June 23, 2008 on 9:55 am by Michael Grey | In Music, Pipe Bands | 10 Comments

The competitive pipe band world is a challenging environment to make music.  Rules (and hefty musical parameters) aside, its a place, generally speaking, where there are strong preconceptions about what a pipe band should – or should not – perform.  For example, the competition medley, launched as an event around 1970, is barely middle age in human terms, and in musical terms is still suckling at the teat.  For the most part, what’s heard in pipe band contests today are really well thought-out arrangements and configurations of the main tune types common to bagpipe light music.  And, with one main, notable exception: the “reelpipe intro” or “hornreel” or whatever you call it, there  hasn’t been huge interest in shaking up the 25 year-old (plus) competition “medley” format.

This “reelpipe” is not heard in “class” solo piping environments – it was born and bred in pipe bands.  This simple time composition style is roundishly phrased and heavily reliant on percussion to achieve impact.  This style is rooted, I think, in bagpipe hornpipe compositions like  Donald MacLeod’s “Duncan Johnstone” and,  Duncan Johnstone’s, “The Streaker”.  I’d peg its birth as a pipe band staple with the great Boghall & Bathgate Pipe Band’s signature tune, “The Big Road Brusher” – introduced over 20 years ago.  I suggest, too, the big roundy pipe band intro “reelpipe” is a product of their composer’s musical environment: mostly pop music, common time beats and fast.  And that makes sense to me.  There’s not many in the pipe band world immersed in the culture of the Gael – the founding culture , I remind you, of the Great Highland Bagpipe, the melody-making section of our pipe band. 

Knowing that the pipe band world has enabled the evolution and acceptance of a bona-fide artistic form (the “reelpipe”) in only a generation, makes me wonder all the more at those that are quick to make proclamations as to what is – and is not – part of the pipe band “idiom”.

Consider the phrase “pipe band idiom”: it’s thrown about with abandon like it somehow represents the Good Book of  pipe bands.   If idiom refers to a distinctive style or characteristic then a group of pipers and drummers playing together is idiomatic enough.  Let’s be honest, to the world at large, pipe band music sounds mostly the same and our precious nuances are almost always lost.  So, I say the “pipe band idiom” is simple: it stands for groups of Great Highland Bagpipers and percussionists playing together as one ensemble. 

To suggest that the pipe band “idiom” is a prescribed set of tunes, or one musical style or one defined approach is wrong. 

The idiom is the pipe band.  The music made by the pipe band is the art.  And art is indefinable.

That’s what makes what we do so much fun.



  1. Ahh…the Reelpipe medley intro…cool, fun to play, but everyone else does it too.

    So, Mike, have you ever heard a band coming into the circle for a medley at the slow march? Or come into the circle with a 12/8? (that’s probably not too out there..) What about coming into the circle playing a Jig? ANYTHING but the lately typical “Reelpipe”!?!? Ha, when’s the last time a grade 1 band entered a medley comp playing an old 4/4???

    Your thoughts Mike?

    Appreciated, as always!

    Comment by Sean Mc — June 24, 2008 #

  2. Yes to all. The 78th Fraser HPB, the vintage of the band when I played with them, started with a free form Irish air, “Laggan Love Song”. The late 80s and early 90s saw 12/8 march intros very popular (“Glasgow Week in Hamburg”, “Up to the Line”, “Brig. Snow”, etc). The same vintage of 78th opened up a medley at the 1992 world championships with a pipe version of a waulking song (note the next season rules were changed to set a minimum “60 paces per minute” intro). So for competing bands in the UK (and for those competing in the UK) the rules are pretty strict around how a selection of music must begin (and I cannot tell you the reasons behind this). M

    Comment by mike — June 24, 2008 #

  3. I remember the World’s Waulking Song medley well: an RSPBA steward came up to us before the march-past.

    “Ah’ve got guid news for you! You havnae been disqualified,” he says.

    Then of course the band was seventh or eighth or 78th for all it mattered.

    The RSPBA was smart. They knew that DQing the band would have resulted in a stramash and the 60 BPM quickmarch starter rule never would have happened. But seventh prize told other bands that they shouldn’t try to be so cute.

    And they haven’t . . . for 15 years, anyway.

    Comment by aberthoff — June 24, 2008 #

  4. I had forgotten that, Andrew. Thanks for the colour. I think the bands have to have interest in changing the start rule (making a motion of rule change at their AGM) – it looks like there isn’t any. M.

    Comment by mike — June 25, 2008 #

  5. Mike, as a 30-year “boggie” I remember playing The Big Road Brusher at the time and feeling that we had pulled off something new and innovative. It was great to play and the listeners really lapped it up.

    Looking back however, I think 2 or 3 years later Rab + Jim came out with the Kitchen Piper at the end of their medley at Polkemmet (Andrew will confirm). I think this was the next big evolutionary step in these tune types – well on this side of the pond at least. I’m honest enough to admit that I wasn’t convinced that tunes such as that really belonged in a pipe band medley (as well as the odd giggle in the privacy of the band bus!).

    Comment by pipeyrw — June 26, 2008 #

  6. Who’s laughing now………

    Comment by pipeyrw — June 26, 2008 #

  7. Hey Ross – you did pull off something new and innovative! The start of a new genre of music. Not sure I’d include KP there – but it was a new thing, too!

    Yeah, who IS laughing!?

    Thanks for yer note, break a leg this season! Mike

    Comment by mike — June 26, 2008 #

  8. Funny how even the definitions of what we do are subjective. At the end of the day: does it move you, or not?

    And of course, what grooves one season might bite or seem “dated” in 5… and then someone “brings it back” and, WOW! “Hills of Alva,” here we come?

    I don’t think most bands could do what Toronto has done with this medley, and at this point, I’m thinking many wouldn’t want to [remember the waulking songs], but I’m really looking forward to a) hearing it live, and b) seeing where it goes.

    Comment by iainmacd — June 26, 2008 #

  9. “Hills of Alva”? Was it ever there to be brought back? :-+

    Yeah, I guess yer right Iain. I don’t think this medley approach is one of those things you just sit down and say, “I’m gonna write me one of them things” …

    See you at Maxville – its all MSRs til then! M

    Comment by mike — June 26, 2008 #

  10. RW – I think the Big Road-Brusher debuted in 1983. Polkemmet finsished its 1984 medleys with dot-cut versions of “The Kitchenpiper” and “The Clumsy Lover” (or “Pastiche,” as it was re-named, for some reason. Heady days!

    Comment by aberthoff — June 28, 2008 #

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