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The Piper In Peace And War
Part 1 - Chapter 1


Everybody knows the piper; his dark green doublet, glossy black shoulder belt, and debonair bearing are familiar to all. Supplied with a uniform of finer material and better fit than that of the private soldier [Except on ceremonial occasions pipers of all regiments, save the Scots Guards, now wear khaki tunics—war alteration.] the piper is expected to set an example to the regiment. As a soldier he provides a standard of excellence in all the duties pertaining to the profession of arms. In the 2nd Battn. Cameron Highlanders just before the war every piper in the battalion was a marksman, and three of them were “best shot” in their respective companies. For it must be borne in mind that, though the pipers form a band, they are all members of some company in the battalion. They are relieved of certain duties which fall to the lot of the ordinary “duty” soldier, but in all regiments, with the exception of the Scots Guards, they have to perform certain fatigues. The Guards are provided with the most expensive instruments and dress, have no duties but to provide music, and enjoy the highest consideration of the officers of the regiment. With these advantages it is little wonder if they consider themselves the “ best-off” soldiers in the Service.

Scottish regiments have had pipers as a rule from their formation, but for many
years they were not recognised by the War Office.


The solitary piper remaining of the 36 pipers of Mackay’s Highlanders, who blew, long and loudly, a note of welcome to Hepburn on the great war-pipe of the north, had to hide his noble instrument on all future inspection days as piper in The Royal Scots. The pipers were not dressed in the kilt but in the garb of the regiment. This is proved by a glance at the painting of some privates and pipers at Tangiers in 1684.

The officers of this, the oldest regiment in the world, were (and are) proud of their pipers, at one time (17th century) ranking the pipe-major as an officer; but they were compelled in 1769 by an edict of G.H.Q. to cancel the appointment of their pipe-major and drum-major. Protest on the part of two successive colonels of “The Royals,” the Marquess of Lorne and Lord Adam Gordon, was quite in vain. To circumvent Headquarters, pipers were enlisted as pipers, but their names often appeared in the Rolls as “drummers.” Thus pipers obtained the extra Id. per day paid to these soldiers. In the Scottish Horse and the Lovat Scouts prior to 1914 pipers were “trumpeters.” In the early Muster Rolls are officers, sergeants, and drummers. Thus disguised, a M‘Crimmon appears in the original lists of the Black Watch and in those of the 92nd, Cameron, Fassifern’s favourite piper.

What would the old Highland Chiefs, who placed the piper fourth on the Roll of their hierarchy, have said on learning the clandestine nature of the gifted piper’s army position?

The piper, who, in all clan battles, in all national conflicts, had led the van, found, at least on one occasion, his premier place denied by a drummer who insisted on leading. The piper then asked an officer: “Will a fellow that beats a sheepskin with two sticks gang in front o’ me who am a museecian?”

The officer had to decide in favour of the drummer on the ground that he was officially recognised while the piper was not.

The earliest regimental pipe-major, whose name has come down to the present day, is Alexander Wallace, Pipe-Major of The Royal Scots in 1679. Adriel Duran who succeeded Wallace in “The Royals” has more resemblance to a Frenchman than a Scot, but both Wallace and he were “Officers.”

Owing to the proscription of the highland dress and of most of the highland customs after Culloden, pipe playing declined, and pipers were so difficult to obtain that we find officers who raised regiments in the eighteenth century advertising for pipers. When Captain Duncan Campbell was getting in soldiers for
the Duke of Argyll’s Highlanders in 1794, he was concerned about the quota of pipers. “If you can meet with one or two good pipers,” he wrote to a friend, “handsome fellows and steady, you might go as far as thirty guineas for each.” 'Phis bounty, offered by a captain of the 3rd Foot (Scots) Guards at a time when men were flocking to the Colours for a “ whack ” at the French, suggests the scarcity of pipers.

