As it announced earlier this week, Argyll’s biggest annual event, the Cowal Gathering in Dunoon, will no longer host the only non-international major pipe band championships of the year, the last of the five, following the Scottish, British European and World championships.
The Royal Scottish Pipe Band Association [RSPBA] informed the Chair of the Games, Ronnie Cairns and Event Manager, Malcolm Barclay that, after this year, 2013, should the event bid to hold another major pipe band championships, it would not be awarded it.
The ‘majors’ are the creme de la creme of the pipe band contests, the RSPBA accredited championships where the positions and points awarded at all five majors count towards the final tally of the year – which produces the coveted ‘Champion of Champions’ titles in each category.
This has for long been the focal point of the Cowal Championships, held at the end of the season at the annual Gathering in the last weekend of August.
The reason for this disastrous loss could not be clearer than in a statement the event’s Chair, Mr Cairns is quoted as making after the announcement of the loss: ‘We recognise that if we were bidding for our first major championship we wouldn’t have a hope in hell of getting it.’
This is the admission of the unforgiveable – the complacent knowing for some time that the event was coasting, was running on autopilot, without the care or the drive to improve standards, facilities and programmning.
It has been a case of ‘turf it out the way we’ve always done it. Tweak a bit here and there. It’ll do’. It won’t. It hasn’t – and now Dunoon is faced with the loss of its only real drawing card – the annual highland games which were once the biggest in the world.
Event Manager Malcolm Barclay cemented the insights into the management culture that has lost the games, in saying: ‘Many of the bands say that Cowal is no fun anymore. But they come here to win prestigious trophies – not for a fun day out.’
Well now they’ll not be doing that either. There’ll be neither fun nor serious contest for the bands; and there’ll be even less fun for the spectators.
The RSPBA has agreed to work with the event to help it stage an alternative pipe band competition, which will at least see Dunoon hear the pipes in and around the town on the day. But this will not again be the stellar end of year crowning of the champions of champions.
And the event has no one to blame but itself.
Any red-blooded event is always changing, striving to be better, to be surprising to be breathtaking, to provide the best in facilities, ease and comfort. The best events are always prepared to be radical in how they address emerging challenges – and in today’s world, nothing stays the same for long.
This decline has not been sudden nor has it been unnoticed. The bands have been asking for changes for years and have felt themselves largely ignored. Audiences have been complaining about facilities and about ‘sameness’. The event has annually dropped in appeal.
It has been allowed to remain like a large scale parish fete in a world where such events have long been highly professional in their management and presentation. The stooshie of last year over the dancing competition that did not in fact, as long claimed, send its winners to the national finals in Oban, revealed the depth of parochial complacency and unprofessionalism with which the Cowal Gathering had become diseased.
And now the best song of the Golden Goose is gone.
Some sort of bands event will be thrashed up for 2014 but the gold dust has been thrown away.
The question is whether the event is recoverable in the true sense – whether too much trust has been lost, whether the standards set by other events – and annually bettering themselves – is now a gap that cannot be closed?
This is a self inflicted and an avoidable disaster. Dunoon deserved better – desperately needed better – than to be let down in this way.
The same is true of Argyll and Bute Council which has loyally supported the event in cash funding of £90,000 a pop and in assistance in kind. It has given this support because of the impact the event has had on the local economy – said to be close to £4 million a year, although the figures to justify this claim, if there are any, would be interesting to see.