The rise of Inveraray & District Pipe Band – Ascension 2013


By Fraser Bruce.
Piping Today #63, 2013.
It seems every generation produces a notable pipe band rise, but rarely do we see a group catapult themselves to the kind of success and distinction achieved by Inveraray & District Pipe Band. For a band who have annually made giant leaps forward, 2013 is perhaps their defining year. Despite only being a fully-fledged adult band for five years, Inveraray & District will grace the coveted stage of the annual Pre-Worlds concert to perform Ascension this August.

Though now on the brink of winning a major contest, the band were born from the most humble of beginnings just a decade ago. World-renowned piper Stuart Liddell had become involved in teaching around Mid-Argyll. Getting great enjoyment from doing so, Stuart decided he wanted to offer the same tuition to his home-town of Inveraray and the surrounding area, setting up a Tuesday night class for local kids. He said: “There was no thought or desire to form a band at this point although, within a year, I quickly found that the top group enjoyed playing tunes together. I think the seed was planted when Laura McMillan asked me: ‘Stuart, do you mind if we march?’”

•Inveraray & District Pipe Band at the British Pipe Band Championships in Annan in 2012.

One night, young drummer Graeme McMillan was invited along after Stuart ‘acquired’ a drum for him to accompany his sister Laura and four other pipers. Stuart recalled: “The janitor of the school, Tom Paterson, was kind enough to let us in to use the school and we put him to good use by getting him to batter away at a tambourine or something.” From this, the youngsters made the suggestion of forming ‘a wee band’. This was to be the birth of Inveraray & District as Stuart drafted in assistance from friends starting with pipe sergeant Dougie Campbell.

“It was evident from the beginning that our very different styles of teaching (Stuart’s being based around a fun approach and mine being intensive) made for an effective combination,” said Dougie. “I could see the benefits being reaped by introducing young players to the foundations of solo piping and bandcraft, particularly in relation to phrasing and technique, and a general understanding of music.” 

•Pipe Sergeant Dougie Campbell at the Celtic Connections Piping Concert in January 2010

With a drive to source other youngsters to build a band, Gary Smyth from Northern Ireland travelled over to provide drumming instruction across all disciplines. Steven McWhirter, who was with the Simon Fraser University Pipe Band at that time, came on-board with the teaching programme and was very impressed by what he saw: “The structure was set for individuals to do their job. This provided a great environment for the youngsters who just wanted to learn and have fun.” 

Attracting more young recruits, Stuart saw the next stage in this expanding venture. “Progress was fast and, before long, we had a beginner band.  In the winter of 2004/5, the next natural step for us was to try our hand at Novice Juvenile competition.  We had enough players for the required minimum and I felt that competition would help fuel and maintain their interest in playing.”

With such quality of teachers in place, the band’s structured learning system saw the development of a Novice Juvenile band which debuted on the competition field at Cowal 2005. Stuart said: “We registered the band with the RSPBA who gave us our affiliation number — 666.  At Cowal we came in 13th (another lucky number).  We have the judges’ sheets from that day laminated for posterity. We didn’t have a vision in the early days. It was just going from one natural step to the next.”

Jim and Isobel McMillan (parents to Laura and Graeme) are highly credited for their hard work behind the scenes in running the organisation. Jim praised the close-knit support system the band had to grow from its inception. He said: “Parents were always there to help with transport, fundraising or anything else that we asked them to do. Even nagging their kids to practise. The locals did the same and many who didn’t have kids in the band were still keen. The local businesses and other organisations were also happy to help. They are very proud of their band.” 

One such example is in one of the town’s cafés, David’s, which supplies many members their breakfasts for Sunday practices. David has a collection tin in his shop for donations to support the band’s cause. The band also ran a successful lottery every week which raises a considerable amount to help funds.

Throughout the town, the band have utilised a host of practice venues ranging from the primary school, the senior citizens’ hall, the church hall and even the town’s fire station.

There is a great family and community spirit of the band that is still in evidence today, as Jim proudly stated: “It’s always been a very family oriented band and it’s amazing how many brothers and sisters played with us.” The remarkable list of siblings actively playing in the organisation includes the McMillans, the Underwoods, the Wilsons, the Fyfes, the Watsons and the Grays, not to mention the many other combinations of brothers and sisters over the years.

Jim continued: “We usually have two busloads at major competitions as well as a load of people who make their own way there. Apart from supporting the bands and wanting to see them play well, everyone also likes the craic.

