Merge method

MergerThe season’s over in the northern hemisphere. The World Championships and regional events are done and dusted. Pipe bands will take a break for a month or two, recharge the tuning metre, dry out the kitty litter, loosen the lugs, and give the fingers and wrists a rest.

Bands will also think about broader future plans, and not a few will wonder how on earth they’ll ever be able to reach whatever it is they’re aiming to reach competitively.

The World’s, good or evil, is the Holy Grail that many bands in every grade obsess over. The Svengali-like allure of succeeding at this one competition causes pipe bands to take serious, if not evasive, action, from currying favour with judges, to purchasing politically beneficial gear, to flying in temporary players, to – the most evasive of actions – merging with another band.

Much has been made in recent years when bands from Ontario haven’t made the Grade 1 Final, or don’t do well in other grades. After a drought of a few years, in 2014 the 78th Fraser Highlanders returned to the Final as the only Ontario Grade 1 representative, but this year’s contest again saw none of the three bands that played make it through.  Australian Grade 1 bands haven’t ventured to the World’s at all in recent years, and perhaps have similar intense expectations placed on them. Regions in almost every country, including Scotland, feel that they can and must do better and represent their area  on the world stage.

Cue inevitable thoughts of merger.

The solution might appear apparent: Not doing enough to “succeed” in Glasgow? Then merge bands to make a “super-band” that will march in to the Green and show everyone a thing or two. Enough of the shilly-shallying! Just get it or them together and Get. It. Done.

But for what? For the sake of getting into the Final? For maybe a fifth or sixth prize? Great. That’ll show them. Even winning a lower grade could result in an upgrade, and usually means a few years of toil in the new grade before the band takes the next step either up or down.

The cost of pipe band mergers almost always far outweighs the benefits. With rare exceptions, the wreckage caused by mergers of otherwise healthy bands has a long-lasting effect on pipe band scenes. In simplest terms, at least one band is killed off. The simple fact is that there is one less band to compete with or against in a local scene. That is never good for piping and drumming and, to me anyway, I’d rather have two competitive, good bands than a lone “super-band.”

In more complex terms, the irreplaceable camaraderie, spirit and commitment that built a band dies, too. That can have a profoundly subtle, lasting impact on a regional scene.

In the early-1990s someone had the idea to merge the once-mighty-but-then-fallen-on-lean-times Clan MacFarlane with the pretty healthyToronto Police. I wasn’t in either band, but my understanding from those who were in it was that a deal was struck that said, if the merger didn’t work out then Clan MacFarlane would go back to being a band again. It would re-emerge, as it were.

My recollection is that the get-together was quickly unsatisfactory, with power struggles, ill-will and, ultimately former Clan MacFarlane members jumping to other bands, making the merger relatively moot. The net result for the Toronto Police was that they gained a few players but were not much, if any, better off. Meanwhile, Ontario had lost a band and all its tradition and pride, and gained a whole lot of animosity and tension permeating the air for many years.

Just about all of the people involved with that merger have moved on to other things. To be sure, they are all good people, and no one is to blame for trying in good faith to improve. The Toronto Police band remains with hardly a piper or drummer remaining from 22 years ago, of course, still trying to get into the World’s Grade 1 Final but, from everything I can see, enjoying what they do as a band unto itself.

Clan MacFarlane, on the other hand, is just a memory.

There are rare exceptions. The 2011 merger of the Grade 2 Ottawa Police and Grade 2 Glengarry appears to have worked well on the competition field. The Stuart Highlanders absorbing Oran Mor could be cited. But these bands were not made instant world-beaters as a result. In each case the fact remains: one less band on the scene. I’m sure there is an argument that, without a merger, neither band would exist today, so there is that.

A merger is almost always an attempt at a quick-fix solution. Just combine bands and the road to whatever will be paved in gold. It never happens like that. The road will still be bumpy, the destination marginally closer at best. Meanwhile the detritus of a blown up band remains, inevitably years later causing people to wonder why that ever happened. And of course the regional competitive environment is weakened with at least one less band.

The shimmering prizes that merged bands pine for never come any more quickly. There are never quick fixes. There is no fast replacement for strong leadership, cameraderie, commitment, positive spirit, team-building and sheer hard work. All that glitters is not gold.


Awash in whisky

John D. Burgess was a legend, not only for his renowned ability as a piper, but for his wit, sartorial splendor and, at least equally at the top of the list, his mischief-making.

It’s impossible to put into words the man and the character he was. Suffice it to say, the piping world will never see his like again. His death just more than 10 years ago was a sad loss for piping.

I can’t say I knew him well, but my work on the Piper & Drummer / pipes|drums since the mid-1980s brought us together, and to have been able to call one of my greatest inspirations as a kid piper even an acquaintance was my honour and great fortune.

