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The Piper In Peace And War
Part II - King’s Own Scottish Borderers


The “Edinburgh” regiment, which was raised in 1689 — in the record time of four hours — for the defence of the city of Edinburgh against the attacks of the active supporters of the deposed king, James VII. and II., had some pipers to thank for the feat. They were probably not unmindful, for, two years later, when stationed in Holland, they sent home another recruiting party which engaged the services of the town piper of Musselburgh. That was an unfortunate step which led to a lawsuit brought by the piper on finding that he was held as an enlisted soldier, no longer free to return to his comfortable duties in the burgh. The piper won his action and the fresh draft had to sail without him.

The early records of the regiment being imperfect, the adventures of the pipers in the campaigns in Ireland, Spain, and Flanders are long forgotten. How they survived the vicissitudes of the regiment seems extraordinary; in 1736 the whole unit—with the exception of the officers and non-commissioned officers was disbanded, or rather transferred to Oglethorpe’s regiment, and a fresh start made by recruitment in Ireland. Yet the pipers must also have been excepted from that transfer. They were conspicuous at Culloden, where they played the 25th or “Edinburgh” off the field, just as they or their predecessors had played their companies oft' Sherifftnuir in 1715 — perhaps to the very tune to which Lord Balmerino had listened when, as an officer of the regiment at Sheriff'muir, he had decided to quit the Hanoverian for the Jacobite cause. But the captured Balmerino of Culloden can have had no further interest in the pipers of his old regiment as he was marched oft to his doom. Unfortunate, gallant Balmerino!

No feature in the strange history of the regiment is so extraordinary as the constancy with which the officers of all periods of the regiment clung to their pipers. Though Sterne does not mention them in Tristram Shandy, nor the chronicler of the various battles of Fontenoy, Roucoux, Vai, Minden, Warburg, Campen, Fellinghausen and Wilhelmstal, they were at each and all of these. The pipers were even permitted to continue when, in 1782, the regiment which had been so long known as the “Edinburgh,” or 25th, were compelled to assume the name and style of “The Sussex Regiment.” That unpopular title, which annoyed everyone in the regiment from the colonel to the drummer boy, had to be endured until 1805, when the king honoured them by entitling the regiment the “King’s Own Borderers.” And yet, during the period of their English name, the pipers had composed some marches, one of which they named, in honour of their O.C., “Lord George Lennox’s March” — tunes which were discovered by Mr A. Wood Inglis.

The promotion of the regiment to the “royal” name meant, besides the alteration to royal blue in the yellow facings of uniforms and Colours, a new dress for the pipers. Thenceforth they wore, in virtue of their title, the tartan of the Royal Stewarts, against whom their predecessors had fought.

It would almost seem as though the “Borderers” had, like Balmerino, changed their views, for their pipers chose for their marching-past tune the Jacobite “Blue Bonnets over the Border,” quite regardless of the fact that their regiment had gone, not to the aid of “Bonnie Dundee” but to his overthrow; and with the same disregard of history, they adopted as their charging tune “The Standard on the Braes o’ Mar,” which the old members of the regiment had tried to capture.

That the pipers have all along been well cared for by the officers is attested by several facts. Highlanders with a reputation as pipers wrere wont to choose the 25th as the best unit for their genius. Even Highland youths sought places in its band, and Alex. Sutherland, a boy piper of the regiment in 1811, was so skilful a player as to win a prize in the Highland Society’s competition, and some years later had the honour of being appointed Pipe-Major of the 79th Cameron Highlanders. Promotion to that rank in the 25th was slow, for their pipe-majors had a habit of remaining long in the regiment. There was Pipe-Major John Mackay, whose name is treasured by the Clan Mackay as a piper of renown, though his record in the 25th is shadowy—unlike that of his son, also Pipe-Major John Mackay, who was long in office in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, and afterwards in the Liverpool Scottish.