The brilliant work of the pipers of the Fraser Highlanders at Quebec; of the 71st at Porto Novo and at Vimiera; of the 42nd, 79th, and 92nd at Waterloo—not to mention the numerous episodes in the Peninsula—had no meaning for Headquarters staff at Whitehall, whose sole query on seeing pipers with a regiment was: “Show me your authority for having pipers.” The zeal of some of these officers in “demobilising” the pipers was amazing. In 1850 the 91st Argylls, who maintained an excellent pipe band, on being inspected prior to leaving for South Africa, were ordered by Major-General Browne, the inspecting officer, to leave their instruments behind—there being no authority for the regiment having pipers. That order was obeyed, but the officers, on landing at the Cape, sent home for a fresh outfit. In 1852 it was the turn of the 92nd (Gordons) to come under the inspector’s eye. It was a most fortunate matter for Highland regiments as events proved. For the inspecting officer, Major-General J. E. C. Napier, on reporting the irregularity of the 92nd having pipers, received the following sharp reproof from the commander - in - chief, the Duke of Wellington: — “I am surprised that an officer who has seen, as you must have seen, the gallant deeds performed by the Highland regiments, in which their pipers played so important a part, should make such a report.”

Probably it was due to this that a Horse Guards Order, dated 11th February 1854, was issued, intimating that: “The 42nd, 71st, 72nd, 74th, 78th, 79th, 92nd, and 93rd Highlanders have been allowed one pipe-major and five pipers each which are to be posted to the Service companies, when regiments are ordered to proceed abroad.”

It will be noticed from the above that the 73rd (Perthshire) (now the 2nd Battn. Royal Highlanders), the 75th (Stirlingshire) (now the 1st Battn. the Gordon Highlanders), and the 91st (now the 1st Battn. Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders) are not included; these units were then Scottish only in name. Lowland units were ignored. The 90th, which was a light infantry regiment, probably deemed pipe music unsuitable to the short, smart step of light infantry, as it made no use of pipe music until 1882, when it was joined to the 26th (Cameronians) as the 2nd Battn. Scottish Rifles. In 1858 the 25th (King’s Own Borderers) are taken to task, but on the colonel assuring Horse Guards that authority for pipers in the regiment was “lost in time,” they were permitted to “carry on,” but “on the footing that the pipers are classed as bandsmen—not drummers—and their expense borne by the regiment.” It is odd to find the 26th being asked in 1863 for their authority to have pipers and being allowed three. (What would have been said if the officers who were questioned had shown the picture purporting to have been painted in 1713 of their regimental piper?)

The Scots Guards were also ordered in 1855 or 1856 to “drop” their pipers, but on their colonel — the Duke of Cambridge — protesting, they were permitted to remain as part of the establishment.

The Army Act of 1881 made no difference to Scots Lowland regiments in regardto their pipers. Highland regiments could always rely, since 1854, on having a complement of five pipers and a pipe-major maintained out of the public purse, but the officers of Lowland corps (except the Scots Guards) had to provide for these from their own pockets.

On 24th April 1882 the colonel of The Royal Scots tried to persuade the War Office to place all Scottish troops on the same footing regarding pipers as the Highland kilted corps, but failed, as the following letter shows:—

Horse Guards, War Office* S.W.,
23rd May 1882.

Sir,—I have the honour, by desire of the Field-Marshal Commanding-in-Chief, to acknowledge the receipt of your letter of the 24th ulto., submitting an application from the Officer Commanding the 1st Battalion, Lothian Regiment, for a Sergeant-Piper and Pipers to be borne on the establishment of that battalion, and to acquaint you that the Secretary of State for War declines to sanction an increase to the establishment to the corps, but that H.R.II. will approve of a number of men not exceeding five being employed as pipers on the distinct understanding that no extra expense either for pay or clothing is thereby incurred to the public.—I have the honour to be, etc.,

R. H. Hawley, D.A.G.

The General Officer
Commanding at Malta.

