By Stuart Milne.
Piping Today #89, 2017.
It is 2004, and in the hall of Inveraray Primary School in the heart of Argyll in the south west of Scotland, five youngsters are having a lesson in piping and drumming.
Stuart Liddell, one of the world’s top solo pipers and then twice winner of the World Pipe Band Championships with Simon Fraser University Pipe Band, conducts four pupils through the retreat march I See Mull on what are clearly newly-acquired sets of pipes, with another learner on side drum. The tune is still a challenge for the four pipers, never mind the mechanics of getting the instrument to behave – and the less said about the introduction, the better. The young drummer soon starts to go off tempo – Stuart gestures toward him and begins to time the beat with his hand more forcefully. The unison comes together again, and Stuart puts down the sheet music he has been holding in his other hand for one of the pipers to read while he attends to the drones.
Soon the group move outside to the playground and begin to march to their tune, with predictable results. It is, as Stuart puts it, “pretty much carnage”.
The reason this scene is so familiar to pipers and drummers around the world, and so hilarious with hindsight, is that it opens the video montage Inveraray & District Pipe Band uploaded to YouTube in advance of their Ascension concert at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall in 2013. The remaining 15 minutes of running time chart an astonishing progression as Stuart and leading drummer Steven McWhirter developed this small group of inexperienced youngsters into a thriving juvenile competition band who won three promotions in three years to smash their way into the elite adult grades.
In August 2017, 12 years after making their competition debut at the Cowal Highland Gathering in mismatched uniforms and with borrowed drums, Inveraray won the ultimate accolade of the Grade 1 World Championship.
Such a rise from the lower grades with a cadre of youngsters to the top of the world has not been seen since Dysart & Dundonald Pipe Band under Bob Shepherd MBE in the 1960s and 1970s, and it was certainly not in Stuart’s vision when he began teaching the group that would become Inveraray & District in the early 2000s.
Stuart said: “It was interesting to watch how keen they were and how much they wanted to play together. The school janitor, Tom Paterson, strapped on an old bass drum that we had and joined in, so we had a wee ensemble.
“One step led to another – we accumulated more players as they became progressively better. We decided to nurture this and pursue it, not for any interest of my own, but because this was the interest of the group. The goals were basically just achieving small tasks and watching the kids nurture themselves and see where they wanted to go with it.”
As the band started to take shape, a need developed for a regular drumming tutor to work alongside Stuart teaching the piping. This role was filled first by Stuart’s friend Gary Smyth from Northern Ireland, and later by his SFU bandmate Steven McWhirter, who had started his own drumming career in a similar weeknight class with Cullybackey Pipe Band under leading drummer Adrian Hoy.
As Inveraray grew into their inexorable rise to the upper limit of the juvenile grades, Steven became convinced they would one day reach Grade 1 listening to the band playing some of their concert material away from the arena at Cowal 2008, just before the youngsters were crowned Juvenile Champion of Champions.
Steven said: “The performance in the Cowal Games tuning park before the march past was one of those moments I don’t think I’ll ever forget. There were guys from Field Marshal Montgomery and St Laurence O’Toole looking on. It was just one of those moments where the kids knew all the big guys were watching, and they were really just playing out of their skin. With the sound, the playing, the drive and the musicality they had, I just thought to myself that it was going to really go somewhere in the future.”
A fragment of Inveraray’s performance of the Gordon Duncan hornpipe Ian Green of Greentrax is preserved on YouTube, as is the shaky and shrieky mobile phone footage of the wild celebrations as the band of mostly teenagers capped off their one-and-only season in Grade 2 the following year by winning the World Championship double to seal the Grand Slam and the Champion of Champions awards for band and drum corps.
Inveraray began life as a Grade 1 band by joining the Vale of Atholl on the stage of the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall at the 2010 Celtic Connections festival, before pre-qualifying for the Worlds final at the first time of asking and breaking into the top six at Cowal. Since then they have fallen out of the prize list only once, at the 2012 World Championships, and have topped the table seven times as a band and six as a drum corps.
One of the band’s youngest members has served a pivotal role throughout Inveraray’s tenure in the top flight: bass drummer Mark Stark. Recruited to join the then-Novice Juvenile band as cover for Inveraray’s original bass drummer Alan Duff, Mark was called up when Alan left the senior band following their promotion to Grade 1.
