May 18, 2014

Reciprocity and respect. Please.

The debacle that the RSPBA created by taking upon itself to upgrade the Stuart Highlanders to the ultimate level of Grade 1 is one for the ages.

The Scottish organization’s former Chairman, Kevin Reilly, agreed when he represented the RSPBA at the 2005 Alliance of North American Pipe Band Associations’ (ANAPBA) annual summit that they would stop the practice of regrading bands that aren’t their members. That was after his organization refused to recognize the WUSPBA-member Prince Charles Pipe Band as Grade 1. Just weeks before the 2001 World Championships the RSPBA insisted they move to Grade 2, only to upgrade them in 2002. For the better part of a decade, Prince Charles fought for their survival, and only this year rebounded in Grade 2.

Let’s look at what’s happened since 2005 when Reilly said his organization would regrade only its own members.

In 2007, the RSPBA upgraded the Robert Malcolm Memorial to Grade 1, causing massive turmoil within the Simon Fraser University organization, which subsequently lost nearly the entire band to the then Grade 3 Triumph Street Pipe Band.

In 2008, EUSPBA-member Oran Mor had to compete in Grade 2 after the RSPBA decided they didn’t meet their standard, then decided in 2009, after the band paid its penance in Grade 2 at the World’s, that the band was in fact good enough for Grade 1.

In 2010 the RSPBA put the EUSPBA-member Grade 1 City of Washington down to Grade 2, following a single MSR at the World Championships, when the band’s small pipe section should have by any measure been at least several bands from the bottom. The band struggled for members since and  this year can’t get out. It could be the end for CoW.

This year, after the aforementioned Oran Mor fell on hard times, folded and joined up with the EUSPBA-member Grade 2 Stuart Highlanders, the RSPBA – apparently without anyone official actually hearing the band – decided seemingly unilaterally that the band should be Grade 1. According to EUSPBA President Eric MacNeill, his association never consulted with the RSPBA, and wasn’t even asked for their opinion about the matter. The RSPBA simply went ahead and did it.

There are those who insist that it is the RSPBA’s prerogative to uphold the standards of their competitions. I agree that they, just like every association, must do that – but only with their own members.

Every other pipe band organization on earth practices reciprocity. That is, they respect the gradings of recognized sister-associations. If there is a concern, every other organization works together to express concerns and work it out discreetly and amicably, before or after the event. It is part of the checks and balances process that takes place every off-season around the world.

If the PPBSO, for example, unilaterally insisted next week that a Grade 2 EUSPBA-member band had to compete in Grade 1 at the North American Championships, it would probably result in the resumption of the War of 1812.

But at least the band could more practically cancel its plans to attend. The RSPBA must know that an “overseas band” (as they continue to pejoratively call any non-British band at the World Championships) by the time they enter the contest would have paid for airfare and put deposits down for accommodation. It’s a done deal, and regraded bands are over a barrel.

Days after the news of the RSPBA’s promotion of the Stuart Highlanders to Grade 1 (while the EUSPBA maintains their Grade 2 position), the band finishes third overall in a three-band Grade 2 competition. The RSPBA would have been able, predictably, to say the result was an aberration, if it weren’t for the fact that one of the RSPBA’s most respected and senior judges, Joe Noble, himself had other Grade 2 bands ahead of the Stuarts. The Ottawa Police are not planning to compete at the World’s, otherwise they also logically would be upgraded by the RSPBA. New York Metro has entered the World’s in Grade 2, and I am certain that they’re awaiting the proverbial other brogue to drop.

The RSPBA had to know that Noble was judging at Fair Hill. Other associations are required to go through the RSPBA, and not deal directly with the judges, when they want to fly in one of their adjudicators. RSPBA judges accepting gigs abroad get in trouble if they don’t follow protocol. With that, couldn’t the RSPBA simply have waited a week for the knowledgeable Noble’s report on the Grade 2 standard, and then, if they insist, make a grading call?

What a fascinating, freaking mess.

Maybe 20 years ago the RSPBA might have had a legitimate concern about the occasional band with other associations not meeting their own standard. But in 2014, it’s just plain meddling. It’s also incredibly disrespectful to these associations that are often – not always – better governed, better run and far more transparent than the self-anointed mothership at 45 Washington Street, Glasgow.

The RSPBA should rescind its upgrade of the Stuart Highlanders on Monday, admit it erred, and apologize to the Stuarts and the EUSPBA. If history is any indication, there’s more chance of the World’s being moved to Tahiti this August. But here’s hoping they do the right thing.

It’s perhaps not a coincidence that a cadre of non-member bands have suffered significantly or folded completely after their grade was changed by the RSPBA. Let’s hope the Stuart Highlanders can weather this storm and somehow become stronger for it. Let’s also hope it’s the last time that the RSPBA decides what’s worst for a non-member band.


