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Early Contesting

 The first recorded Brass Band Contest in Scotland took place at Wemyss Castle Estate near Kirkcaldy, Fife in July 1885. A first prize of £40 and a travel grant of £10 was enough to lure the champion band of England, Besses O’ Th’ Barn from Lancashire to compete. Besses Band emerged as the winners of the main Contest and the £40 prize, also winning the subsidiary event, a March Contest for which they received another £2. Alloa Burgh Band were placed a lowly second and Kirkcaldy Trades Band third.

 Formation of the Scottish Amateur Brass Band Association

 July 1895 saw the formation of The Scottish Amateur Brass Band Association. The Committee was headed by Mr. Peter Black, Town Chamberlain of Alloa Burgh and Chairman of Alloa Burgh Band as President, Mr. Robert Baillie, Carron Iron Works as Treasurer and Mr. James Bryce of Cambusbarron as Secretary. They were assisted by five delegates from East based Bands and five from the West to oversee the affairs of the Association. With no similar national association currently existing in either England or Wales and with national associations in other European countries being formed much later, it is understood that the Scottish Association is the oldest established national brass band association in Europe.

Rules for Contesting

At the inaugural meeting of theAssociation Rules forContesting were set out as follows:-

The maximum number of players allowed at a Contest would be 24. The minimum number would be 12. No Percussion was allowed.

Players' nameshad to be submitted 28 days prior to acontest and listed under the Band'sname on the official programme.

No Band would be allowed torehearse the test piece after thestarting time of the contest.

The maximum retaining fee any Band could pay its resident Bandmaster was 31 Guineas annually. Professional Conductor’s fees were at the behest of individual Bands.

The well being of Adjudicators at the Championships would be the responsibility of the SABBA Executive.

Regional Associationsrunning a Contest would beresponsible for their chosenAdjudicator and his safedeparture from theContest venue.

No Band could add the status "Burgh" to its name unless approved by its own Burgh Council. The legal disposition of this had to be submitted in writing and ratified by SABBA. 

No Band could add the status prize to its name until it had won a first prize at a Championship Contest or a first at any affiliated Contest approved by SABBA .  

At the end of a Contest theAdjudicator’s decision must bedisplayed on a blackboard andclearly defined in white chalk.

Member Bands would pay an annual fee of One Half Guinea and affiliated Associations One Full Guinea to retain membership.

Objections to Contest results must be lodged with the Association Secretary within seven days with a cash security of One Guinea.

The Scottish Championships Commence

The first Scottish Championships were held in 1895 with 22 bands taking part, divided between two sections. The first Scottish Champions were Bo’ness & Carriden playing the test piece “Eureka” The winning conductor was John Gladney who also directed Kelty & Blairadam to success in the Second Section.
Over 8,000 followers of the bands attended the event which was held in Edinburgh’s Waverley Market. Facilities in the market were primitive. There was no seating. Bands performed standing in the ring used by the cattle auctioneers with spectators on stepped terraces. The major advantage of the venue was its proximity to Edinburgh’s main line railway station. Most bands and their supporters made their way to the Championships by train, the railway specials to the Championships being the first organised railway excursions to any event in Scotland.

Difficulties arose for the Association a few years later when Bo’ness & Carriden Band were disqualified from a contest and this resulted in a prolonged court case between SABBA and the band. This in turn gave rise to a number of bands withdrawing from the Association and it was several years before the rift was fully healed. On a more positive note, 1904 saw the first in a series of several “International” contests between top bands in Scotland and the north of England.

As the number of bands competing in the Scottish Championships rose, a third section was introduced in 1905 followed by the addition of a fourth section in 1925. A total of 60 bands took part in the 1925 Championships with the lower sections in venues throughout Scotland but with the Waverley Market still in use for the top section. In the period to 1925 the dominant band in the Championships was Clydebank Burgh who secured the title on 13 occasions out of 26 attempts. In the period of twenty years before the First World War, Clydebank was only twice placed outside the top three.

The 1920’s also saw the emergence of the SCWS Band (later CWS Glasgow and now Scottish Co-op) as a major contesting force. Following victories in the Scottish Championships of 1924, 1926 and 1927 the Directors of SCWS adopted a policy of strengthening the band by offering jobs to players who were prepared to move to Glasgow. At a time of high unemployment, this quickly resulted in the entire band becoming employees of the SCWS and the band dominating the Championships for the next twenty years, securing eleven victories between 1924 and 1948.

A New Age

Following the end of the Second World War the SABBA Executive reformed and set about arranging the Championship contests. Their first decision was to abandon the noisy bustling throng of the Waverly Market as a contest venue, contracting to use the more plush setting of the Usher Hall, Edinburgh.

Since the foundation of the Band Movement there had been no proper registration of players with their respective bands. Through this lax situation it was not unknown for top section players to sell their talent to lower grade bands for a fee. Jerome Chester, Director of Marketing with the Daily Herald set about sealing this often abused practice, by introducing a  player’s individual registration card. These registration cards introduced in 1945, were the forerunner of what is in use today.

