July 14, 2011

Great Big Bug

Like this.Solo pipers in outdoor contests have to contend with all manner of things. The bouncy castles, midges and starter’s pistols of Scotland. Oblivious passers-by wandering in between you and the judge at Ontario events. The odd mid-2/4 march dust-devil in the Midwest. They’re all a test of either our concentration or sanity or both. We shake our heads and carry on.

By far the most memorable thing to happen to me was at the Glengarry Highland Games at Maxville, Ontario. Anyone who has been to Maxville knows that it’s in the middle of farm country. In fact, many of the solo events back up onto fields, often bone-dry in the latter part of the hot and humid summer.

It was when I was playing a piobaireachd contest. The venerable Reay Mackay was judging. The tune was some dreary thing set for the Gold Medal competitions in Scotland, which I always played all summer, convincing myself that I liked some of the dreckiest pieces of dreck ever composed for the Highland pipe. This particular instance I think had me playing “The Rout of the MacPhees,” which isn’t exactly a toe-tapping melody, even in the hands of the world’s elite pipers.

But the tune was going quite well, I thought. Back then the Open Piobaireachd was invariably put out in the open, sun blazing down. I got to the first variation of the thing and the biggest freaking bug known to Glengarry County landed on my arm. As soon as this giant cicada or extraterrestrial grasshopper or flying kitten plunked itself on my bare left forearm I jumped about two feet, hands flailing off the chanter (shaddup!), drones in a heap.

“%*&% !!”

“What happened?!” Reay shouts.

“It was a Great Big Bug! A Great Big Bug landed on me! It was a Great Big Bug!” I said breathlessly.

“A Great Big Bug?! Really?” Reay says. “Here, just go off and collect yourself and we’ll let you play again.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, of course,” kindly Reay confirms. “I’ve never seen that happen when a Great Big Bug upsets a tune like that. Sure, I’ll tell the steward you can play later.”

Which is what happened. I went away, recollected myself, tried to get the vision and feel of the Great Big Bug out of my head, and hoped that I’d also get a chance to play a tune that bugged me less. (Not so; Reay Mackay said I had to play the same thing.)

I felt a bit sheepish about it, and a few fellow competitors told me it wasn’t fair. (Then go talk to Reay, I told them.) But being on the other side of the table, I can understand why a judge would do that. You tend to make a lot of non-piping judgment calls during the day, often about what a competitor’s intentions might be. I’ve been given the benefit of the doubt, and I try to do that with others when I think they deserve it.

The name of the game is fair play, Great Big Bugs included. What extraordinary circumstances have you encountered in your competition experiences?


  1. I think that it’s great that the adjudicator let you play again, Andrew, and it was a kind gesture. However, I feel that that kind of response is better suited to the junior grades. In the open grade, the winner should be the player that puts on the best performance given any circumstances, however unforseeable. If I broke a drum stick or had a giant fly go up my nose in an open solo contest, I would expect to sneak off the boards with no result and just put it down to bad luck.

    Even in the lower grades, being permitted to play again is great for confidence, participation and feedback, but should keep you out of any results, in my opinion.

  2. Great story Andrew. I am reminded of a day at the Jakarta Highland Gathering in Indonesia a few years back.

    Together with another two pipers from the Victoria Police Pipe Band, I was playing for our Bass Drummer (Alby Copeland) while he was competing in the Open Solo Bass Drum competition.

    The event was a MSR and he was playing a big set, Donald Cameron, Cameronian Rant and Pretty Marion and all was going fine. We hit the Rant and then all of a sudden a strange humming noise started to grow louder and louder. At fist we thought something had gone wrong with someone’s drones or that a Band at a different Pitch might have been playing nearby. We were soon to find out that President Suhara of Indonesia had arrived to “Officially” open the games and had decided to arrive on his favorite mode of transport, namely a customized Harley Davidson motorbike, unfortunately various minders and bodyguards totaling about 30 people accompanied him, all on Harleys.

    As the competition was been held at an Athletic track the President decided to take a trip around the Oval to wave to the assembled masses and as the competition we were competing in was taking place right next to the track, you can imagine the sound of 30 plus Harleys passing us all within 6 feet.
    The looks between the Pipers, Alby and the Drumming Judge was needless to say priceless as none of us could hear a thing apart from the beautiful sound of the Harleys, we all stopped looked at each other, had a laugh and adjourned to the beer tent.


