September 01, 2010

Gold Medals and Scottish society

The unfairer sex.That we’re even talking about how remarkable it is that a female piper has finally won a Gold Medal at Oban or Inverness is more interesting to me than the milestone itself. Faye Henderson by all accounts deserved to win and was a popular choice among her fellow competitors and, to any solo piper I know, that’s crucial to satisfying one’s sense of accomplishment, and that’s really all that should matter.

But the traditions and mores of Scottish piping are long-held and, to those not part of their culture, it can be difficult to understand. Generally and relatively speaking, change is often slower to be accepted there.

Henderson’s win has resurrected the discussion about the Royal Scottish Pipers Society voting in 2008 to continue its tradition of being a men-only club. There are plenty of men-only and women-only and whatever-only clubs in every walk of life. By definition a “club” is restrictive and exclusionary. The complication, of course, is that members of this club of male “amateur” (read: not very good) pipers still judge top-level competitions, and so have a controlling stake in the UK solo piping scene.

Whether or not these RSPS judges are fit to pass accurate judgment on pipers who can play circles around them is perhaps less galling than is the perception that they might be predisposed towards male competitors. They’re part of a club that rejects female members, so making that leap isn’t so huge.

While women have competed in piping competitions forever, they’ve been allowed to participate in the Northern Meeting and Argyllshire Gathering only since 1975. These events are connected with “societies” – that is, upper-crust clubs for those of a certain pedigree, vocation or income-bracket similar to the Jolly Boys that comprise the RSPS. I don’t know much about the Highland Society of London beyond its Wikipedia listing, but I note that it’s made up of “Highland gentlemen resident in London,” and perhaps this sponsorship and tradition also had or has something to do with no woman winning their coveted prize until now.

We all like to think that the prize lists are fair. At least in associations outside of the UK there are sophisticated judging accreditation and accountability systems designed to create a degree of assurance that the competitions will be well assessed. If there’s a question of fairness, there’s a mechanism for addressing it.

But how many female pipers over the years have played well enough to earn a Gold Medal, only to have it denied because they didn’t get the benefit of the doubt? And we all know that, when it comes to the top piping, drumming and band competitions, the benefit of the doubt – splitting hairs based on personal preference or predilection – can be the difference between first and fifth.

Perhaps now everyone can just get on with it and once and for all stop pigeon-holing competitors as male or female, Scottish or not, white or not-white, military or civilian, rich or poor, Catholic or Protestant, Mason or not, and assess the music only with fairness, competence and objectivity.


  1. Lovely post. When I first read about this controversy, I couldn’t believe that members of a piping club that refuses to allow women to join were permitted to judge contests including women competitors.

    As I read further, my astonishment grew. Now, I also can’t believe that amateurs are permitted to judge the top pros. Why hasn’t THAT changed?

    As I’ve read, I’ve also been wondering a great deal about the skill of the members of the RSPS. When people say they are amateurs, do they mean “but oh-so-close to being pros, and really, really knowledgeable,” or do they mean “they might be able to play ‘The Lament for the Old Sword’ pretty decently, but they are really intermediate level players at best”?

    Many congratulations to Faye Henderson on her outstanding achievement!

  2. I would like to post my comment even though it has no real insight or any real feeling directly relating to the matter, but just maybe one of the people in question will read it, and have an epiphany of sorts. IT IS COMPLETELY BEYOND ME, TO TRULY UNDERSTAND HOW ONE JUDGES A MUSIC CONTEST WITH ANYTHING IN MIND OTHER THAN THE MUSIC? I’m younger, and racial and gender intolerance is just not part of my life. Sure I see it happen, but it’s not practiced by me. I can see feeling disrespected by someone looking a bit rubbish in their uniform or maybe an arrangement, but if the african american from iceland wearing trews and a glen atop his/hers mighty afro and plays “Lachlan Mac Neill of Kintarbert’s Fancy” while his white catholic mother and jewish father look on, and he plays it best, he/she should be awarded the prize. The judge should be concentrating on the music.

  3. A woman won the Gold Medal? What’s next? Gortex bags? Carbon fiber drone reeds? Preposterous! If this sort of thing is allowed to continue, gawd forbid, a band from the rebel Republic of Ireland could win the World Championship. That just wouldn’t be the done thing, don’t you know, old chap. Next thing you know they’ll be playing some rot that’s not a Piobaireachd Society setting.

