August 03, 2008


Nice attack.A month or so back the pipes|drums Poll asked readers about their preferences for extreme weather conditions at an outdoor contest. The condition that got the most favourable response – 37% – was “No rain, but thunder and lightning in the area.” This beat out “Very cold and rainy” (4%) and “Roasting heat and no shade anywhere” (36%).

I am still a bit miffed that piping and drumming competitors are perfectly happy risking their lives around lightning rather than putting up with cold. It’s all about competition.

And so it was at Maxville on Saturday when the thunderstorms that had been predicted for days finally happened. The place within a few minutes turned into a huge tempest, and some of the cracks of lightning that struck right overhead while I was judging the Grade 5 band competition were downright awesome and a tad insane.

But it was really only when the rain became too heavy, and not the life-risky lightning, that common sense finally prevailed and the competitions were halted. This after a vendor on the park reportedly was struck.

I must confess that while I was out on that wide-open field I was somewhat reassured to see about 50-feet in the air a metal cherry-picker that they use for tossing that big bag of hay in the heavy events. If lightning did strike, it would hit that thing and not my umbrella. I also couldn’t help but fantasize about the clichés they would say if we were hit: “Oh, but he went out doing what he loved.” Screw that. Cold comfort from pain, indeed.

Some people were comparing the weather to the 2007 World’s. Um, no. There’s a huge difference between soul-destroying incessant mist and life-destroying bolts of 100,000,000 volts.

Trying to persevere through that mess was theatre of the absurd. Bands came from long distances for the contest but, really, lightning and piping just should not mix.


  1. Maxville was at time quite scary. Just prior to Toronto’s MSR and just after, strikes happened south of the field, within 200 yards of the spectators who were sitting under the trees. Many became uneasy and abandoned the Grade 1 circle. We were not far behind them.

    Sporting events have seen deaths in weather situations that did not even approach the potential at Maxville. As a sporting official I am required to abandon the game for the safety of all long before the deluge came. Unfortunately it may take similar accidents as we have seen in sports to bring sanity to bear. What they got away with this time, they may not be so lucky in the future.

    To those who stuck it out … the Grade 1 Medley was played with an intensity I have seldom heard before, and a comradry all around the circle. Every band was cheered multiple times. When everything finally drys off, it will be that memory that ultimately stays with me.

    With an empty arena sitting there, it seemed ridiculous to endanger lives because no real sane contingency plan seemed to be in place.

    Sorry Glengarry … the bands won, but you lost.

  2. Utter insanity!

    The event should have been called off and suspended at the first sign of lightning. I wouldn’t be out there competing, judging, or doing anything else if I saw the slightest sign of lightening anywhere in the area.

  3. The piping organizations that run the games would be well advised to look at their liability if competitions are allowed to continue when thunder and lightning appear. Many organizations like the PGA and soccer suspend play immediately. We in the pipe band world stick a lightning rod in our mouth and warm up under the trees. Are we trying to be like Braveheart or are we just being daft?

  4. Rain will dry out. If it’s hot, you can eventually go inside, have a beer, and cool off. If it’s cold, you can warm up. Lightning is forever. I’ll take cold and rainy over lightning any day.

    And if you hear thunder, there IS ligthning whether you saw it or not. Sometimes in the daytime it isn’t as apparent, but it’s there. And not all lightning is a bolt that comes straight down from the base of a cumulonimbus directly overhead. It can travel for miles in the altocumulus or even cirrus associated with a Cb, Hence the old expression, a bolt out of the blue. If I hear thunder, I assume that I am a target for lightning and head for the hacienda ASAP.

    The one good thing is, that like a bullet, you probably never hear the one that gets ya.

  5. Here in Florida every summer we have golfers that try to stay on the course until the last possible minute when the storms are approaching, and unfortunately for some it becomes THEIR last minute when they get zapped. The often repeated rule down here is very true – “If you can hear it, it can hit you.”

  6. What made the situation at Maxville worse was two things: no warning and no communication. The elderly and many handicapped individuals found themselves unable to locate shelter. (Special thanks must be given to the caregivers and some of the volunteers who risked their personal safety to assist them.) Cell communication also failed.

    It took me 40 minutes to locate my 80 year old mother and two children. I was not alone as hundreds of wet, cold spectators took cover in the few rows of the grandstand that were not being drenched. I dove into the back of a van as the hail came down in the parking area.

    They knew there was a chance of a bad storm and yet no one was watching the live weather satellite feed the government has for the area, or if they were watching they had no intent of sounding a storm warning. In fact, the very actions of the organizers seemed to be that “we will go forward” as the heavy-weights came back out to warm-up as the sky was still flashing.

    As the storm starts and the lightning is peaking the announcer states: “The Grade 1 Medley competition will begin in 25 minutes.” That typified the mind-set.

    There needs to be a serious review of this. The cost of the life of any player or athlete is not worth the threat of losing your appearance fees. Those who made the decision to continue with the lightning coming down, and to go forward despite it not being clear should be disciplined and dismissed.

  7. Ummm, I like to play in a heavy rain, but lightning? Someone wasn’t doing their job. I guess a lot can be said for not having silver on your pipes.

  8. It was terrifying being out in a field judging in these conditions and boy was I relieved when they finally saw sense and supended the competition, but not until the end of
    the Grade 2 MSR, during which there were a number of immense lightening flashes overhead.

    I had previous experience of this back in 1990 when my umbrella was actually struck by lightening whilst judging at a contest in Airdrie. The current from the bolt travelled
    down the umbrella, which was tucked in my elbow, burnt through my jacket and threw me on my back – and the band played on. Maybe they thought they had really blown me away with their playing !!
    Mitch Mitchell, former RSPBA Executive Officer was standing nearby at the time.
    Fortunately I am still here to tell the tale.