    Brian Niven
    Victoria Police Pipe Band

  3. was playing in the grade 3 (or maybe two) circle in maxville one year. beautiful day. halfway through the msr a crazy wind started. by the end of the strathspey, things had gotten out of hand… crap was flying all over the place… garbage, peoples hats, more trash, lawnchairs… then a large patio umbrella (belonging to the ppbso to keep the judge shaded) went flying through the circle, clipping a piper in the arm, drawing blood. watched the umbrella soar hundreds of feet in the air while we fininshed the set. was a wierd scene.

    note on judges scoresheet: “blowing issues in strathspey”. haha… witty judge (thanks, andrew)


  4. That’s funny, and very fair that Reay would let you play again, one of the few times common sense takes over. My own experience was down at the Delco Games in Pennsylvannia, early 1980’s, I was playing in the piobaireachd, Archie Cairns the judge, as I was in the middle of my tune, The Lament for the Viscount of Dundee, a great huge pipe and military band approached. Ironically, I think it was the Ceremonial Guard Band from Ottawa – anyway, it was heading directly and to my astonishment it marched right through. Even worse, the band stopped, marking time, and by this time I was actually engulfed dead centre in the middle of the blaring fifes, whistles and bonga bongas, I just figured I would keep going and see what transpired. After maybe a minute ( it seemed a VERY long time!) they marched off and I had a quick look at Archie who was there following the score as though nothing had happened. At the end of the tune he just said “you didn’t go off it or anything, there in the middle when the band was playing?”, and I said “no, I didn’t”, (because I didn’t!) and so that was that, and I received the first prize. As most people know I played the Viscount of Dundee an awful lot in my competitions and I don’t believe I ever did go off it once in all the times I played it, so the odds of getting through it even in those circumstances were pretty good! I think that was the same year I picked Michael Grey up in Kingston and we went down together, they were great days, those, and we laughed and speculated about who was going to get the 4th place in the Jigs which had the lowest prize we’d ever heard of, a whopping $5. Turned out it was me, that was about my haul I think, the first in the piobaireachd and the fourth in the jigs! We still laugh about it, in fact it ended up in “Too Hot to Print” in the predecessor of your Pipes/Drums publication. The prize money in the piobaireachd fortunately was very good. As I remember Michael won the Marches and the Strathspeys and Reels so it was a jolly journey home!

  5. These are great stories, and I’m looking forward to those that get posted throughout the week. While playing BLACK DONALD’S MARCH in Grade 4 Piobaireachd at Alma, I stepped in the same gopher hole at least three or four times while passing back and forth in front of Jim McGillivary (sent me off the tune each time) On top of that, it was a cold, damp spring morning and I hadn’t microwaved my cannisters in months; so, by the tme I finished, I was down to chanter only. As I finished, McGillivary put down his pen gently, smiled and stated, “quite a day, isn’t it?” I really appreciated his compassion at that moment!

  6. I hope “Dougal” never gets near a judging bench!!!! That’s brutal.I suppose when the heavy hammer went right through the boards a foot in front of Jackez Pincet at Oban one year after travelling 300ft through the air to get there, Dougal would have said “oh, bad luck, old chap”

  7. I’ve got two stories. One band, one for solos. Neither of which happened to me personally, but I had the horror of having to witness. Solo one first: A few years ago, I was at a highland games in the Highlands where I live. At this point I was in the Juniors and was watching the senior piobaireachd intently. I remember a guy went on, struck up, pipes singing, creating a bit of buzz in the crowd. While this guy was playing, a police car pulled up at the end of the nearest road and began chasing a guy with the police dog. The police dog was going mental and barking and chasing this guy. He took down the perp RIGHT next to the boards where this guy was somehow managing to hold his composure and carry, although you could see the surprise on his face. The arrest was promptly made after a loud struggle between perp, cop and dog, along with the noise of the sirens. I can’t remember who it was that was playing or what he ended up getting, but when he walked off, I heard him say to a friend: ‘No comment. Beer tent?’

