Why Scots piping needs band aid

THE last time Scots won the world championship was 2005. Jim Gilchrist looks at how our top pipers have fallen from grace

THE Clash of the Titans is over for another year. The dust and the din raised by 210 pipe bands from across the world – more than 8,000 pipers and drummers from 16 countries – have subsided on Glasgow Green, following Saturday's World Pipe Band Championships, leaving Scottish bands and piping aficionados to ponder why it is that, for the fourth year running and for the eighth time over the past decade, the coveted grade one world championship has been piped off by an overseas band.

The Grade One class of the championships is for the very top pipe bands, the crme de la crme in a field which exacts fearsomely high standards of playing. For the past two years, first place has been taken by the Simon Fraser University Pipe Band from British Columbia. Two other "outsider" bands, Field Marshall Montgomery from Northern Ireland, and St Laurence O'Toole from the Republic of Ireland, took second and third places respectively, while two top Scottish bands, Strathclyde Police and the House of Edgar Shotts and Dykehead, came fourth and fifth.

The Simon Fraser University (SFU) band, who are among those bands on both sides of the Atlantic who have established reputations for themselves as innovative concert performers as well as on the competition field, have now taken this ultimate prize six times. The last time a Scottish band was first in Grade One was when House of Edgar Shotts and Dykekead won in 2005.

Piping, it seems, has become another great Scottish export, like whisky, the great Highland bagpipe travelled the world with Scottish settlers and particularly with Highland regiments involved in British imperial expansion. But today, the colonies, as it were, are striking back in the competition arena. "The World's", as the annual competition is known , has eight grades for senior and juvenile bands and, stresses Ian Embleton, chief executive of the Royal Scottish Pipe Band Association which organises the event, Scottish bands are doing well in Grade II and elsewhere, but he agrees that the lack of a Scottish band bearing off that coveted Grade One Trophy in recent years is a matter for concern.

"It's a hard one to answer," he says, "and there are positives as well as negatives. The championship has become a worldwide event, but there are UK bands who have been very successful in Grade II , for example, and I have no doubt Scottish bands will win Grade One again. "But, yes, this is certainly something which someone should be looking at, and asking why we can't give more support to our bands in Scotland."

Asked whether the problem lies with lack of funding or teaching support, Embleton reckons both. "Most bands in the UK are self-funded and have to finance all of their competition trips themselves. I was speaking to the secretary of a band – not even a Grade One Band – who told me that to go to the five major championships we organise, Scottish, British, European, the World's and Cowall, costs them around 35,000 a year.

"They do it a series of fundraising events, they pack bags in supermarkets, they take professional gigs like corporate events. Without that, they wouldn't be able to keep the band on the road."

He points out the Simon Fraser band is funded by the university to which it is attached in British Columbia. "I'm not detracting from the SFUs, their musicianship is of the highest quality, but in Scotland it would be nice if we got some government assistance.

"I know the minister for culture, Mike Russell, was there on Saturday and he's very supportive of our events, but I think there's a lot of work to be done in bringing along some of our bands who are struggling financially, just to give them the opportunity to compete with bands who are looked after a bit better."

So far as teaching is concerned, Embleton says he'd like to see piping and drumming on the curriculum in state schools. "Most of the teaching done here is by the bands themselves, often for a pretty nominal sum. I'd like to see schools taking more responsibility for teaching traditional music. Very few educational authorities do that, although we have good support from some of the private sector schools, a lot of whom employ their own piping and drumming instructors – George Watson's College in Edinburgh."

Embleton argues that, in terms of musicianship, very little separates the top Grade One bands. "Any one of them could have won it."

Strathclyde Police Pipe Band can boast as proud a record as any, having won the Grade One championship no fewer than 21 times, 12 of these in its earlier guise as the renowned City of Glasgow Police Pipe band, including a record-breaking run of six consecutive wins between 1981 and 1986. Yet the band's competing future is under serious threat owing to cost-cutting measures within the police force, prompting a 3,000-signature petition to be presented to the chief constable, asking for the historic band's future to be secured.

Instrumental in organising the campaign has been Robert Wallace, principal of the College of Piping in Glasgow, and editor of the Piping Times. He describes the situation regarding the World Championship as "a hellish state of affairs".

Wallace reckons that teaching standards are pretty good in Scotland but points out that a lot of young Scottish players, if they're good enough, are tempted by a combination of cheap air fares and the kudos of playing with a top Grade One band to join the ranks, temporarily or otherwise, of Irish or North American bands.

Wallace points to players such as J Reid Maxwell, from Fife, lead drummer with the Simon Fraser band, or Callum and James Beaumont from Bo'ness, both pipers who have excelled in the solo competition stakes at home but who now play with the SFU. And Drew Duthart, drum major of another top Canadian band, the 78th Fraser Highlanders, the first non-Scottish band to win the championship back in 1987, is the son of the great Alex Duthart of Shotts and Dykehead, who revolutionised pipe band drumming. Many players with some of the top Northern Ireland bands such as Field Marshall Montgomery (which has topped the World Championship four times over the past decade), he adds, are actually Glasgow-based. "It's hard to put your finger on it, he says of the current situation, but we have good bands but not really biting in the top places, although Strathclyde Police were fourth on Saturday – and you know the problems they've been having. if Strathclyde police was to go, we'd only have one band, Shotts and Dykehead, challenging for the very top honours."

Another factor, explains Wallace, is that Northern Ireland bands are reaping the benefits of the peace process as Ulster-Scots culture attracts subsidies, "So they get money for instruments and for teaching, and they're dead keen and they work hard at it.

"I think Scotland has been a wee bit lax in some ways and suddenly the axis of power, you might say, has moved away from here. It's a hell of a state of affairs that we need to do something about. The Ulster people believe in their bands and are really competitive about it, " he says, "but here you'll see maybe a Grade Three band going out on the competition field and there's hardly a cheer for them. It's the old Scottish cultural thing; we don't know what we've got.

"But if we discover that the centre of the pipe band universe has moved to Belfast, we'll wake up with a hell of a shock."

&#149 For full results of the World Pipe Band Championship, see www.rspba.org

TOP GRADE

THE most successful Grade One competitors in the history of the event are the Strathclyde Police Pipe Band, who have won it a record 21 times, and Shotts and Dykehead, who have won it on 15 occasions.

In recent years, the Canadian Simon Fraser University and Northern Ireland's Field Marshall Montgomery bands have each won it six times.

The World pipe Band Championships are the pinnacle of the competing pipe band year, and on Saturday an estimated 8,000 pipers and drummers from 16 countries took part, attracting some 40,000 spectators to Glasgow Green, where seating in the Grade One arena had been sold out for more than a month beforehand.

The spectacle was viewed, however, by many thousands more as, for the first time, the BBC transmitted live coverage of the competition via the internet.

Over the past few years Glasgow's City Marketing Bureau has invested considerably in the Championship and in the week-long Piping Live! festival that now precedes it, in recognition of the estimated 12 million these events generate for the local economy.