Hands across the water

Published: August 31, 2009

Take note.Now that Inveraray & District has completed its sweep of all five Grade 2 RSPBA championships with a win of Cowal, the band’s coronation to Grade 1 in 2010 is assured – not that it wasn’t before. The band powered through the season with 13 firsts from a possible 20 across the majors, leaving some wondering if the band should have been put in Grade 1 instead of Grade 2 when it moved from Juvenile after 2008.

Considering that Inveraray only started to compete in 2005 as a new Juvenile band makes this one of the great pipe band success stories of all time. Not since Boghall & Bathgate, Dysart & Dundonald or maybe Vale of Atholl in the 1970s has an organization risen to the top with remotely comparable speed, even though those three bands didn’t come close to Juvenile-to-Grade-1 in only four full seasons.

Hat’s off to Inveraray’s leadership and to the whole organization’s commitment to success. The band is led by Pipe-Major Stuart Liddell and Lead-Drummer Steven McWhirter, who both are stars at the top of the solo piping and drumming trees. But they both have something else in common – something probably far more important to Inveraray’s success.

Both Liddell and McWhirter for the better part of the last decade were members of the Simon Fraser University Pipe Band. It’s clear that neither were simply hanging out at SFU only so they could enjoy winning a few World Championships; they were there to learn SFU’s style of band-craft and take it back with them to Scotland, where they have deployed their knowledge to the hilt in Inveraray’s first season in Grade 2.

Since the 2009 World’s not a few folks have noted that only one Scotland-based band – House of Edgar-Shotts & Dykehead – in the last decade has managed to win the big award, while the other seven times it’s gone to SFU of Canada or Field Marshal Montgomery of Northern Ireland. I’ve also heard comments from Scotland bemoaning that so many talented Scottish pipers and drummers are playing in bands not based in their homeland, insinuating that these traitors should stay home to fight for their own country.

It’s interesting to note that in the 1970s, Canadians started to travel to Scotland to play in and learn from top bands, and then bring their knowledge back home. This produced results seen in the likes of Clan MacFarlane (Scott MacAulay – Muirheads), Triumph Street (Hal Senyk – Muirheads), Toronto & District (John Elliott – Muirheads), City of Victoria (John Fisher – Shotts) and others. Rather than moaning that Canadian bands couldn’t match the Scottish standard, these folks committed themselves to going there to learn how it’s done. Pipers and drummers from all over the world continue to travel to Scotland to gain experience with top bands, although the practice continues to diminish.

Now, it seems that the tide has turned, with UK-based pipers and drummers learning from top bands in Canada, Australia and New Zealand. To be sure, some of the world’s greatest pipe bands are still in Scotland – tremendous talent is still there. But, now, it appears that things have come full circle, where the recipe for one kind of success is an ocean away – in the other direction.

22 thoughts on “Hands across the water

  1. While this post is excellent and clearly written in a favorable tone toward Stuart and Steven, it makes it sound like they came to Canada with a scheme to go back and form a band together. Stuart joined SFU before he knew Steven very well. I think they realized playing at the World Solos how musical they were together and all the while the Inveraray band was developing behind the scenes with both teaching the players. It was the kids in the Inveraray band that really vaulted the organization up the ranks so fast. How could anyone plan on that? Just goes to show that following your heart and playing good music will always make a better band than a scheme to beat some existing band. Long live IDPB.

  2. I also don’t believe that these two gentlemen had an objective of any sort, other than to play with a really good band that they had previously heard and who sparked their attention to their particular choice/style in music. Let’s not forget that they also learned their craft in the U.K. and without doubt that craft or experience was added to in Canada. It’s not unlike people going from Canada to play in the best bands in the U.K. If they have the initial talent to join a band, then they can’t help but add something to their resume and in doing so they will hopefully pass their new found knowledge on. Back in the 70’s there were a small number of decent (Not Great) Canadian bands. The C.N.E. was perhaps a start to the overall development and increase in top quality Canadian bands. Along with he many Scottish talented players who traveled to Canada, giving seminars and teaching at piping schools etc. I do sense we sometimes get into “them and us” and personally I don’t like it. It would be like the U.S.A. saying we are the pioneers who built the first motor car and the Japanese saying Yeh! but we perfected it. Sometimes this theme becomes a little aggravating. North Americans should hold the same respect for their Scottish counterparts as their counterparts hold for them i.e. North America be thankful for the knowledge they have achieved by way of the top players and bands. I know for a fact that the U.K. people are exceedingly complimentary with respect to the very high standard that has been coming from and rapidly increasing in North America and they love it.