    The band story was at Cowal 2010. I was watching 3A, I believe. It was a VERY windy day. A band walked on with an impressive tone for the grade and I was enjoying their performance. Then, all of a sudden, a huge cry from behind me. A gazibo had gone flying off, which was fine cos it had gone in a different direction, but the wind soon changed and sent it hurling over the line towards the band. I froze I didn’t know what to do, as I’d just realised it wasn’t just any tent. It was OUR band’s gazibo. Two members of the band sprinted over the line, subduing it just in the nick of time. The look of the face of the people in the front rank was an absolute picture, as if they were about to drop their pipes and run. The band promptly went and apologised profusely to both the bands P/M and the judges. It turned out okay though, as they ended up making the prize list if I recall correctly.

    Enjoyed the bug story. Dunno how I’d react if a bug that big landed on me, but it would probably end up surprising me as much as it did you, if not more to the point I just crumpled to the floor, haha.

    Good post. I enjoyed reading the story and think it did provoke a bit of thought as to what you could consider extraordinary circumstances.

  8. How about tractor display the only time I played at aberfeldy 🙂
    helicopter display during the piobaireachd cawdor games ( the only time I think they held them) head down and into Macleod’s march, thinking it was a passing train, I avoided the firework display
    Low flying tornado jet at Arisaig games

    and on a par with colin £3 for 3rd in the jig in dingwall

  9. Jarrod — I remember that Grade 3 contest at Maxville well. The large patio umbrella did go right through the circle and fast during that freak and sudden windstorm. I vividly remember a female piper calmly stepping to one side as it belted past her. The stuff of legend.

  10. The most memorable distraction that I can think of occured when I first started out in competitive bands in the 70’s. Most of us were 15-16 years old at the time and back then full dress was the style of the day. It was a hot, humid summer afternoon in Ontario and there we were, fully decked out, competing in a Grade 4 slow march – 6/8 march competition (there was no GR5 back then). During the middle of the performance, we paid the price for all that heat and humidity (as we often do in Ontario in the summer) when it began to rain. Now, I’m not talking about the gentle showers that occur at the WPBC..but rather 10 minutes of torrential downpour…rain so heavy that within a minute, you could barely see across the circle! For what ever reason, we played the whole contest through to the end without any major issues, after which point the band, along with the judges, sprinted for cover! It took 2-3 days to fully dry out our uniforms (feather bonnets, plaids, doublets, spats, etc. ) after that. The most annoying thing about the whole experience?……………………………………….. All that, and we didn’t even win!

  11. Some strange things happen even to the best of players. A number of years back I was watching Jim McGillivray playing in competition, I believe it was at the Cambridge games. Part way into his performance the chanter popped out of the bag. His first expression was genuine surprise, his second was a big grin as he said to the judge that this was the first time anything like that had happened to him. He set off for his next competition looking as though nothing unusual had occured.

  12. This has the makings to be one of your best notes ever, Andrew. Really enjoying everyone’s stories. And I suggest Reay did the right thing by you, too. Gail Brown did the same for me at Cambridge last year when the colour guard wailed by the jig area at the games last year – while I tried to play. The only time in my life where I recall a judge giving someone a do-over. I guess I had forgotten your bug event. My earliest memory, something like your bug thing, was also at Maxville games when I was a kid. While playing in the peeb down near the (sadly) now-gone cow stalls for Billy Gilmour some brats crazy high on cotton candy were kicking a huge inflatable soccer-like ball between me, the piper, and Billy, the judge. I can hear PM Gilmour now screaming at the kids while I played: f— off! At least, I hope it was them that he was screaming at. The other was at Oban. Just as I was about to step off into my Millbank Cottage for Andrew Wright, Donald MacPherson and another fellow I forget, the starter’s pistol for the running race fired and shook the place – well shook me. I nervously went to some crazy place and sounded my final tuning notes as: loA-D-F-hiA-F-hiA … true … no prize for me!

  13. The BC Highland games, one of the best of the BC Pipers’ outdoor season occurs inside a track field where bands, vendor, solos, and clans all congregate. A little crowded but a lot of fun.

    As was tradition the 78th Fraser highlanders (the garrison, not the band) were present with an educational booth and camp which included a small cannon. Not too far away was the grade I MSR which started around 11am and at just about noon I took to the platform. After tuning, I turned towards the judge and started into my set. Just another competition…

    As I entered the 5th part of my march I noticed the few spectators around had their hands over their ears and appeared to be staring right at me, “typical band parents, is there anything they won’t do” I thought as I tried to concentrate. Then just as I turned it happened, the noon hour hit and the 78th garrison (who were right behind me) set off their cannon. Besides coming to a complete halt and every muscle in my body contracting, I grabbed my chanter playing a horrific low g. Meanwhile my jaw was kind enough to send my teeth biting down on my blow stick, chipping one of my front teeth. Before the echo of the shot had faded my performance died a slow, awkward death. I stood there, holding my mouth and looking at the judge for some sympathy.