Mark said: “I think I was maybe only 13 at the time, so it was a complete surprise. I knew at that stage it was what I wanted to do. Being a bass drummer, you don’t know when you’re going to get a chance to play in something like that again, because it’s not like being a piper or snare drummer where there is a more or less infinite number of opportunities everywhere. There are only 30-odd spaces, and even fewer in Scotland. It was an opportunity I just couldn’t turn down.”
To prepare him for the challenge, Mark received a range of tuition from Stuart and Steven’s contacts in the pipe band world, including Kathryn Tawse, Simone Reid and Tyler Fry, who Mark says were particularly influential in developing the visual aspects of his performance. He was also taken under the wing of highly-respected American drummer Mike Cole, who split bass duties with Mark along major/minor lines for Inveraray’s debut Grade 1 season.
Mark said: “What Mike taught me a lot more about was the drumming side itself, looking at the idioms, looking at weighting playing ruffs on the bass drum, and just drumming in general. I think it’s very easy to forget that the bass drummer is actually a drummer. You have to do all the same things the snare drummers do, and to be at the top of your game, you need to concentrate on rudiments as well. You hear poorly-weighted rolls all the time – maybe one hand’s heavier than the other, or they’re not quite going at the same speeds or whatever. Being aware of this was something that Mike helped me develop.”
Mark was on bass at Inveraray’s first outdoor competition as a Grade 1 band at Gourock in May 2010.
He said: “I remember it was an OK run. It obviously wasn’t as good as we would expect now, but coming off, I’d played in the competition and I hadn’t let the pressure get to me. I was only 14. Steven pulled me aside and said, ‘You were great today.’ He had all the faith in me to go on and do the job, and that gave me a bit of confidence, because it was a daunting time going into a Grade 1 band. I’d only been playing a couple of years myself – it was a big step up.”
Three years later, Mark and the rest of the corps celebrated another landmark achievement in the happy hunting ground of Dunoon as Inveraray won their first Grade 1 drumming title at the last Cowal Highland Gathering as an RSPBA major.
Steven said: “Because we had played the pre-Worlds concert that year, we’d been working really, really hard. I told the guys we were not going to have any practices before Cowal. We were just going to go and have a tune and enjoy it and finish the season off on a high.
It was probably our best performance at Cowal in the times that it was a major, probably because it was relaxed and there was no expectation from anybody other than just to have fun and play well. When the results came out, it was quite a surprise. I guess I just expected that Field Marshal would continue their winning streak in the drumming that year – they had three majors in drumming, including the Worlds, so to beat them two weeks later was really cool.”
The following summer, in just their sixth season as an adult band, Inveraray won their first Grade 1 major with their Helen Black of Inveran medley at the European Championships in Forres.
Stuart said: “The first taste of victory was a brilliant experience, and emotional as well. It’s different from my point of view. I remember what it was like winning with Simon Fraser University, and it’s just absolutely ecstatic. However, being responsible and in charge makes for a different kind of feeling, knowing that the band have done well but also that there’s still buckets of improvement still to be had. You’re never quite happy, the pursuit of excellence is an ongoing thing. It was an excellent moment and good for the young ones.”
By this point the membership of the band was changing. While a small core of Stuart’s original group were still around to hoist a Grade 1 championship trophy having started out in Novice Juvenile less than a decade before, many had since moved on. Alasdair Henderson had taken over as pipe sergeant from Dougie Campbell, now with Johnstone Pipe Band, and a number of highly experienced Grade 1 veterans were starting to swell the ranks.
One such player who joined in 2014 was Alasdair MacKenzie, a native of Strathpeffer in the far north of Scotland who had spent the last decade playing with ScottishPower Pipe Band. Unusually for a Scotsman playing with a Scottish outfit, he flies in for seven weeks at the business end of the summer from his home in New Zealand, where he is pipe major of the City of Invercargill organisation, with bands at Grade 4, Juvenile and Grade 1 levels.
Alasdair said: “Stuart is a tremendous leader. I feel very lucky to play under him as pipe major. He wears his heart on his sleeve and is incredibly humble – I think if you watch his Worlds-winning speech you will see that. We wanted to win it for him, as much as for each other. He is an awesome musician and soloist as well. I’m very much influenced by chatting to and watching leaders within our band and previous bands I’ve been with. It’s great I can take that 12,000 miles back to Invercargill.”
While Alasdair is keenly aware of the responsibilities of leading a Grade 1 pipe band, flying halfway across the world to play in a band pushing for major championships evidently has challenges of its own.