This Order, which continued the old inequality of treatment by refusing funds for pipers in Lowland regiments and permitting them for Highland was rescinded in 1918, and in consequence Scots and Irish regiments (except the Royal Ulster Rifles) have pipers on their establishment. Officers may have as many pipers as they please, but Highland regiments must pay for all above the number of six. The extra men are called “acting” pipers, and on field days and in time of war they return to the ranks as “duty” men.

It is not quite clear when exactly the pipers of Lowland regiments first adopted Highland dress. If the painting reproduced in Carter’s History is genuine, the Cameronians had their pipers in Highland garb as far back as 1713? [From certain prints of the period it is clear that from 1840 the 21st (R.S.F.), the 25th (Borderers) and 26th (Cameronians) had their pipers in kilts; those of the 21st and 25th having the Royal Stewart and the 26th the Douglas pattern.] The pipers of the Scots Guards alone wear blue coats with silver buttons arranged in two rows tapering in from the shoulders to the waist like those on the general’s dress coat.

In the Highland regiments, which (with the notable exception of the Black Watch) were of later formation, the kilt was always worn by the pipers, unless ordered otherwise by the “Horse Guards.” The green doublet only came into general use in 1856. Before that year the Cameron Highlanders alone had, since 1840, their pipers clothed with green doublets. According to Colonel Greenhill-Gardyne this colour was adopted by the Camerons because their uniforms had green facings, and the other Highland regiments copied the doublets of the Cameron pipers. There, however, the Camcrons were merely following the fashion of an older (disbanded) regiment— the Atholl Highlanders, raised by the fourth Duke of Atholl in 1777, the uniform of which corps was, for the rank and file, red jackets and “Universal” tartan kilt, and for the pipers and drummers green jackets with red stripes in the tartan kilt. When the officers of the Sutherland Highlanders heard of the new style of doublet during the Crimean War. they remonstrated with their pipe-major on his want of “swagger,” and assured him he would have to put on a good deal more with the new doublet. A print of the year 1850 shows the piper of the 74th, now the 2nd Battn. Highland Light Infantry, wearing a dark green tartan doublet of the same pattern as his kilt.

Whatever pattern of dicing may embellish the bonnet of the regiment, the piper's bonnet is always plain; and only the pipers of the Black Watch now wear the high ostrich-feathered bonnet of the Highland regiments. This was not always the case, for until 1850 the piper’s headdress was identical with that of the rank and file. Spats were first worn by Highland soldiers in 1850, each regiment having its own peculiar fashion. The shoulder belt, on the other hand, goes back to the days when the trusty claymore was supported by this part of the soldier’s equipment. In 1855 all ranks, except the officers and pipers of Highland regiments, were ordered to wear waist belt alone, and to leave off the shoulder belt. The belts of the officers are white, those of the pipers black.

The piper of the present day in his kilt, green doublet, glengarry—with two blackcock feathers (worn when in review order), his tartan plaid, bis patent- leather shoulder belt ornamented with silver, his jewelled dirk and sgian-dubh, is a very picturesque figure.

Admission to a regimental pipe band is not granted to every candidate. Many regimental pipers come from the Highlands, [In olden days Sutherland and Skye were the best recruiting grounds for army pipers.] and many from Falkirk and its neighbourhood, where there would seem to be special opportunities for learning to play the instrument. Certain schools, too, teach the bagpipe, and contribute a quota of pipers to the army. It often happens that a soldier enlists without any knowledge of the pipes, but having a taste for the instrument, applies for admission as a learner. If he shows aptitude, he is given the opportunity of daily practice, escaping all parades and guard duties. When he appears to the pipemajor to be sufficiently skilled to fill a place in the band he is brought before the colonel, or some officer entrusted by him with the duty of examining candidates, for the pipe-major is not usually vested with authority to admit aspirants to membership of the pipe band. The colonel, or his delegate, orders the piper to strike up certain tunes, and he is accepted or rejected, as a rule, according to the merit of his musical performance; but not always. Some commanding officers have strong views on nationality. They consider Scottish birth as essential in a piper. A young London Scot, whose parents were both Scots, and who was himself an excellent piper, was denied a place in the pipe band of a battalion of the Camerons because his speech was pure Cockney. The South African Scottish had an Englishman in the ranks who was barred from the pipe band for purely racial reasons. Not all colonels, however, take this narrow view. One in command of a battalion of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders asked a young soldier piper to what part of Scotland he belonged. He received the answer, “ Liverpool, sir,” which delighted him so much that he at once admitted the friendly “alien.”

