“We will not succeed in navigating the complex environment of the future by peering relentlessly into a rear view mirror. To do so, we would be out of our minds.”


Ken Robinson, Out of Our Minds (Capstone, 2001).

Stuart Letford

Like most of you, I have now spent eight weeks self-isolating. At the time of writing, though, I sense that some, mainly in the media, are champing at the bit for some restrictions to be lifted. They’re metaphorically revving their engines like pent-up racing drivers waiting for the green light to appear, ready to floor the accelerator again. It’s a bit like your restless child sitting in the back seat of the car and repeatedly asking, “Are we there yet?”

Some restrictions may soon start to be eased gradually but for now I wonder how you’ve spent the last two months? Have you even touched your pipes? Maybe you’ve been learning new tunes or working on improving your sound? Apocryphally, it would seem that most of us have spent much of the time ‘self-lubricating’; the sooner the pubs reopen the better, so that we can cut down on our drinking …

Some dance to remember, some dance to forget. I’ve forgotten how to dance. I see The Flat Earth Society is reporting that the two metre social distancing measures are pushing some of their members over the edge.

The other night my wife and I decided to relieve the boredom by playing Scrabble. An argument ensured and we ended up having words.

From an environmental perspective, hasn’t it seemed ironic to witness nature’s virtual schadenfreude at how such a microscopically small and invisible agent has done – and is still doing – the job that governments have failed to do over many decades, i.e. give the planet some breathing space? It’s given us all ‘breathing space’ in a philosophical sense as well. The phrase, ‘business as usual’ should go into the dustbin. As someone put it memorably, we shouldn’t return to normality because normality was the problem. We don’t wish to go to Helensburgh in a handcart.

When pondering over how the so-called ‘new normal’ will look, clearly this covers a multitude of things, mainly political, but the concern of the Thinking Piper is, naturally, with the piping world. Before I continue, let’s agree that it is healthy that we can all hold differing views. No one has been reduced to mental incapacity by a virus that hitherto only attacked the lungs. So let’s ponder from ground zero upwards a new piping landscape. Indulge me. Don’t harangue me. I’m just scattering seeds.

Can things return to normal for the Royal Scottish Pipe Band Association (RSPBA)? Last year, the organisation took a gamble with its finances and spent £1 million of its money refurbishing its Glasgow headquarters. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, a pandemic occurred. Something that the world’s scientists and virologists had been fearing – and warning of – for 20 years and something they, as a whole, felt was imminent. A whole competitive season was wiped out and with it the means of the RSPBA easing the burden on its finances. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, of course, and it is too early to speculate on what action the RSPBA may now need to take. However, the organisation needs the support of all us just now. There hasn’t been a schism in the pipe band world for at least 70 years and there isn’t one on the horizon. There is no other bus for pipe band people to hitch a ride on; the RSPBA is the bus.

Nevertheless, it is a great pity that the RSPBA’s activity just now will be focussed, in the main, internally because this is precisely the time when it could have been canvassing the views of the pipe band world about the future. This leads us to the subject of pipe band competitions, or at least, how they’re constructed. For example, despite pipe band members stating repeatedly that they are content with the circle formation, the subject is being looked again by the RSPBA. Perhaps this is something that should indeed be looked at afresh, particularly within a wider context of improving the format of the medley?

On the whole, the musical content of the medley today, certainly in Grade 1, is without doubt much superior to anything bands played before. However, the essential musical content remains the same as does the time constraint. I believe it’s time to increase the time limit to a minimum of 10 minutes, to introduce a formation at the discretion of the bands, and to place no limit to the musical content the bands wish to play. Our leading bands are capable of playing a set that can hold the interest for more than seven minutes.

In addition, add more judges and allow them to confer at the end of the performances in the same way that solo piping judges confer and arrive at a collective decision. This was trialled in 2016. To ask a pipe band adjudicator to immediately conclude his thoughts on a performance in a matter of minutes before the next band appears is, in my view, unsatisfactory in this day and age. In this respect, the pipe band world can learn from the solo piping world.

ScottishPower Pipe Band at the 2018 World Pipe Band Championships.
ScottishPower Pipe Band at the 2018 World Pipe Band Championships.