Then there was Pipe-.Major Donald Mackenzie, son of the celebrated John Ban Mackenzie, the last “king of pipers,” whose preference for the 25th in the fifties of the nineteenth century was a source of sorrow to his fond parent, who had wished him to join the 92nd; and it was looked upon by the officers of that Highland regiment as an insult to them to have a Lowland regiment in possession of one of the best players in the country. What they could not manage by appeal to the officers of the 25th, they tried to accomplish by other avenues—strategy which the 25th strongly resented. The 92nd found that they would have to desist, if civil war were not to ensue; and so the Lowlanders were left in peace to enjoy the pibrochs, marches, and reels, which their pipe-major artistically played. Not many years after that episode a worse fate seemed in store. It was the time when zealous inspecting officers had their eye on regiments with pipers, as unwarranted intruders. In 1858 the inspecting officer inquired for the authority of the 25th’s pipers. The O.C., unaware of the royal warrant of 1805, adduced the evidence of some active veterans of more than thirty years’ service, who averred that they remembered seeing and hearing pipers in the regiment since they were boys. That was considered satisfactory and the Deputy-Adjutant-General allowed the 25th to have their pipers, whose association with the regiment “appeared to be lost in time,” but on condition that the public were put to no expense and that the pipers were to be placed on the footing of bandsmen and not of drummers.

That meant no change in the arrangements of the regiment; the pipe band continued to be provided with the best of instruments purchased by the officers, but the pipers were not placed in the forefront of battle when the regiment went into action.

That was not surprising, for, notwithstanding the presence of pipers, the 25th was too often regarded as an English unit — their title of “King’s Own Borderers,” which they bore from 1805 to 1887, having been no index to their Scottish character. That was made evident in 1881, when the War Office proposed to alter the title to “The York Regiment King’s Own Borderers” and their depot to be at York — a proposal which was dropped only after much public protest had been made. It was not until 1887 that the present title of “King’s Own Scottish Borderers” was given, the depot established at Berwick, and the territorial area extended to the southern counties of Scotland.

Through all these earlier vagaries the regiment might have lost its Scottish identity had it not been for the pipers who remained unchanged. The regiment they remembered in their pipe tunes: the “Badge of Scotland,” the popular work of Pipe-Major Mackay, [A. and S. Hdrs.; a son of the Pipe-Major of the K.O.S.B.] referring to the regimental badge — the crowned Castle and St Andrew’s Cross; the “25th’s Farewell to Meerut” of Pipe-Major John Balloch, one of the most favoured tunes of recent times. Balloch, who in 1886 transferred from the Cameron Highlanders to the Borderers and took part in the Tirah campaign, was one of the many veterans who rejoined his old regiment on the outbreak of the Great War in 1914, when he was posted pipe-major of the 8th (New Army) Battalion serving in France until the close and so making a total of thirty-two years’ service with the regiment.

The obscurity which attended the pipers of the K.O.S.B. in earlier wars was removed in the various theatres of the Great War in which the regiment was engaged. Mention has been made of Pipe-Major M'Intyre in the Retreat from Mons, where the 2nd Battalion had its share of hardship; the 1st Battalion was later to find itself at the Dardanelles as part of the immortal 29th Division. There the pipers had their rifles, bayonets, and other equipment and were in the ranks, their pipes were with them, strapped to their kit, and only removed and played when their companies were on the march or in rest billets. They were excellent soldiers. Piper John Maitland distinguished himself in action and was awarded the Military Medal; Higginson — a Scot, in spite of his name — was mentioned in despatches for valour in a bayonet charge. His comrades fully expected the D.C.M. for which he had been recommended, but his fall in action made that impossible. Posthumous medals were not then awarded. Of the eleven pipers who had landed with the battalion on “Y” Beach on 25th April 1915, only three endured the entire period of occupation of the peninsula, namely, Pipe-Major William Mackenzie, who was awarded the Military Medal, Piper Thomas Turnbull and Pipe-Sergeant James Purgavie. One grievous disappointment Purgavie experienced. After having captured a Turkish trench, the Borderers rested; Purgavie, having found a comfortable corner in the first line trenches, went to sleep. He slept until a counter attack awoke him; he looked round, saw none of his friends, for they had all fled, and shots fell fast and furious in his direction. No time, he knew, was to be lost if he were to escape. Yet there were his valuable pipes lying in the vacated corner along with his kit. The kit was as nothing compared with his bagpipe, one of the finest — a thirty-six guinea set, gifted by the officers—and he could not afford to lose that. One moment he hesitated and then, startlingly reminded by the rain of shots of the yelling Turks, he dashed for cover, leaving his much-prized pipes to the Turks. When Purgavie was given another set of pipes for use in France he was in the habit of making unfavourable remarks on their quality, though they were really very good and assisted him to produce his “Farewell to Marcoing.

