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World Pipe Band Championship special

They’ve won the World Championships a record 15 times but have failed in their last four attempts to lift the top trophy.

Now, after falling to their lowest ranking in 20 years can the Shotts and Dykehead Pipe Band escape the clutches of the also-rans to triumph once more?

So much can go wrong. So says William Donaldson, the peppery author of Pipers, his myth-blitzing book about bagpiping.

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The way he describes the hazards involved it seems easier to launch a rocket to Mars than play a tune that will not make the ears of connoisseurs reverberate in horror.

High on Donaldson’s list of horrors is the weather. Given that pipers usually play in the great outdoors, as they will seven days from now on Glasgow Green at the annual World Pipe Band Championships, which is part of Piping Live!, a week long orgy of piping, this is no surprise.

Like anglers, pipers appear always less than happy with their meteorological lot. Rain is especially unwelcome, its effect on the pipes similar, says Donaldson, to what it would be on a grand piano. Temperature, too, is crucial. If, for instance, it falls below 13˚C, a piper’s fingers may not drop off but they will begin to stiffen up. Humid weather, meanwhile, makes playing uncomfortable which, given what pipers are required to wear, is understandable.

But there is more, much more, for pipers to worry about. Pipes, like those that require the attention of plumbers, are subject to all manner of technical mishaps. While worrying, these are identifiable and repairable. Less easy to fix, however, are what Donaldson describes as the “inner demons” which can afflict even the most accomplished and experienced of players and “gnaw” at their consciousness. Among the most terrible are “creeping mistrust of ear; hysterical loss of embouchure; and the clammy palsied feeling that afflicts hitherto responsive fingers in conditions of acute stress”.

In his book, Donaldson relates the strange case of one famous piper who in midlife was struck by a viral illness and never regained complete control of his right hand. “There seemed no physical basis for the problem and his friends induced him to undergo hypnotherapy, but to no avail: the hand had gone and there seemed no obvious way of getting it back.” Piping folklore is full of anxiety about loss of mastery, involving things like the dreadful cruime, or contraction of the tendons, said to be hereditary in certain piping families.

“‘The Cave of Gold’ stories also enshrine the notion that preeminence is precarious and may come at a terrible personal cost. These tell of the famous MacCrimmon pipers and their dealings with the fairies, a pact with the supernatural conferring exceptional skill – for a time – at the cost of the piper’s life, to be forfeited on the day when he must return to the enchanted Cave of Gold and confront the, by now deadly, source of his supremacy.”

And so on a dismal Tuesday evening, with such enchanted thoughts ringing in my head, the path leads me – via the M8 – to Shotts, which is nearer to Glasgow than it is Edinburgh. Shotts is to piping what St Andrews is to golf, or at least ought to be.

While its fabled pipe band, The House of Edgar Shotts and Dykehead Pipe Band, was not the first it has survived the longest and this year is celebrating its centenary.

It’s known the world over, not least because the BBC invariably calls upon it to usher in the New Year. It has won the World Pipe Band Championships 15 times, more than any other band, and those years when it slips out of the top three are regarded as nothing less than a catastrophe. Tracing its roots to a shed at the back of a local hotel, many of its early members were drawn from the mining community in its immediate hinterland. Today, however, they travel from across the south and central belt of the country simply to attend rehearsals.

The band’s HQ, says Sandy Bell, its chairman and treasurer, was formerly the local Rangers supporters club. After the band took it over it sold off an adjacent piece of land to a housing developer in exchange for a few modifications to their rehearsal space, including the lowering of the ceiling and the sound-proofing of walls.

The strip lighting is harsh and unforgiving. At one end of the long, undecorated room the pipers gather for a pep talk. This early in evening the atmosphere is more akin to a board meeting than a full-blown practice session. In the ladies toilet a piper is tuning up. Glamour is not a word you might associate with the scene.

Yet it is not unknown, says Bell, for tourists to arrive by the coachload to pay homage to the band and worship at piping’s shrine, eager and wide-eyed to see what the fuss is all about. On such occasions there is no room to swing a cat let alone accommodate a full complement of musicians.

