September 03, 2014

Instant replay

recorderThis year marks the fortieth anniversary of the Great Tape Scandal of Inverness. In 1974, Bill Livingstone’s second-prize in the Highland Society of London’s Gold Medal was rescinded after Lezlie Webster (nee Patterson) produced a tape recording of his tune, conclusively proving that Livingstone “went wrong” in his performance.

No fault of Lezlie, of course. She was and is a keen piper who was simply capturing the big contest as an early-adopter of portable recording technology (which we can assume was some giant reel-to-reel magnetic machine that ran off of a car battery).

It was a famous event. Seumas MacNeill wrote a pithy and scathing report in his inimitable style saying that recording devices found on listeners should be “smashed into little bits.” Presumably he feared that using recordings would upset the time-honoured tradition of judges working from pure concentration and super-human memory. Bill Livingstone is probably still chagrinned, even though he went on to far bigger and far better first-prizes over an illustrious solo career.

Fast-forward 40 years.

Today, solo piping competitions are recorded by everyone and their grandmother – and that’s no exaggeration. Anyone with a mobile phone can record any contest digitally. If they tried to smash every device into little bits, there’d be hell to pay.

But the judging tradition of relying on concentration and memory continues. Why is this?

There is not a self-respecting competitor out there who would feel good about winning a prize because their major error was missed. And absolutely no piper feels good about a fellow competitor coming away victorious due to an inadvertent adjudication oversight.

In most sports, technology is quickly making major mistakes by officials things of the past. Reviewing uncertain calls is a reality in tennis, baseball, football, soccer and even in the time-honoured self-policing game of golf. And the competitors want it. They like it. They want the right decisions to be made. Too much time, energy and money are wrapped up in competing not to use it.

A piping judge today can easily come equipped with a tablet computer with virtually every setting of every piobaireachd published. He or she can simply press Record before each contestant. If, at the end of the event, he or she was not sure if a player “went off it,” it takes a few minutes to have a listen and be assured that the result in that regard was accurate and free of NMEs – “no major errors.”

If an adjudicator feels it’s too onerous or too much responsibility or above his or her pay-grade to record the tunes, it could be the job of the steward. Or, if it’s a major event with a “reader” – a non-adjudicator whose job is simply to follow the score – that reader should also be a “recorder.”

The technology has been available for years. It’s smaller, more reliable and easier to use than ever. Competitions should use it. Time to join the 1990s.



  1. Any innovations, changes, etc. to assist the judges in getting the result “right” would be welcomed by everyone. However, I question why the 1974 “scandal” was used as a prelude for improving judging in the future.
    The competition scene in 1974 was much different, especially for overseas players. No North American had won the Gold Medal. Bill Livingstone and a handful of determined Canadians were playing their hearts out trying to break through the Gold Medal glass ceiling.
    If my memory is correct, the taping of performances was prohibited at the Northern Meeting in 1974. It was clearly posted. Of course, some enthusiasts ignored the rule by hiding their recorders.
    Forty years later it is much easier to stress the “getting it right” aspect. There are many things that look and are interpreted differently forty years after the fact. Using a prohibited tool to correct a result when there was no UNIFORM way to monitor NME’s for all competitors was wrong in 1974 and, as far as I am concerned, remains wrong in 2014.

  2. that’s why they have readers, in addition to the judges, to check the sheet music while the piper plays. No need for recoridngs – the reader checks the notes are all correct. and the judge judges the music.

  3. Just want to make sure that the facts are correct here Andrew. Lezlie Paterson did not record the material, and she did not produce any recording. She merely informed one of the judges that Bill had in fact made a serious error. (He was awarded the 2nd prize, and subsequently removed from the prize list). The judges then consulted a recording which they themselves had made thus realising the error, and changed the result. The problem as far as I can see was not the recording, but that the result of the contest was changed after the fact. There’s been a lot of hay made over the years about it, but the fact is at the time they thought it was better to right a wrong rather than have someone win a prize which was not deserved. I think most people thought at the time that it was in fact a mistake to change the prizes after they had been given out. Hindsight is a great thing.

    1. Perhaps Lezlie herself can clarify. Strange that Seumas would write that no personal recordings should be used. At any rate, the point is that the technology is there, so why not use it? Very few events have a “reader,” but readers can overlook major errors as well. I’m pretty sure every judge out there has doubted him/herself at some point as to whether a part was repeated, or a phrase was skipped, or a bar was reversed. Using recording technology appropriately should be an aspect of judges’ training, in my opinion.

  4. Hi Andrew:

    My recollection of Bill telling the story matches Colins’. I think Lezlie was following along from scores during the contest, and one of the judges asked her what she’d thought of the competition, to which she replied “pretty good, other than the fact that two of your major prize winners had note errors”. There was a “secret” tape recorder under the judges bench. I also recall that there was another players’ result changed at the same time, but can’t seem to remember who it was, or what placing. Bill will remember I’m sure….

    Mike Baker

  5. Colin has the facts right, and he should know since his dad, the great Capt. John was on that very bench. Colin told me a couple of years later that his dad regretted the whole incident and in hindsight would have left the result as it was. In any event I went on to become a pupil of Capt. John and a great admirer. How typical and ironic of the late Famous Seumas to rail against the tape recorder involved, as he too was on that bench.
    Still, the story in much greater detail than you’re seeing here, provides a jim-dandy opening and first chapter to my upcoming memoir tentatively titled “Preposterous…Tales to Follow”. How’s that for shameless self promotion?

  6. All very interesting, and good to set the record straight. But instead of a discussion on Seumas MacNeill’s passive-aggressiveness, what about the topic at hand? Should recordings be a standard judge’s aid, if needed, at piping competitions?

  7. Of course recordings should be used…can there be any room for argument? Officially sanctioned well publicized use of them. Not secret ad hoc resort to them. As someone sitting on the other side of the bench now, I would take comfort in knowing that I could remove any nagging doubt about what I may have missed…and trust me we all miss stuff. And BTW Seumas was anything but passive in his aggression…it was always full frontal attack.

    1. I meant Seumas’s apparent passive-aggressiveness insofar as he apparently aimed his critical comments about recording contests at Captain John MacLellan, without actually being full-frontal about it. [Block that metaphor!]

  8. Hi Andrew. I do remember the incident well. I totally agree with your premise in that any and all resources might and should be brought to the fore to render an informed and fair result. I can only imagine the degree of concentration and arduousness required of being a solo judge having to listen to umpteen piobrochs and trying to sort it out at the end: both the correctness of notes and the music. Guess that’s why at the important contests there is a panel of informed decision-makers. Even then, it still becomes a challenge, I’m sure. And Bill, if you need a second set of eyes to proof-read your manuscript, I’m your man 🙂 Look forward to reading your memoirs (just be kind to those who served, lol). Cheers, Syd



Forgotten Password?