Until this point in time the maximum number of players permitted in the Contesting Bands was 24. Eric Ball, the eminent Composer and Conductor, using his influence tried to have the number increased to 26. He wanted another Front Row Cornet and another Tenor Horn, even at the expense of excluding a Baritone. After extensive discussions with the top administrators in the Movement and the Music Publishing Houses he failed to convince them to change. A compromise was achieved with agreement to allow the extra Cornet and therefore from 1946 the maximum contest playing number would be 25 from a pool of 33. Percussion had not yet come into the equation of brass band contesting.

In 1945 the Daily Herald newspaper introduced qualifying events for the National Championships of Great Britain. For a number of years these were staged separately from the Scottish Championships causing confusion and difficulty for the bands and a degree of acrimony between SABBA and the Daily Herald. The problem was eventually resolved in 1958 when the dates of the Scottish Championships were altered and it was agreed that the Scottish Championships would then also serve as the qualifying event for the British Championship finals.

This dual status of the event is often overlooked or misunderstood by those outside of Scotland but for Scottish bands the status of their own national championship title remains undiminished. Scottish bands, their players and supporters will never be heard referring to the “Scottish Regional” or the “Scottish Area”. For everyone in Scottish banding the event is always simply the Scottish Championships.

A Time of Change

The 1960’s and 1970’s witnessed a number of changes. The Championship Section contest finally moved away from Edinburgh with a number of venues throughout Scotland being used until, by the mid 1970’s Falkirk and Motherwell had become established as the venues for all sections of the contest. In 1969 Boosey & Hawkes advised the previous high pitched instruments would be discontinued and, with effect from 1 January 1970, only low pitch instruments would be available. This change caused great concern throughout the band movement with bands requiring to purchase complete new sets of instruments.

A further change was the introduction of percussion which was gradually permitted in band contests, the change being phased in over the period 1971 – 1973. The 1960’s and 70’s also witnessed the arrival of a new force in Scottish banding with the emergence of Whitburn who secured the title on 13 occasions between 1968 and 1993. In the 37 Championship contests since 1968, Whitburn have failed to secure a top three place on only four occasisons. 

More Recent Times

In 1984 the European Championships came to Scotland for the first time with Edinburgh being selected as the host city and the Usher Hall as the main venue. In 1990 a Scottish band finally secured the title of Champion Band of Great Britain with the victory of CWS (Glasgow) Band in the Royal Albert Hall. The band would go on to repeat this feat in 1996 whilst enjoying a further purple patch in the Scottish Championships with ten Scottish titles secured in the period from 1988 to date.

The European Championships returned to Scotland in 1990 with Falkirk this time the venue. 1992 saw the re-organisation of the contesting bands into five sections and in 1994 SABBA celebrated its centenary. The Scottish Association also instituted a European Youth Championships which was staged on a number of occasions, most recently in 1999.  

The Scottish Brass Band Association Today

The Scottish Brass Band Association is the national body for brass bands in Scotland. The Association regulates all contesting activities in Scotland, including the maintenance of a registry system for all Scottish bands. It organises all the main events in the annual Scottish brass band calendar. It also plays an active role in supporting its member bands mainly through the provision of information, in supporting youth development, in preserving the history of the band movement in Scotland and in promoting brass bands and their music to the general public.

The Association has no paid staff and is controlled by an Executive Committee comprising 20 members who are elected annually by representatives of the member bands at the Annual General Meeting. All of the members of the Executive undertake their duties on a voluntary basis.

The word Amateur has been dropped from the title, becoming the Scottish Brass Band Association. The Association has become a registered charity in Scotland and has taken on the task of reorganising a number of the established events like the annual Solo & Quartet Contests which is now the Solo and Ensemble event. Rules for contesting have been updated and expanded and various changes and improvements have been made in the running of the annual Scottish Championships.

2003 saw the establishment of a new event, The Scottish Open Championship, presented in the prestigious Glasgow Royal Concert Hall and with bands from England and Wales taking part. The same day the Scottish Youth Band Championships were re-introduced and proved to be a great success.

The Scottish Brass Band Week was also established in 2003, seeking to raise the profile of brass bands throughout the country and the Scottish Association’s Year Book, containing a wealth of information for our member bands, was introduced. Marketing of recordings produced by Scottish bands has been taken on board with proceeds being passed on to our member bands. The Association has also introduced a number of comprehensive advertising packages for our friends in the music trade.

In 2004 Scotland hosted the European Championships for a third time. The week long festival in Glasgow was widely praised for its high artistic and organisational standards and has come to be recognised by many as perhaps the most successful brass band event to have taken place in the UK in modern times.

The Scottish Association and the wider Scottish banding community have now reached the significant milestone of the 100th staging of the Scottish Brass Band Championships. An opportunity to look back at the long and proud history of brass bands in Scotland but also a time to look ahead with confidence for a bright future.


Based on research by Hugh Johnstone MBE

and adapted from his original text.

Additional research by Gordon Simpson

and Alan McLaren.