Scottish Pipe Bands- Why We're Off to the Championships and You Should Be Too
I admit, I love bagpipes. And I get that it's not for everyone. Except that I also disagree with that. Look, if you hear a regular guy/gal play the pipes it can absolutely sound like cats mating while scratching their claws on a chalkboard. I get it. But once you've heard the real deal, real pipers commanding the instrument, it's a whole other bag of wind. We're off to our annual European Pipe Band Championships and perhaps if you read this, you'll be compelled to take in one of the most exhilarating days you may spend. Let's 8-count roll off onto the green, shall we...
It's simple actually. Bands, consisting of pipers and drummers (snare, toms, bass) march onto a field, gather in a circle, and play a series of tunes to show off their musical prowess and cohesion as a band. Now I'm going to get into the weeds of judging bands but the basic rundown is this: People of all ages and talent levels compete in bands that fit their age and talent level. Those bands exist in every corner of Scotland, Ireland, America, and indeed, the world, so they're local in their originating cities and towns. They compete with like-talented bands in two parts: a regimented series of tunes that carry varying time signatures and rhythms called the MSR (March-Strathspey-Reel); and a freer medley form comprised of up to 7 or 8 tunes that show off versatility and the group's ability to change tempo and time signatures uniformly. The best wins. That's it. However, it goes on all day and, in the case of the World Championships, two days. Bands compete in one very large area divided into smaller arenas and so 4 to 8 bands are competing at any one time. The bad news is you can hear every band playing at the same time because they're in close proximity. The good news is bagpipes all play in the same tune so it's quite harmonious. And it's deadly serious. I've seen kids with toilet paper dangling from the back of their kilts snot dripping from their tiny noses suddenly strap on a drum or hoist a pipe and become the most glorious musical marchers. At the end of the contest there's a special “march past,” a parade of all the bands who, once marched in and gathered together play something like “Flower of Scotland,” or “Scotland the Brave.” And the winners are announced and it's over. Simple.
There's also a Drum Major contest and that usually goes on throughout the day by age groups. These aren't just “march up and down the square” folk carry a giant baton. No, if these folks weren't so talented they'd take a nearby head off or minimally poke an eye out. The twirling, even from kids that can't spell yet, is pretty mesmerizing. I always get the feeling that in Scotland, you're born, you're fed, and you're told at 4 that you can choose the pipes, drums, or baton, but dammit you're going to be doing one of those because we're your Scottish parents and we said so.
By my rough count, these contests have about 600 million pipers and their very noisy bagpipes. Highland bagpipes are the Dallas Cowboys of musical instruments; people either love them or hate them. They're also the rocket science/brain surgery of musical instruments so players are either very good or just can't do it. As a music love of all varieties I contend that no instrument sounds bad when it's played well, so it's possible- just possible- that if you are not a pipe lover, you may not have heard it played by a talented musician. Nonetheless, pipes are pretty tough to play, I'm told, and so one of these contests really does attract only the most talented and dedicated.
Sames goes for the drummers. And as a drummer, I find these folks the most fun. Drummers of all drumming shapes and sizes compete as part of the band and they are also judged independently for the Drumming Award. Mainly though, the drummers provide complement and counterpunch to the pipes.
The technical round of MSR give way to the flashy rounds of the Medley and that's where you'll see the tourists join the purists and the bands shine brightest. The music is kind of all over the place; Gaelic and Celtic, sure, but also lots of other tunes transposed for the pipes and squeezed tightly into what should be a cohesive medley. And cohesive is probably the word we're looking for here. The medley has number of tunes crammed into about 6 minutes and within those 6 minutes, each one will tour you through reels, jigs, strathspeys, hornpipes, and airs to show you (but mainly the judges) their chops, their flexibility, and their cohesiveness. The Pipe Major (you'll know him/her by the overdone beat stomps during the set) directs the beat ad the tempo changes and when it's done well, it's a bit magical.
It's a bunch of Scots in kilts...what would you expect? Actually, that's exactly what it is but the fascinating thing is seeing all the clan tartans bouncing around. The MacLeods, MacDonalds, MacKenzie's, and every other MacSomething's don their family tartan and the array is mesmerizing. Yes, it's a bit boozy; the Scots are a famously boozy group. But it's not at all rowdy or rancorous. It's a genuine family atmosphere with plenty for the kids to do. Dogs are welcome and they're at least as plentiful as the kids. There's usually something for them, as well. Merchants sell everything from the aforementioned booze to handmade items, food/food/and more food, and musical accessories. There is always a corner for the Highland Dancing competition and the Highland Games brutes will be tossing around telephone poles like toothpicks somewhere. If you don't like or get bored with pipe music, there's still plenty to take in and say you had a fine day.
The Food & the Booze, But Mainly the Booze
There's plenty of both. At this point I feel duty bound to tell you that I personally find British food…..kindly speaking, less than subpar. I know that it consistently places 1st in Worst Foods lists worldwide, but even that is optimistic; the food lacks enough quality for ranking. It also lacks salt. And flavor. But I digress. Chips (fries in places that aren't Britain) are abused and ubiquitous and that is why curry sauce is your friend. It's also in abundance at these festivals so please, indulge yourself with this highly palatable- and moist- sauce, for using it will make your British food purchases more palatable and moist.
That said, one thing you can count on that will be highly palatable and dare I say, delicious, is beer and whiskey. Both are in abundance and affordable. God loved Ireland so much that she gave them Guinness, and God loved Scotland so much that she gave them whiskey. A good single malt- and there are plenty of really good Scotches up there- is nectar and will make you feel like a new man. Even if you're a woman. I assume they sell water or sodas also but I honesty can't verify that; I've never tried to purchase either.
My fiend Nic- it must be said, from Northern Ireland- stated that bagpipes ended up in Scotland because the Irish couldn't bear the sound and passed it off to them as a “gift.” Well it's not the gift, but what you do with it. When we think of Scotland, chances are bagpipes are one of the first things that spring to mind. And there's a good reason for that. It's not some touristy attention grabber or a cliché. Rather it is a real way of life for these folks and a tradition that has endured, despite English attempts to quell Scottish traditions in all of its varieties. If you go to Scotland wishing for a full immersion, we beg of you, skip the tiki buses and head for the places where Scotland is really happening in all its glory. Head where the Scots head...and that's where we're off to, the Pipe Band Championships!
For more information on when and where, go here.