By STUART MILNE.

What do you get when a Highland piper gatecrashes a Tongan wedding? That’s a question that can only be answered in Auckland – home to the world’s largest Pacific Islander population and host of the 2024 New Zealand Pipe Band Championships on 15-16 March. As New Zealand’s biggest city and the main international gateway into the Land of the Long White Cloud, it was an ideal venue for competing bands travelling from overseas and any intrepid spectators willing to sit on a plane for up to 16 straight hours to attend one of the world’s most high-profile pipe band contests.

Two pieces of bad luck brought me to the northwest corner of North Island this March. Pipe band followers will recall that “the Nationals” were the last pipe band competition to be held before the coronavirus pandemic gripped the world in early 2020, and just about the only such championship to take place the following year thanks to the success of New Zealand’s fiercely strict lockdown measures. Ironically, an outbreak of the Omicron variant saw the cancellation of the 2022 contest, due to take place in Auckland, just as the rest of the world was finally starting to find its feet again. Two years on, the city was given another crack at hosting, and I found myself looking at plane tickets.

I was supposed to attend the 2023 edition of the Nationals in Christchurch, but a last-minute health snafu of my own sadly put paid to that. With the Auckland venue giving me the chance to simply fly in and out again over a long weekend, I decided to take the hit and fulfil my years-long dream of attending this contest in what has become my favourite country.

On the Thursday evening, a special premier screening of the documentary 12,000 Miles: A Kiwi Piping Journey from NZ to the Green was held in the Northcote area of the city, across the Harbour Bridge from downtown. The title refers to the length of the journey any New Zealand band must undertake to compete at the World Pipe Band Championships in Glasgow. As anyone who has done it will know, it is a heck of a long way that will set you back a lot more than an off-peak return from Bearsden, yet year after year Kiwi bands faithfully make the pilgrimage in numbers that would surely not be reciprocated if the Worlds were ever held in the Southern Hemisphere.

The film chronicles the four New Zealand bands that made the trip in 2023: Canterbury Caledonian Society, Manawatu Scottish and Auckland & District in Grade 1, and St Andrew’s College from Christchurch in the Juvenile grade. By featuring four bands, the filmmakers have a lot more ground to cover than single-band projects like the Spirit of Scotland film On the Day or Boghall & Bathgate’s own Vloghall YouTube series, but it packs a lot of great content into its running time. The hobby is explained well to “Muggle” audiences, and there are plenty of juicy titbits for pipers and drummers to enjoy – some of the interviewees certainly raised a few chuckles from their bandmates in the crowd. The documentary deserves to be seen by a wider audience and is well worth supporting.

Three key themes emerge from watching the subjects of 12,000 Miles do their thing: dedication, sacrifice, and the importance of teaching the next generation. Tellingly, the three Grade 1 bands all have lower-grade development bands in their organisations, while anyone who has spent time around the school bands that make up the Juvenile grade will appreciate what well-oiled professional setups these bands have become, delivering quality instruction by some of the world’s very best players. Indeed, one key line from the narration summed up Nationals weekend perfectly: “Kiwis like to play bagpipes and drums, and they like to play them well.”  That would be evident in abundance on the contest field.

Like the Worlds, the New Zealand Pipe Band Championships take place over two days: Friday and Saturday. That may seem like overkill for a contest only featuring around 50 bands (52 this year, including six from Australia), but each band in the adult grades (4B, 4A, 3, 2 and 1) plays twice in the circle, plus once in the unique street march competition. The result is that the music essentially never stops from 9 to 5 on both days, but unlike the World Championships, spectators genuinely have the chance to take it all in. Spectating on the Saturday of the Worlds involves making agonising choices over which arena to run to when, as there is quite simply no way of seeing everything you might wish to with so many bands competing at the same time. Instead, I was able to flit happily between the two circles on Friday, each timed to minimise overlap between performances, and simply pick a spot and stay there to soak up the Grade 1 and 2 competitions on Saturday afternoon.

