There and back again

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The St. Andrews Caledonian Pipe Band of Tasmania toured Scotland In the summer of 2019, the. As was the case with many bands, this proved to be the outfit’s last trip for a while. JOHN RALPH, the band’s Pipe Major, recounts the band’s incredible visit

On paper, St. Andrews Caledonian Pipe Band from Launceston, Tasmania, is about as representative of pipe bands as you will find anywhere: well-known and regarded in a home town with strong Scottish cultural roots, a proud 88-year history of service to the community and has been through the cyclic fortunes common among bands. Tasmania is the same size as Ireland but with a tenth of the population. Like many island folk, self-reliance and innovation are all part of the territory.

For a geographically isolated pipe band, our members have accrued a great list of bucket list performances as guest players – the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo and similar in Switzerland and Germany; the Festival Interceltique de Lorient, performances with André Rieu and even a private performance at Balmoral for Her Majesty, the Queen. The band has also performed in its own right at Edinburgh Castle, Stirling Castle, Belfast City Hall and with the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards. In competition, the band has competed in Grade 4B in Northern Ireland, Cowal and the Worlds. With these experiences, and the contacts made since the band’s first tour of Scotland in 2005, the itinerary for the 2019 tour of Scotland, with a young band, had the potential to be a grand experience for all.

Fundraising is always the key plank in international tours and, with the costs being in the order of £60,000, there needed to be plenty of it. The band has run a series of successful annual concerts throughout Tasmania which has not only been successful as a fundraiser, but also is an opportunity for the band to exercise its commitment to collaborating with other pipe bands in Tasmania. All pipe bands in Tasmania are invited to perform in their shows and, when they do, are paid. To date, the band has been able to fundraise successfully by doing what the band is there to do: to play pipes and drums and promote Scottish music and culture by collaborating with other pipe bands and Scottish cultural groups.

The 2019 tour reflected those sentiments by traveling with more than just the band. The traveling group included four highland dancers (one a recent finalist at Cowal), two singers and the pipe band. The ambitious performance itinerary for the band’s ‘Collaborate & Conquer’ tour was prolific:

DateLocationEventPerforming with
August 1ObanInformal performance 
August 2PortreeStreet parade and ConcertIsle of Skye Pipe Band
August 3StornowayCarnivalLewis Pipe Band
August 4St. KildaConcert in the chapel 
August 5UllapoolStreet parade and concertUllapool & District Pipe Band
August 7WickStreet parade and concertWick RBLS Pipe Band
August 8DounbyStreet paradeKirkwall City Pipe Band
August 9KirkwallConcert at St. Magnus HallKirkwall City Pipe Band
August 10TarlandTarland Agricultural ShowLonach Pipe Band
August 11PerthPerth Highland Games[Cancelled]
August 12Blair CastleConcert at Blair CastleSons of Scotland Pipe Band
August 12PitlochryVale of Atholl Pipe Band’s ‘Highland Night’ showVarious bands
August 13EdinburghEagle Pipers’ SocietySons of Scotland Pipe Band
August 14EdinburghConcert at Holyrood PalaceSons of Scotland Pipe Band
August 14FalkirkConcert at The Kelpies 
August 15StirlingConcerts at Stirling Castle and Bannockburn 
August 16GlasgowWorld Pipe Band Championships Beating Retreat and opening ceremony of the WorldsVarious bands
August 17GlasgowWorld Pipe Band ChampionshipsSons of Scotland Pipe Band

Here’s a map of that itinerary:

That’s about 2,000km in 17 days and included five ferries.

August 1, Glasgow to Skye via Oban
Having arrived in Glasgow the day before, after 24 hours of flying, there was no time like today to be on the bus and into the tour. Oban’s waterfront was a great spot to see how the instruments travelled (and to buy a new bottom head for a snare drum that did not travel well). Everything went satisfactorily and the traveling day continued, with some of the tour group heading to Skye via the Jacobite steam train to Mallaig, while the remainder of the group stayed with the bus as it stopped at Eilean Donan castle before collecting the train enthusiasts up at Armadale. Portree was our night stop.