What the tourists make of this Bell does not say. As Nashville is to country and western music, Shotts is to devotees of bagpiping. The place itself may look unprepossessing but the spell it casts provokes wonder.

While Pipe Major Robert Mathieson briefs the pipes and Drum Major Jim Kilpatrick the drummers in a room the size of cupboard, Bell talks enthusiastically about the band’s history and hopes for the future.

As with so many organisations it is dependant on considerable personal sacrifice, most notably of time that could otherwise be spent with the family. “I was bad news for a long time,” says Bell with a smile that suggests he was a less than sincere penitent. Having suffered a heart attack he no longer plays in the band but is much in demand for Burns suppers and other occasions that require the colourful presence of a piper. It’s his job, he explains, to ensure that travel arrangements are made and ends meet. Running a band such as the Shotts and Dykehead is not cheap. Pipes can cost thousands of pounds while drums several hundred. Hence the need for sponsorship and television gigs such as Hogmanay Live!

Throughout the year there are five majors competitions, he adds, namely the Cowal Games, the Scottish, British, European and, of course, the “Worlds”, which is the one every band dreams of winning. Every other competition is subordinate to it. As Pipe Major Mathieson says: “The pipe band community is a global village and the annual general meeting is at Glasgow Green on the second Saturday of August every year.”

With the days ticking by, however, Shotts and Dykehead’s prospects do not look promising. After the Scottish Championships, which was held at Dumbarton in May, and the British, which took place at Annan in June, the band was struggling. Both of those contests were won by Field Marshal Montgomery from Ulster. Then, on a day of drenching rain at the end of July, in the grounds of Stormont Castle in Belfast, came the European Championships. Shotts travelled hopefully but returned empty-handed and downcast. The winner was St Laurence O’Toole from Dublin who edged out Field Marshal Montgomery by one point. In total, 122 bands took part in the contest, including 64 from Scotland and England, two from Australia and one from the USA, the rest coming from Ireland. Shotts and Dykehead was among the also-rans, coming sixth, a position it is not unaccustomed to. Sandy Bell sums up his feelings in one word: “gubbed”. It was, he adds, about as far down the rankings as the band had slid in 20 years which he believed was because eight of its pipers had left to join the Fife Constabulary Band. “The Worlds,” he vows, “will be a different kettle of fish.”

It is five years since it last won the World Championships, a fact that all involved with it would dearly like to revise. As more members of the band drift in for practice and Mathieson flits from piper to piper ensuring they’re in tune, Greg McAllister, at 16 the youngest piper in the band, is no less determined than his older colleagues to reverse recent misfortunes. “We need to do something soon,” he says, his voice barely audible above what sounds like the bagpipe equivalent of a coughing fit. “It’s not going to happen if we don’t do it soon.”

McAllister is one of a growing number of young people – girls as well as boys – who are taking up piping and drumming and joining pipe bands. He learned, literally, at his grandfather’s knee. It was his grandfather, he says, who bought him his first chanter, which looks like a recorder and which can be detached from the pipes, thus allowing pipers to practise in their own homes without turning their neighbours into models for Munch’s Scream. McAllister was seven when he began to learn. After his grandfather died he stopped playing for a while.

“I didn’t want to have anything to do with it,” he says. “My granddad was my connection with piping.” But, coming from a piping dynasty – his great-grandfather was the band’s second pipe major, a great-uncle the third and his grandfather the fourth – it was inevitable that he would return to it. Last year was the first he played in top competitions. Though there are those in piping circles who insist that piping is hip, thanks in no small part to electronic bands such as the Red Hot Chilli Pipers, that’s not how McAllister sees it. Presently at Calderhead High School in Shotts, he finds little interest in piping among his fellow students. “It’s not cool. Most people I hang about with outside school are band people.” When he leaves school next year, he says, he already has a piping-related job lined up, as an apprentice reed maker for a Glasgow firm.

