Interview: John Wilson, Royal Scottish Pipe Band Association

When I worked for Forres Events, the organisation behind the European Pipe Band Championships, for each of the six years it was in Forres, I got the opportunity to meet and write about some amazing people, including John Wilson, a retired Chief Superintendent of the former Strathclyde Police force, and life-long piper. I spoke to him about his role as an adjudicator in the RSPBA (Royal Scottish Pipe Band Association), and his passion for piping.

When John Wilson’s father told him the pipes would open doors and take him to places he never thought possible, he couldn’t have expected that he would travel the world and lead his band to a record-breaking six consecutive world championship wins.

Piping is in his blood. He started playing at age of six. His father was a piper in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and his uncle a Pipe Sergeant in the same band, and most of his family involved with piping in one way for another.

The retired Chief Superintendent of Strathclyde Police thought his dad meant Glasgow when he said he would go far, but sixty-two years after picking up his pipes for the first time, he has travelled the globe and won most of the major solo and band titles going.

As a Pipe Sergeant in the seventies and eighties, he led the Strathclyde Police Band to 11 of their 13 world championship wins, six of them in an unbroken row, a record which has yet to be broken. As a solo piper has won the Gold Medal at both the Northern Meeting and the Argyllshire Gathering, two of the most prestigious awards in the piping world, the former at his first attempt.

And now, as an adjudicator for the Royal Scottish Pipe Band Association (RSPBA), he is tasked with picking the best of the best.

It’s fair to say, at 68 years old, he is probably one of the most accomplished pipers in the world.

He has been involved with the RSPBA for 27 years and is the current convenor of the adjudication management board, and in that time, he has judged in all five major contests, the World, European, UK, British and Scottish Championships.

In June he will travel to Forres with the RSPBA to judge the European Pipe Band Championships in Grant Park.

And while many thousands will gather to hear the ‘skirl of the pipes’ and have a great day out, John and his crew have a serious job, listening intently to every note played by the 120 pipe bands that have signed up to compete, marking them, and calculating their scores for publication later in the day.

John explained the vast difference between Grade 1 and 4b and the adjudication process: “At the lower levels bands are contending with the basic requirements of performance. Starting together, stopping together, playing in unison, maintaining and sustaining a consistent tonal value.

“While at the top end, it’s real high end precision in technical delivery, in setting of the instrument, in the harmony between pipes and drums, in the musical arrangements, it’s all very high level.”

“Each judging panel is made up of two piping adjudicators, whose role is to mark the piping content, the unison within the corps, the musical interpretation, the technical execution.

“A drumming adjudicator listens to the snare, bass and tenor drum section, and an ensemble adjudicator stands back to judge the collective effect of the pipes and drums.

“Each adjudicator then produces a merit sheet, and all the evaluations are calculated and refined and put together for the overall result.”

But for all his accolades, he believes that being a great piper doesn’t necessarily make a good adjudicator.

The process of becoming an adjudicator is a lengthy one, involving theory, examinations and mentoring over a three-year period.

“The adjudication process is about a whole range of skills. It’s not just about listening, it also involves writing and administration. Some of these competitions are huge, and the bands are coming into the arena in succession. You need to be able to articulate on paper the musical issues you hear when the band is performing,” he said.

The weather has always played ball for Piping At Forres, but it’s an outside influence which could potentially ruin a band’s performance if it hits at the wrong time.

“The weather is a major influence because it badly affects the performance of pipes, synthetic drum heads stand up a bit better to the weather, but with the bagpipe, if it’s raining and rainwater starts going down the drones and it’ll just shut off the reeds.

“Equally, the chanter reeds don’t like excessive moisture and they certainly don’t like rapid changes in temperature.

“And we can only judge what we hear.”

This year, John will make his fourth visit to the Forres event, which he had high praise for.

“Forres is an excellent venue for the competition,” he said. “The arrangement in the park, the bus and car parking, the facilities for the adjudicators and the bands, and all the front line help from the security people, and all those guiding and directing. It’s a very well organised competition and I’ve been very impressed.”

This article first appeared in a newspaper pull-out for the 2017 European Pipe Band Championships, Piping At Forres.