Beautiful new railway bridge . . .

I was reading about “Scotland’s worst poet,” William Topaz McGonagall (not sure if he’s a relation of Joe), who a Scottish organization is trying to promote, saying that there should be a national day for him, along the lines of Robert Burns’ Day. This is brilliant tongue-in-cheek stuff.

A few years ago when I was still running the print magazine, I set out to try to figure out what the worst tunes of all time are. Of course, there are tens of thousands of horrible tunes written by pipers from hack to Silver Star-winner, but, like the poet above, I wanted to poll established pipers for their opinions of what the worst played tunes are – the ones that for some reason gained at least reasonable popularity.

A tune that came up a lot was a reel that slipped in to a Strathclyde Police medley in the 1990s called “A Pigeon Called Neil.” I think it was written by the band’s pipe-major at the time, which may explain why it ever actually got out. This tune is so shockingly bad that it’s guaranteed to raise a smile.

But the winner by a good margin was “Itchy Fingers,” which actually started as not a bad little reel, first played in 1984 by Polkemmet Colliery, a band I was in. The tune is so easy that every single band on earth was playing it the next year, and the sing-song pattern of the reel after a few seasons started to grate.

So by the late 1980s and through the ’90s, every time you turned around there was some dismal piper playing “Itchy Fingers” at 490 at about 50 BPM. Eardrums would bleed.

It’s interesting that some tunes that made that list a few years ago seem to be making a comeback of sorts. I’ve heard a few bands playing “Cullen Bay” and “J.K. Cairns” this summer and, you know, they don’t sound half bad. If it weren’t for the fact that Grade 1 bands pressure themselves to produce new medley content, I think our popular tunes would, like the fashion and pop music industries, run in 20-year cycles, where stuff that was cool two decades ago is popular again, simply because it’s all new to today’s 20-year-olds.

In 1990, the RSPBA’s 60th anniversary year, the association required bands to play through driving rain some dreadful 6/8 march (that must have been conjured by an RSPBA insider) in a Jubilee competition on the Sunday after the World’s. The tune hasn’t been played since. Bands then had to march out in a strict formation playing to “Scotland The Brave.” It was all very retro and actually quite funny. Competitors were having a hard time not laughing.

Along those lines, it would be great to hold a band contest where each band would have to reprise an entire medley from 20 or 30 or 40 years earlier.

Beautiful new pipe band medley . . .

Soul asylum

This is NOT me.No competitor likes to play in the rain. Subjecting four reeds to the outside wet and playing through a slippery chanter and blowpipe are tests of one’s resolve and concentration. Snare drums with pools of rainwater on them can sound like soggy newspapers. Hard rain diminishes quality, and a band or soloist who is subjected to a cloudburst is really unlucky.

At the Antigonish Games this past Saturday – which by the way celebrated its 144th year, or a “gross” of games, as one person astutely pointed out – it bucketed rain for about four straight hours. All bands were subject to it, and a few bands really got the worst of the deluge. Lots of very long faces.

Competitors always come first, but it’s also no fun for the judges. Three or four hours of it can be soul-destroying, and I was reminded of a time going around the Inner-Hebrides, which comprise the isles of Muck, Eigg, Rhum and, the sublimest of all, Canna. Unless you own a helicopter, you take a small ship from Mallaig to get there. Only Canna has a pier where the ship can dock, so at the other three islands a small motorboat comes out to collect and drop off visitors, supplies and mail.

This one time we went to Canna for a week. It’s the last stop going out and first stop coming back, so you get to stop in at the other three isles. On the way, cheery hikers got off at Rhum, the largest and most treed of the four islands.

The air was warm, the wind was calm and the midges were out. But on Rhum they were like thick swarms of evil incarnate. After our week, we were on the boat back to Mallaig and, when the motorboat from Rhum came out to let passengers on to our ship, many of the same enthusiastic hikers who we saw going out were returning. They were shells of their original selves. They looked like they had just barely survived a tour of the Mekong Delta in 1968.

The deckhands were having a bit of a laugh at the dozen-odd English and German hikers, saying that they looked like “changed people,” knowing full well what the wrath of nature can do to the psyche.