    I agree that events should be stopped at the first hint of any danger to participants or spectators and especially when it appears that local people were actually expecting the thunder storm !!!

  9. You should have tried playing in it.

    The SL78th played the MSR in 28 degrees of heat, with the thunder and lightning slamming all around us. During the rain delay, I encouraged the cancellation of the rest of the events. We know that didn’t happen. And more’s the stupidity, we played on, performing the medley in a downpour, only now at 17 degrees Celcius. Now there’s a challenge to keeping sound. Literally at the chute, 2 peices of tape washed off my chanter. With my soaking hands, and soaked chanter, replacing them was a task I couldn’t do. That’s why I gave the chore to Ian Lyons, who somehow managed to get a quadruple wrap of tape in the right places. Whew!

    Meanwhile, all the drunks had cover in the beer tents and the arena while the musicians (is it only the performers who consider pipers and drummers as musicians?) were out in it, literally risking life and limb.

    This kind of experience speaks so loudly to the issues we have in pipe bands, and properly staging/producing events. It’s a subject I’ll talk about at the forums being held at the NPC on Thursday, and The C of P on Friday. We MUST find a better way.

  10. I agree, Bill. It’s relatively easy to find a better way for a small group of bands, but how to accommodate 60-plus bands at Maxville, let alone 220 bands at Glasgow Green? When you say “pipe bands,” do you mean all bands or just those in the top-tier of Grade 1? Should some bands be sheltered from rain and lightning while others aren’t? That’s a tough one.

  11. Note to ALL pipe band associations: No ands, ifs or buts…implement a lightning policy! It should be short and simple: If there is the possibility of lightning in the area, all outdoor activities will be immediately suspended until the threat subsides.
    This policy should NOT be subject to interpretation by ANY interested parties.
    Aside from the potential for human tragedy, the legal implications could very easily financially terminate the games and all organizations involved in the decision to “play on.”

  12. Andrew, these are indeed tough issues, but we had better seek some solutions, or be doomed to continue as an oddity, instead of gaining broader appeal amongst the public at large. It’s not just the threat of injury which is of concern, but the wider issue of how we can properly present our music and art to the world. This is no way to have a musical event. And as to the risk, I was suggesting to any who would listen on Saturday, that they should imagine a 40 year old dentist, married with 4 children, killed by lighting. In my world, that’s a price tag measured in many millions of dollars.

    Anyway, problems should be met head on with serious attempts to solve them. So far we’re doing a very shoddy job of it.

  13. At the end of the day, no one (I think!) is forced to play. It’s everyone’s choice as to whether they want to continue in obviously risky conditions.

    If someone collapsed from a heart attack due to a hard reed at a competition, who’s at fault? I doubt that the heart attack victim’s family could easily turn around and say that the band or the association was liable. But, I suppose there are lawyers who might take on such a case.

    As with golf courses (most of which have high-tech lightnining detection systems), I think associations should warn players that there is lightning around and then suspend events immediately. But if a golfer or piper or drummer disregards the warning and keeps playing, then that’s their decision.

  14. You’ve hit on the classic defence argument of contributory negligence. If you contribute by your conduct, to the injury you now complain of, your award, if any , is reduced by a percentage which the court thinks represents your fault….sometimes to zero. But what of the case of my dentist, who takes himself onto the field and plays in a contest, completely oblivious to the fact that lightning is in the area, and the organisers, who know of it, have failed to warn, or better, close the event. Pretty strong argument that Dr. Rootcanal is a victim of someone else’s negligence.

    And that’s the problem with Maxville.

    But whether Dr. Tooth could win or not, I invite consideration of the consequences of a multi year lawsuit, with huge costs, regardless of the award if any.

  15. I guess “acts of nature/God” (take your pick) are exempt from insurance policies for that exact reason, and I would think that it’s hard to litigate those cases. It’s not much different, I think, than someone going to ANY organized event and getting zapped or swept up in a typhoon. Is it the New York Yankees’ responsibility to warn people when there’s lightning around? What about a municipal beach when there’s a hurricane? The Oklahoma State Fair and tornadees? Take your pick.
    Liable and lawsuits and litigation and settlements and all that shite aside, I would think that associations warning their members about risks is just looking after their well being, not their own liability, if indeed they are liable.

  16. I was not at Maxville and am not an attorney. But I was hit by lightning many years ago during a non-piping related event. The idea of suing someone did not enter my 17 year old mind. I was just very happy to be alive.
    You are correct, Andrew, ultimately no one is FORCED to play. Considering all the time, effort and money involved on the part of competing bands, the Maxville scenario was a classic “Hobson’s Choice.”
    Acts of nature, versus acts (or in this case, “non acts”) of an association are not comparable. Associations should not give competitors the “choice” to play come hurricane, tornado, hell, high water or lightning OR forfeit the chance to win a prize or championship title.
    If even one association creates a weather policy, that will be one more than currently exists. Please, let’s not wait until someone is seriously injured or killed when just about every other outdoor event organizer has implemented lightning policies due to the extreme danger lightning poses.

  17. Given the choice, I would play in a lightning storm for the Open solo contest at Maxville!

    The chances of me winning it and being hit by lighting are about the same! 🙂

  18. Apparently we haven’t learned anything since 1962!

    “August 11, 1962John D. Burgess blown off platform at Taynuilt games and still wins Jig.”

    It never ceases to amaze me the lengths that we pipe band types will go to when it comes to performances. I persomally have played pipes in blowing snowstorms, below zero celcius temepratures, 35 celcius + super humid heat and torrential downpours that would have/could have/should have caused flash floods!

    I’ve never seen anyone play Stradivarius voilins under such adverse conditions! Makes you think……….



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