Gold Medals and Scottish society

The unfairer sex.That we’re even talking about how remarkable it is that a female piper has finally won a Gold Medal at Oban or Inverness is more interesting to me than the milestone itself. Faye Henderson by all accounts deserved to win and was a popular choice among her fellow competitors and, to any solo piper I know, that’s crucial to satisfying one’s sense of accomplishment, and that’s really all that should matter.

But the traditions and mores of Scottish piping are long-held and, to those not part of their culture, it can be difficult to understand. Generally and relatively speaking, change is often slower to be accepted there.

Henderson’s win has resurrected the discussion about the Royal Scottish Pipers Society voting in 2008 to continue its tradition of being a men-only club. There are plenty of men-only and women-only and whatever-only clubs in every walk of life. By definition a “club” is restrictive and exclusionary. The complication, of course, is that members of this club of male “amateur” (read: not very good) pipers still judge top-level competitions, and so have a controlling stake in the UK solo piping scene.

Whether or not these RSPS judges are fit to pass accurate judgment on pipers who can play circles around them is perhaps less galling than is the perception that they might be predisposed towards male competitors. They’re part of a club that rejects female members, so making that leap isn’t so huge.

While women have competed in piping competitions forever, they’ve been allowed to participate in the Northern Meeting and Argyllshire Gathering only since 1975. These events are connected with “societies” – that is, upper-crust clubs for those of a certain pedigree, vocation or income-bracket similar to the Jolly Boys that comprise the RSPS. I don’t know much about the Highland Society of London beyond its Wikipedia listing, but I note that it’s made up of “Highland gentlemen resident in London,” and perhaps this sponsorship and tradition also had or has something to do with no woman winning their coveted prize until now.

We all like to think that the prize lists are fair. At least in associations outside of the UK there are sophisticated judging accreditation and accountability systems designed to create a degree of assurance that the competitions will be well assessed. If there’s a question of fairness, there’s a mechanism for addressing it.

But how many female pipers over the years have played well enough to earn a Gold Medal, only to have it denied because they didn’t get the benefit of the doubt? And we all know that, when it comes to the top piping, drumming and band competitions, the benefit of the doubt – splitting hairs based on personal preference or predilection – can be the difference between first and fifth.

Perhaps now everyone can just get on with it and once and for all stop pigeon-holing competitors as male or female, Scottish or not, white or not-white, military or civilian, rich or poor, Catholic or Protestant, Mason or not, and assess the music only with fairness, competence and objectivity.