A great change has taken place in recent years in the attitude of the Scot towards English pipers, and there are at the present time some excellent pipers from south of the Tweed in the army. All that the men in the ranks care about is whether the piper can play. They often have no preference for music specially intended for the pipes, and a piper who can adapt a music hall melody to his instrument is frequently approved of by the soldiers. The Gordon Highlanders once had such a piper. His name was, let us say, Smith, and he had enlisted as a private in that distinguished Highland regiment, although he was of English birth and upbringing. He had fallen in love with the pipes, and, having learned in barracks to play, lie became a member of the pipe band. Very soon his faculty for rendering popular tunes and pantomime songs on the pipes made him a favourite with the men of the regiment, so that small parties on the march with only one piper always wanted Smith for that piper. Now the other pipers regarded such a use of the bagpipe as desecration, and the lot of Smith as a member of the pipe band became a hard one. The judgment of the men, however, was endorsed at many Highland gatherings and piping competitions where Smith invariably carried off the principal prizes for marches, strathspeys, and pibrochs. But this did not tend to ameliorate his situation in relation to the other pipers. From the pipemajor down they showed a most unsportsmanlike spirit towards their English comrade. So intolerable did their persecution become, that in the end Smith deserted from the regiment in Ireland.

Many years afterwards the Gordons moved into a hill station in India where they had for neighbours a battalion of the Cameron Highlanders. The customary hospitality was extended to the newcomers. The sergeants of the Camerons entertained the sergeants of the Gordons, and there, one of the senior sergeants of the Gordons recognised in Pipe-Major MacGregor of the Camerons the long-lost Piper Smith. Explanations followed, and the sergeant promised to say nothing about his discovery, at the same time assuring the pipe-major that there was little chance of his being recognised, as there were very few men left in the regiment who had known him.

On the very next evening, however, the officers of the Camerons had the officers of the Gordons to dinner. There the sole remaining officer of Piper Smith’s period, Major “Black,” recognised the pipe-major as he marched round the table playing and when he drank the customary glass. Next morning the major called on the sergeant to discuss the situation, and concluded the conversation with “No, we'll say nothing to anyone." “Did you speak to Smith, sir?” asked the sergeant. “Oh, no; he seemed to be doing very well, and I was very glad to see it; but it is better not to know that he is a deserter.

Before a piper can become a pipe-major— “sergeant-piper” is the official rank — he must satisfy the authorities of his ability as a composer, and a player of pibrochs, marches, and strathspeys. According to the reports of competent judges, good pibroch players are very rare. The “ pibroch ” may be called the classical form of bagpipe music, and the piper who studies the pibroch often despises the march and strathspey as inferior branches of the piper's art, although he admits that, to the unsophisticated crowd and private soldier, they are perhaps more pleasing. Pipe-Major W. Koss, 2nd Scots Guards, one of the most distinguished pipers of recent times, is the official authority on army pipe music. Pipe-Major Ross is in charge of the Army Piping School, to which pipers who wish to become pipe-majors usually go for instruction and examination.

The Army pipe-major has a grievance: his status is far from satisfactory, inasmuch as he must always remain a sergeant in the battalion, while the bandmaster ranks as a warrant officer, and the drum-major takes charge of the brass band and the pipe band on parade. There arc no grades of pipe-majors. He can never become a warrant officer like the bandmaster; yet the brass band is dropped in time of war, while the pipers go where the battalion goes and are a part of the organisation for victory.

this “subjection’ of the pipe-major has prevented many an excellent piper from accepting appointment as “sergeant-piper” and is thus a handicap in many instances on a battalion pipe band.

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