72 hours in New Zealand: the piping/drumming camaraderie and fun of the Land of the Long White Cloud
By Liam Kernaghan
While most of the world takes a break during the Christmas and New Year period, there is no rest for Kiwis when it comes to piping and drumming. Our New Year period signals the ramping up of the domestic solo circuit. And for those making a trip of it, you can get in three contests in three days – the perfect way to start your solo campaign for the season.
Friday, December 30, 2022
Waking up from celebrating one of our up-and-coming soloist’s thirtieth birthday, the yearly “hikoi” (or march) to Waipu begins in earnest. A few of us catch up for brunch in the trendy suburb of Newmarket to retell stories of the night before. Then I remembered that later in the evening, the playlist changed from your typical dance/DnB music to the booming bass of the Strathclyde Police Pipe Band in their heyday and the 1998 Victoria Police Pipe Band medley – a favourite of the birthday boy. Then it is off across the Auckland Harbour Bridge to Northcote for the annual Northcote Invitational competition.
“Northcote,” as it has become affectionately known, is organized and funded by the Auckland & District Pipe Band and Wellington Bagpipe Supplies. Six invitees – including Stuart Easton, Campbell Wilson, Callum Carn, Adam Michie and me – are in the lineup. The competition demands of each player a double MSR and an own-choice medley. Young Finlay Cameron from Scotland is spending some time in New Zealand with the Clan Cameron and was a late call-up to join the five Kiwis as the sixth competitor came down with COVID-19.
It is quintessentially Kiwi in so many ways: completely relaxed, in the antipodean baking sun, in a beer garden in front of your mates sampling some local ales.
As is tradition, the previous contest winner (decided on a Medley preference if there’s a tie) adjudicates proceedings. Fresh from a long drive up the North Island, Willie Rowe was to be the judge for the day and fresh from his Northern Meeting Silver Medal win, we were in good hands. His lovely wife Sarah was fresh from Christmas celebrations and was looking forward to a day or two’s fishing before they headed back to the farm in rural Manawatu.
It is quintessentially Kiwi in so many ways: completely relaxed, in the antipodean baking sun, in a beer garden in front of your mates sampling some local ales. And the prize money is incredibly generous, meaning each competitor takes it seriously as the stakes are high.
Stuart Easton dazzled the audience with his performances, winning with a first in the medley and second in the double MSR. I was lucky enough to take the top spot in the MSR ahead of five fantastic performances. Finlay Cameron, Callum Carn and Campbell Wilson made up the rest of the prize lists in what was undoubtedly one of the highest standards in recent memory. After a year off due to the pandemic, it was clear people were fired up and ready to do the business again.
It wouldn’t be a Kiwi catch-up without a few more ales in the sun, catching up with people and hearing Christmas stories. People’s spare rooms and lounges become the resting place for many travelling pipers and drummers from all over New Zealand for the event and the next few days, bunking in over a barbecue and a few tunes to finish the day. Perfect.
Saturday, December 31, 2022
Traditionally, New Zealanders head to the beach, a music festival, or a town centre to appreciate a fireworks display to be the first country in the world to herald in the New Year. But not so for pipers and drummers continuing the circuit. Early on New Year’s Eve, we begin the 90-minute drive north of Auckland to a small rural town called Waipu. Settled by Nova Scotian and Scottish settlers, it has a rich Celtic tradition that is evident as soon as you enter the town, with the welcome sign greeting you with “Céad Míle Fáilte.”
Waipu is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful spots in New Zealand. Stunning beaches, rolling hills and the people are your typical down-to-earth Kiwi good sorts. Ice cream drips out of your hands as the temperatures skyrocket through the 20s and into the 30s. It is bustling at this time of year. A major music festival is held just up the road, and the beaches surrounding the township are renowned.
Most people who head up to Waipu to compete stay at prized New Zealand piper Bain McGregor’s farm. We pitch a tent or two in the backyard, which will be their resting place for the next few days.
As renowned as the beaches is the annual Waipu Highland Games – now in its 151st year – held on New Year’s Day each year. It brings in more than 10,000 people to the small township each year, and it is a real community event; everyone chips in and there is a massive amount of pride in what is a huge highlight of the New Year’s celebrations.