  4. Good one, Andrew. Positively your inflammatory best at whaling (wailing, some say) the Old Guard – who thoroughly deserve it in spades. I found in my professional work that superiors will only change their pulling of rank and heavy handed behaviours when they are exposed. You certainly laid the facts bare, as have many others since Faye won.

    To not believe such issues continue to underlie the 3rd Millennium is to deny the basis of human nature. I don’t read the “news”paper anymore because it is full of ‘olds’ – A shoots B, country C invades D and Y discriminates against Z based on characteristic M. X times innumerable we continue to hear this and only by exposing unwarranted bigotry can we move on. Slaves are free now and women do vote. So let’s keep moving forward. However, it is naïve to think Judges will be unaffected by their own predilections and only hear the quality of playing. By exposing bias – whether it be musical taste or nationalist fervour – we help excise it.

  5. Excellent post, Andrew.

    Faye’s achievement is fantastic – winning a Gold Medal, at 18 or any other age, over a field of very strong competitors, is a feat for any player. However, I’m reminded of the adage “How good does a female athlete have to be before we just call her an athlete?” It is interesting to me that, as a wider community, we are all discussing the matter of a *woman* winning. For me, this is interesting because, the last time I checked, playing bagpipes was not one of those very, very few activities that actually require one particular anatomical configuration over another.

    More specifically this discussion is interesting to me because I believe that if we do not see and actively discuss gender politics within social phenomena, then we are not seeing them clearly – so I am pleasantly intrigued to see this discussion being brought to light. Addressing inequalities, imbalances or ignorance is not done through astonished outcries of it being unbelievable that they occur. Rather, I think it’s important to talk about why this is ‘news’ so we can look critically at what’s happening, discuss how we got here and how we might move forward (as you’ve pointed to in this post). Further, discussions of gender politics within the arts (particularly in literature and fine arts) continue to happen, despite the strangely pervasive (and incorrect) claim that we have reached some kind of post-gender utopia. These discussions are not only relevant, but also critical to pushing for changes in how we interact with each other. We’ve come a long way, baby – but not nearly far enough.

    Additionally, I’m not sure that anyone can claim some kind of pure objectivity, as to claim objectivity is to refer to the masculine discipline of hard/natural sciences that seem to have appropriated all views into a kind of dogma that was actually the product of the perspective of a very specific group (mostly upper-class, white men). Claiming ‘objectivity’ seems to indicate that one can see ‘everything from nowhere’ and that everyone sees the world in the same way. To me, it’s perhaps more accurate to think of particular standpoints and acknowledge that knowledge and opinion come from an individual’s very specific location – the experiences and elements that shape their lives (with gender being only one such element). This means being clear that we all see ‘something from somewhere’ based on our specific experience and circumstances. It seems more important to do as you have done here with regard to the RSPS, to state explicitly the experiences and locations that are informing the circumstances around any given contest. Referencing these factors highlights the subjectivity of our undertaking and identifies both judges and competitors as subjects to particular experiences and biases. Thus, constantly referencing subjective positions also allows us to confront particular negative biases – such as those that might lead a judge to give the benefit of doubt to a player for non-musical reasons.

    As I have heard many friends and fellow competitors say, usually in our more reasonable moments, contest results come from what a given set of judges hears on a particular day – instead of throwing this away, it might be better to hold on to this knowledge and put it in context. Reminding ourselves of the critical place of subjectivity – instead of masking it in a false objectivity (at best) or throwing it under a dogmatic bus (at worst) – seems like it would increase the transparency of contests, and certainly move things along in determining competence and fairness. Our strange idiom is so very subjective, the connection makes a lot of sense, at least to me.

    Apologies for such a long response, but this is such a topical and fascinating discussion to me – and one that I have been thinking about for some time, even more so since Faye’s win. Thanks for this post – interesting points to think on and talk more about, that’s for sure. And the more people that broach the subject, the easier it becomes to understand and move beyond.