In competition, the band made a name for themselves up against some well established juvenile organisations by taking home prizes at every contest entered in 2006. After winning all bar one major championship in 2007, Inveraray gained promotion to the Juvenile grade. With Dougie Campbell leading the band whenever Stuart was in Vancouver with SFU, the youngsters were to hit their peak in season 2008, a year in which they were to be beaten in only one Juvenile event. Dougie said: “They were genuinely surprised. I could hear the quality of their phrasing, execution and sound for a band at their stage of development and knew, as must have Stuart, that they would be in the mix — but they clearly didn’t realise that. That was probably in part down to the fact that their expectations were well managed.” 

However, there was the impending realisation that many members were approaching the age limit for the Juvenile category, leaving Stuart with an important decision to make. He said: “By the end of our successful Juvenile year, we faced losing one or two of our key players.  The choice of moving to the adult grades felt right at the time because we were on a high and the chemistry was good. There was a feeling that the kids wanted to stick together as long as possible and with the Juvenile programme only going so far, the adult grade was a far bigger ladder to climb.”

Lead drummer Steven McWhirter remembers how the idea of evolving into an adult band was first conceived. “Stuart and I agreed in the George Hotel (another major sponsor and great supporter of the band) one night in early June 2008 that, if the band won the third Championship, we would both leave SFU and move to Scotland permanently to take the band into the adult grades. We actually shared a room in Seattle, USA, while competing with SFU and listened to the band win the third championship over the phone. I think it was about 3 or 4am American time. That was it really.”

•Lead drummer Steven McWhirter playing with Inveraray at the Celtic Connections Piping Concert in January 2010.

Stuart and Steven’s partnership grew as they both played together for many years at SFU. It was a fitting send-off for both in their final season, as SFU won The Worlds in Grade 1 on the same day Inveraray became Juvenile Champions. Stuart had become Steven’s piper at solo drumming events, and their musical collaboration blossomed when Steven won the World Solo Drumming Championships in 2006, aged just 23. Stuart puts it down to Steven’s readiness to come and build the drum corps as the reason for the progression of Inveraray into the senior grades. He added: “It was easy to play for Steven, both his technique and his musicality are of the highest standard and I also realised that I wasn’t the only pipe band geek listening constantly to recordings over the years.  That and his availability to come and play for us made him an obvious choice. 

“I think our ensemble partnership is great.  I haven’t personally worked with any other drummers at a top pipe band level but Steven is all about ensemble, he is open-minded and always willing to compromise for the sake of getting it right.  He is also full of musical ideas and constantly throwing them into the mix. Sure, there have been the odd disagreements on the way but, overall, I think we have a very healthy partnership.”

Steven agreed: “We have always been very frank with each other. Like all partnerships, we disagree on things and when this happens, we generally tend to sit down and quickly sort it out before it escalates into anything that can spoil the chemistry in the band. The one thing we have in common is that we feel the music in the same way. We appreciate each other’s abilities and generally trust each other’s instinct on all things musical. I guess, in short, we have always gotten along well and wanted the same thing from a pipe band.”  

The Grade 2 band arrived at Dumbarton in 2009 and captured everyone’s attention by performing their now famous Clumsy Lover medley which served well for several seasons. But in storming to victory in the grade, there were some unexpected consequences for the Pipe Major, as he explained: “I thought down-playing the expectation on results might ease any unnecessary extra pressure on the performance. Going into Grade 2, I think I said if we managed to stay off last place it would be a bonus. In fact, in the unrealistic chance that we get into the top 10… I’ll eat my pipe case.  Of course, we did well by winning the first championship and I subsequently ate my pipe case in the form of a very accurate cake replica.”

•Pipe Major Stuart Liddell leads the band into the circle for their Grade 2 winning performance at the World Pipe Band Championships in 2009.

This reverse psychology ploy continued all season, as the band secured an unprecedented grand slam. Stuart even fulfilled a bet that he would compete as a side-drummer in the All Ireland Solo Championships after the band not only just attained a prize, but won the World Championships outright. There are supposedly several more bets the Pipe Major has yet to honour.

It was an incredible achievement for a band to jump from the Juvenile categories and some 12 to 14 months later find themselves elevated to the premier grade. But, for many, it was no surprise. “As a tutor, seeing the band’s performance at the Cowal Games tuning park before massed bands in 2008, I knew then they would go to Grade 1 eventually,” said Steven. 

The band had indeed come a long way in such a short space of time. “It was also great to see so many of the youngsters who played in the Novice band still in there and moving up to Grade 1 in 2010,” said Jim McMillan. “It made me think back to their first ever contest in August 2005 at Cowal when they all wore different kilts and had borrowed drums.”

