Contestants from all over the world are in Glasgow vying for a Grade One in their equivalent of the Olympics – The Worlds
'WE call it Sphincter Alley," says Stuart Liddell, pipe major with Inveraray and District, in reference to the corridor that leads into the main arena of the World Pipe Band Championship. "The cameras are on you as you march down. You can really feel the tension building. The crowd are to one side. And there really is nowhere left for you to go except into the lion's den."
The World Pipe Band Championship, known as "The Worlds", is the Olympics of piping. Some 230 bands from 12 nations, adding up to around 8,000 pipers and drummers, are taking part this year. The championships date back to 1906 and have been held for more than 60 years - on and off - on Glasgow Green, an area of the city where, on any given evening, men and women can be seen reeling and lamenting.
At 8am yesterday morning, half an hour after the gates opened, the air already hangs heavy with the smell of anticipation, only slightly masked by chips and curry sauce. The market stalls are open for business, selling reeds, toy meerkats in tartan waistcoats and bumper stickers bearing the legend, Pipers Do It With Amazing Grace. All round the Green, coaches are parking up and bands stepping out. Fiona Lindsay, a drummer with the Cottown band from County Down, has dressed for the weather, teaming her Royal Stewart tartan with cow-print wellies.
It is miserably wet at first. The better organised and resourced bands erect waterproof gazebos and begin to tune up. Others seek shelter beneath the dripping canopy of the trees. There is a great skirling in the smirr. Members of the 78 Fraser Highlanders, a band from Canada, adjust their sodden glengarries.
Competitors have come from as far afield as Los Angeles, Lahore, New York, New Zealand, Mauchline and Milngavie. It has become a rare event for the Worlds to be won by a Scottish pipe band. The Galacticos of piping are Simon Fraser University, Field Marshal Montgomery, and St Laurence O'Toole - bands from, respectively, Canada, Northern Ireland and Eire. The talents of these players tend to be held in awe by the bands competing at lower grades, in the same way of players with Berwick Rangers might be struck dumb in the presence of Barcelona.
Though there are five major pipe band championships held each year, the Worlds is far and away the most prestigious. "To win here at any grade makes your name all round the world," says George Ussher, President of the Royal Scottish Pipe Band Association. "But to win at Grade One is the holy grail everybody seeks." It is every piper's dream to win on the banks of the Clyde. Hence Sphincter Alley. There is a great deal of pressure and nervousness. Twelve months of rehearsal and recital is geared towards what might only be ten minutes of performance time.And so much can go wrong. Adrenaline causes the breathing to shallow and quicken, the fingers to tighten and seize. The mind can go blank with fear. It is easy to forget how a particular melody goes. There are no easy answers. A few years ago an American band are said to have taken the edge off their nerves with a fly puff on a "jazz" cigarette - an unfortunate crossing of genres which, by all accounts, did nothing for their playing as they failed to qualify from their heat.
There are also issues with the bagpipes themselves. They are temperamental instruments, menopausal almost, given to hot flushes and mood swings. They do not do well with sunshine and showers; unfortunate given the Scottish climate. Changes in temperature and humidity affect the wood and cause alterations in pitch, which means the weary piper must retune the drones to match the chanter. All over Glasgow Green, as bands prepare to perform, there are scenes of drones being checked electronically. This is anathema to some of the old school pipe majors who prefer to rely on their own ears and the sweet sounds in their heads.
How anyone can hear themselves think, never mind play, is a mystery. The Edinburgh councillors who have been cracking down on the bagpipes on the Royal Mile would be deeply unhappy here. Admittedly, no one is attempting to cover Radio Ga Ga or We Will Rock You, but nevertheless the volume is intense and the music unrelenting; it is an attack of the drones. But for lovers of the pipes it is heaven.
Peter and Kathleen Pethernelson, a retired couple from Derbyshire wearing matching baseball caps studded with band badges, are here with their west highland terriers Skye, Islay and Arran. Skye and Islay have been coming to the Worlds for 12 years; Arran, a mere pup, has managed only two. The Perthernelsons, however, have been regulars since the 1980s and would not miss it. They spend the months between May and September in Scotland on the pipe band trail. "We find out where they all are and we follow them around," says Peter. "This season alone we've seen 20 competitions."
