Stuart Letford: Where are we now?

Stuart Letford

Well, readers. What’s up?

“It’s an adverb!”

I’m aware of that, thank you. What I mean is, how is the COVID-19 situation in your part of the world? From what I gather, the picture globally remains quite inconsistent yet. In some places, such as Australia, where we in Scotland had looked on with some envy as it at times appeared to be handling the virus well and where some normal piping activity was taking place, the picture is not good. The US, France, Spain and Israel have either begun vaccinating children aged 12 and over or are about to start. In Holland, its Prime Minister apologised last month for esing COVID-19 restrictions too early as infection rates rocketed daily to peak levels.

Meanwhile, in the UK, where only last month it felt that in some regions, COVID-19 was becoming out of control again, it appears that the situation has improved. (If you have still not received a double vaccination, what is wrong with you? Get it done.)

However, if we are to have a return to piping activity next year we must remain cautious. The UK as a whole currently has one of the largest Delta variant waves in the world. If this pandemic has taught us one thing it is that you can’t control the timing, depth and duration of waves of infection. Here in Scotland, the Scottish Government put the country into level zero of COVID-19 restrictions a few weeks ago and yesterday announced further easing of the restrictions. However, the use of face coverings in some public places will remain in place for “some time”, even in nightclubs, which can open from next week here. I can set it now:

“Ye’ dancin’?”

“Ye’ maskin’?”

“Ah’m maskin’.”

“Ah’m dancin.'”

It would be a fool who would suggest that this winter won’t see widespread U-turns and restrictions.

More generally, most of us also hoped to be physically back at work. Clearly, a huge proportion of the workforce will remain working from home for some considerable time yet. We note a large office furniture company in Grand Rapids, Michigan, has been encouraging its employees back to the office by hiring a local pipe band to entice the company’s 1,400 staff to return to the office. We hope this will not have the opposite effect …

More seriously, a recent survey by the UK’s Office for National Statistics shows 36% of those currently homeworking think they will spend most or all of their time working remotely in future, whereas nearly 40% of businesses expect 75% of their workforce to return to the workplace. A more enlightened approach has been taken at the National Piping Centre, one that seems management leaving such decisions pretty much at the direction of the employee. With teaching having taken place completely online for over a year now, a balance is being struck regarding delivering in-person lessons and those online. As far as possible, arrangements are being made to suit the individual.

It feels timely, therefore, to take stock of where the piping world is with the pandemic.

Most of us believed – hoped! – we would have returned to some degree of normality way before now and that 2021 would have seen us back at band practice and taking part in competitions etc. in much the same ways we did before last spring. Scientists didn’t. They knew fine well that we’d be dealing with this novel virus for quite some time. (They are quite wise these scientific people. We need wise people in these troubled times. What I always say to anyone who would listen is, if you’re in need of wisdom, a wise person should be your first stop … and not a piping pundit.)

Despite many bands able now to return to band practices, much piping continues to take place online. In solo piping, Oban and Inverness have been cancelled for the second year running (although at the end of this month Oban will be holding a reduced non-competitive event in this its 150th anniversary and the MacGregor Memorial will go ahead online as it did last year) and the Piping Live! festival (including the prestigious Silver Chanter) will take place from this weekend mostly online. A reduced audience is allowed at most shows that will take place in the auditorium in the NPC’s McPhater Street hq.

The Lochaber Gathering’s Professional, A Grade and B Grade ceòl mòr competitions are going ahead in the cinema in Fort William. It remains to be seen whether the London Competition will be able to go ahead physically. Closer to home, the National Youth Pipe Band of Scotland is planning to resume in-person activity in October, pending restrictions. At this stage, we can only wonder about the format the Glenfiddich will take.

However, most piping people are not stupid nor are they selfish. Frustrated though we have all been over the last year and a half, we see the bigger picture. Our respective governments have all tried to handle this pandemic in various ways and with varying degrees of success. In my experience, there are very few pipers who would wish their respective governments would simply throw caution to the wind in order that we can enjoy our hobby. Most of us have watched aghast as various sporting events took place this summer but very few of us have pointed to them and spluttered, “Whit aboot us?”

As I said, we’re not that stupid. It has to be said, though, that as early as last May, a tiny number of piping people were just not grasping the severity of this pandemic. The bewildering thing is that after all this time, some still aren’t.

Yes, some pipers and a few pipe bands globally have given up. Frankly, so what? ‘Twas ever thus. Recently, I helped the piping historian, Jeannie Campbell with her about-to-be-published weighty tome on the history of pipe bands and one thing that became abundantly clear from browsing through the book is that throughout the entire evolution of pipe bands, some form, some fold. And for a variety of reasons. So what?

Really. So what? Are we to mope, wail, gnash our teeth and look desperately to the heavens every time a lower grade band or a ‘gala’ band folds?

In the northern hemisphere, there remains around 15 hours of daylight this month. That’s plenty of time to get out to your local park and have a blow, either on your own, with friends, or with your pipe band. Most of us can do this indoors now as well.

For what seems like an age, we’ve all had to knuckle down*. It seems we can at last peer cautiously and tentatively from under our glengarries to next spring. See you on the grass (but not on the counter march …).

* Incidentally, ‘knuckle down’ is by far the best way to cook a trotter.

A couple of weeks ago, a piper I hadn’t seen in years was piped ‘back to barracks’ for the final time. Kenny Cruikshanks served in The Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) then spent years working in the rail industry. As well as the Kirkintilloch Pipe Band he also spent time with the band in the nearby town of Kilsyth. In all the years I knew him I never heard him say a bad word about anyone. Not once.

A late-night parade at the Lorient Interceltic Festival some time in the 1990s. Kenny Cruikshanks (front rank, off-centre) with the author to his left.

We’ve all missed the pipe band camaraderie. It is something that the Kirkintilloch band exemplified utterly in those days (the 1990s). It felt that this band was simply the best band to be in. We were only a Grade 3 band but we had a huge amount of camaraderie.

I have many great memories of Kenny. My favourite would be the time the band swept the boards at the Isle of Bute Games. At the conclusion of the march down the street to the pier to catch the ferry back across to the mainland, most of us – except Kenny and a couple of other older band members – jumped into the fountain in joyous celebration. I can still see the look on the faces of the two po-faced members of a Grade 2 band that shall remain nameless that approached a grinning Kenny and demanded to speak to the band secretary to remonstrate at “this disgraceful behaviour that’s bringing the pipe bands into disrepute.”

“You’ll have a job,” Kenny replied, pointing to the very top of the fountain where a ‘merry’ bandsman was stood clutching a large trophy as the water from the fountain spewed upwards through his glasses, “that’s the Secretary up there!”

Great days.

During last month’s Euro 20 football [soccer] tournament, pipers weren’t allowed to play at any of the fixtures held in Glasgow. A great shame. Our instrument is quite safe from any virus in that whatever moisture control systems we favour, they all act as a filter for the warm moisture in our breath.

There’s always next time.

However, I had a chuckle at a story in British newspaper, the Mail on Sunday, on the morning of the tournament final. “The Anyone But England brigade prepare to be Italian,” it sneered, tutting over the prospect of “some in Scotland and Wales vowing to watch the final against Italy with a bowl of pasta and a glass of Chianti.”

Well, later that same day, the newspaper’s patriotic bosses arranged a special treat for those staff that would be spending the evening at their desks putting together the next morning’s Daily Mail while the England team battled it out on the pitch … with pizzas and bottles of Italian beer for everyone!


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