This weekend was the last of a run of four heavy weekends with the band, as the competition season reaches its mid-point, and also reaches the point where it takes a break for a while. It was also the second of four major tournaments of the year.
Following the exhaustion of last year, this year we took the approach of travelling up to Inverness on the Friday, spending the night in a Premier Inn, attending the competition on the Saturday, and then returning on the Sunday. I do think this was the better approach - although it meant taking a day off work, and also spending a considerable more on hotel rooms, food, etc, it was much less tiring than the equivalent last year. (I think the band will be reverting to the previous model of travelling up on the Saturday next year... but that's not my problem.)
The journey up was surprisingly quiet. The bus was only half-full, and seemed even less full than that. I buried myself in a decent book, emerging only during the stop, and then again when we arrived.
The plan had been to take a practice shortly after arriving on the Friday night. Once we got there, the decision was taken not to bother, as we were four pipers down. In hindsight, I suspect this was a mistake, though I wasn't too unhappy about it at the time. Less pleasantly, it was decided that we would be leaving the hotel at 7:45 on the Saturday, which left little time for breakfast.
(The Premier Inn, incidentally, was pretty much like all the others I've been to. It was fine - nice and clean, a comfy bed, and a good breakfast. Though they didn't seem to have the promised grilled tomatoes. But they did give us free Irn Bru, which made up for it somewhat.)
On Satuday, we travelled over to the competition in good spirits, arriving in good time. (I finished my book during this journey, and started straight in on the next one.) We had a short break, put up the dread gazebo, and then gathered together at 9:30 to start our preparations in earnest.
Alas, it was not to be our day - nothing seemed to go right from then on. The drones just refused to settle, possibly due to the wind, or perhaps because most of the band hadn't blown their pipes on Friday (the cane drone reeds we're now using need played every day, and seem to be utterly unforgiving about that). The focus in the practices just didn't seem to be what it had been on Thursday, the playing just wasn't as good. And then a second mistake was made - we moved over to final tuning late, meaning we had only moments at that final staging area. (Though, honestly, I'm not sure that really matters.)
At that last moment, one of our younger players had a problem with a drone, and it was put off. This is always a risk - putting a drone off increases the pressure in the rest of the pipes, and so if you're not careful there's a risk of the chanter coming in when it shouldn't, causing an "early E". But that risk is better than going on knowing a drone is acting up...
The performance was not good. There was an early E (I don't know if it was that same player or not - better not to know, I think), it was all too fast, and it was generally very ragged. As we came off, we knew the pipe major was raging, and he didn't disappoint.
We didn't qualify. In fact, out of 11 in our qualifying group, we were 10th - 10th and 11th for piping, 3rd for drumming, and 11th for ensemble (not surprising - if one half is poor, the ensemble can't be good).
Not surprisingly, our drummers took that particularly hard. After all, they'd done their bit and been let down by the pipers, again. It was even harder to take when we heard the final - not only should we have qualified, if we'd played the way we did on Thursday we could well have won.
There was one piece of good news. Our young drum major was also competing, and she came fourth - winning her first prize in a championship. Obviously, that's a fantastic result.
Alas, worse was to come. As soon as we learned we weren't in the final, much of the band decamped to the pub. Cue the drunken antics of a load of people who really should have known better.
My personal favourite bit of the weekend came in the early evening, when one of our members tried to persuade me that I shouldn't leave the band once I've moved, because Livingston isn't all that far... Unfortunately, he was doing so while thoroughly drunk, and thus serving as a prime example of why I'm not fighting particularly hard to stay.
Once we got back to the hotel, I had a quick dinner and then bed. So much for that day.
On Sunday morning, the bus driver made a complaint about the state of the bus. In addition to the usual low-level mess that you always get from a group of people (which is largely unavoidable, and generally accepted), there had been a whole load of biscuits ground up and thrown around the place - in a manner that simply doesn't happen by accident. So I apologised profusely, and made a note to address the subject at the practice tonight.
The journey home was largely uneventful, due to a combination of hangovers and sleeping. Thank goodness.
But it doesn't end there! Because when we got home the driver complained about the state of the bus again. He'd mopped it out just before we left, so it was almost immaculate at that time, but just a few hours later it was again a state of discarded wrappers, bottles, and other assorted litter. He, at least, was mollified by the efforts of the committee to gather and clean up that mess. I wasn't.
The outcome of all of this is desperately disappointing. It's bad enough that we didn't qualify, and worse that we didn't perform at all well. But everything else that has happened has just sickened me on the whole experience again - I don't put in this sort of effort to the band just to spend my time clearing up other people's garbage.
I'm still going to see out the rest of the season. But I'll definitely be leaving at the AGM in September - any prospect that I might change my mind on that point is now over. What's also over is the hope that I might see the band promoted as I depart - that was already a long-shot after the British Championships, but is now definitively over. I will also be avoiding the buses at the World Championships and at Innerleithen (the last competition of the season) - the other events should be okay, but those two will see a repeat of the same antics as this weekend, and I'm done with that.
#29: "Look to Windward", by Iain M. Banks