    I walked quickly to his table apologizing and attempted to find some humor in what just happened “sorry, they weren’t supposed to do that until the end.” All I received back was a blank stare and the words “son, if you ever want to be professional you need to be able to play in any condition.” Shocked all I could muster was something along the lines of “but I don’t have a cannon to practice with.” At that point the judge wrote a large “DQ” on my sheet and called over the steward.

    Between that and the first Mount Vernon, WA highland games where they decided to land a twin blade Chinook military helicopter right next to the solo events, a judge was physical blown out of his chair…. I have developed PTSD from my competitive piping days.

  14. Just one bug? Andrew, you would have loved the Cicada (Chicago) Highland Games in 2007. An absolute infestation. They seemed to be attracted to the noise. As soon as you started playing.they jumped out of the grass on to you. My wife counted more than 30 on me during my piobaireachd (not counting my glengarry and kilt hose). Adrian Melvin was judging — his comment: “Nice family of bugs on you, Jon”

  15. A lot of reminiscences here. Mine has to be starting out with Pipe Bands early 60s in Fergus, with a Parachute outfit electing to do a drop onto the Games, ejected from on high onto a target in the middle of the field. Wind a blowing (doesn’t it always in such moments?) – the parachuters were struggling to hit the bull’s eye and drifting ever closer to our Band’s competition circle. Me, I just kept playing head down, but Band Mates were distracted “to some tune” repeatedly peering anxiously up at the sky with parachuters closing in ever so near. So no, we did not feature high on the prize list but I always worry about the sympathy factors that other Bands get in such unforgiving circumstances. Count me with the heartless bad guys, but I feel judges should mark what was actually played and not what might have been – which truly is idle speculation.

  16. I remember the Chicago games in 2007 with the 17-year cicadas awake and very active. I posted some pics on the Dunsire forum of it, but they don’t really show how bad it got. I could go on about that day but I think it’s more than I care to reminisce. I do like the story though of Matt MacIsaac winning his Silver Medal in the late 90s, playing despite the fire alarm sounding, followed by a repeating loud banging noise.

  17. I can remember as a young guy playing in a march contest for Colin MacLellan at the Regina Highland Games. The tune was going well, and in the third part of ‘Mrs MacDonald of Dunach’, a dancer walked between he and I resulting in me making a big clanger. I continued on, and made it to the end. When I finished, Colin called me over and said: “You’re the last one to play. You can take second, or play again. It’s up to you.” I played again. Lucky for me, the second time went well. But I’ve always remembered that as a decent thing to do. And since then, I’ve had the chance to “pay it forward” as a judge to other competitors in unfortunate situations. Cheers, Sean Somers

  18. Andrew, well do I remember the “Maxville Bug”, and faced with the same circumstances I would, in the interest of fair play, do the same thing.
    I can remember, a number of years ago playing in the march competition at Fergus Highland Games for Alec. Macneill. The pipe was like a church organ, the fingering crystal clear, the expression right on the numbers. I had that elated feeling that only comes with a stellar performance, when in the second time of the third part “poof” out comes the chanter.
    Well, Alec goes into gales of laughter, almost falling off his chair. I at first was taken aback by his reaction until I too saw the humour in it and I too left the platform, replacing the chanter and laughing as loud as Alec.
    He sure taught me a lesson, as when i received my sheet, all that was written was “Maintenance Man!”
    Reay Mackay

  19. My mentor had a habit of closing his eyes and really immersing himself in the music, especially whilst playing a Piobaireachd. On one occasion, whilst really getting stuck into his tune, he got his drone cords snagged on some low hanging branches, forcing him to play the remainder of his tune stationary…..about 20 feet from the judge’s table………….facing the wrong way! To make matters worse, he was just starting out the Ground to Lament for Donald Doughal MacKay…………when he stopped, he stepped away from his pipes, leaving them seemingly suspended in mid air, to assess his retrieval options……

  20. I had a group of about 3 cicadas swarm me in SD once. Cicada’s aren’t the smallest insects either. I was practicing in August and they were in full swing, they must have thought I was a legitimate mate so they flew on over!



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