Unfortunately, the weather was depressingly familiar to any Scottish visitors for much of Friday, which was largely overcast with frequent showers, though thankfully the wall-to-wall rain forecast for much of the day did not appear. This doubtless influenced spectator numbers at the start and end of proceedings, with the crowd size and atmosphere not exactly reflecting the magnitude of the occasion. The adult grades competing on Day One were 4B, 4A and 3. Notably, the playing requirements for the lowest grades in this part of the world are significantly more demanding than are the norm in Europe, with even Grade 4B bands performing both a March, Strathspey & Reel and a medley. Some might argue that bands at this level are better off concentrating on playing simpler tunes like marches to a good standard, but there were a number of very impressive performances, featuring more difficult tunes like The High Drive and Hamilton’s Nutsack. Only a couple of bands at the lower end of Grade 4B seemed to struggle with the format, though there were quite a few sloppy introductions across the board.

In the end, the Grade 4B championship was won by South Canterbury Highland, with City of Melbourne Highland No. 2 second in the overall standings. City of Dunedin, who finished third overall, swept the drumming with straight firsts in both events. It was a similar story in Grade 4A, with Hamilton Caledonian Society and Metro Scottish finishing well ahead of the rest of the pack overall, while Hokonui Celtic bested Hamilton in the tie for the drumming prize on MSR preference.

The Grade 3 MSR event was one of the highlights of the whole weekend, with all nine bands acquitting themselves well, making the contest very hard to call at the halfway stage. The performances were a little scrappier on average in the medley, but Northland Caledonian, Hawke’s Bay Caledonian and Auckland Police rounded off the event with three clean runs. In the end, City of Melbourne’s commanding win in the medley event, with three firsts and a second, helped them to both the band and drumming prizes in the overall standings, closely followed by Canterbury Caledonian Society and Auckland & District. 

The spotlight was turned over to the boys and girls of the 11 Juvenile bands to finish off the Friday competition. In New Zealand, bands in this grade play a march medley similar to Novice Juvenile B in the RSPBA pyramid, though the tunes can be in any time signature. There were some very, very small pipers and drummers (plus the odd piping instructor on bass drum duties) clearly just starting out on their pipe band journeys, through to the well-drilled “veterans” of the “A” band of St Andrew’s College, one of only three bands to win this grade in the twenty-two years it has been running. They defended their title with straight firsts ahead of the “A” band of ILT City of Invercargill Highland, champions in 2020 and 2021.

The major disappointment was that so few spectators stuck around for what is arguably the most important grade in any pipe band contest, for without fresh generations of young people picking up a practice chanter or pair of sticks, there is no future for the rest of the scene. The return of the rain and temptations of the beer tent may understandably have proven decisive for civvies and exhausted bandsmen and women alike, but it was depressing to find myself, a European visitor with no direct links to any competing bands, to be the only person left watching in my corner of the arena by the end of the first day of this national championship. Pipers and drummers the world over – please show up to whoop and cheer for the youngsters, however they perform.

Play resumed bright and early on Saturday morning (no rain this time) with the street march competition, a signature part of the New Zealand Championships that sees bands in all the adult grades judged on music and drill. The route took the bands right through the centre of the Takapuna district of Auckland’s north shore, a short distance from the main contest venue on Onewa Domain, ending a stone’s throw away from the beach. This is a great way of attracting an inquisitive audience who would otherwise not pay to go and watch the circle contests, as I discovered from chatting to several lovely locals tempted onto their streets by the unmistakeable buzz of pipe bands tuning up. It is perhaps no coincidence that the route began next to an Irish pub, which was already doing a roaring St Patrick’s weekend trade even at 9am.