He said: “There’s no doubt flying in maybe adds a bit of pressure, so you need to be 200%, or don’t bother, particularly in a band of Inveraray’s level. We generally record each practice, so I keep up to date with those. I pump out the early majors on my smart TV through the speakers and sometimes get the pipe chanter at the same pitch and play along.
“I pretty much jump from the New Zealand season straight into the Scottish season and then back into the Kiwi season. I have the best of both worlds, quite luckily, with no winters. It’s quite refreshing stepping into a band and just being a player sometimes, but while I’m there, I offer as much as I can. Whether it’s parades or quartets, I like to put my hand up.”
Steven credits the band’s success in 2016, when they won the British and Scottish Championships to top the Champion of Champions tables as a band and drum corps for the first time, to developments they made to their roster and practice regime in the 2014 and 2015 seasons. However, he is also clear that there was still much work to do if the band were to improve the following campaign.
He said: “We just lacked consistency in 2016. Although we won a few majors, it wasn’t the same every time we went out. We played very well at the Worlds that year and only lost by a point, which was a bitter pill to swallow in some ways, but to lose to Field Marshal Montgomery, who have been so consistent over the years, isn’t really cause for complaint either.
“It probably took me a few months to get the enthusiasm back for the band after the 2016 Worlds. I remember listening to the medley from the Worlds about two months later thinking, ‘That was a really great performance, it’s time to get going again.’”
Steven also feels his management style has evolved over the years to get the most out of his corps.
He said: “Realising my ‘not good enough’ mentality isn’t the same as everybody else’s is the most important thing I’ve learned as a leading drummer. I’ve had to learn how to know when to put the pressure on the guys and when to just let things go.
“The drumming part of it is relatively easy in comparison to the management of people. I would say one of the biggest turning points is when I had kids of my own, I realised that there’s so much more to life than just pipe bands and not missing a practice, so I became a whole lot more understanding of other people’s personal circumstances. I’m pretty lenient during the winter when people have other things going on. Whenever we need everyone, I’m then not scared to tell people I cut them slack during the winter, so now it’s time to give their time back to the band whenever it really matters.”
When asked how he pulls off the apparently relaxed demeanour that seems to characterise his leadership of the band, Stuart’s first response is laughter.
He said: “Picture a duck swimming on a pond. I think through solo piping, you get used to being able to show a good face, but you can actually be quite nervous underneath.
“What really helps is the fact that Alasdair Henderson and the team work really hard, and they are very attentive to some of the small details, so they do take a lot of pressure away from me when it comes to contests.
“Because we’re rehearsed enough in practice, as we go through the motions everything is routine and planned out beforehand. If the weather plays a part, then we just adapt it slightly. There are no surprises, therefore I don’t panic so much.”
Inveraray started the 2017 season by retaining the British title at Paisley, and added the European and Scottish titles before the final day of the World Championships dawned on August 12. A tie with Field Marshal Montgomery in the March, Strathspey and Reel round of the Grade 1 competition was followed by a commanding victory in the medley, helping Inveraray to a seven-point lead when the scores were tallied.
Describing how it felt when RSPBA Chief Executive Ian Embelton pronounced Inveraray & District Grade 1 World Champions only a decade after he read out their name in Novice Juvenile, Stuart, Steven, Mark and Alasdair all use the same word: “relief”.
Stuart said: “The announcement is probably more nerve-wracking than the actual performance. From my point of view, I felt we’d had a good run. It was not without its tiny wee flaws, and all bands would have them anyway. I really didn’t feel that it was going to be. You’re just taken away on this tidal wave of emotions and disbelief. It’s wonderful at the same time – you just can’t believe it and then you’re holding Spike and the banner. There’s a wee bit of relief in there as well, because we have to face a lot of things to get there.”
Steven said: “The biggest thing I remember is being very on edge all day. I knew the band were playing well, I knew the drum corps were playing well, and I really just couldn’t wait to get out there and play our two sets. Drumming-wise, the MSR was probably the best I’ve been a part of. The medley was very solid. After we played, to be honest I didn’t really think about it. I just felt like we had done all we could do, and that was to play well. It took no time at all until we were in the marchpast.