As the band rose into the Grade 1 competitive circle, they also attracted a number of top-calibre players to join their ranks, including Alasdair Henderson, who now has a prominent role in both musical matters and in setting sound. Alasdair, from Dunoon, was proud to see the great talent emerging in Argyllshire but was well aware of the difficult task that lay ahead. He said: “I knew that it was going to be the biggest challenge the band had faced since marching up and down the front green in Inveraray back in 2004. I was excited to see where we could take it.  It was evident to see the amount of hard work that had been put into the band up until this point and it only got better as the winter went on. I would say the goal at this point was to try to establish our own identity within the grade and raise the standard to enable us to stay in the grade for the years to come.”

Alasdair switched from the ScottishPower Pipe Band as did drummer Gus Sicard, who had moved to Scotland from Brittany three years before, joining to play under his friend Steven McWhirter in the drum corps. Gus was immediately impressed by the attitude of the young members. He said: “Rules and discipline were there from the very start. The kids grew up with them and every new player has to fit in the band. You don’t miss band if you don’t have a good reason, you don’t forget to do your homework without getting in trouble. The youngsters were very mature and professional. I was really surprised.”

This disciplined approach seems to have infiltrated through the whole membership over the years, as Dougie Campbell attested: “We do have a crop of talented young players and I think, in the case of those who have played since the Juvenile days and still remain, it gives us a strong starting foundation — as they have grown up with the IDPB formula. For those who have come in since, the attention to detail probably seems quite intense at times, but the players that Stuart has taken in over the years have tended to be sufficiently open-minded and adaptable.”  

In their first year in Grade 1, the band performed consistently enough to merit pre-qualification to the final of the World Championships, revelling in the experience to register an excellent ninth place in the competition. This form saw their season finish in some style, securing a fifth place at the Cowal Games to cap off an incredible couple of years. Jim recounted the moment the prize was announced: “I was standing with our supporters and it was like being at Hampden when Scotland had just scored a winner, if you can remember how that feels.”

By the time the 2011 season commenced, the band were generally accepted as major prize-winning contenders. But the mentality has not changed, as the band leaders still instilled the same values and stuck to what Stuart and Dougie call the ‘formula’ which had been in place since the beginning. “To this day, it is a modest attitude which has remained with the members of the band and one which I think is reflected also by incoming members of the band as time passes,” said Dougie.

Talking about the band’s coming of age, Jim laughed: “Sometimes it was much easier to organise the kids — they did what they were told and always turned up on time. But to be honest, it hasn’t really changed at all.”

With a phenomenal third place in the European Championships at Belfast’s Stormont Park followed by a fine fourth place at the 2011 World’s, the strictly professional mind-set is perhaps best demonstrated in the reaction to the band’s best result to date, a superb second place at Cowal in 2011. “It is interesting how a year can change one’s perspective” said Steven. “At Cowal in 2010, fifth place was an amazing result as our goal, at that time, was to break into the top six. The thought of finishing second seemed a long way off and we knew the performance had to be so much better to achieve that goal any time soon. At Cowal in 2011, I didn’t think the performance was as good as it should be to gain a second prize at a Championship, but I guess the more you improve, the more your expectation level of performance changes as well.” 

A key ingredient of any pipe band is, of course, that of the bass drummer. In Mark Stark, who only turns 17 this year, Inveraray have one of the most talented and exciting proponents of the instrument. Mark’s induction into the Grade 1 band three years ago has a very interesting back-story, as his leading drummer recalled: “I lost my original bass drummer, Allan Duff, in late November 2009. He was one of the first original members to leave the corps and, at the time, it was a huge loss and also a strange feeling that someone who had grown up in the band would want to leave now we had ‘made it’ to Grade 1. I guess these kids worked hard all of their early teens and wanted to experience something different. I didn’t have anyone to replace him, which prompted my Skype call to my good friend Mike Cole in Chicago, Illinois, to ask if he would like to move to Scotland for the summer and help out with not only playing the bass but also developing Juvenile bass player Mark Stark at the same time. Mike accepted my radical idea and played the 2010 season. He was influential in the tuning of the mid-section and was very receptive of what I wanted from the corps in terms of ensemble effect.

“Mark developed very well under Mike’s tuition although, in saying this, he has also put his own stamp on his style, developing what he has grown up watching around him. This is something I have been very encouraging of in all the young players from day one, to watch the good players and take from them what works for the individual. Everyone has something to teach you if you are receptive to what it is you need to learn. Although Mark is the youngest bass drummer in Grade 1, he is also a very mature young man and this shines through in his ability to sacrifice notes at times for the good of the overall band effect. He is easily one of the best drummers in the corps.”

