When I started learning to play the pipes, the 167th Glasgow Boys Brigade band had a competition set starting with the great tune The Australian Ladies, an unusual choice in that it is in the key of D. I believe the only other competition march which is not in the key of A is the Royal Scottish Pipers Society (though I am not sure which key it is in (as it ends on "E") and incidentally, a tune which I never succeeded in learning. I subsequently mastered The Australian Ladies some years later, perhaps after hearing it played on Shotts 1960 LP (but not as part of its competition sets) but by the time I was on the pipes, the BB band had changed its competition march to a dreadful little tune called Glen Finlas. It was as simple as it was boring, its simplicity no doubt reflecting the limited ability of the pipers in the band. I think that the band had moved on to a more demanding march, Donald Cameron, around the time I was leaving but I don't remember if we played it at a competition, such as the Cowal games or any of the handful of others for which we were entered.
We also competed in Glasgow Battalion competitions, where we had at least a chance of winning - because the 214 Company band were not allowed (or agreed not) to compete (because they were too good!). We played the 6/8 march Dovecote Park which I still play. We may even have won. In the only photo of the band which I have, there is a large trophy sitting in front of us.
The strathspey and reel in our competition set (The Caledonian Canal and Jock Wilson's Ball respectively) were not much better, probably for the same reason. How I envied the boys in the 214 when I heard them at competitions playing The Stirlingshire Militia and John Roy Stewart (which I learned on my own years later). I don't remember the 214's competition reel.
My next competition set was one which I taught myself for my one and only attempt at a juvenile solo competition which I entered at the age of around 17 or 18 shortly after joining the Rutherglen Pipe Band. The tunes were Dugald MacColl's farewell to France (which I first heard on the Muirhead and Sons 1957 LP); the strathspey Struan Robertson and the reel The Sheepwife. I cannot remember what inspired me to choose the latter tunes. But all three have been part of my repertoire ever since. I played quite well in the competition but I made a big mistake. When I finished my march I found myself at one end of the stage and instead of turning to face the judge (seated at the same end of the stage) I turned to face the audience. The judge refused to mark my strathspey and reel. When he was announcing the winners at the end of the competition, he uttered the words I have never forgotten. "When you are competing, you do not turn your back on the judge. There is one person who would have been getting a prize today if he had known that."
In the Rutherglen Pipe Band which I joined at the age of 17, we had two competition sets:
- The Balmoral Highlanders, The Bob of Fettercairn and The Rejected Suitor
I never really liked the Balmoral Highlanders and I gave up playing it as soon as I left Rutherglen.
But Bob of Fettercairn, as we called it, is a great tune. I imagined Bob was a person but it turns out it is a name for a dance.
The setting we played had 6 parts. When I have heard bands playing it since, the final two parts have been missing.
- Donald MacLean's Farewell to Oban, Maggie Cameron and Thomson's Dirk
Three great tunes which I still love to play.
I don't think we were ever among the prize-winners in the three or four years that I played with Rutherglen!
After Rutherglen, the nearest I ever got to competing was around 2007, when at the suggestion of two of my teachers at the National Piping Centre, I toyed with the idea of taking part in the National Piping Centre's cleverly named CLASP competition (Competitive League for Amateur Solo Pipers).
The tunes I would have entered would have been
- the 6/8 march John D Burgess (which I still remembered hearing the 214 play with great style in the 1960s)
- the Hornpipe Crossing the Minch and the jig Paddy's Leather Breeches
- The MSR was Stirlingshire Militia, Struan Robertson and Thomson's Dirk
I decided against Dugald MacColl's Farewell for the MSR because of the extremely difficult third bar in the first part. But for reasons that escape me, but were probably work-related, I never got as far as applying to take part in the CLASP.