Beautiful new railway bridge . . .

I was reading about “Scotland’s worst poet,” William Topaz McGonagall (not sure if he’s a relation of Joe), who a Scottish organization is trying to promote, saying that there should be a national day for him, along the lines of Robert Burns’ Day. This is brilliant tongue-in-cheek stuff.

A few years ago when I was still running the print magazine, I set out to try to figure out what the worst tunes of all time are. Of course, there are tens of thousands of horrible tunes written by pipers from hack to Silver Star-winner, but, like the poet above, I wanted to poll established pipers for their opinions of what the worst played tunes are – the ones that for some reason gained at least reasonable popularity.

A tune that came up a lot was a reel that slipped in to a Strathclyde Police medley in the 1990s called “A Pigeon Called Neil.” I think it was written by the band’s pipe-major at the time, which may explain why it ever actually got out. This tune is so shockingly bad that it’s guaranteed to raise a smile.

But the winner by a good margin was “Itchy Fingers,” which actually started as not a bad little reel, first played in 1984 by Polkemmet Colliery, a band I was in. The tune is so easy that every single band on earth was playing it the next year, and the sing-song pattern of the reel after a few seasons started to grate.

So by the late 1980s and through the ’90s, every time you turned around there was some dismal piper playing “Itchy Fingers” at 490 at about 50 BPM. Eardrums would bleed.

It’s interesting that some tunes that made that list a few years ago seem to be making a comeback of sorts. I’ve heard a few bands playing “Cullen Bay” and “J.K. Cairns” this summer and, you know, they don’t sound half bad. If it weren’t for the fact that Grade 1 bands pressure themselves to produce new medley content, I think our popular tunes would, like the fashion and pop music industries, run in 20-year cycles, where stuff that was cool two decades ago is popular again, simply because it’s all new to today’s 20-year-olds.

In 1990, the RSPBA’s 60th anniversary year, the association required bands to play through driving rain some dreadful 6/8 march (that must have been conjured by an RSPBA insider) in a Jubilee competition on the Sunday after the World’s. The tune hasn’t been played since. Bands then had to march out in a strict formation playing to “Scotland The Brave.” It was all very retro and actually quite funny. Competitors were having a hard time not laughing.

Along those lines, it would be great to hold a band contest where each band would have to reprise an entire medley from 20 or 30 or 40 years earlier.

Beautiful new pipe band medley . . .

Soul asylum

This is NOT me.No competitor likes to play in the rain. Subjecting four reeds to the outside wet and playing through a slippery chanter and blowpipe are tests of one’s resolve and concentration. Snare drums with pools of rainwater on them can sound like soggy newspapers. Hard rain diminishes quality, and a band or soloist who is subjected to a cloudburst is really unlucky.

At the Antigonish Games this past Saturday – which by the way celebrated its 144th year, or a “gross” of games, as one person astutely pointed out – it bucketed rain for about four straight hours. All bands were subject to it, and a few bands really got the worst of the deluge. Lots of very long faces.

Competitors always come first, but it’s also no fun for the judges. Three or four hours of it can be soul-destroying, and I was reminded of a time going around the Inner-Hebrides, which comprise the isles of Muck, Eigg, Rhum and, the sublimest of all, Canna. Unless you own a helicopter, you take a small ship from Mallaig to get there. Only Canna has a pier where the ship can dock, so at the other three islands a small motorboat comes out to collect and drop off visitors, supplies and mail.

This one time we went to Canna for a week. It’s the last stop going out and first stop coming back, so you get to stop in at the other three isles. On the way, cheery hikers got off at Rhum, the largest and most treed of the four islands.

The air was warm, the wind was calm and the midges were out. But on Rhum they were like thick swarms of evil incarnate. After our week, we were on the boat back to Mallaig and, when the motorboat from Rhum came out to let passengers on to our ship, many of the same enthusiastic hikers who we saw going out were returning. They were shells of their original selves. They looked like they had just barely survived a tour of the Mekong Delta in 1968.

The deckhands were having a bit of a laugh at the dozen-odd English and German hikers, saying that they looked like “changed people,” knowing full well what the wrath of nature can do to the psyche.

And that’s what judging through that rain was like. The challenge of listening to three hours of bands through driving rain and concentrating on not only providing the right result, but keeping the score sheets from becoming mush and pencil-written comments from being incoherent, was maybe, I dare say, harder than competing through it.

There’s no good alternative to holding a larger pipe band contest outside. Unless it’s a concert stage, bands sound terrible and there’s nowhere to tune. If only there were a volume control on pipes and drums, but there isn’t so band events generally just carry on through the worst conditions Maw Nature can throw at them.

As I mentioned, there’s a small fortune to be made in a reduced-size Piobaireachd Society Collection, but if anyone can come up with a way to keep paper dry and a pen flowing through the rain, please share your technique.

A free open-ended subscription to pipes|drums awaits the person with the best solution!

Issue: no solo competition system in Scotland

The Comments system on pipes|drums works well, and sometimes really interesting threads on really serious issues occur.

There’s a good one branching from the Lochearnhead results story. Click here.

Because articles get pushed down automatically when newer stories are posted, I thought I’d give a heads-up to readers who might be interested in contributing their thoughts. I’d love to read opinions on this, I think, extremely important issue from more people.