World Pipe Band Championships: The Grade 1 Final

[Updating from 15.00 with Medley below.] The 12 Grade 1 bands qualifying yesterday for today’s finals have just [14.30ish] completed the first stage of the competition, playing their chosen combinations of the march, strathspey and reel.

In this account of the first stage, we’re focusing on the major bands likely to be in the hunt for the top places in this year’s premier contest. It is worth noting that some countries outside Scotland had two bands qualifying for the Grade 1 final:

  • Northern Ireland  with Field Marshal Montgomery and Cullybackey;
  • New Zealand with Canterbury Caledonian Society and Manawatu Scottish;
  • Canada with Simon Fraser University and Dowco Triumph Street.

With one band from the Republic of Ireland, St Laurence O’Toole, that leaves five Scottish bands in the Grade 1 final.

The big eight – March, Strathspey & Reel

Simon Fraser University from Vancouver played first and were described by the BBC commentator, himself a piper and a World Championships judge judge as being in contention. We read that as good but not a certain winner.

Inveraray and District played second, with their unforgettable concert, Ascension’ at the Royal Concert Hall on Wednesday night highly praised. They come into the finals with two thirds and a second from the three preceding majors and are one of the band’s who ‘could do it’.  Their overall musicality is their identifer and here, their ‘youthful musical’ sound was remarked upon, with their overall performance under Pipe Major, Stuart Liddell, described as ‘superb, little to criticise’.  Their drum corps work, under Steven McWhirter, was singled out for offering ‘great support from the back’.

Field Marshal Montgomery played third – under their phenomenally disciplined Pipe Major, Richard Parks, who has led the band to no fewer than seven World Championship titles, including the last two. They come into the Worlds wiht a clean sweep of wins in the three preceding major championships. The BBC commentator described them as ‘a musical competitive machine’ with ‘a load of great soloists’ who ‘always come well prepared’. After they had played, the commentator called it ‘a strong first performance, with ‘the reel in the pocket’, very musical, if not quite as ‘bright’ in the strathspey as Inveraray and with great support from the drum corps. The ‘High G’ was said to be a very difficult note for pipers – but Field Marshal were ‘spot on’ throughout.

The Irish band, St Laurence O’Toole, which qualified well, played fourth in with good musical dynamic support from the back end at was described as ‘a very enjoyable performance. We felt that their physical precision in marching and position taking was perhaps less convincing that that of the other top bands preceding them. Their reel had real lift.

Then the weather decided to play the joker, with Shotts and Dykehead giving an ‘absolutely superb’ performance through a rainstorm, which created problems with their chanter balance. The rain made problems for the judge too, some of whom found their marking sheets disintegrating. These have to be torn off carefully and put in the compilers’ boxes and when sodden and falling apart this is not so straightforward. In this case, duplicates may have had to be made.

The rain had passed for Boghall and Bathgate Caledonia, with a great season behind them. Heir line marching seemed a little untidy in places but their overall ensemble work in playing was described as ‘excellent’, with ensemble playing is a major part of pipe band performance. They were said to have had some ‘minor chanter issues’ but a ‘superb lift’ in the reel, drones ‘holding very well’ and ‘subtle and sensitive support from percussion.

Greater Glasgow Police Scotland were next, much better know as Strathclyde Police before the formation of a unitary police force for Scotland and a rebranding. This ban;ls glory days were back in the 1980s when they won 6 world championships in succession; and their Pipe Major is a survivor of that period. They had some minor technical problems but their snares were praised for capturing the ‘mood shift’ in the strathspey, Blair Drummond.

The last of the frontline contestants, Scottish Power, never placed outside the top six in a major this season,  They had some minor intonation problems and an integration issues with their snare line in what was described as ‘a very musical’ performance with ‘amazing drones’ and good chanters. The commentator felt that they should be pleased with their performance.


Throughout this section of the final – the Medley is still to come – the feeling seemed to be that the standards were very high this year, very consistent – and that was certainly the impression given to lay enthusiasts.

The Medley from 15.00

The finalists play in the same order as before but to a different set of judges.

