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The Pipes of War
Military Pipe Bands and Reform


In preparing this record of the pipe bands of our Armies during the war the opportunity has been taken of consulting pipe presidents and pipe majors as to the present condition of military piping and the manner in which obvious defects might be remedied. Like other experts they exhibit divergences of opinion, sometimes as regards the nature of the defects, sometimes as to the best method of remedying them. In certain matters, however, there is absolute unanimity, and these are deserving of attention by the military authorities.

"Sergeant piper."—Throughout the Army there is, and has always been, a strong objection to the title of "sergeant piper," which in official parlance is employed instead of " pipe major." No one ever calls a pipe major a sergeant piper, except in returns; and withdrawal of this modern and indefensible title could result in nothing but good. As there is no financial aspect involved in the change, it would be a graceful and inexpensive concession to a body of men to whom the Army and the nation owe much.

Rank of the Pipe Major.—On another point there is absolute unanimity of opinion, viz., the rank of the pipe major. As responsible for a band possibly numbering twenty or more pipers, the pipe major ought to have the same rank as a bandmaster. To limit the career of a piper to the possibility of becoming a pipe major with the rank of sergeant is to prevent good men accepting the position; and many a man, seeing he can hope for no advancement, leaves the pipes and returns to the ranks, thus getting a chance of rising to warrant rank.

This question of rank has a most important bearing on the interests of piping generally, and is therefore a national one. As instructor to his men the pipe major should be a first-class performer himself, and this—although the public appear to be unaware of the fact—involves long and assiduous training. It is useless asking a man to attain the necessary standard of excellence for this purpose and to offer him the pay of a sergeant in return. The consequence is pipe majors are not always the best pipers—from the professional point of view—in their units; and this ought to be remedied, even though it does cost the nation the difference between the emoluments of a warrant officer and of a sergeant in each unit.

"The Appointinent of Piper."—Another necessary reform, which also has the merit of costing nothing, is the official recognition of piper as an appointment. In the Army " drummer " is an appointment, but a piper is a private.

One result of this is that, on mobilisation, all pipers revert to the ranks, excepting six (including the sergeant piper) per battalion. Apart altogether from the special liability to casualties among the " full pipers " when playing in action, it is evident that so small a band may, under the ordinary conditions of modern warfare, be put out of action ; and then great difficulty is experienced in raising another band. In many battalions during the war this happened, sometimes more than once; and it is these battalions which are most insistent on the strength being twelve instead of six pipers.

Lowland regiments—A grievance which cries for remedy at the hands of the War Office is the treatment of pipers in Lowland regiments. The official view appears to be that the existence of the pipes in regiments such as the Royal Scots, the K.O.S.B. 's and others is an unreasonable concession to a sentiment which is vulgarly called " Scotch," but which, though believed to be nebulous, happens to be too strong for the military reformers to ignore altogether. This view indicates ignorance of the history of the pipes and of the Lowland regiments; the one may be pardoned, the other is inexcusable.

It is absolutely certain that Lowland regiments had pipers before the existing Highland regiments were raised at all ; and the pipes were a national instrument all over the Lowlands for centuries before there was any Regular Army at all.

This being so it is quite illogical that the maintenance of their pipe bands should be a greater financial burden on officers of a Lowland than of a Highland regiment. The value of the institution, from a military point of view, is the same in both; and pipe bands should be treated as part of the recognised establishment in one as in the other.

Standardisation of military pipe music—There is one grave defect in military piping which is capable of being remedied quite easily. Anyone who knows anything of piping knows that each individual piper learns his tunes after the setting of some well-known authority, and is for ever after prepared to maintain that that version alone is the correct one. Unfortunately every battalion has its own setting for every tune played in the band and declines to admit the possibility of any other setting being used in any circumstances. Even in the case of distinctively regimental tunes, e.g. "Cabar Feidh," the two Regular battalions of the Seaforth Highlanders play—or used to play, just before the war—different settings of that tune, and a man transferred from one battalion to another had to learn the slight differences which his new unit preferred. The same remarkable individuality exists in every battalion and makes it very difficult indeed to get a number of pipe bands to play even the best-known tunes together without considerable practice.

This is quite wrong. By all means let time individual piper learn and adhere to the setting of piobaireachd by his favourite authority; but to have as many settings of an ordinary march as there are battalions in the Army is not to the advantage of piping.

The remedy is simple enough,—the standardisation of pipe tunes for military purposes, in precisely the same manner as obtains with the National Anthems and trumpet and bugle calls ; and, just as no departure to meet regimental custom or prejudice is permitted in the case of these latter, so the setting laid down for the Army in the case of pipe tunes should be strictly defined and adhered to.

The superiority of one setting over another does not enter into the question; what is essential is uniformity.

Many pipe majors have pointed to this standardisation as one of the most important measures to be adopted after the war, in the interests of piping in the Army.

Neglect of Piobaireachd.—It is open to argument whether the military piper does or does not exert a determining influence on the cause of piping generally. Allowing fully for the great value of the recognised societies and the periodical piping meetings throughout Scotland, in keeping up the standard of the national instrument and offering inducements for its study, it will be readily admitted that, by their mere existence as permanent institutions, military pipe bands keep up the cult of the pipes, at home and abroad, to so marked a degree that any decline in their standard must have a deleterious effect on piping generally.

To what extent, then, if at all, is military piping conducted to the best advantage of the cause of piping, and is there room for reform?

It may be taken as generally the case that, in so far as a military pipe band is regarded as designed for duty on the march, and for various routine military musical duties, it fulfils its functions to the satisfaction of all concerned. It is too much to expect the War Office—or even individual commanding officers—to accept the view that neglect of "ceol mor" is not compensated for by a high standard of excellence in the middle music" and in dances and marches. Individual pipers in every battalion are players of "piobaireachd"; but any one with experience of regimental or garrison piping competitions knows how small is the number of men who enter for that class of event, as compared with performers of the march, strathspey and reel.

The explanation is simple enough—the men play what their audience demands, and "Leaving Glen Urquhart " or "Duntroon" appeals to more people, military or civil, than the finest piobaireachd. Pipe majors, even when themselves anxious to teach their pipers the higher class of music, recognise that to attempt to do so would often be wasted labour—men come to them too old to make piobaireachd players, and, in any case, the opportunities for playing it in the Army are too few to make it worth while trying to get men to go through the initial drudgery. Being human they naturally turn to march and dance music and the result is that, except in the case of professional pipers who have enlisted, the soldier piper generally ignores altogether the classical side of his music.

This is a defect in military piping, and it should be remedied by insisting that, before promotion to pipe major, a piper should pass an examination in every branch of pipe music.

A school of piping—The time has come to establish a school of piping for the army at which likely pipers could undergo refresher courses of instruction in all classes of pipe music, in the correct writing of music—a subject which is lamentably ignored, in the theory of music, and in methods of instruction of recruit pipers. In other words it should fulfil the same functions as regards the training of future pipe majors, and the improvement of the standard of playing in the army, that Kneller Hall does in the case of bandmasters and military musical education generally.

No piper should be promoted pipe major until he has undergone a complete course lasting at least six months, and has passed an examination at the end of it.

Such a school should be open to civilian pipers and should become the Macrimmon school of to-day.

The Piobaireachd Society have already decided to institute a memorial to fallen pipers which shall take this form, and to the necessary endowment the proceeds of this book will be devoted. But the army must contribute towards its maintenance.


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