October 03, 2008

So many partings

Lochaber no more.This post-Northern-Hemisphere-season is as active as any I can remember. Even before Cowal and Fergus – the contests after which band-members traditionally start bouncing around – changes were being orchestrated and announced.

Almost as soon as one Grade 1 band (Dysart) was resurrected, another (Clan Gregor) folded. I find it sad when any band anywhere folds, and it’s particularly sad when it’s a Grade 1 band. Why? Because that now-defunct band had reached the top grade, and (unless it’s rare exceptions like Fife Constabulary or Spirit of Scotland) took years and years of effort and diligence to get there only to have the whole thing crumble due to personnel changes.

The idea of pipe band dynasties is just about done. Nothing is sacred. To quote Paul McCartney (in what I consider to be the very worst lyric in the history of music), “In this ever-changing world in which we live in,” loyalty is a frail thing.

It seems that the Scottish bands are hurting the most. The country where competition pipe bands were invented is now down to nine in Grade 1, and that number may well sink to eight or even seven by the New Year, depending on grading decisions and/or further personnel changes.

Why is this? At a time when more people are playing pipes and drums better than ever, how can it be that some of Scotland’s greatest bands are collapsing or unable to field a competition-worthy unit? Even bands like the top-three Shotts after the 2007 season essentially had to rebuild both its pipe section and snare line.

I think one reason might be this: until about 10 years ago many Scottish bands filled out their rosters with overseas guest players. There was no shortage of talented foreign players who wanted a shot at the big-time and were willing to spend a summer in, or even move outright to, Scotland. To be sure, this still happens, but nowhere near to the degree it used to.

Non-Scottish players – and even many great pipers and drummers based in Scotland – I think are looking to non-Scottish bands for their ultimate piping and drumming Grade 1 experience. Instead, they’re going to British Columbia, to Ontario, to Northern Ireland, to Australia, to Ireland, to New Zealand. For many, Scotland is no longer the Mecca of the pipe band world.

I personally wish that weren’t so. I was one who grew up with a dream of playing with a Grade 1 Scottish band, and I did it and it had a lot to do with where I am today. I played with a Scottish-based Grade 1 band (albeit a very different one) last season. I love Scotland, my ancestral home.

But the reality is that, for many pipers and drummers who are looking for their ideal band, that band is no longer Scottish.


  1. The only good thing I can see about Clan Gregor folding, is that we won’t haveto hear another rendition of Pachelbel’s Kanon in the world’s circle…

  2. If bands were more about the music and less about Ego, perhaps they would last a little longer. Even the long term bands that manage to survive in name only, experience a lot of turnover as the roster is like a revolving door at times.

    The demise of grade 1 bands is nothing new, many in Ontario have disappeared including prize winning bands like the Clan McFarlane, Metro Toronto Police, City of Guelph, St. Thomas Police, City of Toronto, Toronto & District, and now the Windsor Police.

    Perhaps all the shuffling is no more a big deal than the traditional sports teams trades?

    How about we just have 20 bands and put everyone on term limited contracts?

  3. The difference nowadays is in the skill levels of the average player. Thirty years ago, the standard of player in grade one was much lower than it is now – there isn’t a player in SFU or Field Marshal that can’t hold his own on a solo platform, but when Strathclyde Police were at their height, you could not say the same about them.

    What this means is that nowadays, it is much easier for a group of talented people to come together and produce something very exciting in a relatively short space of time – as you proved this summer, Andrew. In turn, that makes it a lot easier for any group of dissatisfied players to turn around and decide to set up shop somewhere else.

    The question is, is this phenomenon harmful? I don’t think it self-evidently is.

  4. I guess you are correct Calum, back in the cavemen days when they had to use primitive materials like animal skins and cane to make their pipes work and operate with huge MacAlister reeds that the kiddies or soloists could’t blow, it didn’t take much skill to play in a gr1 pipeband. 😉

    Here we are 30 years later still using animal skins, cane and instant reeds that any kid can blow, but the music is still the same in terms of difficulty and you have to know how to blow tone above all else.

    The artical is about the demise of good bands, even winning prizes in the lower grade bands does not ensure it’s success as many disappear in about 2 seasons.

    I think the main problem is everyone wants instant success and hops on the latest winning band wagon, nobody knows how to grow a local band from scratch anymore.