By now, as dusk falls over Shotts, there are about 16 pipers in the main hall and the noise has grown to the point where you can feel your ears tingle. There is, as Sandy Bell says, a huge difference between listening to pipes indoors and outdoors. Pipers, they say, are less likely to have damaged hearing than those who make up their audience because they can’t hear themselves play. This may be apocryphal. Imagine an orchestra tuning up, then turn the volume up and up and up, until it’s almost like listening to several jumbo jets taking off simultaneously. Down the decades pipers have had to put up with jokes in which they’re caricatured as musical torturers, their instrument as excruciating as a dentist’s drill. The skirl of the bagpipes, said Samuel Pepys, doubtless speaking for many, is “at its best, simply barbarous music”. Hence perhaps its potency on the battlefield and the proscription of the pipes after the abortive Jacobite risings of 1715 and 1745.

The bad press which bagpiping gets, suggests Donaldson, can largely be explained by a combination of ignorance and laziness. Such reporting as there is of piping matters is often ill-informed, cliché-ridden and sneering in tone. Even the phrase, “skirl o’ the pipes”, he says, is misleading. “If pipes are skirling there is something very wrong with the way they are being played or have been set up, or both.”

Bizarrely, for an instrument that is so identifiably Scottish, the bagpipe and the sound that it emits divides Scots as no other, dismissed by some as the epitome of tartan, tourist kitsch and revered by others as the sublime expression of the soul of nation. Held to account, as ever, is an education system which largely ignored the history and culture of the country which it purported to serve.

In recent years, however, there have been some signs of progress, including the creation of the National Piping Centre in Glasgow and the embracing of piping by the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. Moreover, says Robert Mathieson, piping has at last begun to become an accepted part of the school curriculum, most noticeably in North Lanarkshire, where the Shotts band has a joint project with the education authority, which is helping to refresh the piping scene.

Piping, says Mathieson, is a not an obsession but a disease and a malignant one at that. He recommends catching it young, which he did when he was 12. Not only does it infect his leisure time but also, as the owner of The Kilt Centre in Hamilton, his business hours. Few are his waking hours when pipes are not thrumming in his thoughts.

Every year, for the past 20 years, he says, piping has got bigger and bigger, and more globally inclusive. Fifteen years ago 100 bands, each comprising around 40 pipers and drummers, took part in the World Championships. This year, in front of an expected crowd of 40,000, the number will be nearly 250, 26 of which will be competing for the coveted title of World Champions.

Mathieson’s enthusiasm is infectious, his love of piping and all it entails is palpable. “There’s a lot of people outside the piping community,” he says, regarding the public’s ambivalence, “who would go through their lives never having heard a bagpipe in tune. Whilst there are over 200 bands playing at the Worlds, there are thousands of bands out there that don’t compete. The hardest thing about the bagpipes is achieving good tone. That’s the most difficult part. Some people just play the pipe and allow the tone to go wild and they just accept that. The competition side of the pipe band tone is very important to us. When you hear a bagpipe in tune it’s one of the nicest things you’ll ever hear in terms of seducing the ear. But, unfortunately, for every one that’s in tune there are 100 out of tune.”

The search for the elusive tone goes on. Meanwhile, on the website for the World Championships the countdown to next Saturday continues and in a small hall in Shotts, Pipe Major Mathieson, like the manager of a premier league club that has fallen momentarily off the top perch, must turn things round smartly or face the consequences.

“We’re always there or thereabouts,” he says, proudly aware of the band’s place in history. “It depends what happens on the day. I remember on one occasion we were written off, not being the hot favourites to win and being outsiders. That happened in 2003 and, lo and behold, we won the competition and shocked everybody. It’s all about preparation. When you get to the line everything has to be perfect. A six minute performance that you’ve been practising for a year. So if the championship is coming back to Scotland I would say Shotts are one of the hot contenders to do that.”

Piping Live! runs from August 9 to 15 at various venues in Glasgow. Visit www.pipinglive.co.uk. The World Pipe Band Championships will be held at Glasgow Green on August 14. For information about The House of Edgar Shotts and Dykehead Pipe Band visit www.sdcpb-centenary.com.

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