  3. One of the positive aspects of the “gathering of the bands” at the WPBC is that it allows all of us to see and hear what our contemporaries are up to, increasing on a wider global scale. With open minds and positive thinking we can all learn from each other and return to our respective locales wisened players all the better for the experience who can then turn around and contribute to the advancement of the art universally. When this is added to the cultural exchange of individual band players between bands located on all of the various continents, it can only help to further enhanse the global knowledge level.

  4. The message here: those who seek, find.

    It doesn’t matter what Messrs McWhirter and Liddell may have initially been thinking. But it seems obvious that the more they played with SFU, the better their holistic understanding of band-craft became. Inevitable.

    IDPB is a great band and being such says nothing more than what most already know – i.e. that where there is a will, there is a way.

    Having a large group of dedicated kids emerge from an intial band of a mere handful is a trememdous result. It says a lot about the culture that is being fostered, the friendships, the community interest and support, the music they play and the appeal this band was able to develop early in the caper. In addition to all this, they have two of the very best in the game at the helm.

  5. Let’s never forget that Stuart and Steven and all other imports may have in fact brought many new bright ideas to S.F.U. I agree with “Art” it is all about sharing and adding your own little twist to it, hopefully making it that bit more interesting and taking it up a notch.

  6. Just to be clear, I didn’t for a second mean to suggest that Stuart or Steven joined SFU with any sort of “scheme” – no more than anyone else over the years who has travelled a long way to be a part of a top-class band. Both of them have huge talent on their own. However, their experience at SFU had to have rubbed off on the way they manage Inveraray & District, evidenced by the results they’re getting. The IDPB example was picked to illustrate the point that UK-based players – even two of the very greatest in the art – are travelling a long way to be a part of something great, and inevitably take some of that greatness back to the UK.

  7. People get awful uppety and het up sometimes if you say you think, as I have many a time, that there’s so much good stuff happening eg in Canada. But it’s true, and the same applies to other countries, as well as to pockets in Scotland. Piping and drumming is a world-wide thing, with its expert teachers and performers spread across the globe. The concept of seeking out the best band FOR YOU, the best teacher FOR YOU, wherever they are in the world, makes perfect sense to me, and those wholly committed to the instrument and its music will find ways of accessing them. The two leaders of the IDPB seem perfect examples of people who have gone the extra mile, learned and absorbed, experienced and digested, and brought it all back to their own enterprise. They in turn, are instilling the same high standards in the next generation. Three young pipers from their band spent a week learning piobaireachd last summer and a better example of impeccable attitude, sheer hard work, and dedication to piping, it would not have been possible to find. They were a great credit to their band, and if there are more like them, learning under such expert guidance, no wonder they are doing so very well. You should have heard the delight with which they described giving up their Sundays for band practices. An example to us all.

  8. You do NOT need to explain yourself, Andrew. I would imagine the vast majority of the readers did not find anything other than good thoughts and intentions from your recognition of the two players and the Inverary band itself.
    How about interviewing members of the Inverary & District PB for a future article?

  9. Not knowing the geographic home of the members of IDPB, I can only guess that many hail from parts close to the band’s practice hall. If so, this illustrates the point that I and others have made here and on other forums. The ebb and flow of economics and trends has us moving towards players focusing their efforts a little closer to home. Bands are starting to develop organically again. And that is a good thing for promoting the art on a local level and giving good players a place to hang their hats a little closer to home. Of course, this trend can’t apply to the truly premier bands, as they will always be able and need to attract players from greater distances to remain on top. But for the rest of us, it is a bit heartwarming to know that success can be had by working hard with your pals from home.

