THE Rothesay and District Pipe Band’s 36th year of public performances begins at the Gourock Highland Games on May 8.
The Gourock gathering also represents the start of the Rothesay novice juvenile band’s second year of competition - a significant achievement for a band which has taken great strides over the last two-and-a-half years in introducing new young players.
Those young players are taking part in an outdoor practice session at Rothesay Joint Campus on the penultimate day of the Easter school holidays, helped by tutors Allan MacDonald junior, Adam Steele and Joanne Varney.
But before we step outside to listen to them play, Jane Sinclair and pipe major Neil Gillies explain to us just what is being done to bring on the next generation of pipers and drummers - and what their progress means for the band as a whole.
“The band has always had some sort of tutoring,” Jane says, “but it’s always been reliant on volunteers and the time they can give.
“There’s always been piping and drumming taught in other schools in Argyll, and we pushed and pushed for it to happen here, but could never get any money for it.
“That changed in October 2008 when we got a grant of £19,000 from the Scottish Arts Council’s youth music initiative (YMI), which we used on a piping project for six hours a week after school.
“Within two years we had between 80 and 90 kids taking part. That funding came to an end after two years, but we were fortunate enough to get another YMI grant, which we decided to use for both piping and drumming tuition.
“That new funding started in January and runs for two years, which gives us another two years to keep on building things.”
The two Rothesay bands now have between 25 and 30 school-age members, mostly in the novice juvenile band, plus another 25 playing the chanter and 20 more learning the drums, and lessons taking place at the Townhead campus every day after school.
And if they practice hard, there’s a good chance that those who are still learning the basics will soon get the chance to play in the band.
“For us, the novice juvenile band is not the same every year,” Jane says. “There are some novice juvenile bands whose members are basically the same up to the age of 18, but we want to be continually bringing on new young players, and they’ve all got to get out and get some experience at some point.
“Our novice juvenile band is very young compared to some other bands in the same grade – you can play in a novice juvenile band up to the age of 18, but there’s a big difference in standard between the top bands in the section and the ones who are just starting out, and it’s a hard grade for our young players.”
Those who play in either band this year will compete in between 12 and 14 Highland Games, including the Bute Games on August 20, along with the five major annual championships - the Scottish in Dumbarton, the British in Annan, the European in Belfast, the Worlds in Glasgow and the Cowal Highland Gathering in Dunoon at the end of August.
In addition, if the weather this summer is kind, the band hopes to put on a few more Rothesay performances than they’ve been able to in the past, and perhaps also to organise a concert once the competition season is over.
It’s quite a workload for the band’s younger members - and for the family members who support them. So where does the attraction lie in being a member of a pipe band?
“I think the Highland Games have a lot to do with it,” Jane says. “They see their pals playing in the Highland Games, wearing the uniform and being in the spotlight and they think ‘I want to be a part of that’, and before you know it they’ve got the bug. And once they’ve been to a competition, they’re well and truly hooked.
“There’s a great social side to it too. Kids from all the schools are involved together, and there aren’t many other activities on the island that can say they have pupils from all four schools taking part.
“It probably helps us not being part of the school, too. Since we’re not a school band, our younger members can carry on with us even after they leave to go on to work or further education - and a lot of them do.
“We have quite a few folk who go away to college or university but come back every year to play with the band throughout the summer.”
“Discipline is the important thing being in a band gives them,” Neil adds. “If they can learn to turn up tidy, to take care of their uniform and to look after their instrument, they begin to take pride in what they’re doing.
“When we’re practising in the school some of the teachers will stop at the classroom door and have a listen – and some of them will say ‘that’s just not the same person we see in the classroom’. But they seem to have found their niche in the band.”
Having lots of new young members, then, is obviously a good thing for the long-term health of the band. But for those who organise things behind the scenes, having more extra bodies brings with it some quite substantial additional costs.
“The cost of uniforms and travel are huge,” Jane says. “We’ve just got a new set of novice drums, thanks to a grant from Awards for All, which would have cost us £10,000 to buy, and we just couldn’t afford to spend that on top of the expense of buying uniforms and arranging travel.
“Unlike a lot of bands we have no corporate sponsorship. We do have a few anonymous private donors who are very generous in their support, but the costs are still enormous.
“It costs £700 to kit out one child, and last year our travel expenses alone were £21,000 – it cost us £1,000 per Highland Games just to hire buses, and then you’ve got entry fees, parking tickets and so on on top of that.
“We always have a very difficult balance between asking parents to come along and help, and making it so expensive that families can’t afford to go.”
Still, no-one involved in the band would prefer to see smaller bills if it meant fewer members and no young talent coming through the ranks.
And though running two bands is not an easy task, it’s clear from adults and youngsters alike that they can’t wait for the new season to begin.
“We’ve got a great bunch of kids now,” Neil says. “They all seem to get on well, and the number of players we’ve got is great when compared to the population of the island.
“To have between 80 and 90 folk going away to play or support the band every Saturday is fantastic - even if it’s a nightmare trying to organise the buses!”