Of the pipers of the New Army battalions of the Borderers who brought much credit to the regiment, it is astonishing to find how many were old members of the regular battalions — pipers who had been drawing their long service pensions for many years prior to the eve of the Great War. Besides Pipe-Major Balloch, there were Robert Mackenzie, a veteran of fifty-nine, with long service, good conduct medal, and war medals for Cemazah, 1888, Chitral, 1895, and Atbara, 1898 — one of the coolest and most gallant soldiers in the field. Mackenzie always played his company into action to the admiration of his

company; his officers had obtained for him the D.C.M., but unfortunately he did not live to wear it as he fell in action at Loos. Thomas Richardson, who succeeded Mackenzie as pipemajor, was also a veteran piper of the regiment, whose years numbered 58.

The battle of Loos, which accounted for the loss of so many pipers as well as of other combatants, enabled Piper Daniel Laidlaw, a veteran serving with the 7th Battalion, to distinguish himself by doing that which so many heroic pipers have done in all wars — playing such airs as would inspirit his comrades to victory. The men, crouching in their trench, stupefied by gas, saw Piper Laidlaw walking up and down the parapet of the trench, heard the invigorating strains of “Blue Bonnets over the Border,” and, hearing them, forgot all but the instant desire to be up and at the enemy. Over the top and off at the double, they heard parts of the “Standard on the Braes o’ Mar,” though, by then, Laidlaw had been wounded.

The startling effect of the piper’s playing was fully appreciated by the British authorities, who rewarded Laidlaw by making him a “King’s Corporal” and bestowing on him the coveted distinction of V.C., which the French staff duplicated by their award of the Croix de Guerre.

Nor were the pipers of the territorial battalions one whit less heroic. Before entering France they had served in the Dardanelles and in the Egyptian and Palestine campaigns. They were employed chiefly as runners, one of the most dangerous duties in the war. The I/4th Battalion pipers numbered eight when they landed on Gallipoli: when the battalion left the peninsula there remained but two — six having fallen in aetion, of whom five were lads from Kelso. Of the two survivors, Pipe-Major Forbes was to fall in France, while Piper Lockhart, promoted to commissioned rank, survived.

The pipers of the l/5th Battalion were more fortunate. On the evacuation of the peninsula the pipes and drums were sent home, the pipers and drummers being armed with rifle and bayonet or put on duty as runners. In that capacity two of the pipers gained distinction: Piper M'Minn being several times mentioned in despatches and receiving the M.M. for bravery in the battle of Gaza; Pipers A. Erskine and J. Diamond mentioned in despatches. Diamond was also promoted sergeant and was awarded the Serbian Gold Medal of Kara George. He fell in action in the second battle of Gaza, April 1917, when there was also killed a promising young piper named Donald M‘Kellar, holder of the Scottish Juvenile Pipers’ Championship.

The death in action of another young piper of the 7/8th Battalion was long deeply deplored by his comrades, who regarded his few compositions as meritorious and held him in deep affection. As he lay dying his one request was that his beloved bagpipe might be sent to his father.

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