  1. I thought your picture of the Minuteman statue was remarkably rebellious and even revolutionary…..admittedly , when you list all the past events, the list is at bit egregious, even pompous. You don’t think the RSPBA is going to attempt to require an official Stamp?……or even Tax our tea, do you?

  2. So many treacherous rabbit holes to go down on this topic…
    Firstly, let’s not overlook the fact the EUSPBA’s Executive Committee did a very fine thing working with RSPBA to secure TWO judges from their panel for this contest (the second one could not make it). A gutsy move since dues had to be raised last year and the vast majority of the EUSPBA membership will not directly benefit from the expense involved to make this happen. For those of you unfamiliar with EUSPBA standard procedure, the games, not the EUSPBA, hires and pays for its judges.
    Secondly, the original “intent” of this expenditure was to sweeten the incentive for all five grade 2 member bands to play against each other. For very practical reasons, three of the five bands could not make it. Still, I personally believe this was a huge step in the right direction and hope the unanticipated and totally unrelated “freaking mess” does not deter future EUSPBA Executive Committees from doing something like this in the future, hopefully even next year.
    Since the RSPBA was responsible for the securing of their judges, of course the administrators knew months before any unilateral grade change discussion took place. Let’s give the benefit of the doubt to the RSPBA administrators and assume for a moment that, like most piping organizations, there are times when the RSPBA’s left hand does not know what their right hand is doing. Unfortunately when a glaring spotlight is put on something like this, most organizations (let’s face it, individuals too) tend to circle the wagons simply because no one likes public criticism.
    I don’t believe the RSPBA needs to apologize. We are all human and there won’t be any true “winners” or a “losers”. Rather, I hope all are in agreement that we need to ensure all bands in all grades, regardless of association or venue, are given the best opportunity to play on the most level playing field possible. Especially at a “World Pipe Band Championship” event. I sincerely hope someone “blinks.”

  3. they are bosses and they know it, and now and again they like to send a message to the rest of the world, they are the Gaddafi of organizations.

    like they care what the pipe bands that they up or down grade really think of them

  4. Ring ring….hold on a second…. Ottawa Police? its the RSPBA calling…. it seems since you beat the Stuarts we’ve decided to upgrade you too….but we hope you don’t mind…Sorry if you’ve purchased $35K in airline tickets and sent another check for $5K to hold some dorm rooms for your members…We just don’t want to look foolish over our first regrading we did.

  5. You may well be correct in your other points, but it seems a bit unfair to blame the RSPBA for the turmoil created by RMM’s upgrade. They won the Worlds in grade 2, and were therefore deemed to be of a grade 1 standard. Seems reasonable to me. Any turmoil was an issue for the SFU organisation to sort out, and not the RSPBA or any other governing body.

  6. Roddy – definitely debatable. However, history shows that a band’s move to Grade 1 is the most sensitive and tenuous of all upgrades. Most bands don’t last it for more than a few years, and some just plain crumble. It turned out that RMM2 was never intended to be Grade 1 and compete against the very band they were meant to feed. The RSPBA proactively upgrading them with no consultation with the band, the SFU organization or the BCPA forced the hands of all three. The BCPA reacted by also upgrading the band, further complicating things. So, rather than working through it and the SFU Grade 1 band drafting the players who deserved to join (the functional purpose of RMM2), and allowing the RMM P-M and L-D to come up with an amicable solution, the whole thing blew up. Sure, the BCPA might have upgraded them anyway, but something tells me the organization would have carefully navigated it with SFU and RMM, and allowed them to decide together. On the bright side, a new Grade 1 band was established a few years later anyway for the BCPA in the form of Triumph Street, but the cost most certainly was a lot of unnecessary acrimony and turmoil in a jurisdiction 6000 miles away from Glasgow. And that is simply not right. I don’t believe that anyone from SFU is permitted to comment on behalf of the band online, but occasionally Terry Lee chimes in, so maybe he will here, or David Hilder from Triumph Street. It’s a shame that so many bands are so afraid of being seen to cross the RSPBA, even in honest and constructive dialog. And the RSPBA refuses to explain themselves openly and honestly to anyone. The fear and loathing is worse than ever.

    1. Thanks for the reply Andrew. I don’t think the RSPBA had a responsibility to consult SFU really. 99.9% of bands want to win their grade, and be promoted to the next one. I’m sure David Hilder wanted this, and if I were to make an assumption, SFU as an organisation did not. Happy to be corrected on this if i’m wrong. I believe it would have imploded with or without the RSPBA’s input.

      I think it would have been incorrect to allow RMM to stay in grade 2 that season (I heard them – clearly good enough for grade 1 in my eyes/ears), and unfair to the grade 2 bands who’d turn up the next year to be beaten by a band who are clearly grade 1 standard and should have been upgraded.

