Soul asylum

Published: July 27, 2007

This is NOT me.No competitor likes to play in the rain. Subjecting four reeds to the outside wet and playing through a slippery chanter and blowpipe are tests of one’s resolve and concentration. Snare drums with pools of rainwater on them can sound like soggy newspapers. Hard rain diminishes quality, and a band or soloist who is subjected to a cloudburst is really unlucky.

At the Antigonish Games this past Saturday – which by the way celebrated its 144th year, or a “gross” of games, as one person astutely pointed out – it bucketed rain for about four straight hours. All bands were subject to it, and a few bands really got the worst of the deluge. Lots of very long faces.

Competitors always come first, but it’s also no fun for the judges. Three or four hours of it can be soul-destroying, and I was reminded of a time going around the Inner-Hebrides, which comprise the isles of Muck, Eigg, Rhum and, the sublimest of all, Canna. Unless you own a helicopter, you take a small ship from Mallaig to get there. Only Canna has a pier where the ship can dock, so at the other three islands a small motorboat comes out to collect and drop off visitors, supplies and mail.

This one time we went to Canna for a week. It’s the last stop going out and first stop coming back, so you get to stop in at the other three isles. On the way, cheery hikers got off at Rhum, the largest and most treed of the four islands.

The air was warm, the wind was calm and the midges were out. But on Rhum they were like thick swarms of evil incarnate. After our week, we were on the boat back to Mallaig and, when the motorboat from Rhum came out to let passengers on to our ship, many of the same enthusiastic hikers who we saw going out were returning. They were shells of their original selves. They looked like they had just barely survived a tour of the Mekong Delta in 1968.

The deckhands were having a bit of a laugh at the dozen-odd English and German hikers, saying that they looked like “changed people,” knowing full well what the wrath of nature can do to the psyche.

And that’s what judging through that rain was like. The challenge of listening to three hours of bands through driving rain and concentrating on not only providing the right result, but keeping the score sheets from becoming mush and pencil-written comments from being incoherent, was maybe, I dare say, harder than competing through it.

There’s no good alternative to holding a larger pipe band contest outside. Unless it’s a concert stage, bands sound terrible and there’s nowhere to tune. If only there were a volume control on pipes and drums, but there isn’t so band events generally just carry on through the worst conditions Maw Nature can throw at them.

As I mentioned, there’s a small fortune to be made in a reduced-size Piobaireachd Society Collection, but if anyone can come up with a way to keep paper dry and a pen flowing through the rain, please share your technique.

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