There is very little available accommodation in the form of hotels, motels, BnBs or otherwise, so most people who head up to Waipu to compete stay at prized New Zealand piper Bain McGregor’s farm. We pitch a tent or two in the backyard, which will be their resting place for the next few days. It may not sound all that comfortable, but some people go all out with their camping equipment. (Camping is incredibly popular in New Zealand, so many people have top-notch equipment.) Bain is the consummate host. The barbecue is lit as soon as you arrive, and the tunes flow. Many enjoy some time at Waipu Cove or Lang’s Beach in the afternoon to soak up the final sunlight of the year and kick a rugby ball around. There’s nothing that screams Kiwi more than that.
After we clean the sand off ourselves, the Helen McGregor Memorial Medley contest is held late on New Year’s Eve. Named after Bain’s late wife, the contest is a complete free-for-all and aims to entertain. There is a judge (again, the previous year’s winner), but the audience also gets a vote. Willie Rowe once again officiated nine performers, with Stuart Easton coming out on top with Finlay Cameron a close second. Sadly, I had a wedding in Auckland that evening, so it was the first Helen McGregor I had ever missed. It’s an essential part of the Waipu tradition because Helen was beloved by her family and the wider community. It draws in by far the largest crowd for the piping over the games.
Returning to Bain’s farm, there are a few drams and tunes to herald in the New Year. I remember years when the tunes, accompanied by all sorts of other instruments, flowed well into the early morning hours. Bain always gets out his silver Hendersons for “Auld Lang Syne” at midnight, which is a real highlight. Finlay Cameron and a few others treated those still awake to a few tunes on the whistle and fiddle this year. Then it’s to bed (for most, anyway) for the next day’s competitions.
Sunday, January 1, 2023
After getting home from the wedding, as mentioned above, not two-and-a-half hours earlier, I met up with good friends Geoff Hallberg and Courtney Williamson to begin our trip north. Incredibly sleep deprived, we stop off at the “BP” (a petrol station well known for its coffees and pies) before continuing north. Clad in the classic New Zealand Summer dress of shorts, t-shirt, and jandals, I was unprepared for the drizzly, cool conditions that greeted us – not what is expected in the “Winterless North.”
His wife Sarah and another were off for a three-hour walk before joining us at the games. New Zealand is full of little nuggets of opportunity like this.
Once in Waipu, we stop at the Goody Good Café and are immediately greeted by Willie Rowe, looking incredibly fresh from the night before. Coffee is vital in New Zealand, almost as crucial as rugby. His wife Sarah and another were off for a three-hour walk before joining us at the games. New Zealand is full of little nuggets of opportunity like this. Stuart Finlayson, Iain Hines, Murray Mansfield and Graeme Bilsland join us for coffee and breakfast before heading down the road to the games.
Waipu often plays host to the New Zealand Open Solo championships and holds various North Island and Northland Championships in individual events every year. There’s usually a lot at stake at the games, and it draws good entries. This year, 14 competitors entered the Open/A Grade, and that number can often reach 20 when the New Zealand championships are held there.
The Waipu Games field is precisely what you would expect in Scotland, with boards lining the edges of the field and heavy events threatening to take out your bass drone. A rotunda is kept aside for the Open Piobaireachd competitions. Adjudicating the Open Piobaireachd this year were Iain Hines and Stuart Finlayson. Richard Hawke and Brian Switalla made up the bench in the light music. It’s a big day – four light music events and piobaireachd to compete in.
I got to catch up with RNZPBA President Iain Blakely, who made the trip north from his and his wife Andrea’s place just outside Auckland. Iain is a regular competitor on the scene in New Zealand. Later that day, he was taking on Greg Wilson in the Veteran’s Medley competition alongside John Russell (better known as “Code”), who is one of the chief organizers of the Northcote Invitational. Gillian Switalla beckoned us over with the promise of sandwiches to keep us well-fueled for the day. By 11 am, I was ready for a snooze.
At midday, there was an official Chieftain’s Welcome with a massed pipe band and Highland dancers. Greg Wilson took up the pipe-major’s spot to lead the pipers and drummers through tune after tune after tune. Fresh seafood, haggis and the classic Kiwi snag were on offer beside the main arena, and indeed, by the end of the welcome, we were all ready for some good Kiwi tukka.