This was the first chance for punters to hear the Grade 2 and Grade 1 bands. I had planned to keep my spot for the duration of the street march, but as the Grade 1 band of ILT City of Invercargill Highland wheeled away and launched into the opening bars of R. S. MacDonald’s Pivovar Express, I found myself drawn to follow them and soak up the rest of their performance. While they have established themselves in Grade 1 much more recently than New Zealand’s other top flight bands, they have always played compelling and enjoyable music under Pipe Major Alasdair MacKenzie, and this was no exception.

•DM Edwin Eeles (Auckland Police) at the New Zealand Pipe Band Championships 2024. Photo: Stuart Milne

The street march winners were Manawatu Scottish in Grade 1, City of Tauranga in Grade 2, City of Ipswich No. 1 in Grade 3, Hamilton Caledonian Society in Grade 4A and City of Melbourne No. 2 in Grade 4B. Canterbury Caledonian Society Grade 1, led by Wendy Chisholm, won the Drum Majors Championship. The Grade 3 bands of Auckland & District and Auckland Police brought proceedings to a fitting and emotional end by forming a guard of honour in tribute to retiring Drum Major Edwin Eeles, leading Auckland Police at his final Nationals after 60 years in the pipe band movement.

Healthy fast food at the New Zealand Pipe Band Championships 2024. Photo: Stuart Milne

As the bands and spectators moved back to the Domain for the climax of the weekend’s contests, a spot of lunch was in order. While the usual pipe band competition offerings of burgers and chips were available from the food trucks, this being Auckland, it was also possible to buy food that was not only healthy (gasp!) but yummy. Over the weekend I ate things I had never heard of before, and the teriyaki tofu was simply delicious.

Grades 2 and 1 each featured five bands, with one Australian band in each grade joining the local Kiwis: St Andrew’s from Brisbane and Hawthorn, freshly promoted to the top flight following their victory in Grade 2 in Christchurch a year ago. Regular viewers of the livestreams of both the New Zealand and Australian nationals will have noticed it is not uncommon for top bands in the Southern Hemisphere to attract a lot of familiar faces from the other side of the world to bolster the local ranks at these contests, but there were not too many this year. Among the most high profile were Stuart Liddell MBE playing for Invercargill (whose pipe major plays for Inveraray & District), new Shotts & Dykehead Caledonia leading drummer Grant Cassidy bolstering the snare line of Hawthorn, and Drum Major Brian Wilson MBE leading Wellington Red Hackle in the Grade 2 street march, not to mention brothers Richard and Gordon Parkes being flown in to join the judging panels.

What a contest it was, in conditions that were warm to play in but very pleasant for spectators. City of Tauranga, Grade 3 Champions a year ago, more than proved their worth in the second tier, making a striking visual impact right from the off with a front rank of eight pipers. It was a pleasure to finally hear a live performance at the end of their medley of The Black Stuff, made famous by Auckland & District at the height of their powers under Pipe Major Martin Frewen, while the drum corps also snuck in some cheeky backsticking in the strathspeys. Tauranga emerged at the top of the pile in a phenomenally close medley contest, with the top four bands separated by only four points. Another highlight was hearing St Andrew’s, regular visitors to Scotland in the last decade or so, for the first time in a little while. They are now led by Pipe Major Greg McAllister, part of the legendary McAllister family of Shotts pipe majors and recent member of Inveraray & District. While a lack of tenor drummers may have cost the band in the drumming and ensemble standings to a degree, overall they are in the best form I have heard them in under their new leadership and are well worth seeking out.

Ultimately, Celtic Pipe Band from Nelson, at the top of South Island, were crowned the Grade 2 Champions, nailing their MSR (Pipe Major Jim McWilliams, Dora MacLeod and Bessie McIntyre) to secure straight firsts and also placing first for piping in the medley. The roster in the contest programme reveals this is a strong family band, with no fewer than six Gilchrists in the lineup, including their pipe major, Callum. St Andrew’s College, who are mainly an under-18 band with a handful of adult instructors, were runners up, taking the drumming prize in the process.