  5. I think Pipe Bands have followed professional sports (N. American sports anyway), in that the “free-agent” mentality is pervasive. Individuals take the opportunity to have a better situation year after year, causing a merry-go-round of names and faces. Often they can’t keep the pace up for too long, so it’s one, two, maybe three years tops and then it’s off to the next place that offers more power, recognition, opportunity to win, etc. Frankly, I like it. Like banks and insurance companies…if you can’t retain top talent and you ride the dangerous wave for too long unprepared for the next one, you deserve to lose it and have the whole enterprise collapse in your face. Capitalism and free-markets reign. Shotts, SFU, FM and 78th (others too I’m sure) all seem to be immune to this problem, or at least present that facade as they are able to re-load every year. It is my obseravation that this is because they have outstanding leadership. Leadership and experience trump talent everytime.

    If it weren’t for McCartney, The Beatles would have been a great band. Too bad it wasn’t just Lennon’s show.

  6. Good comments, all. The main point of the post, though, was that the decline in the number of Grade 1 bands is biggest in Scotland. In fact, by country the numbers are growing in every piping-rich country BUT Scotland. The number of Grade 1 bands in Ontario may have decreased when compared with 15 years ago, but in Canada overall the number has increased. The number of Scottish Grade 1 bands has dropped by almost 50% in the last 20 years, if my tally is correct. Why is this?

  7. Perhaps we need to look at the structure. 30 years ago, most Grade I bands had 12-14 pipers and 4-6 drummers (roughly). Today they have 16-32 pipers and 6-15 drummers (kind of). The point is that perhaps the same number or more people are playing in Grade I bands in Scotland. It’s just that they are playing in half as many bands as a result of the increase in band size.
    The real indicator to the health of the pipe band scene is the increase or decrease in the number of lower grade bands. How does the Grade II scene shape up? Grade III, etc? Is the quality better or worse?

  8. One answer to the declining number of Scottish grade 1 bands may simply be the population trends in Scotland over the last 4-5 decades.

    The below data was taken from the Scottish national census over the last 40 years, 1971 till 2006.

    5,116,900 (2006 est)
    5,094,800 (2005 est)
    5,078,400 (2004 est)
    5,057,400 (2003 est)
    5,054,800 (2002 est)
    5,062,011 (2001 est)
    5,083,000 (1991 est)
    5,180,200 (1981 est)
    5,234,000 (1971 est)

    Just looking at the data you can see a negative population growth from 1971 through to 2003. From 2003 onward a increasing growth rate, however a lot of this may be attributable to Scottish efforts to attract ex-pats back home. I don’t think it is to far a stretch to conclude that a negative population growth likely has an impact on the overall number of people playing bagpipes in Scotland, and is likely closely correlated with the declingin quantity of premier grade bands. Hopefully with the population finally growing again there will be sufficient stability in the residents of the “piping world” to allow for more grade 1 bands.

  9. If the cause of declining numbers in and of Gr.1 bands in Scotland is the lack of overseas players, let’s not forget that the cost of travel (and at the root, fuel) is becoming more and more prohibitive.

  10. Perhaps the standard of grade I has improved faster than the population of Scotland has been able to keep pace. I have heard many players refer to the “premier grade” within Grade I. Did this exist 30 years ago? That, coupled with the size of bands as pointed out above, may explain this.

  11. As the Mecca of piping, Scotland has always had more Grade 1 pipe bands than anywhere else. Nowadays, it is great to see an increasing number of overseas Grade 1 pipe bands, but perhaps this is the very reason for the decline in the Scottish numbers. Are the Scottish pipe bands being squeezed out of Grade 1 by their foreign cousins, leaving only the best Scottish bands in the top grade?

    With cheap air travel and modern communications, pipers (and drummers) are more aware that they are able to play in overseas pipe bands, but I do agree that there are many silver-chasers, seeking instant success, who are more willing to join a leading Grade One pipe band rather than put in the effort and build from within.

  12. Andrews may not want to say it so I will.
    The demise in numbers of top Grd1 Scottish bands was solely down to the demise in numbers of scottish pipers able to play at the standard required.
    A recent commitment in Scotland will see some of that balance restored, namely the return of school instruction. Most of the local Government education authorities have employed top pipers to teach in our schools … the results of which can be seen already in the young solo competitions.
    So perhaps in ten years time Scottish bands will be able to field more powerfull Grd1 bands with an pipe and drum corp that can compete for the top titles.

    Seamus MacNeil saw this thirty years ago … he told everyone that the Canadians, Americans and the Anitopeans took their piping more seriously than we Scots, they practiced harder and smarter, while we continued to live under the self dellusion that as Scots we had some inherent advantage.

    So after having our backside kicked in solo and band competitions for the past twenty years, maybe we’ve woken up to the fact that we deserve nothing we haven’t worked for. The schools project won’t return us to a “rightfull” position because we have as Scots achieved a clarity that there is no birthright, we’ll either get because we’re good enough or we won’t.




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