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The Piper In Peace And War
Part II - Cameronians (Scottish Rifles)


Unique among the regiments that constitute the British Army are the Cameronians who, as the Angus Regiment or “26th Foot,” long represented the adherents of the Covenanter, Richard Cameron, one of the leaders who preached and fought for freedom to worship, against the Forces of Charles II., at Bullion Green, Drumclog, and Bothwell Bridge.

Like the 25th, or King’s Own Scottish Borderers, the Angus Regiment owes its origin to the Government of 1689, but unlike the former unit, it was called forth, not for defence of the City of Edinburgh, but for the “resistance of popery and prelacy and arbitrary power, and to recover and establish the work of the Reformation in Scotland, in opposition to popery, prelacy, and arbitrary power in all their branches.”

Had it not been for the religious persecution which these Covenanters had endured at the hands of the ministers of Charles II. and of James VII. and II, and the promise of relief from the Dutch successor of the throne, the regiment could not have come into existence. The nucleus of the Angus Regiment to the number of 500 had marched to Edinburgh in March 1689, along with a delegation to the Convention, for a settlement of Church and State in consonance with their ideas. The Convention, then sitting in the Parliament House, made use of the 500 stalwarts as a defensive force, and on the termination of these services, for which they refused payment, they were invited to become part of the New Army. They were to be formed into two battalions, one under the command of the Earl of Angus, the other under that of Lieut.-Colonel William Cleland.

After some hesitation the men agreed, and “without beat of drum or expense of levy money” they were enlisted as regular soldiers of the Crown. Many of the customs of their covenanting days they preserved and preserve to this day. They carried their muskets along with their Bibles to church, when in camp or in billets, and all the strict habits of Sabbath-keeping were maintained. Alone of Infantry regiments they still bear as the regimental device the mullet of their first colonel, the Earl of Angus, though every other regiment had to surrender those private emblems in deference to an Army Order of 1751.

It is hardly likely that they had pipers when, in 1689, they marched to Dunkeld, their first engagement, where the 500 Cameronians under the brilliant leadership of young Cleland, poet and scholar, as well as soldier, repulsed a force of 5000 Highlanders, and nullified the success of the Jacobites at Killiecrankie. It was the victory of Dunkeld which enabled the Government to dispense with the large army then in Scotland ; and in time to allow of the Cameronians being sent from the Highlands, where they were stationed, to Leith where they embarked in February 1691 for Flanders. In all the stiff fighting there and in Holland, they upheld the high reputation which they had won at Dunkeld.

Again, one asks, did they have pipers there? Were they, like so many of the stern Calvinists, opposed to secular music of any sort? Did they share Wittenbold’s aversion to “Torphichen’s Rant” as recorded by Niel Blane in Old Mortality!

It is just possible that they allowed themselves the solace of pipe music in the intervals of fighting, if they did not avail themselves of the battle music in the actual fighting to which they were called.

May we not infer from the fact that the regimental Pipe Quick Step — the Cameronian rant or reel — is a seventeenth-century composition, that it had been played by the pipers of the regiment since the year 1689? All doubts might have been set at rest if one could rely on the accuracy of a coloured print in Carter’s History of the 26th, where a piper with a bagpipe having two drones is said to be of the period 1713. In spite of the correctness of the two drones there is good reason for suspecting that the illustration is not that of a piper of the Cameronians of 1713. And yet the old Muster Rolls — which make mention of forty drummers on the strength — suggest that some of these were actually pipers in disguise, as in other regiments.

Nor does Sterne in Tristram Shandy refer to any pipe music or piper in the regiment with which he is so well acquainted. Their name then was like the name of every regiment of the Line known by the name of the Colonel—Angus. In 1754 it became the 26th Foot, and in 1782, when territorial titles were introduced to most corps, the ancient name of Cameronians was reintroduced.

It is not until 1830 that reference is made in the regimental records to pipers. Even then we should not have had that had it not been for correspondence that passed between the Officer Commanding and General Headquarters. A tight little piper — Cosmo Cameron—had been refused admission to the regiment on account of his inches. His piping must have been good to judge by the letters that passed. In the end Cosmo was allowed to enter as a piper, provided his health and physique otherwise were satisfactory. This incident proves that pipers were not at that date a new institution, otherwise Cosmo would have had no chance.

Curiously the difficulty of 1830 was not recalled in 1862 when Headquarters requested to know on what authority the Cameronians had pipers. On that occasion the Colonel brought forward the oldest soldier—the Bandmaster with thirty-five years’ service — as one who recollected seeing and hearing pipers in the battalion from the day when he joined. This evidence evidently satisfied G.H.Q., for the pipers were continued as a regimental institution.