And that’s what judging through that rain was like. The challenge of listening to three hours of bands through driving rain and concentrating on not only providing the right result, but keeping the score sheets from becoming mush and pencil-written comments from being incoherent, was maybe, I dare say, harder than competing through it.

There’s no good alternative to holding a larger pipe band contest outside. Unless it’s a concert stage, bands sound terrible and there’s nowhere to tune. If only there were a volume control on pipes and drums, but there isn’t so band events generally just carry on through the worst conditions Maw Nature can throw at them.

As I mentioned, there’s a small fortune to be made in a reduced-size Piobaireachd Society Collection, but if anyone can come up with a way to keep paper dry and a pen flowing through the rain, please share your technique.

A free open-ended subscription to pipes|drums awaits the person with the best solution!

Issue: no solo competition system in Scotland

The Comments system on pipes|drums works well, and sometimes really interesting threads on really serious issues occur.

There’s a good one branching from the Lochearnhead results story. Click here.

Because articles get pushed down automatically when newer stories are posted, I thought I’d give a heads-up to readers who might be interested in contributing their thoughts. I’d love to read opinions on this, I think, extremely important issue from more people.


Anyone who has traveled by air to judge piobaireachd at a competition looks forward to the contest, but dreads one thing: lugging the hulking collections of music to the event. I swear I’m going to be charged for excess baggage one of these days.

My Piobaireachd Society Collection (all 15 books of it), is littered with personal notes on the tunes I’ve been through. I like to have those notes with me, and using someone else’s book wouldn’t serve the competitors as well.

Joking with some pipers at the excellent Antigonish Games this past weekend, with my 20-pound satchel of music crushing my shoulder, I suggested two things:

A small fortune could be gained by someone who converts the entire mess to pdf format, so that tunes and notes could be accessed from one’s PDA or mobile phone. That’s great as long as it doesn’t rain, which it did on the Saturday like naebody’s business. A wet gizmo is a dead gizmo.

Or, what about the Piobaireachd Society publishing a “Greatest Hits” collection? Ditch the dozens of crap tunes that have never been played, much less set, and just produce a version – in A4, please – that people might actually submit. If some crackpot puts in something like “The Two-Faced Englishman,” well, they should just come with the music in hand.

And while they’re at it, they can get rid of or consolidate all that canntaireachd and all those officious notes.

Build a better Collection and the world’s piobaireachd players and judges will flock to your door!

Hello to Nova Scotia

I’ve been on vacation in remote Cape Breton this week with little access (or inclination to access) the net, so that’s why pipes|drums is relatively less active this week. I’m making a piping trip into a family vacation, which is something I’ve tried to do as much as possible (see Poll).

Have managed to post a few stories just to keep things current, but will be back to full strength next week. Hope you’re enjoying your summer!


More jottings from Kincardine . . . a few years ago I wrote an editorial about the event, and how it integrates the town with the contest. It’s a great idea, pipers walking the side streets of the town, and people giving up their front lawns for the myriad (way too many, actually) solo piping and drumming contests.

I was stationed on the front lawn (garden) of a lovely brick Victorian home, and it seemed like the owners had made a great effort to have the grass cut and the plants tended to so that the conveyor-belt of competitors, the steward (the venerable Betty MacLeod), and I could appreciate all there is to appreciate about their place. What’s more, they and many of the townspeople left their doors open to kilted folk to – get this – use their bathroom / washroom / toilet if needed.

Between events I partook of the facilities in one historic-looking house that when I entered was like a Beatrix Potter museum, full of antiques, frilly lace and nick-knacks. Seemingly, no one was home, and they simply trusted people to respect their place.

And I’m told they have done this every year since the festival started, so every year it would appear that we lot have indeed respected the townspeople’s property. Next to Maxville, Kincardine may be the most popular contest on the Ontario circuit. To control quality, the games organizers limit the band entry to 25.

There is an overwhelming sense of community at the Kincardine games, and it really reminds me again that their formula is an inspiration for how to run a great piping and drumming contest: extend goodwill and good faith to competitors and they will return it. It also recalls how, like the many 100-year-old small Highland games in Scotland, less can be more.

Like a Polaroid picture

Splash!When I watch basketball and boxing, two particularly sweaty, skin-exposed sports that I have never really participated in, I’ve often thought about how slippery it all must be when fighters rub up against each other or a power-forward presses to the basket amid a bunch of giant players glossy with perspiration. I guess they just get used to it.

