April 10, 2019

Editorial: The Wild West

Every year the issue seems to get bigger: “guest” or “fly-in” players with pipe bands, and, while it certainly does not own the issue, the New Zealand Pipe Band Championships annually magnify the custom.

We call it an “issue,” because whether it’s a “problem” is up for debate. But the practice of bringing in pipers and drummers temporarily from bands in the same grade is certainly a hot-button dilemma.

Let us stress that the practice is all above board and legal, as per the rules (or lack of them) in the world’s pipe band associations. Provided a player goes through the paperwork to be released from their existing band, they are free to join another band, also provided the paperwork is completed, and then return to their usual band.

But, to our mind, there is something uncomfortable and even unethical about the whole idea.

A pipe band is a team. Furthermore, it’s a group of players committed to the common cause of the team. Other teams in the same grade are the competition. The spirit of team competition revolves around representing and being loyal to the team. Knowingly switching teams temporarily reduces that healthy competition. Commitment is weakened. The team is diminished.

The New Zealand Championships are a popular destination for fly-in players because the event comes in the off-season for bands in the northern hemisphere. Some top-grade New Zealand bands have the money to assist with travel, making New Zealand an attractive and not a little exotic way to break up the interminably long winter.

New Zealand by no means owns the problem. It happens every year at the World’s. If the North American Championships were longer than a week or two from the World’s, fly-ins would be rife there, too.

While there’s no real harm in it for the players and even the bands, the practice renders the competition relatively meaningless beyond the day of the event. The band that competes on the day is not the band that is really the band long-term. It’s a quick fix means to do better on the day, at the event itself. Those in the know – judges, other bands in the grade – understand that the result and the standard on the day do not necessarily reflect the reality of anything but what happened on the day.

Loaning out players might work in football, but these loans are always to teams in other leagues or divisions, and of players who otherwise would not get a game with their home club. Pipe bands “loaning” players – even a pipe-major – to bands that they compete against is, to our mind, contrary to what we do.

Bands can’t be blamed. They’re just keeping up with the competition. If they don’t have fly-in temps they might be at a disadvantage. While bands might dislike the practice of temp players, each is waiting for the other to suggest doing away with it. The band that expresses the need to put rules in place for ethical, moral and common sense concerns risks having it fly in their face if restrictions are not enacted. They would be expected to take the high ground, regardless of the outcome.

As usual, associations need to lead for the good of the art, which is, after all, their core mandate.

In the spirit of healthy and meaningful competition, we believe the time is now for restrictions on temporary players.

  1. No more than one transfer per calendar year. Once you have moved to a new band, you can’t change bands again until January 1 of the next year. No more temps.
  2. Pipers and drummers may only transfer to a band in a higher grade. No more lateral moves, and no ringers from a higher-grade band bolstering the ranks of a lower-grade band. The only exception would be registering as an instructor with a Grade 3 or lower band, which can have no more than one instructor in each section.
  3. Bands breaking the rules will be disqualified and, possibly, suspended.

Even if such rules were put into effect, administering them would not be easy. Many, or even most, pipe band associations barely keep tabs of who’s on rosters. If they do, it’s with klugy Excel spreadsheets, updated manually and often woefully out of date and inaccurate. They need to improve and button down.

Which leads us to recommend establishing a common shared database of rosters between associations worldwide. It’s a tall order, but the shareable tools available online make it more possible than ever.

Or, perhaps today’s pipe bands don’t want to change. Fair enough. Maybe it’s only about having a good laugh, putting together a temporary band from contest to contest, and who cares about the camaraderie, teamwork and gain that comes with a group of pipers and drummers committed to the team long-term.

Call us old-fashioned, but there must be more to it than winning the odd contest with a bunch of people who aren’t on the team for the long-haul.



RSPBA cracks down on ringers
March 14, 2017


Temp players in Ontario well within rules
July 28, 2017


RSPBA issues roster form to world associations
April 26, 2017


When competition rules run amok
June 30, 2000



  1. Many NZ pipers and drummers never make it to the worlds, and those that do typically make it only infrequently. We have some seriously good local bands which comprise almost exclusively local personnel – take a bow Canterbury – but several of our Grade 1 bands don’t have the tuition infrastructure or personnel to produce a consistently sustainable Grade 1 standard. I understand that in the recent contest the Auckland and District band was strongly reinforced by members of the Johnstone Pipe band, and that Emmett Conway brought several members of Shotts over to play with NZ Police – but Canterbury still prevailed on the day.

    The presence of fly-in players, and the performances that they help our local bands put on the field, provide real motivation and development for our local players, and provide a real spectacle for those of us who can only watch and admire skill that would otherwise only be able to be seen by taking the long and expensive trip to the UK. Until we can persuade non – NZ grade 1 bands to come to our national contest – and they are all in the northern hemisphere – then I say well done to our local Grade 1 bands for flying in members to provide the best competition we can see.

    The cost involved, and the skill level required to to adapt to a different band’s style in a matter of days or weeks, means that fly-ins are generally limited to the Grade 1 competition. From my perception at the bottom of the world, in this global age, we are the better for it. We would love to see more of you!

    Peter Duncan, Hamilton NZ

  2. I think this is written from a perspective of a location with a healthy upper grade band numbers. I would argue that the US and increasingly Canada have the same issues as Australia, NZ and South Africa. Very limited resources for cross pollination of grade 1/2 talent. Until UK bands have the ability to travel to other countries each year like we have to travel to the UK, I think bringing in folks is a necessary evil. Maybe the North American associations can bring in bands to have a good grade 1 or 2 event. the SF Caledonian Games in Pleasanton try their best.

    Charlie Martin
    CA, USA



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