The British Pipe Band Championships 2015: Grade 1 Review

There were three bands which particularly caught the ear at this, the first championship of 2015: Field Marshal Montgomery, Shotts & Dykehead and Inveraray, writes Robert Wallace.

Next came a group of two: St Laurence O’Toole and Boghall, with Glasgow Police and Scottish Power vying for the final place in the prize list. Just outside were Fife Police and Vale of Atholl with Cullybackey and Denny and Dunipace a little off the pace.

I was positioned to the side of the bands as they came on and had a pretty good spot from which to listen, though I stress not as good as the judges would have had ringside. These included P/M Ian Duncan on trial judge duty, and here I refer to my previous fast track comment. The proximity of the hospitality area had a downside in that a group of overrefreshed individuals insisted on making a lot of noise during some of the performances. They were hushed into silence only when adjudicator Jennifer Hutcheon came across to where they were standing and called for quiet. They knew better than to cross this lady more than once, and well done to her for sticking up for the bands and for those of us trying to enjoy the music.

Cullybackey pipe major leads the band into the circle

Each band had to submit two MSRs, one being drawn at the line. First on were Cullybackey, and in a cold wind, they wrestled their way through the Links of Forth, Atholl Cummers and The Sheepwife. The tone was thin and the drums seemed flat to the pipes. There was little distinction in the fingering, particularly on the bottom hand work in the reel; the Ds wavered. I fear this band will continue to struggle unless they spend more time getting some precision into their delivery. New P/M mind, so let’s not be too critical.

Local band Boghall and Bathgate
Local band Boghall and Bathgate

Local band Boghall & Bathgate had a good, safe, run through Brigadier Cheape, Caledonian Society of London and Pretty Marion. If I was being pernickity, and why change the habit of a lifetime, I would say the high As were shrill, that the double Cs, Es and Fs in the strathspey did not come across as tightly played as they needed to be, and the band was a shade loose with the pointing in Pretty Marion. Solid drone sound and, overall, competent playing without setting the turf ablaze.

St Laurence O’Toole had a pleasing richness in their chanter tone, augmented by a rock solid drone. Lord Alexander Kennedy was neatly phrased with assistance from the drummers showing to good effect. Double F was smudged in the 4th part of the Atholl Cummers  –  an impressive passage if executed well. On such detail championships turn. Could Mrs MacPherson have been pointed more, the strikes tightened up to bring focus to the melody?

The Power’s front line

Scottish Power persist with the Royal Scottish Pipers’ Society as one of their marches and I’m of the view that when you are following someone making a fine job of Lord Alex with it, you will not be shown to best effect no matter how good your delivery. These days the RSPS is a tune for second grade not first. Into the strathspey and the drones, never completely on from the start, became more distracting as was the poorly executed throw-on-D-cut-to-B in the first part of the Bob of Fettercairn. That aside, the strathspey grew in power and lift and held the attention – as did the reel Lochcarron. I noticed this band was smaller than in previous years with ‘only’ 17 or 18 pipers. A sensible trend.

P/M Douglas Murray and Fife Police

Fife Police gave us one of the best marches of the day – Brigadier Cheape swinging along with a fine swagger. The difficult third part was negotiated with a considerable degree of aplomb. I don’t know what happened after that. The band seemed to run out of steam and just did not get the strathspey and reel going no matter the prompting of the pipe major. I thought I detected some variation in the blowing in the strathspey with the resultant fall off in sound quality. It is remarkable how this always seems to occur at this point in an MSR.

Vale front rank

Vale of Atholl played within themselves: a shade sluggish in the march (P/M Jim Christie) and careful in the strath (A Cummers – again), where once more the double Fs gave trouble; nice touches from a subtle bass section – not something I usually notice unless too loud. I bet if the pipe major went round his pipers and checked the F doublings he would find a number of flaws, the two gracenotes of the  movement of different length, when, as we all know, they must be of equal duration to get the right effect. In Grade 1 such important detail is just that – important.

P/M Clunie and Denny
P/M Clunie and Denny

Following the Vale were a huge band from Denny & Dunipace. When they took to the line I thought we had an invasion force on our hands. There must have been close on 40 on parade. It showed in the playing too where expression got lost in a woolly (soft, indistinct) delivery, particularly noticeable at the E-F-E passage in the third part of Clan MacRae Society. P/M Clunie is clearly a popular man when he can attract so many to his band, but maybe a little pruning would allow it to bloom more readily. The tone, good at the start, began to weaken in the strathspey (Dora MacLeod), and there were overpowering rolls from the tenors in McAllister’s Dirk.

Shotts & Dykehead
Shotts & Dykehead

Shotts & Dykehead were impressive. It is many a year since I have heard such a good MSR from this band. Purposeful, concise, and very professional is the best way I could describe the delivery. The only flaw in the Highland Wedding was a tendency to bring in the E strike slightly early in the 5th part, and the high A could have been verging to sharp. That aside, this was Shotts back to their commanding best – a force to be reckoned with once more. When a band grows in strength during a performance you know it is on to something. When it negotiates Susan MacLeod and the very difficult John Morrison of Assynt House with this kind of control and accuracy of timing and finger, you have to sit up and take notice.

Argyll's finest, Inveraray
Argyll’s finest, Inveraray

After that showing, Shotts were top of my prizelist. How would the next two bands, two of the favourites, compare? First were Inveraray. If anything their tone was slightly better than Shotts’, with a powerful, deep, drone sound. Technically, I could not fault the playing either, though I remain unconvinced about P/M J MacWilliams and its suitability for a pipe band. Brigadier Cheape it ain’t. Bob of Fettercairn was flawless, and the smoothest of breaks saw a cruise through McAllister’s Dirk. Another top three contender in my book with perhaps Shotts just shading it on pizzaz.

Holders Field Marshal Montgomery (pictured top) hove into view. After those two performances you knew they had a fight on their hands. But you know what, their confidence in their own ability never wavered for one second. From start to finish this was immaculate piping on bagpipes set to perfection. It all seemed so effortless. The attention to detail in Brigadier Cheape (him again), Blair Drummond – this really blew me away with the bottom hand work – and Pretty Marion  was a pleasure to behold. It has to be said: despite the superb playing of some of the bands on before them, no one came close to FMM on the day. They have, and had, it all.

Greater Glasgow Police front rank
Greater Glasgow Police front rank

Final band were Greater Glasgow Police and they struggled with the complex endings in the Argyllshire Gathering – another tune I don’t think suits the pipe band. A fine tone however, and it sustained well into the strathspey and reel where the phrasing and lift in Pretty Marion would be helped with better use of the off beats. After FMM it would be difficult for any band to impress, but the polis stuck to their task, and with good concentration maintained their sound to the end.

Overall a very enjoyable day of pipe band MSR playing. A huge amount of work has gone into preparing these bands for the 2015 season and they got it off to a cracking start at Bathgate. Many of the performances can be accessed on YouTube, but a word of caution. Listening to these is of interest, but it does not compare to actually being there and hearing the music in real time. Judgement should not be predicated on what is heard over the internet.

My result:
1 FMM 2 Shotts 3 Inveraray 4 SLoT 5 Boghall 6 Glasgow Police

Actual result:
1 FMM 2 Inveraray 3 Shotts 4 SLoT 5 Glasgow Police 6 Boghall

Full summaries here.