By Stuart Milne.

The outdoor competition season in northern Europe kicked off in style on May 6-7 at the Peine Highland Gathering in Lower Saxony, Germany.

The Saturday pipe band contest was the largest for years, drawing 18 bands from the usual mix of Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and Denmark. Weather conditions were dry throughout, with a mix of cloud cover and sunshine in the morning giving way to a pleasantly sunny afternoon. Thankfully, there was no repeat of the 30-degree heat that proved so challenging for competitors and spectators alike at the 2022 World Pipe Band Championships in Glasgow.

The band competition consisted of Grade 5, Grade 4, Grade 4 MSR, Grade 3 (medley), Grade 2 (MSR) and Open Grade events. The three-band Grade 5 contest was won by a combined band of the Clan Pipers – Frankfurt & District Pipe Band and their near neighbours Moguntia Pipes & Drums from Mainz. This trend continued in Grade 4, as three collaborations of bands competing together featured prominently in the upper echelons of the 13-strong field. The Riverside Alliance Pipe Band (Antwerp & District and the Wallace Pipe Band), Bragi Pipe Band (combining with fellow Danish outfit Holbaek) and German Thistle (Berlin Thistle and Baul Muluy from Hamburg) finished second, third and fifth respectively. Bragi also came first in drumming. While the bands ranked second through fifth were separated by just a handful of points after four evenly-matched performances, the grade was comfortably won by Beatrix Pipe Band from Hilversum in the Netherlands, long one of the region’s strongest bands at this level.

All photos by Stuart Milne. Photos can be clicked and will open at a larger size.

The march music played in Grade 4 is often quite different from what UK-based pipe band followers are used to nowadays. While some bands choose to follow the RSPBA’s prescribed list of 2/4 marches, bands in this part of Europe are not required to do so, resulting in a broader range of time signatures, harmonies and overall musical treatment that was once common before the RSPBA rule change to Grade 4 playing requirements.

Beatrix continued their winning streak in the Grade 4 MSR, run closely by Bragi (whose drum corps were in excellent form all day, claiming another first) and Crest of Gordon from Bremen, who also placed fourth in Grade 4.

It was a decidedly mixed day for the two Grade 3 bands – Concord from the Netherlands and Nutscheid Forest from Germany. Concord swept the board with straight firsts in the Grade 3 medley event, while Nutscheid Forest were beaten to second place by the Grade 4 Heather Pipes & Drums from Copenhagen, who along with Bragi played in all four events they were eligible for throughout the day. The four bands playing up from Grade 4 mostly gave a very creditable account of themselves, with Riverside Alliance putting in one of the more spirited performances of the day that went down very well with the crowd.

Nutscheid Forest went on to claim first prize in Grade 2 and the Open Grade ahead of Concord, who kept up their serial winning streak in the drumming standings. The Heather Pipes & Drums completed the Open Grade prize list.

All photos by Stuart Milne. Photos can be clicked and will open at a larger size.

In the Sunday solo contests, the top prizes in the Grade 2 and Open light music events went to Stefan Linder and Aaron Langwiesner, with Niklas Helmcke the sole entrant in Grade 1. Philip Burchardt won the Urlar and Dagmar Pesta won the Piobaireachd.

Jan-Ph. Stolz and Kes Kunze won the Advanced/Former Winners MSR and Hornpipe & Jig respectively in the solo snare drumming, with Jan-H. Staschel winning the Open Tenor and Bass events.

Overall, while much has changed in the piping and drumming scene in this part of Europe in the last few years, there is much to be optimistic about. Yes, there are no longer any active Grade 2 bands in mainland Europe outside of Brittany, and it was noticeable that the two Grade 3 bands competing at Peine only fielded seven pipers on the day. But while the upper echelons of the pipe band pyramid are depleted, the standard of Grade 4 continues to improve. Moreover, the significant number of joint entries in Grades 4 and 5 meant that twenty pipe band organisations in total were represented, more than turn up to some minor contests in the UK. The harsh reality is that bands in the top two grades come and go all the time, and only a healthy grassroots level provides a strong foundation for the future. The newly-formed National Youth Pipe Band of Germany, which performed before the massed bands and prize-giving at Peine, offers potential for raising the standard at a more institutional level in this part of the world.

Moreover, it is telling that a German professional football club, FC St. Pauli from Hamburg, now has not one, but two pipe bands (Grade 4 and 5) within its organisation – just the sort of thing the famously maverick second-division side would do. Currently, no Scottish football team can boast an equivalent pipe band all of its own – now there’s an idea…

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.