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The Piper In Peace And War
Part II - Seaforth Highlanders


The 72nd, Duke of Albany’s Own Highlanders, and the 78th, Ross-shire Buffs, both hailing from the county of Ross and both raised by a Mackenzie of Seaforth, had nothing in common until they were united, in 1881, as the 1st and 2nd Battns. The Seaforth Highlanders. Their records being equally distinguished, none expressed dissatisfaction with their official co-partnership. “Honours were easy.”

Yet — in the very year in which they were formed, namely, 1778 — the 72nd were within an ace of wrecking their corporate existence as a regiment, and by nothing less than open mutiny! The men, among whom Clan MacRae was well represented, under the firm belief that they were about to be betrayed by both Government and their own officers, and smarting from the more immediate effects due to neglect of pay and of bounty, flatly refused to embark for India, and, forming themselves on the quay of Leith into column of fours, with pipers in front, marched off to the King’s Park, ascended the heights of Arthur’s Seat, and made preparations for surprise attack by entrenchments and the posting of sentries. There they stayed for several days, supported morally and materially by the citizens of Edinburgh, whose visits, with hampers of food, they naturally much appreciated.

How long they might have withstood the long arm of authority is matter for surmise, but the authorities, conscious probably of their own shortcomings, despatched two generals, who, along with the Earl of Seaforth, their chief and colonel, interviewed the mutineers and promised to redress their grievances. Their confidence thus restored, the Highlanders forthwith marched down the hill, the colonel and the pipers leading. The battalion was then embarked for service in the Channel Islands, some in Jersey, and the rest in Guernsey, after which the whole body was transferred to Portsmouth and sent to India, 1100 strong.

Transport ships then were vile, owing largely to lack of accommodation, and that, added to the length of time taken to accomplish the voyage, and the want of vegetables, made the death-roll of the unfortunate Seaforths very heavy. When the regiment disembarked at Madras after eleven months at sea, 247 men had died of scurvy and many more were too ill to bear arms, leaving but 369 fit to march, and these, although depressed by the death of their chief and colonel, the Earl of Seaforth, were immediately sent up country and attached to the 71st. The 72nd did not take the field as a regiment until April 1783.

In their early battles in India, summed up in the name Hindoostan — an honoured name on the regimentill Colour, the battle tunes of the Clan Mackenzie — “Blur Strom,” and “Cabar Feidh” — must have rung out clear and often, but the mere fact of these tunes being part of the regiment’s programme in action makes all allusion to the pipers unnecessary. It is only when an unusual incident occurs, such as that at the siege of Pondicherry, that the annalist makes note. There the French troops were having the best of it — for a time. With the strong sun behind them and right in the eyes of the 72nd, there seemed no chance for our troops, whose fire was weak and desultory. The volleys of the French were rattling merrily and the officers of the 72nd were powerless to stem them or to infuse energy into their men. Then the O.C. had an inspiration. He would have a pibroch played. A pibroch at such a time! Everyone was amazed at the order, and none more so than the French soldiers who, when they heard the first few notes of that unnamed composition, slackened their fire, then actually ceased firing, and from over their stockades their puzzled eyes looked at the equally puzzled Highlanders. The ruse had succeeded, and the hostile gunfire died down for the rest of that day. The slow notes of the pibroch played by the piper of the Grenadier Company had undone the enemy!

In 1806 the regiment was sent to South Africa where the pipers proved an immense asset, sometimes exchanging the bagpipe for the claymore. Their prowess was praised and sung wherever Scots were gathered. The Highland Societies of London and Edinburgh vied with each other in giving publicity to their deeds. It was mainly due to the stirring tunes which they played in all the actions in South Africa, especially in the capture of the Cape of Good Hope, that these were so successful — at least such was the opinion of the officers and men of the regiment.

There was one incident remarked by the English soldiers of the 59th Regiment, who were associated in several actions with the Seaforths. Both units had made an exceptionally long march, and at the close the Englishmen were glad to lie at rest; everyone, they thought, would be equally glad. But to their amazement they heard the pipers of the Seaforths playing their pipes, and looking up they saw the stalwart Grenadiers of the Highlanders dancing to the pipers playing!

The departure from the regiment of their chronicler, Lieut. Campbell, was a loss to the 72nd — and especially to the pipers, in whom he was keenly interested. The facts relating to them are not noted with the same frequency by his successors, until the present century, when ample amends are made by the historian of the pipers of the Seaforths, Major Mackay-Scobie, whose Piper of a Highland Regiment, full of interesting material, is narrated in delightful fashion. From that work the following episode in the Kaffir War of 1834-35 is taken. A Kaffir chief who had been captured by the 72nd, manifested a surprising interest in the bagpipe, asked all manner of questions regarding it, and was told, among other facts, that it could sound all kinds of signals except that of “Retreat.” The chief, thinking this was a defect in the instrument, generously offered to his captors his wooden whistle which, when blown at one end indicated “Advance,” and when blown at the other end, “Retreat.”

For many years the regiment had forty-seven pipers and drummers. They were in the Crimea and in the Indian Mutiny, where two pipers played alternately for thirteen hours on a forty-two mile march; and the pipers led the charge on Kotah, which was captured. They were in the Afghan War, where the storming of the Peiwar Kotal was immortalised by Piper Stark in his well-known “72nd’s Advance on the Peiwar Kotal.” The famous march from Kabul to Kandahar was disastrous for the pipers, only two surviving when Kandahar was reached—the rest having literally “played themselves to death.” In 1882 the 72nd were in action in Egypt where, in the battle of Tel-el-Kebir, each piper played his company into action and after the battle entertained the regiment on its thirty-three miles long march to Zag-a-Zig.

