May 02, 2019

Is the World’s killing the pipe band world? Part 1

By Andrew Berthoff

Part 1

[Originally published May 31, 2011]

In 1966, the Grade 1 Clan MacFarlane Pipe Band of St. Catharines, Ontario, made a trip to Scotland to compete in the World Championships. Setting out from Toronto International Airport, the group boarded a Douglas Turbo-Prop aircraft, a twin-engine propeller-driven plane that carried them, first, to Gander, Newfoundland, for refueling, and then on a 10-hour flight over the turbulent North Atlantic to Prestwick, Scotland. On arrival, the band boarded a bus, which arrived some six hours later at their ultimate destination, Kingussie, where the band would stay as it anxiously awaited the day of the contest at Bught Park, Inverness.

It was a complex and expensive effort, finally made feasible by the advent of commercial trans-Atlantic air travel. The novel idea of travelling 3,000 miles to compete at the World Pipe Band Championships, to test Clan MacFarlane’s talents against Scotland’s best, was strong enough to make such a complex and lengthy journey. Planning and saving took more than three years.

Nineteen-sixty-six was something of a breakthrough year for “overseas” bands competing at the World Championships. Clan MacFarlane were joined at the contest that year by Grade 1 rivals, City of Toronto and Worcester Kiltie of Massachusetts.

While Clan MacFarlane enjoyed its stay in Scotland, the competition didn’t go so well. The band finished eleventh in Grade 1, handily thumped by all but a few UK-based bands, not to mention City of Toronto, which made the list by finishing fifth, buoyed by a stellar second-place in piping. City of Toronto was topped in that category only by Scottish legends Muirhead & Sons, a band that was in the midst of its historic five straight World’s titles. But “The Clan” had gained a taste of the big-time; it had seen and heard the standard that would be needed to succeed, and began to understand the complexity of Scottish pipe band politics.

While the band had its sporrans handed to it on a platter, figuratively speaking, it was not humiliated. To the contrary, the band was energized. They returned to Ontario ready to practice harder, learn from the trip, and commit to compete again at the World’s as soon as possible. With one sip of the World’s elixir, it was hooked.

And their compulsion to compete at the World’s was passed along to others. As the word spread of the band’s trip, additional non-Scottish pipe bands were turned on to the intoxicating idea of travelling to Scottish Pipe Band Association championships to match talents with the likes of Shotts & Dykehead, Red Hackle, Muirheads and, of course, the illustrious city police bands of Glasgow and Edinburgh.

A small pipe band community would rapidly become the pipe band world.

There can be no doubt that the World Pipe Band Championships, as we recognize it today, is the biggest and most important event on the competition calendar. For those addicted to pipe band competition, there is no better single-day hit. The World’s produces an adrenaline and endorphin rush producing a high to last the year.

The World Pipe Band Championships are an undeniably successful event that will inevitably continue to get better and better as its owners, the RSPBA and the Glasgow City Council, look for ways to extend its reach and popularity. Every year the organizers flaunt the huge number of bands as a spectacle not to be missed — and rightly so. For many events, bigger is better, especially when the artists themselves even pay to have the honour to perform at it.

But while the World’s is the focal point for the pipe band world, does it come at a cost for the very well-being of the pipe band world itself? It might be fairly said that the trend of competing at the World’s has both a negative and positive impact on piping and drumming as art-forms. The desire to succeed at the one-day competition perhaps comes at a cost to the promotion and development of pipe band music.

And what impact is the competition having on pipe band regions and associations around the world? Do the benefits of the contest outweigh the possible damages inflicted on the health of various pipe band grades?

Has the very success of the World Pipe Band Championship halted the forward momentum of once-thriving pipe band regions and associations?

While acknowledging the unparalleled success of the World’s – and giving full credit to the spectacular competition – this article will attempt to weigh both the pros and the cons of the competition when it is considered on a broader level.



  1. Great article Andrew. Certainly agree with you on the numbers game. My experience in Australia supports the view that a couple of what are effectively all star” bands sucks alot of the available talent out of the lower grade bands. It takes significant time

  2. The pipe band community” is now a “global” community and not a local one. The “Arabian Awakening” that has changed everything in totolitarian regimes in the mideast has its reflection in the pipe band world. Everyone talks on line

  3. Excellent work as always, Andrew. Appreciate the commenters’ thoughts as well. Me? I’ve always been more of a local” guy. But driving 3-5 hours each way to band practice for 20 years….even though those were the closest Gr I bands….? Was I a mercenary? Should I have tried to start a band locally? Played with a lower grade band? If you’re driving at the speed of light and turn on your headlights