Though they do not figure prominently in the history of the regiment it is not the pipers’ fault. They have participated in all the campaigns in which the Cameronians have fought, fighting in the field and playing their companies out and in.

How many excellent pipers the regiment has had none can say, only the record of one such being available, namely, Donald Campbell.

The pipers of the 2nd Battalion have a widely different career, that is prior to 1882, when as the 90th Perthshire Volunteers (Light Infantry) they achieved fame as fighters without any association with the stern Cameronians. Formed in 1793 by Thomas Graham of Balgowan, who, because of brilliant leadership in the Peninsular War was created Viscount Lynedoeh, the men were recruited from rollicking, light-hearted “blades” who sought adventure in battle. It seems singular that until 1882 there is no mention of pipers in a regiment raised in Perthshire — bugles alone, the indispensable instruments of music in Light Infantry regiments, being apparently sufficient to meet their needs when on the march. All this was changed when, by the reorganisation of the Army in 1881, the 90th were linked with the 26th as the 2nd Battalion, and both, on the reputation gained by the 90th as having among them the best shots of the Army, were constituted “The Scottish Rifles.” The battalion was then allowed to have pipers — to be paid for by the officers — but no drums were permitted to destroy one of the characteristics of all Rifle and Light Infantry corps. 'The large bugle bands of the “Rifles’ and “Highland Light Infantry” needed no assistance from drums; but pipers, having more to do than buglers, and being numerically weaker, have a much greater strain on their lungs than have the buglers, when playing on the march. To make their task easier by a supply of drummers was the plea put forward by successive pipe-majors; but not until 1888 was a drum issue granted to the Scottish Rifles. But again their short step — as Rifles—does not conduce to good pipe music, which is perhaps the reason why the tune known as “The Black Bear” is so popular in the battalion, and because it is an Atholl regiment why the famous marching tune of “The Atholl Highlanders” serves as its marching past tune.

In the Great War the pipers of several battalions of the Rifles played their companies into action, while in other battalions, pipers were in the ranks. The practice of playing into astion was stopped after the severe casualties sustained by the pipers. Of the ten pipers who led the 2nd Battalion into France, four were killed in February or March 1915, while a fifth was wounded, and a sixth fell in action in 1916. The popular and intrepid pipe-major, Alexander Cameron, fell wliile leading a platoon on 5th February 1915. That duty he had volunteered to do, to the dismay of his fellow pipers who had anticipated the consequence. But Cameron was a born soldier, as well as a good piper, and performed his combatant duty with his accustomed elan and resourcefulness, and when he was interred beside the colonel and the adjutant the battalion felt that they had lost one of their greatest mainstays. No more cheering words, no more invigorating pipe melodies before and after battle, from that “pukka” soldier. And in missing the commission which would have been his had he survived. King and Country lost at once a piper of merit and an officer who would have made his mark.

Of the two pipers — Horne and Robertson - who played their respective companies over the parapet at Loos, to the lightsome “Atholl Highlanders” some notice may be taken. Horne was a “crack shot”—was indeed the best shot of the battalion in 1913. He fell in action on 31st July 1916. Robertson was luckier. Employed now on wiring parties, now in fighting, he did everything with the greatest coolness and gallantry. “It was owing,” wrote his O.C., “to Robertson’s ability as a leader that we were able to maintain a position which we had captured from the enemy.” The Military Medal awarded him was a slight recognition of his services, as was also his promotion to the rank of company sergeant-major.

The edict against pipers playing their companies into action fretted many a piper throughout the service and was disregarded whenever an opportunity offered. Pipers Whitelaw and M'Gurk, for example, of the 9th Battalion, defied the order during a bombing raid at Arras in April 1917, by playing their companies over the parapet and into “No Man’s Land” — a spectacle that thrilled all beholders of other battalions in the vicinity.

Of quite a different category was the experience of Piper J. Thomson of the 11th Battalion, when stationed in Salonica. The glowing reports of the Scots pipe music had reached the ears of the king of Rumania, who, curious to hear for himself, begged that a piper might be sent to him for an afternoon and evening. Thomson, who in civil life is a miner in Lanarkshire, was selected, and so delighted the Rumanian king with his pipe tunes, that he was entertained to dinner with the king, queen, and royal family — an honour that is unique in the annals of the Scottish Rifles.

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