“When the drumming result came out, I guess it was shock and relief all at the same time that we had actually managed to win it. I was pretty confident when we won the drumming for those 10 seconds that we probably had done enough to win the Worlds. But I tried to put that out of my mind, because I didn’t ever want to win the drumming and not win the Worlds as a band. For me, the drumming is the cherry on the cake – if you win the Worlds as a band and you win the drumming, it’s the ultimate. I tried not to get my hopes up in those 10 seconds that actually feel like 10 minutes before Ian Embelton announces the result.”
Alasdair said: “For me personally, it was almost a relief after 13 Worlds final performances in Grade 1. I remember hearing the band’s name read out and just jumping up and down, and for some weird reason launching the pipes about 20ft in front of me. I’ve heard horror stories about snapped bass drones in celebrations but I wasn’t quite thinking right. That was quickly followed by tears of joy, it was quite surreal.
“I was so happy for the team, the village and for Stuart. I guess one of my big goals was to make my parents proud. Ironically they weren’t well and didn’t make it for the first time in about 10 years, but my sisters were there. I just remember briefing myself before I left New Zealand, ‘I need to get Spike for my parents, two people who did so much for me growing up.’”
Mark said: “We played off and we got to where our gazebo was, and we formed up and played the Hector the Hero medley we’d won it with. That was a different kind of performance from the one we played on the Green. Everybody’s so close to you, you can feel that buzz in the air when you’ve got family and friends around you. It was nowhere near as clean as the run we had on the Green but it was a special one.”
While the jubilant band members are inevitably the ones who appear in the news coverage of the signature event in the pipe band calendar, Stuart is at pains to highlight the contributions of the many people who have helped Inveraray & District on their remarkable journey.
He said: “There have been so many helpers over the years. My own father Billy passed away in 2003, and that might have been a catalyst for my determination in the beginning. He was a good accordion player himself and a top-class chef. My mum Agnes and my dad are the number one heroes for me. Along the way, the whole project would not be where it is if it wasn’t for the McMillan family. Branching off of that, we’ve had lots of local support and help from parents and families and friends.
“Robert Stewart would be another name to pick out. Robert was taught by my grandfather Ronnie McCallum, and he came back latterly to help me teach the young ones on a Tuesday night and ended up being the pipe major of the Juvenile band that we had. He unfortunately passed away in 2011.
“These things just do not happen with one person, it happens because there’s a whole chemistry of people that are willing to go forward at the same pace in the same direction.”
Indeed, the awards have kept coming since the momentous day on Glasgow Green. Inveraray’s enduring popularity in the pipe band world gained further confirmation when they were voted Pipe Band of the Year at the Scots Trad Music Awards in December, a few weeks after Steven extended his streak of victories at the World Solo Drumming Championships to seven, his eighth Adult title.
He said: “There’s not a whole lot more that I could really do in pipe band drumming. I try not to think about records that have been set, like how many sashes have been won, or how many World Solo Championships Jim Kilpatrick MBE has won. I just try to play my best every time I go out and play the best music that the band can possibly play. That probably gives me the biggest buzz of all – it’s just continuing to create really good music that we love to play and people love to hear.”
That focus on playing good music as well as it can be played has been a hallmark of the band since their earliest days.
Stuart recalls leading Inveraray’s first practice after winning their first major championship in Novice Juvenile. He said: “I remember the kids coming in as usual, all hyped up and really proud of themselves. I asked them all how they felt it went – all positives. We sat down and watched the video, and I asked them again how they thought the performance was. ‘It was great,’ they replied. I said, ‘Yes, it was good, but I’d like you to listen to it again, and I want you to listen to these three bits’ – the introduction and these little sections where I thought it was a bit rough.
“They listened to it again, and you could see the realisation that it wasn’t a perfect performance – it was good, but there was room for lots of improvement.
“Our attitude has really been the same since that time – look at areas of the performances here and there where we can improve the overall package. We’ve always tried to achieve that.”
The Ascension video finishes with another attempt by the little band of pupils at marching up and down the hall of Inveraray Primary School. This one is even less successful than before, and the kids burst out laughing as the performance breaks down completely.
One can only assume that Stuart joined in the laughter, explained what was wrong and how to fix it, and everyone tried again, aiming to play it better.
Now, 13 years later, we know how the story ends.
Stuart Milne, was a very important part of the Piping Today magazine team from 2014 till it ceased publication in 2020. Stuart had a wide breadth of knowledge of the pipe band scene and his insightful, skilful writing always brought out the human story behind the pipes and drums. Stuart is now living and working as an English teacher in a German university.