      A bit of a lose/lose situation: hack off SFU by upgrading, or hack off grade 2 bands by not upgrading.

  7. 1 – Whether a band is an RSPBA member or part of another association is irrelevant to any struggles it experiences after being regraded by the RSPBA (or anyone else). Many RSPBA member bands that get regraded then struggle. Whether it’s bands further up the food chain being alerted to poachable talent, the shock of going from trophy hunting in one grade to struggling for mid table mediocrity in the next, or the hurt of being put down, being regraded is difficult to negotiate successfully (unless you’re Inverary and Dist).
    2 – Royal SCOTTISH Pipe Band Association. There’s sea between Scotland and everything except England, so by definition every other Association is overseas. It seems bizarre to feel insulted by what is a geographically accurate description. What would you prefer?

    I agree with everything else you said.

    1. 1 – It should be irrelevant, but the RSPBA unfortunately makes it VERY relevant by not allowing non-member bands any option to explain their plans, as they presumably do with their own bands. In the case of RMM and SFU, the RSPBA forced them into a corner. Had they inquired into the organization’s plans, it at least would have allowed SFU, RMM and the BCPA to respond and maybe say something like, “Well, thanks for the gesture, but this is a FEEDER band intended to be no more than Grade 2, and we will sort it our ourselves, thanks.” And then they might have had a chance to work through the matter. That’s all speculative, but it’s a shame we will never know because the RSPBA didn’t enable it. One hopes that the RSPBA speaks with their own member bands about their plans and status. I believe that’s what other associations do. So, if they do, then why wouldn’t they afford the same treatment to all bands they feel it’s their business to regrade?
      2 – Very true. But it’s the WORLD Pipe Band Championship. Will hosts Brazil talk about European teams at the WORLD Cup as “overseas,” as if they’re some kind of special extraordinary guest? No. They will treat every one of them equally as equal contestants in a WORLD competition where everyone should be on equal footing and not singled out as different, or somehow at a disadvantage, or a guest at a parochial event at which all non-member bands are meant to feel eternally grateful for being granted the permission to compete at an RSPBA competition. Personally, I’d prefer nothing more or less than ____ Pipe Band from Canada; _____ Pipe Band from New Zealand; ____ Pipe Band from Scotland. That’s all. They burned the British Airways Baton for Best Overseas Band 27 years ago, anyway.

  8. At least the RSPBA’s “World Championships” allow competitors from outside of Scotland. That’s better then Major League Baseball’s “World Series” that’s limited to the USA and occasionally Canada. We North Americans are not immune to hubris……at the end of the day, there is something quaint & endearing about the “overseas” designation, more then just being parochial….besides, depending on the outcome September 18, 2014, the RSPBA may have to discard it as inaccurate……

  9. Like it or not, the RSPBA sees itself as the peak body, presiding over the biggest and most viable band scene in the world. It runs the 5 biggest contests anywhere in the world. This creates a certain hubris.

    At the risk of causing a stir, my experiences in piping and also my professional working life have taught me that to be belligerent, suspicious of authority (and not good when in authority as a result), and somewhat pigheaded and uppity is very much ‘the Scottish way’…….and always will be. They will not be told what to do. End of message.

  10. Andrew,
    We’re – uh, flattered? – that you mention us (Prince Charles) as being one of the early catalysts for all this back in 2001-2002. But the implication that (1) PCPB “fought for their survival” for most of the following decade and (2) that it was due to that grading situation is just not accurate. We returned to the Worlds in Grade 1 in 2003 (along with our Grade 3 Band, which won the Grade 3B event!) and again in 2005. Though we no longer have a Grade 1, our current Grade 2 band had its beginnings in 2009. Yes, a few ups and downs along the way but you make it sound like it’s been a 12 year struggle. It has not.

    But to the point of your post – honoring reciprocal agreements means that there must be trust and respect among the organizations involved. I think the North American PB associations have done a really good job in managing the grading to not only suit their members but also to be consistent with recognized international standards. RSPBA should honor that, just as we honor Scottish bands coming overseas to our shores to compete in their assigned grades, rather than bumping them up or down a notch for our games!

  11. I find it interesting that the year Prince Charles won the World’s Grade 2 championship is the year that WUSPBA moved them to grade 1, but the RSPBA did not. Yet when Robert Malcom won Grade 2, up they went without hesitation. And the RSPBA moved Prince Charles up the following year, after they finished 4th or 5th in Grade 2 at the Worlds. On the surface at least, there appears to be some inconsistency in the RSPBA’s decision making. But the case is very clear that they are no longer honoring their committment they made at the 2005 ANAPBA meeting. I suppose we’ll never get an answer from them as to why.

    It may be time to seek out sponsors to host another world class event elsewhere, and hit the RSPBA square in their pocketbook. A challenging thing in the present economy, but not impossible.



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