It’s something of a tradition for a pipe band ensemble judge to greet the pipe-major of a band when it comes to the starting line: some small-talk, a good luck and, of course, a handshake to start things off.

At least in North America, pipe band competitions can be held on very warm days. Combine summer heat with the pressure of competition and 20 pounds of heavy wool designed for Aberdeenshire dreich, and pipers and drummers tend to get a little sweaty. It often seems to pour out of their hands.

I remember once having to perform with a band at Mosspark Armoury on a 100 degree day. By the end of the first set I was sure that all that was left of me was a pool of goo, something like that great St. Louisan Margaret Hamilton in the “I’m melting! . . . Melting!” scene in The Wizard of Oz.

And so it was at Kincardine. One does not want to deviate from tradition or have bands think that one’s snubbing them, so every pipe-major as usual got a handshake. And, I must say, some of those hands were not a little warm and wet. The actual band contest was in the cool of the shade, so the judges were pretty comfortable and, um, dry.

I’m no germaphobe, but all of those wet-ones handshakes could not have been terribly sanitary. By the Grade 1 event my right hand must have been a virtual Petri dish of piping microbes, with each score sheet passing along millions of wee beasties from the 20-odd slippery-palms.

I mentioned the super-soaker-hands thing to one of the piping judges, who suggested that a jar of that alcohol hand-sanitizer might be a good idea. But what sort of message would that send out?

There’s a lot of talk these days about the handshake custom and how it can spread disease. Donald Trump reportedly avoids it altogether. And who knows what Michael Jackson, with his surgical-mask-wearing and all, does?

Maybe that ensemble judge handshake tradition should be changed. A slight bow? A wink? The snapping of fresh latex gloves? A faddish knocking of fists? A Japanese-esque exchange of business cards? A reciprocal tug of sporran tassels?

Your own backyard

I made the 45-minute drive up to Aurora last night to listen to the week-two instructors’ recital at the Ontario School of Piping, whose cast of teachers must be unrivalled in terms of competitive stature: Stuart Liddell, Jack Lee, Jim McGillivray, James MacHattie, Angus MacColl, Bruce Gandy . . .

I am always amazed that audiences at events like this aren’t packed to the rafters with young pipers. Maybe some people didn’t know about it but, with the Toronto area being the world’s second-largest centre of pipers in the world, you would think that the chance to hear Stuart, Jack and Jim for $10 would not be missed. Oh, well.

After an unexpected traffic delay, I arrived a little late, and heard only those three. Each was in brilliant form. What Stuart conjures from his hands is nothing short of awesome, especially his reel playing. His “Mason’s Apron” (which he described as “a tune that started as a two-parted reel and which is now a 10,000-part hornpipe”) always drops the jaw. He would disagree, but it certainly looks effortless.

With people travelling hundreds, even thousands, of miles and spending a good chunk of money to attend the school to gain from these great players, you would think more than a handful of locals would make the drive and spend the tenner for a night of genius.

. . . set about ye

According to our poll, almost 10 per cent of pipes|drums readers who expect to travel to or from Scotland this year are “reconsidering” their plans after the terrorist attack on Glasgow Airport. How many will actually cancel their plans is to be seen, but I would guess it won’t be many, if things return to normal with no more problems.

Unfortunately, that’s a big if, not only for the UK, but for the United States, Canada and anywhere else in the world where extremists have a hate-on. That’s pretty much everywhere.

Anyone who has spent any time in Glasgow will recognize the character of John Smeaton, who was interviewed by the BBC, CNN and others. He works at Glasgow Airport and “set about” the terrorists in the Jeep. Glaswegians don’t mess around; the toughness of its citizens is the stuff of legend.

I would think the city’s about the worst target a terrorist could choose for a planned attack (no city’s a good target), given that your average Weegie doesn’t have a lot of time for anyone who messes them around.

This is not to say that people shouldn’t travel to Scotland with caution – or anywhere in the world, for that matter. But, really, if there were a place where I could trust the citizenry to be on the vigilant lookout, ready to “set about” anyone who threatens their country’s way of life, it is Glasgow.


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