Near the waterfront at Oban.

August 2, Isle of Skye
The day started with a rehearsal and instrument tuning session and working through our concert formation options. The middle of the day provided a chance for a quick bit of sightseeing to Dunvegan Castle before getting ready for the first combined performance of the tour. We tapped a Tasmanian connection where the father of a piper who now calls Tasmania home is a local radio host and we were able to talk up the band’s upcoming performance in Somerled Square. The Isle of Skye Pipe Band is a frequent host to visiting bands and our bands performed a street parade before we performed before hundreds who had ventured out on a glorious summer evening. A retreat march by the two bands was followed by an evening of ‘philosophy’ at a local pub.

With the Isle of Skye Pipe Band marching through Portree.

August 3, Isle of Skye to Isle of Lewis
As timings were tight this day, the rear deck of the ferry from Uig was as good as any place for the band to tune up and this turned into an impromptu performance that the captive audience seemed to enjoy. Once disembarked in Tarbert, the tour group was onto a waiting bus to be taken to the head of the parade for the Lewis Carnival. It was literally four minutes from when the band stepped off the bus in Stornoway before the band was marching in the two-mile parade through Stornoway with the Lewis Pipe Band. The massed band grew midway as the Lewis & Harris Youth Pipe Band joined in. Once in Stornoway, the band performed its own static set. A march back to the Lewis Pipe Band rooms was followed by superb hospitality. The band’s performed again that evening for the ceilidh and a fine night was had there.

On the ferry from Uig to Tarbert. “‘Crossing the Minch’ anyone?”

August 4, St Kilda
Sunday was a perfect time to make the journey to St. Kilda. The ranger on Hirta greeted two pipers, two highland dancers and our Drum Major (who is a more than passable crooner) and we were asked to put together an afternoon concert at the Village Bay Chapel. The locals and visitors were treated to a variety show of some merit with the soundtrack of the concert recorded for use in an subsequent nature documentary on the island. The islands were farewelled in fine piping style as our boat departed. 

Inside the Village Bay Chapel on St. Kilda.

August 5, Stornoway to Ullapool
The ferry ride to Ullapool was an ideal location to get out the practice chanters and pads and go over some music. Time would be short on arrival in Ullapool to get into our accommodation, dressed and ready for the evening performance with Ullapool & District Pipes and Drums. Ullapool’s finest rain and midges were on hand to greet us, which made the performance a challenge but it was a great chance to test the band’s performance in non-ideal conditions.

Ullapool.

August 7, Inverness to Thurso via Wick
Following a travelling day to Inverness the day before, the next performance was with the Wick RBLS Pipe Band whose band room would be the envy of any. It was great to share the band’s regular Wednesday evening march and concert.

Wick.

The hospitality by the band’s committee was fantastic and the jam and scones come highly recommended!

August 8, Thurso to Stromness
The band was up early to put the bus on the ferry to Orkney. After visiting Skara Brae and the Standing Stones of Stenness, it was time to meet the Kirkwall City Pipe Band at the Dounby Agricultural Show. For a small parade, it was made unforgettable by the welcome provided by the locals. 

August 9, Kirkwall to Aberdeen
This was the band’s second visit to Orkney and each was marked by a memorable performance in Kirkwall with the home band. This year’s performance was before an appreciative audience in the St. Magnus Hall with a fine session of ‘tea and fancies’ to follow. Sadly, our time here was very limited as there was an overnight ferry to Aberdeen waiting for us.

August 10, Kirkwall to Edinburgh via Tarland
Arriving early in Aberdeen, the band was met by representatives of Grampian Police Scotland Pipe Band. The plan had been to reprise the 2005 performance between the bands but circumstances made that not an option. However, the band made superb efforts to make our time in the area productive and band representatives met us at the ferry terminal in Aberdeen, took us on a guided tour of Aberdeen before we headed on to perform at Tarland with the Lonach Pipe Band. We were due to perform at the Kinross Show, but inclement weather had washed the show out, along with the Perth Highland Games the following day. At the end of a long travelling day, we arrived in Edinburgh with four nights in the one place being quite welcome!