    Ashleigh Weeden

  6. Sounds as if in the next vote, (when would that be?) the majority will vote to allow women members. It will be quite interesting at that point to see how many women want to join. And also how many of the men would resign in protest.It would be interesting to hear from a member who is ‘against’ women members, to hear what their reasons would be. But they seem very quiet in all these discussions. Not sure why contest organisers continue to invite RSPS judges?? If I was a professional piper walking on to play in a contest, knowing I was being judged by someone who’d voted against women members of RSPS, I would certainly feel it put me at an unfair disadvantage (except that I wouldn’t put myself in this position- I’d boycott the contest first!). Even if the judge was a member of RSPS who had voted in favour of women members, they are still saying something like, ‘although I think X, I can go along with Y’ and where the Y is ‘no women members’ they are going along with that, so it’s still not on, imho. In any case what are amateurs doing judging professional pipers? Is it something to do with the past and landed gentry or something – heck we need to get out of the Ark and into the 21st Century. Having said all that, I’d be really interested to hear from a member of RSPS who was against women members, to hear what their view is, and why they would want to belong to a men-only club. Who knows? Although I can’t think of one, they may have some valid point to make? Unlikely though. Just off to my Ladies Luncheon Club — just kidding. Off to do a job I’ve trained long and hard to do, and one in which discrimination in any shape or form, would be picked up pretty smartish and I’d be out on my ear!! No place for it in this day and age. Including in the world of piping.

  7. Change very rarely comes easily, especially when a lot of the piping world consists of tradition. I agree with all your statements; judging should absolutely be based solely on the music, regardless of gender. I also agree with Andy Stewarts comment:

    “It seems totally INSANE to me that this subject is even remotely an issue in this century.”

    Congrats to Faye Henderson for her win, it was well deserved, you played very well!!! And that should be it…

    Great post, cant wait for the next one!

  8. An interesting post with some good follow up comments. Ashleigh Weeden’s comments covered many of my own thoughts. I didn’t think much about the winner’s gender when the original announcement was made and I do find it surprising it did create some sort of stir. I’ve had female supervisors for most of my working life and don’t give much thought to gender issues but still occasionally witness new employees or outside vendors who are uncomfortable with it. It should be all about the music as others have stated. But many would agree that their is a long list of prejudices, biases, and personal preferences that often get in the way–or at least we imagine they do when we don’t like the judgement. Being so subjective it’s often hard to know when it was and when it wasn’t just about the music, and will continue to be so.

    The thing that really struck me reading the post and comments was
    regarding “amateur” and “professional” judges. Without knowing anything about the RSPS or the amateur judges in question my reaction is that people shouldn’t be too hasty to dismiss the ability of the amateur and rely on the judgement of the professional. As shown by the education debate in the US for example, being accredited doesn’t mean your necessarily good at it. Those not accredited should not be instantly dismissed as unworthy. It’s possible that they don’t have the ability to properly judge a top level competition, but the same might be said of some accredited judges.

  9. Congrats to Faye Henderson on the win of a very prestigious prize.
    Interesting timing as just the other night I had a call from an old friend.
    Trudy Skinner (nee Campbell) was one of those great early female pipers.
    Who, along with Gail Brown handed the boys of Ontario a fair number of
    3rd and 4th prizes back in the 70’s in the solos.
    The Campbell family also hosted the great “Driving Shed” summer camps
    where most of Ontario’s great pipers learned the art of the “Old Music”.
    Go figure!

  10. While at a contest in the UK this season and during the world cup, there was a young kid that walked onto massed bands with his band wearing a Tshirt that had on the front “I don’t care who wins….” and on the back read “…as long as its not England!!”. Now while you could reasonably argue that quite a few nations would have their kids wearing something like that, for me, the occasion pretty much narrows down the nationality of the parent. Although arguably innocent, the reason this kind of thing annoys me is not that I always feel obliged or compelled to support other neighbouring countries when they are playing anyone other than England, regardless of whether they would support mine, it is that its the beginning stages of another cycle of hate based on history that has nothing to do with its current representatives, either side.

    Contrast this to my grandmother, an absolutely lovely lady who has worked hard for her family all her life and would do anything for anyone, and who also would never “deliberately” offend anyone. Even with this, she comes out with the most outrageous, inherently racist comments I have ever heard (which thankfully never rubbed off upon my mother). I say inherently, because she is not actually racist; if you called her racist she would deny it, and ironically this isn;t a lie, because in real terms she isn’t. Its the things she randomly says that are truly shocking, and in themselves are 100% proof that she hasn’t got a single clue what she is saying or talking about or how offensive they are, and only says the things she does because “thats what we was always saying back then….”. The issue is that for the rest of her days, there’s nothing I or other family members can do to stop her saying the things she says or having the horrendously misguided views that she has.