Simon Fraser University played first. The rain came back and the band played through it, as they must. It did affect the quality and balance of their chanters but the commentator said that, outside this, their chanters were a bit forced, shrill, lacking a bit of depth and that this had been the case in the march, strathspey and reel as well. SFU’s Pipe Major Terry Lee has now led the band to the World Championships for thirty years – a record.

Inveraray & District played second, with the rain still an issue, although stabilising. Saying that people were wondering how a young band would deal with these conditions, the Canadian commentator said airily: ‘These kids are from Argyll. They should be used to the rain.’ They played a medley the commentator said he very much enjoyed as had the crowd. The transitions between the elements of the medley seemed  smooth and effortless. The commentator said the band was ‘a bit forced on top;’ with ‘slight balance issues’ and that Steven McWhirter and the snare line were impeccable in the support they gave to the work. The musicality of the band was again a major feature of their playing, with the way they carry their audience through the experiences of the elements of the medley remarked upon. Their accomplishment in the final tune, Dunrobin Farm – a challenging piece – was said to have ‘nailed it.’

And then, with the rain backing off, came Field Marshal Montgomery. You could see and hear at once what the commentator had meant earlier in saying that they are ‘a musical competitive machine’ who ‘always come well prepared’. Their medley was obviously faultless, commanding. The commentator said it was ‘a stunning performance’ , with ‘tempo, tonality, musical quality, arrangement’ coming together to create ‘something very special’.

We think we’ve just heard the winning performance and that ‘something very special’ is it. We’ll add notes on the rest of the performances as they come but it’s worth sharing this one now.

St Laurence O’Toole played a set that will have been an emotional occasion for the band. Their long time Pipe Major, Terry Tully is to retire and hand over to his son, Alan. They played a very engaging set with what the commentator described as a ‘rich orchestral’ sound with ‘some minor issues up top’ The band last won the Worlds in 2010.

Shotts & Dykehead, looking drier than they had done when they left the field after the drenching they got in the march, strathspey and reel – where they still managed to play markedy well,  IN the medley the commentator said: ‘Great tunes. Great selection. Well played. Needs better articulation in the strathspeys but the snares in the reel were great in ensemble support. Shotts are back’. We felt they played out of their socks and that this band is definitely on revival mode.

Boghall and Bathgate Caledonia played a lovely set with a variety of subtle changes of pace and rhythm and a beautifully precise placement of the players on the field. This confidently controlled symmetry is part of the ensemble work and requires perfect discipline in all players. The commentator said it was ‘a superb performance’  with clever tunes, clever transitions, wonderful ‘tenor voicing’ in ascending and descending melodic tones and ‘great support from the back end’. He felt that their sound in the medley was better than in the march, strathspey and reel.

This one might give Field Marshal Montgomery a run for their money, but may be shaded to second place,’with Inveraray challenging for second and possibly shading to third – all at the moment.

Greater Glasgow Police Scotland [aka Strathclyde Police] under Pipe Major Duncan Nicholson, started with the jig, The Skylark’s Ascension. The commentator fund their choice of tunes energetic, positive, upbeat’, with good orchestral support from the back end and two superb strathspeys.’

Scottish Power were brought to the line for the medley by their Pipe Major, Chris Armstrong. The BBC commentator thought they played a ‘great medley, great sound, orchestration, colour and contrast.’

And so…

The conclusion is that this has been a fabulous set of medleys from the Grade 1 finalists; and that the judges are going to have to rest their decisions on some tiny issues in order to discriminate between them.

The sense seems to be that any of six bands are in the running for the win, each delivering two solid performances in the final.

The six are, in playing order, Simon Fraser University; Inveraray % District; Field Marshal Montgomery;  St Laurence O’Toole; Boghall and Bathgate Caledonia; and Scottish Power.

The exciting thing is that this year just might see a Scottish band take the Grade 1 win.

We’ll see. We’ll be back later with the result and with all of the day’s results across the grades for the competing Argyll bands.

1845: Grade 1 results here.


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