  10. I guess when I used excellent and favorable I wasn’t positive enough. I used scheme, which does not have to be taken negatively, because that’s how it felt to me as a reader and very often things are capsulized and simplified and thereby distorted with references to ‘folks’ and ‘numerous grade one players’ and ‘rumors’ that offer no reality check.

  11. Duncan – try this: before, non-Scots would go to Scotland to learn (and have fun while doing it). They still do. But now, Scots are going to non-Scottish bands to learn (and have fun while doing it). To me, anyway, it’s a noteworthy shift.

  12. Objection! The “conjecture” is simply intended not to go into lengthy detail. It’s also a blog post; not a news story. A string of comments from “folks” bemoaning Scotland’s perceived lack of success is in this article: http://living.scotsman.com/music/Why-Scots-piping-needs-band.5562181.jp . Many more are anecdotal. I could list dozens of names (mine included) from the last 30 years to corroborate the “numerous Grade 1 players” claim. Not sure about the “rumors” thing, since I don’t see that anywhere.

  13. Ha ha – right on. I was just trying to make the point that it is easy to ascribe intention to accident after-the-fact. For example, if SFU had not won in 08 and 09, would we be as quick to attribute Inveraray’s success to what Steven and Stuart learned at SFU? What if they had left just after SFU placed 6th at Pitlochry?
    Many of the new players into SFU over the past 20 years are from outside the area. This is not because they were sent by their local bands/cities/countries to learn and return. Most return when they run out of free time. I do not think that Steven and Stuart “were there to learn SFU’s style of band-craft and take it back with them to Scotland.” This is the result not the intention. (Also, Steven is not from Scotland) We need more than one international contest each year and thus the real issue is that we read everything into the one result.

  14. “one result?” I think the World’s format with a minimum of two contests is sufficient in crowning a true champion. If you can’t get up for the big one, when can you get up? If you want more international results, bring your bands over to Maxville and see how nice the drone sound is in 80 degreee (f) blistering sun. Oh yeah, with a N.American judging panel. Then we’ll see…. I assume when you say more than one result, you’re saying that the best over here need to come there for more than just the World Championships. And that would be so appropriate to the Scottish way of seeing things… to which I’d say, what’s the point?

  15. Jason: Been there done that got the T-shirt. You know I play with SFU, right?
    Just wish we didn’t have to wait a whole year each time for the big show. Something in April with all the bands, maybe in Majorca or Rio.

  16. Duncan: Didn’t know you played with SFU. Haven’t gotten my copy of “Pipe Band Paparazzi Magazine” lately so I’m not up on the who’s who. All the same, much congrats to you and the band. You seemed to take a very Scotland-centric tone, so I assumed otherwise and took a chance to provide a N.American perspective. See you in Rio…coincide with Carnivale perhaps?

  17. Jason…you say… “that would be so appropriate to the Scottish way of seeing things”

    I take from this that you’ve made the assumption (as many do) that bands ‘over here’ don’t want the Worlds held outside Scotland. You’re wrong – I know many bandspeople here that would be more than willing to travel abroad for the Worlds. It may well be the RSPBA officials don’t want to move it (although I can’t confirm that, as I’ve never asked them and I doubt if anyone else has either!) but if that is the case – don’t make the assumption that bands feel the same way.

    Sorry for going off-topic.

  18. Just my two cents worth (two pence worthy really): I think most people who travel across the pond, or to Australia or New Zealand don’t do it because they feel they can develop their craft. They do it because they can! They have no ties or commitments to hold them back and it’s an adventure. If I was 30 years younger with no career or family to worry about, I would do it too.
    Norrie Thomson

  19. I think the ghost of Karl Benz might have a word or two to say about the statement that “…the U.S.A. … are the pioneers who built the first motor car…”

    Maybe he went to America and brought back his knowledge to craft success in his home country


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