Many good tunes have been heard over the years at the games, and it’s one of those spots you know pipes are just meant to be played.
There’s something truly quite special about hearing tunes at Waipu. As mentioned, it was settled by Nova Scotians and other Scottish settlers, and pipes have been played in the region for more than 150 years. There is a great documentary piece online (available in parts two, three and five here) explaining the history of Waipu and the games. Greg Wilson has a deep history with Waipu and the region, so hearing Greg win the Open Piobaireachd with “Lament for the Children” in almost complete silence despite the chaos of the Highland games around him was very special. Many good tunes have been heard over the years at the games, and it’s one of those spots you know pipes are just meant to be played.
Mid-afternoon, the sun came out shining brightly. I thought, This is more like it! A good friend of mine brought a date to the games (a bold choice of first date if you ask me), and she seemed thoroughly impressed by it all, so maybe she’s a keeper. I caught the tail end of Stuart Easton’s “In Praise of Morag” with the pipes just as you would expect from him. Finlay Cameron soon followed with “The MacLeods’ Salute,” and good friend Piers Dover, newly upgraded to Grade A, took on “Lament for the Dead.”
The final tune in the A-Grade Hornpipe & Jig drew to a close, with Willie Rowe finishing off the day’s competitions. The beer tent beckoned, and I had the opportunity to talk to Greg and Campbell Wilson over a beer. Greg has an exciting new project in the biosecurity sphere, and Campbell has one more year left at the New Zealand School of Dance. Goodness knows how they both find the time to be such outstanding pipers on the side. The games field is largely deserted now, with just the pipers and drummers left to continue on festivities.
In usual Kiwi fashion, the prize-giving is relatively informal, with lots of laughs and celebrations. Waipu probably has the most impressive trophy collection of any in New Zealand. Some are more than 100 years old and have rich history listed on them.
Greg Wilson took out the overall contest with a win in the piobaireachd and the MSR. I was fortunate to get in in the Strathspey & Reel and Hornpipe & Jig, finishing second. Greg’s son Campbell took the March and finished third. Campbell also sneaked in on top in all four Under-21 events.
You’d think we would be sick of each other by now, but no. We retire down the road to McLeod’s Pizza Barn, which is famous in New Zealand. McLeod’s is one of the top craft beer breweries in New Zealand, and their Tropical Cyclone Double IPA is not for the faint-hearted. Naturally, we sample a few before tucking into some pizza. It wouldn’t be Waipu without their annual ceilidh, where the prize-winners from the day and others entertain the town and guests well into the night and share stories and resolutions for the New Year.
Monday, January 2, 2023
The clouds have rolled away, and pipers and drummers roll out of their beds. We bid farewell to Bain and the northerners before beginning the trip home. Getting back to Auckland, I roll out the barbecue for a few of the stragglers who are staying on to continue to perfect my smash burger recipe. January 2 also doubles as Gillian Switalla’s birthday, so a few of us join her and her family for a few drinks and retelling some stories from Waipu. The next few days are when the annual ASB Classic and Heineken Open Tennis Championships are held – both precursors to the famed Australian Open in Melbourne – so many big names are wandering the streets of Auckland.
Missing the Highland games is an odd feeling. It’s like missing out on a dear relative or friend’s birthday.
The three days over the New Year period are one of the most memorable times of the year for us. It’s the perfect mix of quintessential Scotland and New Zealand – mixing pipes and drums with sun, beach, and your mates during the holiday period can’t be beaten. Missing the Highland games is an odd feeling. It’s like missing out on a dear relative or friend’s birthday.
The Open New Zealand Solo Championships will be held again in Waipu in the next year or two, so if you’ve got the bug after reading this and feel like escaping the cold northern winter for a week or two, then 72 hours in New Zealand might be for you.
Liam Kernaghan is a rising star in world solo piping. He’s won most of the major awards in his home country of New Zealand and many prizes in Australia and Scotland, including the B-Grade Marches at the 2018 Argyllshire Gathering. Originally from Dunedin, New Zealand, he now lives in Auckland, has worked for the federal government, and in 2020 ran for parliament in the New Zealand federal election as the National Party Candidate for the electorate of Taieri. He works in communications and public affairs for the New Zealand Law Society.