never seen a smarter looking rig…..period.

  7. Anyone competing before a judge is open to the subjectivity of the judges no matter what checks and balances are put in place.

    While an apology is warranted from Mr. Blacklaw, maybe more importantly this episode highlights the need for some openness in judging decisions. Had Gordon Walker been approached by the judges prior to the disqualification, or if he had been notified of the reasons, then the outcome would likely have been totally different.


  8. Gordon Walker is totally correct. An apology from Mr Blacklaw for his mistake is clearly required. Anyone should be big enough to apologise for making an error. Gordon had permission from the regiment, and therefore was perfectly entitled to wear the tunic in that case.

  9. Thanks Robert for setting the record straight for deleting my name from the original heading as part of Bill’s article here, I am sure though, anyone would be annoyed and feel the same to learn that they had been disqualified so many years ago and only now it and the reason why has come to light!
    So… let us wait now and see what Mr. Blacklaw has to say in response!
    Pipe Major Gordon Walker.

  10. I noticed Robert, you have since changed the heading for Mr Blacklaw’s original article by omitting ” And the day I disqualified Gordon Walker” from the main heading which I am pleased to see. It is clear that his article consisted of the decline of highland dress, and my name was mentioned as an incidental only which reflected Mr Blacklaw’s ignorance on this occasion. Now it appears it was your self Robert, that used my name in the original heading and not Mr Bill Blacklaw.
    However, after some 22 + years have since passed, and Mr Blacklaw still felt the need to incidentally publish the fact that he had disqualified me for wearing The Blue Patrol Jacket I had been authorised to wear, still merits an apology from him!
    Pipe Major Gordon Walker.

  11. This sounds like a very unfortunate episode.

    I have no problem enforcing the rules, provided that they are well known to the competitors in advance and the rules are applied fairly and consistently. For instance, I wouldn’t want to be disqualified or punished by a judge for not “covering up” here in California. WUSPBA—under which auspices the competition would be performed—has no such requirement.

    I won’t pretend to know all the ins and outs of military dress protocol, I don’t. If there are special circumstances allowed in the rules (permission granted by superiors for alternate dress) then it seems that the judge would be obligated to take those into consideration. There is always caution with regard to judge/competitor communications, but perhaps it would be appropriate to have a liaison request proof of a special allowance in instances of apparent competitor noncompliance.

    In my opinion, if there is any uncertainty with regard to dress, music should prevail and the competitor be given the benefit of the doubt.

    1. I must point out that the decision to use Gordon’s name in the headline was mine and had nothing to do with Bill. Bill included the episode in his piece to add interest and mentioned it merely as a passing comment not for any bombastic or arrogant reason. As a man he is anything but and certainly has no axe to grind vis a vis Gordon. RW.

  12. Mr Blacklaw’s silence in light of Gordon’s comments is interesting. He responded very shortly after other comments were made. I hope that we see a response to Gordon’s statement.

    Thankfully, the rigidity and arrogance expressed in Mr. Blacklaw’s commentary about his approach to judging has not been adopted by those who judge the musical merits of performances at the major gatherings.

    To be clear, I support the concept of being smartly dressed for competitions, and adhering to the rules set down by the organizers of a competition in respect of the expectations for proper dress.

    While it has only come out now, many years after his decision was made, I commend Mr. Blacklaw for having the courage to write the article. His decision has now been challenged by one of the competitors who clearly is a master of highland dress, both in terms of the regimental side and the civilian side. In my view, Mr. Blacklaw is finally being held to account for his decision.

  13. What a superb response by Gordon Walker. He is always the smartest piper on the field, he is the J D Burgess of our times in dress (and finger), and it is the height of stupidity for Mr Blacklaw to have disqualified him in the first place, or to boast about it now! Even if Gordon had worn the wrong dress, I am of the view he should not be disqualified in a major comp. But seeing he was correctly dressed with requisite permissions etc, it seems Mr Blacklaw has really made himself look silly. Well done Gordon for setting the record straight – your logic is as clear and crisp as your birl. All the best to you.

  14. Dear Mr Blacklaw, I am writing in response to your article above and wish to set the record straight regarding the wearing of ”The Blue Patrol” Jacket within the ranks of my regiment, The Royal Highland Fusiliers.This form of dress is laid down clearly and documented within the dress rules and regulations of the regiment, and is worn by senior ranks from Sergeant’s to Officers mainly on administration day’s. For your information though, regimental H.Q. had granted permission for me to wear this jacket in competition at the time when I was Pipe Corporal, alleviating the constraints of wearing the full dress order of plaid, cross belt/waist belt etc. and therefore an appointment was arranged with the regimental tailor for me to be measured and fitted with said jacket for the purposes of representing the regiment in solo piping competitions. You state, that both Major Gavin Stoddart and myself were ”wearing the dress of a sergeant piper playing in the Officers’ Mess with (no restrictive plaid, waist or crossbelt). Incidentally, I disqualified Gordon Walker from the competition for appearing in this dress while still a corporal.”… Again for your information, full number 1 dress order, was worn by all pipers from the rank of private to Pipe Major whilst on duty piping in the Officers Mess… that and no other dress was worn at anytime! I must add, I am very annoyed to now learn that you in your ignorance disqualified me without bothering to enquire or even ask why I was wearing the jacket, you had the whole day in which you could have approached me about this before assuming what you yourself perceived to be army regulation in a regiment you were never connected to! and then some 22 + years down the line, you not only raise the situation again in a public forum here, but boast about it as your heading! Mr Blacklaw, I think an apology from you would be fitting in this case. Incidentally are you aware of the vast amount of times I won this section of the contest i.e.. Dress and Deportment at The Northern Meetings in Inverness prior to and after your attempt at judging the section for competitors in military dress.
    Pipe Major Gordon Walker.