    My point is, that elitist attitudes and supporting your own UNQUESTIONABLY in every aspect of life whether it be between sex, religion, class, nationality, race, etc etc………will always continue to be an issue as long as humans remain impressionable from birth and unchanging and stuck in their ways once the irreversible damage has been done. But thats an issue that affects much more serious aspects of life than just a piping contest, imo.

    Judges who were the kid and have become my grandmother are always going to place their loyalties above anything else, including a musical performance. If men are supposed to win things above women…….then thats what happens if they are in a position of casting that decision (as long as its at least remotely arguable, aka ‘benefit of the doubt’).

    However, it has to be said that not everyone is or is liable to be like this. It is only a certain proportion of any group that gives rise to controversy, causing people to notice or talk about an issue such as this, and therefore should not be used to assume that it is a problem across the board.

    In piping, all results are judgement calls, and so there are always going to problems with results with both judges appearing to have their own agenda, and competitors assuming that judges have been unfair (for whatever reason). At the end of the day, judges cant win, cause they are always going to have to place bands/competitors 1st to nth……..and they are going to be thanked by 1st place and slagged off by the nth competitor, whoever they are.

    Its exactly the reason that I do what I do, which is because I love the music, not cause the results that end up on the website/sheets are fair and accurate. If at all possible, perhaps in several decades time when I believe the balance of biased to unbiased judging decreases to a point where people talk about how fair judges are and that their decisions are based purely on the music, I will be more interested in what the results are telling me.

    The aspect of this that really interested me was the quality of player judging a player of noticable higher ability, since I am kinda swung between both sides of the argument. While I can see the valid reasons why one would think this is totally rediculous in terms of advising the competitor where they are going wrong and placing them, i think a certain amount needs to be taken into account for why this is the case. The first glaringly obvious reason is whether there is enough high calibre players available to judge contests. The next is, does the judge know what they are talking about but not physically capable of making their hands do what they need to do?

    Great article, by the way and AGREED……….Judge the music, not the player/band.

  11. Interesting. This is just not a part of my everyday life, at work or at home, not even in my piping associations. Women populate the complete spectrum of piping, drumming and pipe major ranks everywhere I go. This “barriier” was breached in the band ranks years ago. Thankfully. Faye Henderson was judged by the quality of her music and that is as it should be. By reports, I was not there, her peers were in agreement that her performance was delightful and first rate. That her gender is an issue, or newsworthy is sad. Edinburgh and Augusta would appear to be the last places where this is an issue. The last bastions of the “Royal and Arcane”

  12. What’s the fuss? – Everyone else seems quite relaxed about it. Faye played well by all accounts, as have other players, man and woman before her. With respect, the author appears to want to use it as some kind of cutting commentary on the shortcomings of Scottish society. Who gives one? How many females have been robbed a medal? Who knows? How many individuals have been robbed a medal by crap judging? Plenty.

    Indeed there are several “jolly boys” still judging. However the most corrupt, blatant, partisan judging I ever witnessed (on a regular basis) was from one the the “greats”, who had won it all. I’ve also witnessed, on several occasions, judges from outside the UK (let’s call it Canada) with their sophisticated accreditation system, scoring some total howlers, so spare the sanctimony..

    Yes, everyone should get on with it, as indeed they are already.

  13. I was awarded a gold medal in drumming at the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games in North Carolina in 1966. Here’s my recollection of this historic event. The senior (more talented drummers) in the St. Andrews Pipe Band wished to teach a novice male drummer a lesson. Apparently the novice male drummer had boasted that he was superior in drumming skills to this female drummer, which they disputed. So to prove their point, they jointly decided to refrain from competing in the drumming competition, leaving only the novice male and myself performing on stage that day. After I was awarded the gold medal, the novice male drummer informed me that “they only reason the judge awarded you the gold medal was because you’re a girl”. I knew that his opinion was that of a frail male ego. I have the gold drumming medal in a display box along with my Highland Dancing medals in case anyone needs proof of this tale.



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