Tarland.

August 12, Blair Castle and the Vale of Atholl Pipe Band’s ‘Highland Night’, Pitlochry
The band met up with friends from the Sons of Scotland from Canada whom we would be sharing many of the performances this week, including the World Pipe Band Championships. The Vale of Atholl Pipe Band’s ‘Highland Night’ shows have been going since the late 1960s and is a fantastic opportunity for visiting bands in Scotland to perform in a street march and a static performance, before finishing up at Pitlochry Town Hall for tea and fancies and an informal playing opportunity. As a warm up to all that, we had a solid performance at nearby Blair Castle before.

Playing down Atholl Road in Pitlochry with the Vale of Atholl.

August 13, Eagle Pipers’ Society, Edinburgh
The Eagle Pipers’ Society is a legendary bunch of crack pipers enjoying retirement from full-time band duties. But their hands are still in great condition and it was a fantastic evening of performances with a couple of pipers from our band taking up the invitation to play solo before a high quality audience. If that isn’t enough to go along for a night with the Eagle Pipers, the £1 pies were top notch!

August 14, Palace of Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh, Helix Park and The Kelpies, Falkirk
One of the great outcomes from collaborating with other pipe bands is sharing knowledge and networks. The Sons of Scotland Pipe Band’s Pipe Major, Bethany Bisaillion, has connections everywhere and had organised access for our bands to perform at the offical residence of the British Royal Family in Scotland – the Palace of Holyroodhouse. The performance was a great combination of the two band’s combined repertoire and a healthy audience of visitors to the palace were given an extra treat with the performance by the pipe bands and highland dancers.

Leaving Edinburgh and the Sons of Scotland behind, St. Andrews Caledonian Pipe Band performed at Helix Park and the iconic Kelpies near Falkirk before traveling to Glasgow for the final three days of the tour.

August 15, Bannockburn and Stirling Castle
Stirling is, conveniently, a short bus ride from Glasgow and it enabled the band to perform at two iconic locations: Bannockburn and Stirling Castle.

Whether it was the location, the perfect weather or the amount of time we had been playing for the previous two weeks, the performance in the Queen Anne Gardens at Stirling Castle [pictured, above] was rated as our best of the tour. Energised by that, pipers from the band climbed to the top of the Wallace Monument and gave an impromptu concert there!

August 16, Opening Ceremony of the World Pipe Band Championships – Beating Retreat and performance in George Square, Glasgow
With the Worlds just a day away, we joined with the Sons of Scotland from Canada and Silver Thistle from the USA to Beat Retreat through the centre of Glasgow before a static performance by the bands before the RSPBA President and the Glasgow’s Lord Provost, Eva Bolander, herself a piper. After a civic reception at the magnificent City Halls, the band members headed to Glasgow Green to soak up the atmosphere of the Worlds Grade 1 heats and to help orientate our first-timers to the Worlds.


August 17, World Pipe Band Championships
The band had covered a lot of territory and played a lot of shows over the last 17 days. And, while there is so much that the band will take from this trip, it wouldn’t be regarded as a traditional build up for the Worlds. And, while the combined bands of St. Andrews Caledonian and Sons of Scotland didn’t make the Final in Grade 4B, the result didn’t define our band’s tour. However, it did allow the members of our band the opportunity to soak in the afternoon’s activities and see the best bands in the World going hard at it. And the celebrations back at our accommodation that evening was the cherry on the cake of a great day and an amazing tour.

Competing at the Worlds.

Epilogue
Following the end of the band’s 2019 tour, four tour members continued on to compete at the World Highland Dancing Championships at Cowal, with one dancer making the final. Another went on to find their ancestral roots and perform at their clan castle in Scotland. Others travelled to Belgium to perform in the nightly Last Post ceremony at Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres. Plans are already being discussed for St. Andrews Caledonian Pipe Band’s next overseas tour.