In Grade 1, the showpiece event of the New Zealand Championships delivered in bucketloads. The MSR contest was terrific, and there are few greater pleasures in life than enjoying a front-row view of some of the best pipe bands in the world smash their medleys out of the park in glorious weather. In particular, while we all watch these performances in anticipation of the driving jigs and reels that make up the grandstand finish, all five medleys were centred on superbly melodic slow airs that were tastefully arranged and beautifully played: Drambuie, Wild Mountain Thyme, Little Bird, The King’s Hand and Freedom Come All Ye. Some of the modern compositions you hear in medleys are forgotten as soon as the band hits the first strathspey, but these are earworms of the best kind.

Indeed, such was the quality of the performances that I found myself not caring who was going to win – I was simply having a blast listening to good music played well. In the end, the unfortunate reality of a pipe band competition is that somebody has to win and someone has to be last, and Canterbury Caledonian Society retained their title of Grade 1 New Zealand Champions yet again. While a glance through the list of former winners will likely generate a yawn (Canterbury have won every title but one since 2012, their streak broken only by New Zealand Police in 2018 and the cancellation of the contest in 2022), the Southern Hemisphere’s most dominant band did not have an easy ride. The final standings confirmed my perception from watching the contest that there was virtually nothing between the defending champions and Manawatu Scottish, the two bands finishing tied on points, and either band would have been worthy winners. “The Mighty Tu” are back to their old form that saw them win six New Zealand titles in a row in the 2000s, and can rightly be proud of two outstanding performances and their considerable trophy haul, thanks to various other prizes in the circle competitions and the street march. The overall drumming prize was contested just as hotly, with Canterbury, Hawthorn and Manawatu all tying for first place, with the Christchurch outfit taking home the trophy on MSR preference.

There was one final contest before the massed bands and prizegiving: the drum majors’ mace flourishing. This works differently to RSPBSA competitions, in that each drum major marches at the head of their own band along a prescribed course. Callum Thomson of City of Sails, one of the local Auckland bands, was the winner.

I sincerely hope some RSPBA officials were watching the stream, because this was a masterclass in how to handle the finale to a pipe band competition. Once the remaining adult bandsmen and women had been hauled out of the beer tent, all competing bands marched from the top of the Domain to the bottom as a massed band playing The Green Hills and When the Battle’s O’er: twice the spectacle for the casual viewer in a tiny fraction of the time it takes to put all the bands on the field at the end of a major. The announcer also did her best to marshal the trophy winners, schoolmarm-style, to the presentation area in record time. The result was that a two-day national championship that had begun at 9am each morning was all wrapped up by 17:37, a scenario that would be unthinkable on Glasgow Green. With plenty of daylight left, victorious and commiserating bands alike were free to party the weekend away, with the Sky Tower in downtown Auckland suitably lit up in green for St Patrick’s Day.

Having watched almost every single performance over the entire weekend, from top to bottom this might be the best pipe band competition I have ever seen. The team from Brassbanned have done a marvellous job of streaming this championship on YouTube for years, but this weekend was a reminder that there simply is no substitute for being there.

It would not be too generous to count the number of performances that were genuinely poor for their grade on one hand. There is clearly an abundance of talent in the lower grades to cope with playing requirements that many bands from elsewhere in the world would struggle with, and the flagship Grade 1 contest was a tossup between multiple bands that played out of their skin. The New Zealand tradition of awarding overall trophies only to the winner and runner-up meant many bands who did not receive a prize nevertheless played extremely well. Reassuringly, the best in the business are busy teaching their own. While there were no prizes for the Invercargill organisation this year, they must be applauded for their work as one of the world’s largest piping and drumming teaching programmes, bringing five bands from their home at the bottom of South Island – the venue for next year’s Nationals.

The true winner of this competition is piping and drumming in New Zealand: Kiwis like to play bagpipes and drums, and they play them well. Listen to them when they come to us, thank them for coming all that way, and promise yourself to one day return the favour – you will not regret it.

Now please let there be video of that Tongan wedding…