May 02, 2019

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

There are cries from some for limitations to be put on the size of pipe- and drum-sections within bands. But unless the RSPBA and, thus, the World’s, starts the process, no association will willingly curtail the competitive chances of its member bands, and its members would not approve it anyway. So while the World’s thrives, the world’s associations increasingly struggle due to the pressure for bands to field large numbers. Conceivably, if section numbers were capped, then almost overnight dozens of bands struggling for personnel would be helped, or altogether new pipe bands would be started.

“For me, a cap on player numbers would greatly help to level the competitive playing field in this respect,” continued MacLean, “and this is where the World’s may well have its greatest impact. Not wanting to disadvantage their top member bands at the World’s, I believe associations take their lead from the RSPBA here and a maximum cap will only be put in place generally if the Scottish association does it first. In that one respect at least, the World’s and the RSPBA affect us directly.”

“Limits on sections or rosters in bands I think would be a good idea, but impractical for a couple of reasons,” said one prominent Canadian pipe band judge who spoke on condition of anonymity. “There probably would be very little chance of getting a pipe section limit small enough to have any real effect, and bands would easily find a way to get around roster limits by having a second band of some grade.”

The predicament in Scotland is somewhat different. While today there are 10 Grade 1 bands based in Scotland, representing a much larger pool in a smaller geographical area, that’s down from 13 in 1966 and far fewer than the 15 or so in the 1980s. There are bigger bands, but fewer of them.

“I’ve not had many players lured to other bands, but that would not bother me as they would only move if they were unhappy,” said the pipe-major of a Scottish Grade 1 band that does not regularly make prize-lists at RSPBA major championships. “Several of my team have been approached but stayed loyal as they can see the ‘bigger picture.’ I think the corps should be capped at 20 for the pipes and 12 for the snares.  This would share the wealth.”

Certainly a large pipe band can be a glorious thing, presenting new musical possibilities. But is an SFU or SLOT or FMM of 23 pipers and 10 snares any more memorable than the Strathclyde Police of the late-1980s with 14 and six?


Within the last few years there a trend has emerged: the mercenary pipe bandsman. With the pressure for top bands to field larger sections, some pipers and drummers routinely hook up with a different Grade 1 band if their usual Grade 1 band isn’t competing at the World’s. They increasingly do this just in time to satisfy the RSPBA’s two-week release policy. They learn up the music for the temporary band and often have their travel to Scotland covered in return for lending their services at the World Championships. When the World’s is finished, they go back to their usual band.

Shotts & Dykehead Caledonia, 1980.

There’s nothing in the rules to prevent this action, and lending a hand to a group of friends and enjoying playing at the World’s should not be condemned. As long as the rules permit it, the temporary guest player routine is permissible.

That said, it probably does not foster camaraderie in the band the player left. After all, aren’t these pipers and drummers helping the competition? Yes, they’re not competing against one another on the day, but the two bands are in competition overall, and the sharing of players across a grade breaks down an unwritten – once sacrosanct – pipe band rule: you commit yourself to one band and you don’t help the enemy.

Perhaps no place has the effect of players-for-hire been felt more than in New Zealand and Australia. Because of the massive financial burden of getting to Scotland from the other side of the globe, most antipodean bands can make it there once every few years. And because their outdoor competition seasons are, literally, polar opposites, members routinely cross-pollinate from bands not attending the World’s to those that are. The local and RSPBA rules permit such temporary transfers, and in those countries the practice has become commonplace.

But at what cost? While one can contend that the inter-band swapping of players results in more camaraderie, it can also be said that a band’s sense of personality and pride is diminished. The fealty to the band and the team spirit that comes with it through competitive rivalry may go against a commitment to create something unique and special over a long period of time. The drive to do well at the World’s this year can result in a short-sighted, fleeting burst of quality, but perhaps little else.



  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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