Then there’s our flagship event, the World Pipe Band Championships. I’ve written elsewhere about how the event can be improved and I won’t rehash those points here. However, considering gate receipts, live-streaming, BBC broadcasts, music licensing, corporate/retail hires, food and beverage concessions, and overall investment in the event by the city of Glasgow, what do you think is a fair monetary prize for the winners of the Grade 1 competition at the Worlds? The Grade 1 World Champions in 2019 received £1,500. According to the RSPBA’s 2019 financial statement, the prize total prize money at the Worlds that year was £37,838. Last December, it decided to increase the overall pool of prize money by £4,500, which works out at an average increase of just over £80 per award (nine grades with six awards per grade).

Economic studies undertaken after each year of the Piping Live! Glasgow International Festival of Piping show that it is worth on average just over £2 million to the city annually. The figures for 2017, the most recent year I can find stats for, show that the World Pipe Band Championships is worth £4 million to the city. In 2014, Glasgow successfully beat off a challenge from Belfast to win the right to host the Worlds for another six years (till 2021). However, I cannot unearth the figure Glasgow – or Belfast – bid.

Glasgow will be keen to hold on to the Worlds and, in fact, last December, RSPBA Chief Executive, Ian Embelton revealed to his Board of Directors that the city wished to extend its licensing of the World’s for another three years after next season. BBC Scotland – a division of the BBC and the main public broadcaster in Scotland – negotiates the exclusive rights to broadcast the Worlds yet, here too, the terms are never made public.

The pipe band community as a whole needs to wake up to the fact that it is the product: no bands, no event. The solo-piping world has always been more organised.

Why not make the World Pipe Band Championships truly worthy of the name by having the first four UK major championships (plus the national championships in other countries, of course) as qualifiers? Assistance with travel costs to get to Scotland could be introduced by sponsors, promoters and the respective Associations. Indeed, why limit such an event to Scotland each year? It has only been since 1986 that the flagship event settled on Glasgow as the venue. Make it truly a ‘world’ and ‘world class’ event. Too fanciful? As I say, I’m just scattering seeds …

Ross Ainslie and Calum MacCrimmon, two leading pipers who eschewed the competitive piping world a long time ago.

Taking a long-term view, there are now two generations of pipers that have eschewed the competition platform entirely. Some of these pipers are very competent and certainly capable of scooping prizes at competitions. Performance is their thing, the concert platform their habitat of choice. Clad in jeans and t-shirt, playing entertaining music of their choice in comfort to an audience that’s also listening to them in comfort.

Some of these individuals limit their involvement with pipe bands to assisting with medleys and in doing so they have enriched the music we enjoy playing and hearing. Although, quite why they don’t see the attraction of rising at 05:00, donning the garb, waiting in the rain for the pipe band bus to take you a soulless Central Belt park to tune up for an hour (in the rain), then march into a circle formation (in the rain) all the time trying not to be put off by wee Davie blootering next to you because he’s still hung over and the Pipe Major really should’ve dropped him but couldn’t because he’s short on numbers, and then sitting through the post-mortem (in the rain) before heading to the beer tent/burger van for some overpriced, tasteless sustenance and then waiting for what seems like an eternity for the march past/prize giving (in the rain) before returning home at midnight shattered … I have no idea.

Seriously, though, after the 2019 monsoon competition season, has the time not come to consider moving the band season forward a little and holding one – the Worlds perhaps – in early autumn and/or in an appropriate indoor venue? Climate change in Scotland is resulting in wetter summers and slightly better autumns. “But there was a heatwave in 2018,” I hear you say. Yes, there was. And that’s my point: extreme weather that results in diminished performances from the bands.

In the world of competitive solo piping, it is surely time to review how the tunes are set each year for the major competitions? The tunes set for the Silver and Gold Medal, the Clasp and Senior Piobaireachd competitions at the Northern Meeting and the Argyllshire Gathering are chosen by the Piobaireachd Society’s Music Committee. “Why so?” I hear you ask. Well, actually it is simply because this is a legacy of the general philosophy of a century ago that piobaireachd was ‘rescued’ by the Piobaireachd Society. A quick recap: in 1903, Capt. John Campbell of Kilberry, a scion of a prominent Argyll family, invited 14 individuals from landed and military backgrounds to form the Piobaireachd Society. Campbell’s brothers, Angus and Archibald, were also founding members. Membership grew quickly but remained largely aristocratic. Few were players and professional pipers were excluded from membership.