  4. Andrew, this is a great (and timely) article/editorial. It won’t change anything (but you know that, too). There’s simply too much to reflect on because you’ve covered so many bases. But overall you are on the money, in my opinion. What concerns me is the numbers at the top flight. We are starting to see a mirror image of all pyramid competitions and organisations outside of what we do. Take the English Premier League, for example. Those who have the money, thrive and dominate each and every year. In pipe bands, if the upper echelon open their doors to 20+ pipers, they become destinations and ‘tick the box’ ventures for the good players who may have previously adorned the ranks of lesser bands (and been of benefit there). There is a draw on the lower grades as a result, but we never see more than about 20 grade 1 bands at the worlds each year. They’re just bigger in size. One thing that seems to get lost on some is the amount of money required to bankroll the ‘modern’ pipe band. It seems that many people forget we are still on the fringe, whilst at the same time aiming for so much more. It’s ok for the few bands that have secured ‘sponsorship’ (aka someone in the band – usually high on the pecking order – supplies the band as a ‘loss leader’ for their business, or a corporate who will hang around for a few years at best). But the rest of us are out there selling raffle tickets and paying our own ways and dressing ourselves. And maybe people who spend thousands on a one-off contest like the worlds want greater satisfaction and return on their ‘investment’, so they pursue the apex bands. Look at the ‘composite’ bands that assemble in a truly ‘global’ sense – they never last because it’s a simple matter of not being good enough and the novelty wearing off. This is a direct result of aspiring to do well at one contest – the worlds. On a more local level, some bands take on new leadership, and the regulars that have underpinned the band are then pushed aside for the ring-ins to achieve expensive short-term goals. Do bands ever recover from those sorts of situations…? The one thing I do not like is the attitude that is starting to emerge where the ‘mercenary’ piper/drummer sees themself as a someone that can expect everything on a platter……in return for 11 minutes of (good!) music from them (hopefully!). I am starting to tire of the “what’s in it for me” attitudes and the diva-like whining that I hear from some people who are merely setting out to hunt trophies for themselves and who believe that pipe bands own money trees. I know several people who have played in 10 bands in as many years. And they continue to turn up and expect a full uniform, reeds etc to be ‘on tap’. Where do they think it all comes from..? It’s still coming from the hard toil and pockets of supporters and regular members in most cases. Personally, I think the world PBC’s are getting so big that they’re almost out-of-reach for anything but the ‘super bands’ – that are now destinations for good players who need to ‘tick the box’.

  5. I think overall this very comprehensive report could benefit from a little more balance. It is not all bad in my mind as the current movement within pipe bands obviously has many good points as well. It is probably also wise to remember the pipe band world is a very dynamic place, which has, and always will change. There are certainly many problems and there always will be! Incidentally has there ever been a time when the pipe band world could be described as perfect? Folk will always do what is needed to enjoy music and reach the highest standard possible.

  6. From my perspective, limiting the size of the band is paramount to maintaining the integrity of band competition. Why should a band need to recruit? This competiton was established to find the best local band in the world. if recruitment is from many miles away just to establish a large band, then local communities lose theri pride in their band. Hopefully the RSPBA will take the time to establish band size soon.

  7. Band caps should help the situation to come back under control. Right now, as was pointed out, GrIII players go to GRI and generally hold water bottles (there are exceptions). With the exception of the thirsty, how does that help anyone? Wouldn’t it make more sense to gain experience and a proven track record in GRII before moving to GRI? Caps would help in this case by limiting the number of open spots available in each band thus allowing for a more even (and proper) distribution amongst the grades? A cap of , say, 30 max on the roster should help. Stay with the minimum of 8P-3S-1B and allow the bands to add up to 18 more players of any type at their own discretion. If they want 18 more tenors, go for it! If they want 18 more sides, so be it. Or maybe an ideal mix might be 18P 7S 1B 4T? Your choice… The other benifit would be the reduction in expenses to the bands since they don’t need to buy 30 chanters, 11 side drums, 19 tenor drums and 2 bass drums in addition to the associated uniforms, airline tickets, etc…. Trouble is, how do you get everyone to agree on any sort of cap? And are we infringing on freedom of expression/creativity? But then again, that’s what rules usually do.

  8. Andrew, Here is an analogy that fits with your interest in Major League Baseball….. Would you rather sit on the bench for the New York Yankees and probably win a World Series or play every day for the Toledo Mud Hens? Most young people I deal with of the mellenial generation want it all and want it now. Cheers, Doc

  9. I read again this wonderful piece and fell I could add another tuppence to the talk. I think capping the sections would be hard, yet capping the roster would prove impossible. And also, unnecessary – if a band’s pipe section capped at [say] twenty would travel with a roster of thirty pipers, it’d be down to each one of those putatively benched ten surplus men to decide whether they wanna actually play the Worlds in a Gr2 band [or even in another Gr1 one] or be at the sidelines holding water bottles and offering friendly ‘well-done’ nods. Also there is no way of disagreeing with Pipe Major Somers when he stated, ‘visually speaking (…) it’s hard to compete with an eight-wide swath of pipers four rows deep’. However this description fits more [in my auld heid] the massed bands parade than a competing single band entering the tee.



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