•Piper Laura Underwood and ‘stand-in’ bass drummer, Mike Cole, at the Celtic Connections Piping Concert in January 2010.

One thing that is clear about the set-up of Inveraray & District is just how much of a team structure there is in place, but this can be considered necessary in the successful running of modern pipe bands, as Dougie Campbell explained: “I think we all know our own strengths well and divvy it up accordingly. In terms of the more creative music that we play, I normally have a large input into the medleys and concert material and work most closely on that side with Alasdair Henderson, who has had a huge input into the material. 

“As part of that, I contribute along with him in terms of arrangements and harmonies.

“While I am aware that I do probably take a more active role as pipe sergeant than many of my counterparts, I appreciate equally that there is probably a lot more delegation in pipe bands nowadays than in years gone by: bands are bigger, so there is more work to do… more work to do to achieve tight, quality playing, more pipes to look after — and, with a major concert commitment, the workload increases further again. The idea of one person taking care of everything doesn’t seem to be a particularly effective recipe for success for most bands nowadays, with the standard of bands at the very top so high — and in the case of a number of top bands it is probably a naive notion.”

Gus revealed the openness in the drum corps, where every member can offer musical contribution. He said: “I was surprised by how much input everybody has in the corps compared to other bands. From day one, and even before joining, Steven was asking for ideas and improvements to his music. I have the same role as every other drummer in the corps, bringing as much as we can to the music and to the team, helping out if somebody needs help, coming up with ideas or changes when we think something can be improved.”

It seems the band also adopt a similarly co-ordinated approach in selecting and compiling their repertoire. “We have a small group consisting of Dougie, Steven, Alasdair, Gus and myself, although it is open to anyone within the band,” said Stuart. “We are in constant thought about music and, at the end of each season, the band take a month or so off and our small music team get together once or twice a week to throw ideas around.”

Dougie added: “The musical committee works generally by way of collaboration and discussion, which probably gives us a more interesting and diverse approach to our music than we might otherwise have”. 

“If it’s enjoyable for us to play, hopefully it will be enjoyable for the audience to listen to,” said Steven. He admitted: “We try to pick tunes that other bands haven’t done before but this isn’t always possible… sometimes a great tune is a great tune, no matter who has played it previously.”

Much like how the band had to evolve from a juvenile programme into a fully-fledged adult organisation, the practice schedules have also had to adapt as the lifestyles of the players changed. Stuart revealed: “As time has progressed, each year presents more difficult challenges in terms of getting everyone to the practice.  In Juvenile and Grade 2, the practices were always in Inveraray.  Then, a few of the young ones started attending university or college in various parts so we started having one practice mid week in Glasgow and one on Sunday in Inveraray, which is more or less how we run it now.  With the addition of pipers coming from further afield over the last couple of years, it is getting a little more difficult but everyone seems to be making a lot of effort to be there.  We try to fit in as much one to one time on the pipes as possible and, at the moment, Dougie takes central belt-based pipers on Wednesday at The College of Piping and I take the ones that live close to Inveraray on the same night.”

•The band at the World Pipe Band Championships in 2012.

“As the youngsters gradually became adults, our style at practices in terms of communication changed, as did performance expectations.” said Dougie. “However, there are inevitably new challenges, year-on-year, as players take up work and study commitments and new players with different life circumstances come in. We have always tried to be empathetic and to accommodate players’ circumstances and needs in different ways, but there do have to be boundaries, obviously, with a view to getting the best out of the whole team.” 

He continued: “We still try to do what we can on pipes rather than practice chanters and Stuart and I still have a ‘never-good-enough’ attitude to what we are hearing. There are always things that can be improved and, as long as we pick on these things, the band will hopefully perform at a high level.”

The dedication of the members, who now travel from all over the country (some from as far as Dundee and Lockerbie, as well as others from abroad), demonstrates the hard-working passion that exists in the band. Full weekend rehearsals have now been implemented on a monthly basis as Inveraray readies themselves for the Pre-Worlds show.

However, Inveraray & District are not novices at performing concerts by any means. In fact, on their very entry into Grade 1, they were thrown straight in at the deep end by being invited to perform at the annual Celtic Connections Piping Concert alongside the Vale of Atholl in January 2010. Doing a sterling job, the band also took to the stage in Aberdeen, for Bucksburn & District’s annual concert in March 2012.