Burgess loved the “Trailing Drones” section of the magazine (then print-only) with its bits of gossip, hearsay, occasional red herring BS and, even most of all, the frequent many-a-true-word-said-in-jest content. At Inverness in the early 1990s or so Burgess took me aside in the upper foyer where the light music events used to take place, to let me know that he liked it and whispered in my ear that he was willing to be a source – to be an “Agent in the Field,” as he would say. He had his own team of operatives feeding him intel from his various fields.

He had no email or newfangled “Internet,” so he asked if he could phone me with his scoop. Occasionally I’d answer my line at work and it would a mischievous Burgess with a scandalously juicy tidbit. (For those with back-issues, you can have fun trying to identify the Burgess-isms that got in.)

“Helloo, Andrew, it’s John Burgessss . . . I have a message for Mr. Harry Tung. You tell Harry . . .” he would say in his carefully articulated and maybe a bit affected Highland accent, which was an important part of the extraordinary Burgess brand. I usually had no idea what he was talking about when he delivered his scoop, and he would never explain it, leaving me to trust him that it was rich scandal. So I would dutifully relay it to Harry and then edit whatever came back and hope not to get sued. It was all great fun.

On trips to the World Championships with the 78th Fraser Highlanders in the 1980s and 1990s (joined 1988, left after 1997) I would try then, as I do now, to do one or two significant interviews for this magazine.

I relayed a story many years ago, and was reminded of it recently. I think it bears repeating.

In 1994 Burgess agreed to do an interview, and I believe it is the only substantial published conversation he did in his life. I hired a car and drove from Glasgow to his home in Saltburn, very near Invergordon, about five hours away. I had imagined him to have a palatial estate, maybe with a gated driveway, and a couple of greyhounds at the door.

His home was nothing like that, but it by no means disappointed. A small seafront house overlooking the Moray Firth, several parked oil rigs off in the distance, the Black Isle, ancestral home of the John/G.S./D.R. McLennans on the other side. I was greeted warmly and humbly. He was of course well turned out, but inside the house there was hardly an indication that he was even a piper, no medals or trophies anywhere, and certainly no sign of this being the residence of the King of Highland Pipers.

It was a great, frank conversation, and by far the most memorable of the more than 100 interviews I’ve done. He was forthright and candid, and was taking the whole thing seriously. It was clear that he knew this would be a record of his life, and I was gratified that this little boy from Missouri was entrusted with his insights and stories.

I was at his house for maybe three hours. He provided sandwiches, biscuits and tea, and even offered a dram of really nice whisky that he kept in the house for guests even though he was teetotal for decades after successfully fighting his well-known debilitating addiction to alcohol.

When I was getting ready to go we talked a bit at his front door about the World Pipe Band Championships. He knew Bill Livingstone, of course, and I think had a fondness for him, as the only wit in piping that compares with Burgess’s I think is Livingstone’s. Burgess said that he had “a very good feeling” about the 78th Fraser not just doing well, but winning the World’s on the Saturday. I was taken aback. Here was John D. Burgess putting his money on the 78th Fraser Highlanders, a band that at the time had fallen down the ladder a bit and would have been happy simply to finish in the top-six.

Wow, I thought, wait’ll I get back to Glasgow to tell the guys!

“Yes, yes, you tell Mr. Bill Livingstone that John D. Burgess expects big things – big things! – on Saturday. In fact, let me get something for you to take back to the band.”

At this point Burgess went back inside and returned with an unopened bottle of malt whisky.

“You take this and bring it to the park on Saturday,” he said. “When you’re tuning up with the band, I want you to gather together all of the pipers, get out the bottle and, ever so gently, pour a drop or two on the hands of each piper. Rub it in well, and I guarantee that it will hasten the result you deserve.”

“Really?” I asked. “You think that will help?”

“Oh, yes. Ooohh, yes. You tell Bill that John Burgess recommends it,” he said with his twinkling eyes.

I was sold. The five-hour drive back to Glasgow probably took three, and I arrived to the band breathless with my excitement about the King of Highland Pipers’ prediction and explained his prescription for winning with whisky. Bill and the rest of the pipers were sold.

Saturday came. I put the special Burgess bottle in my pipe case, and kept it at the ready. Without actually testing the effects of whisky on the hands beforehand, the 14 or 15 pipers gathered around, hands extended and I had the honour of putting a splash of it on everyone’s mitts.

The band had a good following then, and in those early-Internet days bands had secrets that would only be known if you witnessed them. Members of other bands would clamour around far more than they do today, trying to divine techniques and tricks. I remember noticing a few WTF?! expressions from those looking on as we rubbed our hands together with the water of life and miracle cure for not-winning. If it happened today, there would be a dozen crappy videos of it and probably something of a pipe band meme.

I believe Burgess actually made the trip to the World’s that day for a promotional appearance with a bagpipe maker, and I suspect he was somewhere around watching this gullible group actually fulfilling what must have been one of his most unlikely mischievous tricks.

