January 21, 2015

It’s time for Scottish solo piping reform

The Scottish solo piping scene is a singular beast. While Scotland invented the idea of Highland pipers competing with subjective music judged by “authorities,” there’s really no other country on earth that still uses its system.

And, famously like the old TV show Seinfeld, the Scottish “system” is no system at all.

There are no rules that are applied to more than one competition, let alone a whole circuit. There are no defined grades from contest to contest. There are no training or accreditation processes for judges. There’s frequently not even an order of play on the day. Goodness – judges don’t even have to be accountable to competitors for their decisions and guys who never competed and wouldn’t win a prize in a Grade 3 contest in Arkansas are entrusted to assess performances that they could only dream about delivering.

There is the Competing Pipers Association, run by active competing pipers, almost all of whom are afraid to upset the hierarchy of acclaimed judges, for fear of repercussions on the boards. Borne of the Joint Committee for Judging (or associated with it, I’m still unclear), there is the new Scottish Piping Judges Association, which seems to be trying to do what’s best for judges, but appears to be detached from the competitors in the CPA. The first move of the SPJA is to create milquetoast conflict of interest “guidelines” that appear to say, Declare your conflict, but, well, go ahead and judge if you must.

Um, okay.

Unlike all other piping areas, and pure pipe band organizations like the RSPBA, the solo piping competitors in Scotland have little if anything to do with judging or rules. In Scotland there is almost total separation in the solo piping scene of the powerful from the masses. It is anything but a democratic or member-driven process in Scotland. Everywhere else, the members – the pipers (and drummers) – make the rules by electing or appointing the leaders, by putting through motions, and by voting on rules and policies.

Scotland does none of that essential democratic work and, as a result, it’s a largely haphazard and often inequitable scene. The absence of rules are part of the charm and tradition of solo piping in Scotland, which is okay for tourists, but alarmingly frustrating for those competing in it. The rest of the world’s piping scenes long ago created and opted for something better.

Twenty-five years or so ago when I last did the Scottish games circuit, I knew the drill. After realizing the “system” is no system, and navigating the scene by making connections, playing the game, and, for lack of a better phrase, working it, I thought then that by 2015 reform would have occurred in the shape of amateur grading, criteria for and accreditation of judges, and continuity of rules. In essence – a format adopted by almost the entire rest of the world.

Instead, virtually nothing has changed in Scotland. It’s stuck in a time-warp. Calum Piobaire would fit in comfortably if he came back from the dead to compete at Luss or Lochearnhead or even the Argyllshire Gathering, but he’d also be grumbling still about the familiar inequities and those with power pushing around the pipers.

There are certainly faults and problems with piping and drumming associations around the world. But the key difference is that those faults and problems are in the control of the members – the competitors. They can affect change. The only religion I practice is the religion of piping, and the congregation ultimately changes the church. The congregation is the church. Or it should be. If it isn’t, it’s time to reform the church.

The judging side in the UK seems to want to affect change. The pipers definitely want change. But the fact is this: until there is one association that brings competitors and judges and administration under one roof (with competitors by virtue of their large majority determining their own rules, policies, guidelines and structures), the Scottish solo scene will be stuck in that charming, traditional rut, that few but the tourists seem to think is ideal.

Wipe the slate. Combine the CPA with the SPJA and JCJ and the still fledgling CLASP amateur competing pipers effort and create the Scottish Highland Pipers Association or the Highland Pipers Association or Bruce Og or whatever you want to call it. Allow the members – the large majority of them the pipers themselves – to govern the judging and the rules, as they are set by the members through voting and via the leaders whom they elect and appoint.

The man or woman to lead that reform could well earn a place in the Top 20 Pipers in History.

Until then, the antiquated Scottish system of no system will just see more and more disconnection between judges, competitors and organizers, while the rest of the world continues to do things better.



  1. Of course, one could make the argument that Scotland’s scene is truly democratic: if we don’t like a particular games, we don’t turn up. It’s a process that games go through regularly. On the other hand. if an Ontarian isn’t happy with the running of the PPBSO, your only option is to pack a suitcase.

  2. I understand your points here, Andrew. Personally I agree that it is time for the Scottish piping, judging, etc. scene to move into the 20th century. However, I am not sure “wiping the slate” makes a lot of sense.
    The EUSPBA would define the entities you mentioned (CPA, SPJA, JCJ, CLASP) as EUSPBA “committees.” I would think most “non-Scottish” pba’s are similarly structured.
    Maybe, rather than look down on the way things are being done in Scotland, it would be more helpful to add and/or suggest readily available resources to this blog?
    This way those Scots who might be interested in learning how others do it won’t shy away from asking questions when they are ready to go to the next step. Sometimes a little “sugar” will work.

  3. Why not have a grading system that is based upon ability, similar to the Highland Dancing System. Their system is not based on age like most piping competitions. This would greatly increase the interest in solo piping with people who want to compete but want to against other people of similar abilities.

  4. For sure, Al McMullin. The Scottish solo circuit is a lot of fun, provided you accept that anything can happen – and often does – when it comes to results, format, conditions, stewards, entry fees, prize money, the spreading around of prizes, nepotism, order-of-play, judges . . . it’s a charming throwback to another era. There’s great camaraderie with competitors, who often stand around commiserating about all of the above together. It occurs to me also that the “system” is one of hierarchy, left over from Scottish Society controlling the music by controlling the judging, thus controlling the pipers (see Willie Donaldson’s “The Highland Pipe and Scottish Society”). The formation of judges and “approved” lists now in Scotland are separated from the competitors, just as always has been the case. With associations around the world, at least the large-majority membership that comprises competitors have the opportunity, if they want, to influence judging, accreditation policies, criteria for events, etc. Because of the division in Scotland between judges, competitors and events, it’s almost impossible to change anything, much less respond to the wishes of the competitors as to the who, what, where, and hows of each competition.

  5. Interesting article. To give the balanced picture, isn’t there also a whole oot of good in the scottish system, i.e. there are many highly qualified judges, there are many well-run games, and mainly those who win are indeed the finest pipers on the day, and over the long run? Scotland produces the highest quality solo pipers in the world, in the highest numbers. So there must be something right with the system too? You raise many valid points, but it seems to me that for a balanced assessment, one must also mention those aspects whic work, and which give rise to such high standards and legendary pipers.

  6. As somebody who doesn’t compete at solos regularly anymore, what I do like about the more “relaxed” elements of the Scottish circuit is that I know that I can simply turn up at the likes of Ceres, Cupar, Newtonmore, Pitlochry or Invercharron Games and play.

    I don’t need to be a member of multiple “associations”. I don’t need to deal with bureaucracy of said “associations”. I don’t need to have built up a “track record”.

    In particular I don’t need a “grading”, which I’m fairly convinced is based more upon who you’ve sucked up to and the number of competitions you’ve entered, as opposed to your actual ability as piper.

    I appreciate that the bigger contests need some sort of system in order that the number of contestants and ability to judge the competition is manageable. However, I’d hate to lose the ability to go out and test myself in a force 10 gale and horizonatal rain (Tain springs to mind) on the same boards as some of the “big boys”.



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