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What The Worlds say about modern Scotland

The Worlds came to Glasgow with a smile, then held a mirror up to Scotland to give us something to reflect on.

Ian Embelton, chief executive of The Royal Scottish Pipe Band AssociationPhotographs: Steve Cox
Ian Embelton, chief executive of The Royal Scottish Pipe Band AssociationPhotographs: Steve Cox

The World Pipe Band Championships, known as The Worlds, rolled into Glasgow this weekend in a cacophony of sound and conflicting emotions, with the Field Marshal Montgomery Pipe Band from Lisburn in County Antrim emerging victorious for the fourth year in a row.

As the kind of sonic and visual impact that only 8000 massed pipers from 14 countries can possibly hope to create, some 300,000 spectators from around the globe braved teeming rain to experience an event its organisers confirm was the biggest in the competition's history to date.Of all the major events that have made Scotland's biggest city vibrant throughout a remarkable summer, the Worlds were possibly the most conflicting in terms of what it said about modern Scotland.

This was a collision of competing visions of Scotland, where a picture-postcard swish of the kilt meets a pocket of the city's east end steeped in gritty, urban legend.

Some Scots uncomfortable with old stereotypes might struggle to appreciate the relevance of a contest where tartan and shortbread take centre stage. Others, however, believe it says something important about the nation's modern culture.

While the Canadian drum majors, young girls dancing Highland flings and elderly gents in tweed might look a little anachronistic at first glance, for the man behind The Worlds the event offers a positive perspective on evolving Scottish culture that merits modern praise and respect.

"It might be tempting to dismiss some of these traditions as not being relevant, but the fact is that these are some of the key cultural landmarks our emigrants took with them when they left, creating a memory that has prospered down the centuries," said Ian Embelton, chief executive of The Royal Scottish Pipe Band Association (RSPBA).

"Their origins may be lost in time, and the band members that come here from Pakistan, Tokyo and Brazil might have very little personal connection to the country, but they embrace our musical styles, play our tunes and keep alive a very positive part of the Scottish experience that modern Scotland could benefit from reconsidering."

In Embelton's view, the 140 bands competing at all levels encapsulate an ethos based on teamwork, commitment and discipline that not only reflects a very positive view of the Scottish character, but also provides a sterling example for the young.

Indeed, with 25% of this year's competitors aged under 18, this weekend saw every corner of a dreich Glasgow Green filled with focused young people intent on doing their best at an event regarded as a Mecca for global piping. In this part of the city, the more sheltered Glaswegian might normally expect surreptitious joints and barely concealed bottles of Buckfast, but yesterday only fresh-faced Canadian drummers and antipodean pipers jostled for position.

For 16-year-old Amy Crookston, in town to compete with the Stonehouse Pipe Band, it was easy to understand why she and her peers from around the world should find fresh relevance in ageing traditions.

"It's another kind of team sport, really," she said. "The aim is to have an entire band sound like a single piper, so you have to work closely together and every single member can make a difference.

"The whole kilt outfit thing is maybe not how you would normally want to dress as a teenager, but I love it. My friends probably think I'm a little eccentric doing it, but everybody has to admit that the noise we can make is awesome."

The kilts, the sporrans and the pipes themselves were undeniably from Scotland, but was it Scottish in the modern sense? The souvenir T-shirts have Scotland on them and the dancing spoke of Highland traditions alive and well. But in a competitive field dominated by bands from Canada, Northern Ireland and Australia, the bountiful array of outland accents hinted at something different entirely.

"I don't think this is really Scotland's culture. It's more like a version cooked up by Walt Disney and Walter Scott, then interpreted by emigrants through rose-tinted glasses," said spectator Coinneach MacAoidh.

"They're coming here with a vision that's very different to the one shared by people who actually live here, but I don't think we need to criticise that. Reality is what you think it is, and they're bringing a very positive approach so good luck to them."

Organisers estimate that, of the 30,000 spectators attending the competition yesterday, approximately 10,000 could be categorised as hard-core supporters guaranteed to turn up in rain, hail or snow. Of the remainder most, like Alison Macmillan from Edinburgh, came for the spectacle and a day out with the kids.

"There's maybe a bit more of an edge to the event this year because of the whole independence debate, but most people don't read too much into it," she said. "For us, it's just an amazing show. We're Scots, so why not have a spot of bagpipes and drums now and again?"

For many of the overseas competitors, there was nothing to be confused about. Jamie Gattinger of the St Thomas Alumni Pipe Band from Houston has been visiting Glasgow for six years and understands that modern Scotland is not squarely represented by the pipes and drums.

"All of us have some kind of Scottish connection, however distant, that's behind us being here," he said. "We come from a city built in the modern age, so what we see here is the history. It hits you as soon as you land and dominates the memories you take home. After that we're mainly interested in the bacon rolls."

For two days every year, Glasgow Green is the centre of a piping world, with competitors arriving from the four corners of the earth to eat, breathe and sleep piping. In Texas, they even risk life and limb for it.

"There's a very real risk that I'd get shot if I practised in my back garden," said Houston's Jim Harper.

Competing at World Championship level is not amateur stuff. Bands prepare for a full year in advance of the event, practising up to three times weekly, and have to raise as much as £100,000 to cover expenses every time they make the trip.

The RSPBA's Ian Embelton pointed out that, to make the grade, participants have to sacrifice a lot more than a little spare time: "This isn't a hobby - it's a way of life," he said. "People give up their social lives, their money and even their family time to compete at this level. It demands true dedication from single members, so when they arrive in Glasgow, few contestants are in the mood to play around."

So serious do the leading contenders take the event that heavyweights like this year's winners Field Marshal Montgomery, the band that has 10 world titles under its belt, and past champions Simon Fraser University from British Columbia, declined to conduct interviews on competition day. Competitor Douglas Frobese said: "This is our entire year. We put everything into it, so the atmosphere gets very tense in the run-up to the final results and nobody wants to be distracted.

"There are people out there who have sacrificed relationships and given up jobs to pursue the dream of winning at The Worlds.

"Nerves don't come into it when you're playing, because you tend to just get lost in the music. But as the judges' final decision starts to draw closer there's a lot of excitement and a little bit of fear, because the few seconds when you hear your final ranking can make or break the entire year."

For all the drive and professionalism demanded of amateur bandsmen, however, the pipers themselves managed to maintain a distinctly sporting atmosphere. While friendly local rivalries endured between groups from neighbouring districts, the competitors' focus tended to remain strictly personal, with bands largely concerned with their placing relative to the previous year.

Kenneth Neilson, a senior member of Stonehouse Pipe band, explained: "Everybody wants to be the best they can and I won't deny that we all want to win it one day, but the real focus is on how you compare to your own past performances.

"The Worlds are the centre of everything we do and the way that we can gauge how we've progressed over the past year. It's about constant improvement, so coming second last would be a result for us."

For Glasgow, when the event's 120 volunteers team up with council workers to clear the site this morning, the sound of the bands that marched here will fade gently into the distance, gone from minds and earshot for another 12 months.

According to Neilson, however, the world of piping will immediately turn to dreams of victory in Glasgow 2015: "Whatever happens for us in today's competition, we'll take two weeks' break and then begin planning for next year. If you want to make it in this game, there is no time to stop."

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