From the outset, the Piobaireachd Society wanted to sponsor a major professional piping competition at the Argyllshire Gathering but under the Society’s rules and choice of tunes. The Argyllshire Gathering agreed but the pipers did not and there was a partial boycott at the first competition at Oban in 1904. I won’t relate the ins and outs of the whole stooshie because William Donaldson’s book, The Highland Pipe and Scottish Society 1750-1950, covers it in detail and is well worth a read.

Thus, the reason the Piobaireachd Society sets the tunes is purely historical … it’s always been that way. However, the attitude that ‘it’s always been that way’ is not a reason for continuing with something that could be improved and brought into the modern era.

Craig Sutherland competing in the Clasp at the 2019 Northern Meeting for judges Malcolm McRae, Iain MacFadyen and Ian Duncan.
Craig Sutherland competing in the Clasp at the 2019 Northern Meeting for judges Malcolm McRae, Iain MacFadyen and Ian Duncan.

The Music Committee of the Piobaireachd Society comprises some well respected and extremely competent people – at least two of whom are rightly considered as being Master Pipers – but I do wonder if having it set the tunes for competition has become an anachronism in this day and age? Surely, the judges and competitors should have a say? Both the Competing Pipers’ Association and the Solo Pipers’ Judges Association comprise some extremely competent people, some of whom also sit on the Piobaireachd Society’s Music Committee. At the very least, surely they should have an input into the tunes? No one owns the music.

Through its recitals at the Edinburgh Festival in recent years, the Piobaireachd Society has taken small steps in making ceòl mòr less impenetrable and esoteric to the general public. This is to be applauded and encouraged. However, as Allan MacDonald put it at one of the judges’ seminars held in the Ardvasar Hotel on Skye sometime in the 1980s: “The Piobaireachd Society should stand back and start discussing music and leave the competitions to other people.”

On a more philosophical note, perhaps this will be the time when the sound of the instrument itself is appreciated and understood by more pipers. The great highland bagpipe is, after all, a harmonic instrument yet we hear far too many instruments these days that produce hardly any harmonics. They’re in tune, yes, but that’s all. The pipers of old knew all about harmonics. Pipers such as Pipe Major Donald MacLeod MBE who put it well when he said (I can’t recall where): “The scale of the bagpipe differs from the diatonic scale with which most people are familiar, but harmonises with the fixed bass of the drones.” When Pipe Major Willie Ross MBE was once asked to describe the bagpipe he said: “The drones act as an amplifier to the chanter.”

The bagpipe set up adopted by a large number of pipers today is simply not producing enough harmonics from the drones. This is true of whether they are using synthetic drone reeds or even cane drone reeds that are not set up properly. A lot of pipers, and even Pipe Majors of leading bands, seem to think the drones are just a sound on the shoulder when really the drones are the instrument. To obtain clarity and projection from the chanter, one needs to have the correct harmonics in the drones. One can achieve brightness from the chanter (with drone harmonics) without having to have a high-pitched chanter.

I believe too many pipers – and some judges – have become used to a monotone drone sound with no ‘colour’ or ‘timbre’. This ‘downtime’ is the time to address that. It is to be hoped that in doing so, more pipers will discover that there is no such thing as a ‘cane drone sound’ or a ‘synthetic drone sound’. There are either harmonics or there aren’t … and there are synthetic reeds on the market today which produce more harmonics than cane.

There’s plenty to be positive about in piping just now. On the whole, it’s in a very good state but that statement on its own would belie the full picture. That can wait for another day, though. To end on a lighter note – and we could all do with one I’m sure – The Northern Meeting has for a while been thinking of ways to get more bums on seats. Well, in its report of the results from the Northern Meeting of 1872, the Aberdeen Journal included:

Putting on the Breacan an Fheilidh or Belted Plaid, the Ancient dress of the Highlander – 1. T. S. Douglas, Aberdeen (2min 15 sec); 2. J. Moon, Piper to Col. MacDonald, St Martin’s Abbey, Perthshire (2min. 20 secs).

All the major solo piping events do tend to be rather overtly serious affairs so how about reviving this contest on the Eden Court stage for a bit of fun? It’d certainly be popular and would draw an audience!

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• The views expressed in all blogs that appear on Bagpipe.News are not necessarily the views of the National Piping Centre.