Peter is from Edinburgh originally, but has lived south of the Border for many years. "Because I'm very English I hated the pipes at first," Kathleen confesses. "In fact, for the first few times I went to competitions I couldn't stand them. But I must admit, over the years …" She has been worn down? "No," she corrects me with a smile. "Won over."
Many of the bands make a considerable investment, both financial and personal, in coming here. There are rehearsals two or three times a week and usually a performance at the weekend. There are, as a result, piping widows and widowers - long-suffering spouses who have come to understand that they must live out their marriages in the shadow of an inflated tartan bag. "Pipers live and breathe the music," says Margaret Moore, visiting from Belfast with her husband, Pipe Major Stephen Moore, who has been piping for 43 of his 54 years. "To be married to a pipe major you have to love the music too, and you need to have ways to fill your time when he is gone. Luckily, I have eight grandchildren."Piping is often a family affair. Robert Stewart MacTavish ("A very Los Angeles name") is the 53-year-old bass drummer with the Pasadena Scottish Pipes and Drums, who have come all the way from LA. The 22 musicians in the band include his wife Kathy on tenor drums, his eldest son Andrew who is the drum major, and his youngest boy William, a snare drummer. It cost the band around $40,000 (25,000) to travel to and stay in Glasgow. They aim to come every two years. "It is certainly worth the money. This is the ultimate dream."
Last year, remaining in Los Angeles, the MacTavish family threw a party and the band watched the whole of the Worlds live on the BBC website, beginning at 1am and finishing at 11am. They fortified themselves with the nourishment they would have enjoyed had they been in Glasgow - Scotch pies and Irn-Bru. "Do you know how hard it is to chase down a case of Irn-Bru in southern California?" he asks rhetorically. For a moment, he looks lost in thought. "What I love are Tunnock's Caramel Wafers. I can't get enough of them."
It is admirable the way that the overseas visitors throw themselves into Scottish culture. The Barras is near at hand, and it is a common sight to see foreign pipe bands strolling through the market, perhaps stopping for a kebab or to idly eye a pastel drawing of Neil Lennon. "Tobacco! Viagra!" yells one market trader in an anorak. He gets no takers. Fags play havoc with a piper's lungs, and as for the latter product, well, they need little help with inflation.
On Greendyke Street, just outside the park, the Penicuik District band are running through their routine of marches, strathspeys and reels. Wee Archie Rodgers, the band's mascot, adjusts his Glengarry and covers his ears. "Aye, he loves the music really," says his mother Kirsteen. "I'm a piper and I was playing up until seven months' pregnant with him, so he's well used to it."
They start them early, pipers. Garry and Ann Fletcher are visiting from Tasmania with their eight-month-old daughter Arlie. Ann is carrying her in a sling and she is wearing a pink ear protector which matches her socks. Garry and Ann both play the bagpipes. Are they intending that Ann should do so? "Oh, for sure," says Ann. "Well, obviously we'll give her a choice. As long as she's not a drummer."
Despite the fact that the pipers and drummers rely on each other in a pipe band, there is a jokey antipathy between the two groups. The latter regard the former as neurotic poseurs; while pipers tend to see drummers as undisciplined hedonists. "We have a good laugh in the drum corps," says Jason Cooper, a 19-year-old side-drummer with Troon Blackrock. He is a burly lad with a mohican and heavily-tattooed arms. "We don't like the pipers. In every pipe band the drummers are wild and the pipers are sensible. We're not allowed to drink until we've competed, but usually we're drunk by the time of the march-past."As the day wears on, the sun comes out. The Inveraray and District Pipe Band stand tense in Sphincter Alley, but do themselves proud. Afterwards, Liddell is a picture of relief. "All you can do is play your music and play it the best you can," he says. "Now I'm feeling really good. It's been a great day. Our whole year has built up to this. The Worlds? Well, it really is the pinnacle."