Review: World Pipe Band Championships, Glasgow Green, Glasgow

It remains a sound like no ­other, an all-pervading, ­universal '“ no, let's say ­cosmic '“ hum that enfolds Glasgow Green and infiltrates the ­consciousness of all there, to the extent that sometimes you think it might just be enough to levitate the stone obelisk of the Green's Nelson Monument, or perhaps even the People's Palace, complete with Winter Garden.

Precision piping is key to success at the Worlds, a celebration of the instrument which attracts bands from all over the globe. Picture: SNS Group
Precision piping is key to success at the Worlds, a celebration of the instrument which attracts bands from all over the globe. Picture: SNS Group

We’re talking, of course, about the World Pipe Band Championships and, in the event, the only thing to become airborne during ­Saturday’s final, were the jubilantly hurled glengarries of the Field Marshall Montgomery Pipe Band, who won that most coveted of prizes, the championships’ Grade One – the 11th time the Northern ­Ireland Band have done so.

Snapping at their heels were impressive performances from Inveraray and District Pipe Band, with the Republic of Ireland’s St Laurence O’Toole coming third. Last year’s champions, Scotland’s Shotts and Dykehead Caledonia, took fourth place.

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With 234 bands of various grades from 15 countries – that’s some 8,000 pipers and drummers – converging on the Green over the two days of “the Worlds”, as it’s known, the place becomes a sort of self-contained, indeed self-sustaining environment, with its beer and food tents offering everything from pakoras to hog roasts, and canopied stalls vending pipes, drums and myriad accessories.

You can buy capes – ‘Mr Antony: Keeping pipers dry for 30 years’ – purchase ­tartan tat, research your genealogy, or join the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

All of it, however, is held in thrall to the unceasing ­sonic maelstrom of pipe drones, laced with drum snarl, as bands, individuals, and little groups bunched in circles or huddled in tents, practise for their event, and the biggest of these, the day of days, is the Grade One final.

Saturday saw the seemingly unstoppable Field Marshall Montgomerys take the championship with a march, strathspey and reel set of Balmoral Highlanders, John Roy Stewart and Charlie’s Welcome, old favourites all, while in their medley, the class which gives bands scope for imaginative programming, their selection included the slow air La Baum and climaxed in brisk form with the reels Sleepy Maggie, Tail Toddle and Francis Morton’s.

“The standard is getting harder every year and it keeps getting harder to win,” the band’s pipe major, Richard Parkes MBE, said. “It was a very tight competition, between three bands that have been winning all the other major competitions this year.

“But our band had two almost perfect runs. To do that on the day of the World Championship is very important because there are very small ­margins between the performances, so we didn’t give anybody any excuse to put us down; we put our two best performances on the park and left it in the hands of the judges.”

Their victory, along with the other competitions over the two days of the championship, was streamed worldwide via the internet by BBC Scotland, a development which has brought vast new audiences to the event.

Ian Embleton, chief executive of the Royal Scottish Pipe Band Association, said: “We now have a worldwide ­audience of thousands of ­people. There are bands all round the world who right now will be sitting in their bands halls in Australia or ­California, streaming the Worlds on a big-screen TV and having a party.”

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The event is quite simply the biggest day in the pipe band calendar, and for a band just to attend, win or no win, is a huge deal.

Years of practice go into it, not to mention some mighty fund-raising. “We have bands from North America spending upwards of $80,000 just to come here,” Embleton said.

It is, he said, the Olympics of the pipe band world, a sporting metaphor also adopted by Gary West, presenter of BBC Radio Scotland’s Pipeline programme which was going out live from the championships on Saturday evening.

As a piper himself, West played with folk bands such as Ceolbeg and Clan Alba, but also with the renowned Vale of Atholl Pipe Band, with whom he marched into that Grade One arena several times.

“It’s very scary,” he recalled. “The higher you go and therefore the higher the expectation, the scarier it is. The thing about band playing is that you’re in a team and you don’t want to let the rest down, the one who doesn’t get his drones in properly at the start, or who makes the big howling mistake.

“So there is a fear factor. There was a huge sense of relief when you came off.

“The Olympics are on just now and there are so many parallels – the same levels of dedication and commitment required, certainly at the top level. But this is simply a fantastic event.”