Stuart said: “Celtic Connections and Aberdeen have given us valuable experience on the concert stage and have helped us build an extensive concert repertoire. It is an absolute honour to be given the opportunity to play at the Pre-Worlds by the Glasgow Skye Association.” Steven acknowledged the high standards that are expected on the Pre-Worlds stage. He said: “There is a certain element of pressure… but it’s a good pressure. It makes you work hard and raise the standard within the group as everyone wants to stage a great show that will go down in the band’s history.”

Alasdair sums up the kind of wide appeal the band are trying to achieve with their musical variety. He said:  “I think the way we have arranged the music for this year’s Ascension concert is to include something for everybody and their dog. Whether that is the general punter who ‘likes bagpipes an aw’ that’, or somebody playing in the Juvenile grades or fellow competitors from Grade 1… you get the picture.”

The battle to push the boundaries in any pipe band concert is a testing one but Inveraray & District will attempt to put their own spin on the format in August. “Pipe band music for two hours is pretty boring no matter how good it is,” conceded Steven, “so we have tried to pull in ideas from other types of music and incorporate them into what we do.”

One such connection appears to be between Inveraray and the Bagads of Brittany, stemming perhaps from Gus Sicard, who was a former long-time leading drummer of Bagad Cap Caval. Additionally, Alasdair and other band members have enjoyed stints piping with Bagad Cap Caval and the favour has been returned with drummers from Cap Caval joining the ranks as Inveraray players for past seasons. For the Ascension concert, this French flavour will continue as the band is joined by renowned percussionist Dominique Molard.

The Inveraray side drummers at the British Pipe Band Championships in Annan in 2012.

Lead-drummer Steven McWhirter said: “Dominique is coming up with some great ideas for the show and we are working closely with him to collaborate on some pieces. The fanfare is going to be exciting as Dominique will be heavily involved and it’s a piece that has been evolving since a drumming geeks’ weekend in Limerick 2010.”

Gus added: “Dominique Molard will be a great addition. We’ve played together in Cap Caval for a few years and he re-defined what percussion is today in Bagad music. We’re working closely with him to bring different colours and rhythms to a few sets as well as the fanfare… I’m really looking forward to playing together again.” 

•The Inveraray drum corps at the British Pipe Band Championships in Bathgate 2013.

Gus also revealed the band will perform some other classic Breton sets, one such being accompanied by a 25 year old drum-score written by his friend who sadly passed away 9 years ago.

The band are also boosted this year by the presence of prolific Australian composer and musician Mark Saul. Dougie said: “Besides Mark’s own well-recognised abilities as a writer, with his production skills he has helped a lot behind the scenes by letting us explore further some of the musical ideas we have come up with as a group.”

There is no doubt that the members are now hungry for success in the competition arena. But Stuart does keep a lid on expectations, and insists the emphasis is on producing quality music and performance. He said: “I’m immensely proud of the success of the band.  It is difficult to have a vision on where the band will be in the next few years but it is my hope that it continues to aim for excellence and to keep improving on performances.”

Inveraray & District Pipe Band at the British Pipe Band Championships in Bathgate 2013.

The legacy continues with a second generation juvenile band following in the footsteps of the senior band. This outfit was led by the late Robert Stewart until his sad passing in 2011. The current crop of juveniles receives piping tuition from Stuart, assisted by Kate Paton, Annie Grant and Dave Rischmiller — while the Grade 1 drummers Andy McCulloch, Eilidh Fyfe and Mark Stark take charge of tutoring the drum section.

It is fascinating to watch Inveraray & District warm up. Stuart and his aides adopt a meticulous approach to setting up chanters and producing a word-class sound. Pipe sergeant Dougie cuts an animated figure when the band practises, emphasising the desired expression with vivid body language. Steven also urges his drum corps to execute a similar kind of aggression and drive. The result is an exciting and dynamic ensemble that will surely dazzle at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall.

To put the scale of the band’s achievements into perspective, we can look back to Stuart’s earliest wishes for what could become of his little Tuesday night teaching project in his local town.

Dougie summed it up: “Stuart always said that, if just one of the group was still playing by the age of 18, then we would have managed to achieve something. By that yardstick, I suppose you could say we achieved what we set out to do — but I think we all held a bit of an ambition to build something more special.”

In under a decade, what they have built has ascended into something very special indeed. 

•The Ascension Concert in 2013.
•The Ascension Concert in 2013.
•The Ascension Concert in 2013.
•In the GRCH foyer after the Ascension Concert in 2013.