Behind the Lyre: Alastair Dunn and Pipe Bands (Part 2)

On 24th September, we had the opportunity to speak with Alastair Dunn from RG Hardie. In this interview, Alastair shares his experience performing in pipe bands.

The first part of this blog can be found here, and the third part of this blog will be posted on 23rd October. Make sure to keep an eye on the BBICO News Page!

For the benefit of our readers who aren’t familiar, would you mind explaining the graded system that pipe bands are part of, Alastair?

Yes, 4B, 4A, 3A, 3B, 2 and 1 are the grades that you play in. In Scotland they also have Juvenile Grades, which is different than Northern Ireland. I had to go into an adult pipe band, because there weren’t any Juvenile bands.

Right, so you work your way up through different pipe bands, according to your level?

If you wish, I mean, you don’t need to take it as seriously as I did! If you’re quite happy playing in a Grade 4 band, playing some music, that’s not a problem. I played in three different bands throughout that time.

Fantastic. And the final pipe band that you were a member of, I understand you played with for quite a while?

Yeah, that was 21 years – it was really fun. I was a Pipe Sergeant with Field Marshal Montgomery from 2005 until I left, which was two years ago, so 13 years… It was a big change. I’d given so much to the band, and the band had given me so much. It was disappointing that I couldn’t commit the time to it anymore.

Field Marshal Montgomery at Belfast Championships (Alastair is front left as the band march in)

Of course, it’s difficult to fit everything in. It would be interesting to know what your responsibilities as a Pipe Sergeant within that pipe band were?

Well, it’s everything really that you would do possibly as a Pipe Major except lead the band into competition. You should be there as a support to the Pipe Major. Our band was different, in that we had a group of Pipers in Scotland. This was one of the reasons that we had such a good Pipe Corps. We were able to pull some talent from Scotland, where there are many great pipers. I would lead the group in Scotland, and then we would meet with the band in Northern Ireland once a month, from January through to April. My responsibility was to make sure that that group of players were as good as they could be, and met the standard required.

So did they function as two separate groups or did you usually perform together?

For the most part we were performing and practicing ourselves, the ten of us. When you think the Pipe Corps would have been around 24 people, it’s changed over the years, but say that’s the average, almost half the Pipe Corps was in Scotland. We would practice here in Scotland, and then we would go across. I would communicate with the Pipe Major to make sure we were playing the same way. I’d been in the band for so many years before that, so I understood what was required. We thought the same way!

When you’re in a pipe band do people have different parts or is everyone playing the same thing?

You generally play the same tune; it depends on the set that you’re playing. For example, sometimes you will have harmonies, you will have people playing three different parts in the piping at different times, whilst for other pieces, you’ll have everyone playing the same thing for the performance.

Do you have any kind of favourite tunes that you’ve played in these bands?

Part of the reason I joined Field Marshal Montgomery was because they played terrific music. So over the 21 years I was in the band, we played some excellent tunes, which are still favourites today. For solos, there’s a genre of music called piobaireachd, which is classical music for the bagpipes. It’s hundreds of years old and some of the tunes are still being played as they were written, say, 200 years ago. It’s probably an acquired taste, but once you get into it, it’s really interesting to play.

And do you have any highlights from the pipe banding side of things?

Yes, plenty of those. I was very fortunate that I could step away from the band having won 10 world championships. The first one is always the one you want the most. My first season was 1998, but I didn’t win my first World Championships until 2002. So I had to wait 4 long years of being 2nd, 3rd, and everything BUT 1st. The first one was definitely superb. We won a couple of Grand Slams as a band as well, which means you’ve won every major championship that year.

How do pipe band competitions work? Is it set pieces again, like the solo competitions?

So there aren’t set pieces, but there are set requirements. So the March, Strathspey and Reel is one event, and then the Medley selection is another. For the Medley selection, there’s a timeframe on it; it’s 6 to 8 minutes and a selection of tunes. You have to play a range of tunes, so you couldn’t just play six hornpipes. You need to have a range of tunes, so it can be quite creative. The March, Strathspey and Reel is more about your technique, and playing each style of tune in a particular way.

Field Marshall Montgomery Pipe Band at the 2013 Worlds [photo property of Alastair Dunn]
Field Marshall Montgomery Pipe Band at the 2013 Worlds [photo property of Alastair Dunn]

Was that your main highlight from banding?