Assuming you have never played with whisky on your fingers, you’ll be wondering what the effect was. None of us in the band actually tested it in advance (that might have spoiled the magical powers), and to think that any band – let alone a contending Grade 1 group – would do this blindly at the biggest competition of the year perhaps speaks to the sorry desperation that we competitive pipers and drummers suffer. Thankfully, whisky isn’t sticky, and pretty well evaporates, probably a bit like rubbing alcohol.

How did we play? I think it was okay, but nothing noticeably added as a result of the golden nectar being applied. I’m not even sure where we ended up in the final result.

But I do remember this event, and the unique, mischievous and fun spirit that was John D. Burgess.



An unwritten rule of competition: no one is rewarded for difficulty. There are no bonus points for playing hard tunes. There are points for playing hard, medium or easy tunes well.

There are points taken away for playing hard stuff poorly, and on a related note, no judge is going to let you off easy for making a hack of a tough tune, just because, well, it’s so hard.

I remember some years ago playing in a band. In the winter someone had the idea that we should play “Eileen MacDonald.” It’s a clever and relatively obscure, jig written by Charlie Williamson. It’s a whole lotta handful for a top soloist, let alone a whole pipe section.

We toiled away at the four-tentacled thing through the winter and spring, chanters getting slapped relentlessly with marveslously syncopated combinations. We worked and worked at it, because, aside from it being a good tune, it was so impressively hard. Goddamit, we’d show them!

The contest season carried on and the band did well, but it seemed like we weren’t getting much attention, let alone extra credit, for the amazingly difficult four-parted jig.

We played the medley with “Eileen MacDonald” at the World’s. I can’t remember the result, so it must not have been a memorable prize. What I do remember, though, is after we played, the late great Pipe-Major Angus MacDonald had listened to the performance, and a few of us spoke to him afterwards.

Angus, in his famously surprising-for-a-big-man high-pitched voice with one slightly raised eyebrow remarked, “Aye, ‘Eileen MacDonald.’ Tough tune.”

One comment from one solo piper. All that diligent practice to play a very difficult tune well came down to one comment. That was it.

“Aye. Tough tune.”

And I can’t remember a judge ever writing anything to the effect that he/she was impressed or that the tune was even positively noticed. I’m certain there were comments about the tricky passages not being quite together. Easy pickings for a piping judge.

Was it the right thing to do? In hindsight, I would say it wasn’t. It’s a clever jig, and the composition itself is unique. But is it so musically brilliant that it’s irreplaceable in a medley? Do people pine for a band or soloist to play it? Don’t think so.

In solo competition, we all submit tunes that might be deemed difficult. I admit that as a competitor and a judge I know what it’s like to submit or have submitted to me three or four tunes, and the one more difficult tune gets picked – not because it’s the musically superior tune, but simply because, Well, it’s your funeral, buddy.

If the idea is to win the competition, why put yourself at a disadvantage? I remember a lesson with Captain John MacLellan. We were discussing what light music to put in for solo events. We were trying to determine tunes that might suit me better than others. Since he said I had a stronger top-hand, I suggested “Mrs. MacPherson of Inveran.” In his rather straightforward manner the good Captain said something that always stayed with me. “Why play six parts when four will do?”

Now, I readily admit that that comment was made 25 years ago, and to me, an American going round the Scottish games trying to “get in.” I wasn’t playing in the Silver Star. But I think the message was clear: Why make it any harder for yourself?

As a judge a few weeks ago a young piper submitted “Lament for the Viscount of Dundee.” Nice tune, but no more technically difficult than the other three he put in, so I picked it and he played it. There were enough problems with it by the crunluath variation that he wasn’t in the running, but he then commenced to play an unexpected open fosgailte variation. I say unexpected, because most pipers wouldn’t do that. The tune is far more often played without one. Unlike a few remaining piobaireachd pedants who insist that this is “wrong,” I’m fine with anyone playing it if they want. It’s music.

But why play it? In competition, why would you tack on a very difficult variation at the end of the tune when it’s completely optional? Is it an attempt to get extra credit? Do they steadfastly believe that the tune is incomplete without it? As I said, I don’t think bonus points exist in piping and pipe band competitions, and insisting that it must be played is as pedantic as someone insisting that it should not be played. It’s optional.

Rather than help, the open fosgailte variation was not played well this time, so it actually made matters worse for the competitor, again supporting my argument that there are no potential positives that I can think of, and only probable negatives.

Unlike diving or spelling bees or freestyle skiing, there’s no reward for technical difficulty in what we do, and nor should there be. One person’s “hard” is another’s “easy” in our music. But the question – or perhaps debate – remains: Why play six when four will do? Why play “Eileen MacDonald” when another jig is just as compelling musically and less demanding technically?

I’m sure there are flaws in my argument, so feel free to point them out. In the meantime, I’ll keep slapping my chanter trying to get the syncopation right.