Michael Grey’s Notes: Pipe Band tribes all have an Aunt Ethel


by Michael Grey.
Piping Today #81, 2016.

It’s estimated there are over seven billion people inhabiting our dear blue place — planet earth. That’s a seven and nine absolute zeros. To me, an unimaginable number of anything, let alone a measure of human souls.  And yet, time and again, in the face of big numbers, we encounter a small world. 

“It’s a small world — though I wouldn’t want to paint it,” said comedian Steven Wright. And there’s nothing like a looming, inestimable paint job to put something in perspective. Sure, we know the world is massive. I think it’s knowing this that has us easily imagining cosy comfort when some serendipitous happening meets our day. Like finding your neighbour is sister to your high school English teacher’s mum. “It’s surely a small world.” “Awww, we’re all connected,” you might groan. Or not.

•Ethel Duncan

Last week I received an unexpected note from a guy who claimed we were cousins. My dad’s Aunt Ethel turned out to be cuz’s great-grandmother. Forget that no one calls their kids Ethel anymore — why, I can’t imagine — but the interesting thing was my new-found cousin lives only blocks from where I work. It’s not outside the realm of possibility that we’ve ridden the same subway car at the same time, stood in the same fast food queue or (judiciously) downed a pint in the same pub, again, at the same time. It’s surely a small world.

In fact, according to internet pioneer, Brad Templeton, we are all — at least — 16th cousins, meaning 17 generations ago, you — and me — shared the same couple, the same ma and pa. “…it is 99.9999% likely from these numbers [his calculations] that any given person is at least a 16th cousin. And 97.2% likely that they are a 15th cousin — but only 1.4% likely that they are an 11th cousin …”, wrote Templeton. Let’s hold off on the hole-picking for a minute and carry on (i.e. “what about sub-Saharan residents and my ginger rellies from Derryhaw?”)

Let’s join hands for a moment and acknowledge there is some truth in “a man’s a man”, “Jock Tamson’s bairns” and Adam and Eve. At some point in history we all sprang from the same place, quite possibly not far from cousin Lucy’s place, Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania — the location, you’ll know, of some of the oldest human remains yet found.

And yet, we don’t always act like close kin, or kin, for that matter. We collect in groups, mass in tribes, aggregate our interests, align with countries and geography: north, south, east, west. Humans seem to be hidebound tribalists. If you’re not from here, you’re from “away”. Different. Not of our kind. Not quite like us and, so, not to be trusted. Tribalism has been defined as a very strong feeling of loyalty to a political or social group. And in loyalty you tend to  support the group — the tribe — in whatever they do. I’m no expert here but I know enough to say the subject of tribalism is hugely complex and so will just say, from what I understand there are good and bad sides to tribalism.

“Call it a clan, call it a network, call it a tribe, call it a family: Whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one,” wrote anthropologist Margaret Mead’s biographer, Jane Howard. And while a tribe, or clan or network, might breed distrust, there are benefits in protection and so survival. A tribe maybe helps you live a little longer, but not necessarily better. A tribe truly is a small world.

I’ve talked before of pipe bands as tribes: with their own identities, customs, character and colours. These days our betartaned brigades of pipes and drums get along pretty well. No mid-contest blowdart to any Pipe Major’s bag has yet to happen — to my knowledge. And, still, I believe, there is a hint of mistrust between bands, between tribes. A cynicism maybe born of competition but there, nonetheless. 

And so it was the perfect storm of Brexit and the European Pipe Band Championships that blew the doors off my writer’s block at the 11th hour of my Piping Today deadline. On Brexit, the outcome is personally disappointing. The “grand experiment” of bringing together dozens of official and working languages, countless cultural nuances across European Union member states and a whole lot of competing interests inspired. And inspires. Some might say that a little mistrust of others, of outsiders, helped the current outcome. A hint of tribalism.

And so to the remarkably timed “European” championships, once again staged brilliantly, by all accounts, in the northern town of Forres — less than 48 hours after Brexit. 

Now if you’ve been around pipe bands long enough and have a cynical enough head — and if you have been around pipe bands long enough you will have a head that’s cynical enough, well, then you will know this: outcomes of competitions are very often (always) anticipated by bands based on who is known to be on the judge’s roster. It has been like this forever. 

And let me connect the dots now, to this long-winded blether about tribes and pipe bands and aunties. Pipe band judges don’t come from Roswell, New Mexico. They aren’t dropped off courtesy of big-eyed intergalactic lovers of a good old march, strathspey and reel. Pipe band judges are born of tribes, of pipe bands. When the judges hired for a contest are published most every band considers where that judge came from — what tribe — and considers their chances accordingly.

Now. I must say. My ramblings are not meant to impugn the integrity of any pipe band judge. We know standards and processes are in place to support objectivity. My interest here is to highlight what I believe is a tribal reality.

So, let’s have an unvarnished — and mostly fictitious — look at what might happen when a member of a pipe band views a slate of planned judges through their tribal lens — no matter that assessors are at least 16th cousins. Piping, drumming and ensemble shown here (“+” or “-” equate to positive or negative impact):

P1 – J CrabbitP2 – T CouthyD – C OxterE – P Haver
Tried his chanters and sent them back (-3)Playing one of her
compositions (+1)
Ex L/D of famous
rival band (-2)
Known to call the same result of a previous contest (-2) – unless beneficial
Just bought new kit for the band — from his biz (+5)Sister is ex of bass drummer — bad break-up (-1)Recently returned
from workshop hosted
by a competing band
(not yours) (-2)
Spent one winter
trying out for the band.
Didn’t make it (-4)
Comes from the east (-1)Comes from the west (-1)Comes from
the north (+2) 
Has placed us high
in the past (+6)

And in a band’s vetting of a judges’ list comes the handicap a pipe band perceive they have entering a competition.  While my intention is to have a light-hearted look, we do need to acknowledge this reality. Better to talk about it and do what might be done to make these perceptions a little less cynical and a little more family-oriented. I mean, good God, we’re all cousins — 16th anyway. 

And remember, ultimately we all have the same Aunt Ethel. Bless her heart. 

Mike Grey plays, teaches, judges, writes and publishes bagpipe musicHis Grey’s Notes series ran in Piping Today magazine for ten years.