In my first year with my first pipe band I think we managed to get 2nd at the Worlds in Grade 4B, and then with my second band, Ravara, we won the World Championships in Grade 2 in 1994. I was only 14 at the time, so that was quite an achievement. Then I went to Grade 1 in 1995 with that band. I had always aspired to play with Field Marshal, so I joined them in 1997.

Fantastic, and then I understand you played with them for quite a while…

Yeah, they were a fantastic pipe band, they still are. It’s great that the band have continued producing the same standard. Like we said earlier, it’s your social circle, so I’m still quite friendly with a few of the band members. I think it’s just on hold at the moment. They created all the music for this year, so that’s just going to be kept there and practiced individually. We’ll have to see when groups can meet up next year, but it seems like it’s getting moved further and further back.

Yes, it’s a bit tricky to see an end point is at the moment, but we’ll get there. Do you work with Field  Marshal Montgomery as part of your role with RG Hardie?

We actually sponsor the band, so a lot of the Pipers play our instruments. Part of the St Kilda business is Highland wear, so we supply the band with that, which is a good advertisement for the business to showcase how good our pipe band uniforms are.

It would actually be really interesting to hear a little bit about pipe band uniforms…

As everybody knows, the main element of it is the kilt! There is also the ghillie brogues, the shoes which you tie up around your ankles. You’ve got kilt hose, which are long socks that turnover below the knee. The Sporran, which sits in front of the Kilt – I don’t want to say it’s a purse or a handbag, but you get the idea! You can put your wallet and whatever you fancy in that. You also wear a jacket and a waist coat, and perhaps a belt, with a Glengarry on your head. In the old days you would have worn a doublet, which is a fancy jacket with a lot of ornamentation on it, and a feather bonnet.

Does the uniform vary quite a bit between different pipe bands?

Well, there are thousands of tartans to choose from, so each band will choose one for themselves. Field Marshal Montgomery have their own tartan, which we designed for them – that one’s definitely unique to them! You see that quite a bit, quite a few fire departments in North America will want their own tartan for their organisation, so we can design tartans for that as well.

Do you ever see bands with the same tartan, or is that a no go?

There will be, but you can change it up with the colour of your socks, your jackets or the bag covers you put on the pipe bag. You do want to be as unique as you can be to stand out.

Both in terms of your uniform, and I assume your interpretation of the music, I assume?


You mentioned having to learn the music off by heart for the solo competitions. Does the same apply to pipe banding?

Yes, with the bands it’s all learnt, which at times can be monotonous. You’ve got those four sets that I mentioned, which could take up to maybe half an hour in total to play. You practice that all winter, sometimes two nights a week, and you can repeat these tunes for many years. For example, in Field Marshall Montgomery, for March, Strathspey and Reel we played big technical tunes that are considered the pinnacle. There aren’t too many tunes that you can select to showcase what your band can do, so we did play a lot of those tunes for many years.

That is a lot to remember in one go!

Yeah. When you join a new pipe band in particular, it’s a big challenge. You’re just handed a hundred or so tunes and told to get on with it!

I suppose it must be pleasant surprise when you’re told the tunes for an event, and you’ve played some of them before!

The structure is what I like about pipe bands and the music. You can progress because there is that structure. I imagine it might be different for piano, and piano competitions where you’re at the behest of the tutor and how that progresses.

Do the tunes change dependent on the level you’re playing at? Or do they get more complex as you work your way up?

They get more complex as you progress. So for Grade 4 you’d be playing simple 4/4 marches, and as you move onto Grade 3, you start to play Strathspey and Reels. Grade 2 is really similar to Grade 1, just a different standard. Grade 1 is where you play the most difficult tunes. It’s not necessarily just about how difficult it is, it’s also about how musical you can make it and how you can interpret the music to be more interesting and creative.

So you would you have more embellishments Grade 1 than you would have had in the previous levels, for example?

Absolutely. In Field Marshal we would play the most difficult tunes you can play really!

Is there a particular piece that you think is probably the most difficult that you’ve played?

There’s a tune called Charlie’s Welcome. It’s a Reel, and a lot of the technique is very difficult to get right. Another tune called Cameronian Rant, it’s very difficult again. It’s all about getting the Pipe Corps to play in unison. So it’s not just about a top solo Piper being able to play it perfectly. It’s about getting 24 people to play it in unison.

I know you’ve done both to a very high standard, but do most Solo pipers also play in pipe bands? Or do they tend to focus on one or the other?

It is mixed. You get both. You get people who just want to do the solo piping, and people who want to play in pipe bands. It will most likely come down to time available.

…this blog will be continued on 23rd October – keep an eye on the BBICO News Page!

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