    1. Good morning, Rob. Wearing a mix of colours is a matter, not of right or wrong, but of taste. For years the Gordons Association band had no choice; our leather sporrans were brown and our brogues were black. I have since issued black sporrans to our members and so the problem does not arise.

  15. The RSPBA have a rule that you cannot collect a prize, unless you are dressed as you competed. I know this as I fell foul of this rule, at a Quartet/Mini Band contest, here in the North East Branch in England, I had my Pipe Sgt collect the prize as he had stayed dressed. And it should stay that way properly dressed , but not always with jackets if weather warm or indoors, but always with Headwear on.

  16. In Our band we where a undercoat and sometimes the jacket , we have a Drum sergeant that makes sure we all look the same .Before each competition/street performas , the shoes are polished ,sock’s are striated , and sporrans are put right , I don’t think that wearing a jacket only make’s the uniform, it is how you present yourself and the band sound that is more important.

  17. A gold medalist sports person does not have to appear in the same dress they competed in to collect their prize and in fact there is little to control their dress. Considering the militarized dress regulations forced upon the Scots your disqualification of Gordon for such a matter is petty and frivolous. How the person dresses has nothing to do with the talent inside the skin.

    1. Good evening. Sorry you don’t approve of my ideas. You say a gold medallist sports person does not have to appear in the same dress they competed in. I agree. But they do appear in a “uniform”; the full tracksuit of whichever team or group they represent. How do you think a sports audience would respond to a competitor strolling up for his/her medal in a pair of old jeans and a t-shirt?

      As for disqualifying Gordon, there was nothing petty or frivolous in the decision. The rules regarding uniform for serving personnel are very clear and laid down by every regiment. Gordon competed in a form of regimental uniform to which he was not entitled.

      Your final comment about dress having nothing to do with the player’s talent is absolutely correct but I personally would never show such disrespect for the audience, the judges and fellow competitors by turning up, whether to play or to collect a prize, unless properly dressed.

    2. AH! David, you entirely miss the point. The way a man or performer presents himself, is an extremely important aspect when he is putting himself up to be judged. Sure, you can play in your birthday suit if you wish, but anything less than what is expected by a judge, will have an effect on his appreciation of the performer. We are all human and subject to this quiet discrimination that is inherent in our psyche. I opine that you would be disappointed to turn up to see any ‘show’ if the performers disregarded that element of ‘theatre’ that so enhances one’s experience.

    3. Agreed……and its all fake dress up anyway. Why should a regimental piper ( who gets all the correct and proper kit he needs for free) be held to a different standard than a civvy street Drummie trying to make a go of it at his own expense …who might then be DQ’d for a petty ‘infraction’ according to a particular judges’ fancy or recollection. The civvy guys are dressing up to look the ( some) part…but it’s not regimental regardless…there are no specific rules to cover it exactly. It’s all play acting if the wearer is not in service.

  18. Here in California some years back, a young winning piper appeared at massed bands to collect his piping prize in street clothes. It was shocking and disrespectful. A rule appeared in short order and highland dress was henceforth required of all those hoping to collect their prizes—as it should be!

  19. Bill, Master Warrant Officer Chris Reesor, Drum Major of the 48th Highlanders of Canada here. I appreciate your comments and would love to get a copy of your article from the Piping Times for my files. Could you send me a copy to dm/dsm48@rogers.com? Cheers,

    1. Good evening, Chris. It seems a very long time since we played together at the Homecoming Celebration in Aberdeen and the North-East. In the meantime, I had another heart attack followed by a double heart bypass operation. I am glad to say that things are again going well and I am back to bowling and golf as well as back playing with the Drums & Pipes since about April.

      You may have seen my odd article in the 48th Highlanders Pipe Band newsletter over the last few years. In fact it is time I sent in a report about the band’s activities this year.

      Unfortunately I don’t have a copy of my articles on my computer; my old computer crashed a couple of years ago and I lost everything I had on it. The only suggestion I can make is to see if the Piping Times has back numbers. The articles appeared in the final edition of The Piper Press (September 1999) and The Piping Times (Volume 52 No. 2, November, 1999)

      Sorry I can’t be more helpful but please pass on my best wishes to all at the 48th Highlanders pipe band.



  20. Hi, I am the Quartermaster of the Epping Forest Pipe Band based in Chingford London. We wear full No. 1 uniform (yes even on a hot sunny day) and have over thirty musicians in our band. We are not a competition pipe band although we are affiliated with the Royal British Legion, Chingford branch and are very proud to perform at their parades.
    We take pride in wearing our uniform and hope that you will take a look at our web site or facebook page to see how smart we look and hopefully raise a smile for you.

    Kind regards
    Amanda Bredin

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