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.
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.
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:
- All competitors/performers to be in full dress if they wish to be considered for the prize list.
- 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.