January 31, 2013

Sun setting on Cowal as RSPBA championship (updated)

Since 1906 the Cowal Highland Gathering in Dunoon, Scotland, has offered a major pipe band competition, and until the formalization of a separate event in 1947, was the de facto World Pipe Band Championship, but according to sources within the organization the RSPBA has decided accepted a proposal from the organizers of the event to make that 2013 will be the last year that Cowal will be offered as one of the year’s five majors.

Specific reasons for the elimination of championship status are not known, but f For decades RSPBA member bands have complained loudly about the relatively poor conditions for tuning and competing, and a location that is costly and lengthy to reach by bus and ferry.

A statement from the Cowal Highland Gathering issued to pipes|drums on January 21, 2013, said:

Cowal Highland Gathering has taken a key decision aimed at making its pipe band competition more fun and better-suited to the overall event.

While this was not an easy decision to take, the Gathering Board agreed that it was more important to secure the future of Cowal Highland Gathering than to maintain the ‘major’ status. The Board stressed that the move would provide an opportunity to improve facilities, introduce new attractions and promote the Cowal Highland Gathering as a traditional highland games.

Cowal Highland Gathering chairman, Ronnie Cairns said, ‘We recognise that the increasing competitiveness of the event and numbers of bands attending were putting a strain on the space and resources we had available and that this was leading to unhappiness amongst some of the bands.’

Car and bus ferry service between Dunoon and Gourock was stopped in 2011 due to a single company being given monopoly status on the route, forcing most bands to travel around the Cowal Peninsula, adding hours to their journey. A proposal to add a car and bus ferry service was rejected in early January of this year.

Self-described as “the biggest, most spectacular Highland games in the world,” the Cowal Highland Gathering also offers the World Highland Dancing Championship and a significant solo piping competition. To allow spectators to be closer to the pipe band contests, organizers eliminated the track and athletic competitions in 2007, the same year that a large ceilidh tent was added.

The event has a tradition post-contest march down Argyll Street, where bands were compensated for taking part in the often rowdy parade.

The then Scottish Pipe Band Association made an official World Pipe Band Championship in 1947, taking away from Cowal its unofficial World’s status. The primary reason at the time was that a World Championship would move locations each ear. Except for one year, since 1981 the event has been held in Glasgow.

Cowal was not only traditionally the last major championship of the UK season, but also the event where band bust-ups would occur, with many pipe-majors and leading-drummers over the years immediately following competing announcing their intention to leave.

One of the most historic instances was in 1986 when Robert Mathieson and Jim Kilpatrick, then pipe-major and leading-drummer, respectively, of the high-flying Polkemmet Pipe Band revealing that they were returning to Shotts & Dykehead Caledonia, a band that was on the brink of collapse. Under Mathieson, Shotts would be resurrected and go on to win five World Championships.

Cairns added in the statement, Far from being the end of the Cowal Gathering this is an opportunity for us to not only improve the facilities for the bands that attend but to also introduce new attractions and elements for the public and by doing so to secure the future of Cowal Highland Gathering as a traditional Highland games. We will continue to host the Highland Dancing World Championships


  1. Cowal isn’t the only games that provides a challenge for suitable tuning areas and ease of access, yet the other evenst seem to soldier on. It’s a shame when logistics and politics ruin a good thing. Let’s hope they work it out and continue a tradition that most people, players and spectators alike, speak fondly of.

  2. Poor darlings, having to catch a bus and ferry to a contest. What’s the world coming to?? Bands who travel up to 10,000 miles and stay for 2 weeks for the worlds (usually at personal expense) would be having a chuckle right now. Challenging conditions are par for the course at most contest venues. It’s part of the game. If it’s the same for everyone, what’s the issue? One of the great things about Cowal is the ability to stand on that tuning park and see so many bands warming-up. Yes – it is pokey, if not over-crowded, and always a fight to get some space and get up through the crowd and onto the contest arena, but it’s a great (almost unique) atmosphere and the spectators usually form a natural sound shield between each of the bands. If a move is on the cards, maybe they should look at having a major in Edinburgh. Unless all stakeholders chip-in to build a purpose-built venue (impossible), situated in a location that suits everyone (impossible), people should expect the odd challenge to undertake their hobby of choice.

  3. The Cowal Gathering Committee were warned on more than one occasion that this could happen and they didn’t think it would. They have said that the dancers were their priority and apparently even they aren’t happy anymore. As someone who has gone to Cowal all my life (and yes, I mean it all and I’m now in my 30’s) Cowal 2013 will be very bittersweet.

  4. So Cowal quit the RSPBA and not the other way round? That is a very bad sign for the RSPBA when a big event tells them they don’t really need to be a major and can carry on nicely without the headache of fulfilling every promise spelt out in the agreement. Never mind that Cowal was not popular….the RSPBA being fired is the real story here. Isntt this sort of problem what is happening in North America with highland games deciding to go out on their own?

  5. Cowal jumped before it was pushed. The RSPBA won’t lose any sleep over it. RSPBA fired? No, any contest they hold in future will be under RSPBA jurisdiction. And it’s nothing to do with ferries and travel being a distraction – it’s more the fact the it has turned into a chore being in Dunoon and the stadium, rather than the great fun it was not so long ago. Lawrie – you miss a key point. Challenging can be fine for a year or two. But about 10 – it gets you down. That’s not ODD”. But there’s a fair chance it will be Edinburgh – there is a purpose built showground with all facilities in it already. “

  6. Well, it seems to be a win-win. Cowal didn’t want the hassle and the RSPBA couldn’t wear anymore criticism for the issues. Let’s see if the Glasgow-centric RSPBA are willing to send a major over yonder to the east. I do wonder if there are any deep-seated concerns about Edinburgh doing a grand job of it and some sort of groundswell about the worlds alternating between the two cities……..

  7. Eventually organizers are clueing in to the fact that Elite Pipe Band contests only mean something to Pipe band members and their immediate families. They do not neccesarily draw ant additional members of the Paying public and quite frankly they are a headache to administer compared to other possibly more entertaining events at these gatherings/Scottish festivals. Maybe Pipe bands should start entertaining people instead of standing in a circle with our back to the crowd ?

  8. Your headline is a more than a bit misleading and inaccurate. If you read the full statement on the RSPBA site it quite clearly says Cowal has withdrawn as a Major in 2014. I’m sure the Cowal Pipeband Championship will continue and bands will compete for the oldest and probably the most prestigious pipeband trophies in the world. I would hazard a guess that the fifth major will go to the highest bidder as everything seems to be driven by money nowadays and with no majors in Ireland this year I wouldn’t be surprised if this is where it will be held. At least the RSPBA recognise and respect the history of Cowal by retaining the last Saturday in August for their Championship. Lawrie is spot on, there’s no other competition comes close to it for atmosphere, and getting up close to the bands in the tuning park is just brilliant.

  9. I was taken to the Cowal Games [the first one after the 2nd WW,and that started my love of piping.there is no other gatering with so much atmasphere and as others have said getting near the bands.So many majors are difficult to get to ,so I dont know what people are winging about.I hope that the Cowal gathering carries on as a pipeband venue ,without being a major.Andrew Gallagher

  10. According to a story in the Scotsman newspaper, Cowal was told by the RSPBA that their status as a major would not happen whether they wanted it or not. So, Cowal was allowed to take the honourable way out by saying they withdrew proactively, but it appears that they were indeed sacked by the RSPBA.



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