Deprived of the Highland garb in 1809, like other Highland corps they tried again and again to have that order rescinded. In 1823 they were allowed to resume all the characteristics of their nationality, except the kilt. In their trews of Royal Stewart tartan the 72nd were conspicuous in all engagements. In recognition of their valour they were privileged to style themselves, “The Duke of Albany’s Own Highlanders,” which, with the cipher and coronet of that Prince, still finds an honoured place in all their appointments.

Their 2nd Battalion (from 1881), the old 78th Highlanders or Ross-shirc Buffs, had been raised in 1793 by a cousin of the founder of the 72nd, who, in course of time became Lord Seaforth. Like the 72nd, the Ross-shire Buffs won their fame in India; so much so that they were, after the Mutiny there, termed the “Saviours of India,” and their pipers, even more than the pipers of the 72nd, had a due share in the honours accorded the regiment by the public. In one of their earlier actions the pipers, or rather one of them, had a mortifying experience, a two-fold affront. Just before the battle of Assaye, an order was issued for all musicians to go to the rear to be in readiness for casualties which they would carry to the surgeon. Accordingly all the bandsmen retired and with them a Company piper, who rightly deemed himself a “musician.” When the battle was over that unfortunate piper was subjected to the taunts of his comrades and his officers. “Whoever heard of a piper going to the rear! Disgraceful!” “But I was ordered to go; the order said all musicians were to go,” pleaded the injured piper. “That’s all very well for the flutes and hautbois and the like,” was the answer, “but for a piper who should always be in the forefront of battle to go to the rear with the whistlers is a thing unheard of.” The insult to his art had to be swallowed, but only let him get an opportunity and he would show them whether he was not a piper worthy of his gallant predecessors. Order or no order, he decided he would keep in the forefront in future. His opportunity arrived in a very short time when the battle of Argaum was fought. There the piper was seen and heard in the thick of the fight, deaf to all but his fierce notes. So insistent was he that the officers had difficulty in restraining the men from charging. The piper’s honour was vindicated completely.

Twelve years later the 78th were in the Netherlands where, in an action in the village of Merxem, Piper Munro was badly wounded; he could sit however, and, despite the pain, urged on his fellows by playing “Hey, Johnny Cope,” and “Hielan' Laddie,” as several pipers have done in more recent days — with more tangible recognition. In a still later engagement in Holland the 78th ascribed their victory over a French force which numbered three thousand, to the gallantry of the pipers.

The 78th were denied a place in the Peninsular War and at Waterloo; their romance and renown centre in the Indian Mutiny, one episode of which, finding its way into the public press, was spoken about for many years throughout the English-speaking world. “Jessie’s Dream” commemorates in a well-known song the experience of Mrs Jessie Brown, one of the imprisoned residents of Lucknow, to relieve whom the 78th were marching forward, their pipers, as usual, playing at their head. The song represents Mrs Brown [Said to have been a Scot, the wife of a soldier in the 32nd Regiment,] announcing to her despondent companion the approach of the British with the pipers playing.

It is at once curious and ridiculous that in later years much controversy should arise over this evidently perfectly reasonable basis of fact for the song. One newspaper correspondent had even the temerity to state that the 78th had no pipers with them and that the story had originated in France!

Fortunately there are preserved two books relating to the pipers at Lucknow, which completely refute the allegation of falsehood. One of these, The Personal Narrative of the Siege of Lucknow, by L. E. L. Rees, a survivor of the siege, contains the following passage: “The shrill tones of the Highlanders’ bagpipes now pierced our ears; not the most beautiful music was ever more welcome or more joy-bringing. As Havelock’s force came nearer the enemy found some of us dancing to the sound of the Highlanders’ pipes. The remembrance of that happy evening will never be effaced from my memory.” That is surely strong enough evidence on the point. The other work is Reminiscences of the Mutiny, by Forbes Mitchell, who devotes much space to the story of Jessie Brown, whose companion in the same compartment in the Residency was a Mrs Gaffney, the wife of a brother sergeant of Mitchell. Mrs Gaffney described to Mitchell how Jessie Brown had heard the bagpipes long before anyone could believe that a force was coming to their relief. The pipe-major of the 78th, the well-known Norman M'Leod, a Raasay man, who, among other compositions, has to his credit “The 78th’s March to Lucknow,” took Mitchell aside to listen to the pipers play “On wi’ the Tartan,” which they did out of compliment to the Scottish residents.

If the story of Jessie Brown’s vision of the approaching Highlanders and their pipers is the most romantic in the estimation of women, the extraordinary stratagem of Piper Gibson of the 78th is, for soldiers, by far the best feat achieved by any of the pipers at Lucknow. Six sowars (troopers of native cavalry) had spurred their horses, prepared to charge three isolated Seaforths and Piper Gibson. The Scots had no ammunition, but with fixed bayonets were ready to receive the enemy’s charge. The sowars galloped to within twenty paces of the party; the piper, who had no arms, presented the drones of his pipes, blowing at the same time one long note. The enemy stopped immediately, turned and “flew like the wind, mistaking the bagpipe for some infernal machine.”

One occasionally hears from the lips of older people narratives of the Indian Mutiny, and from them gathers some notion of the deep impression which the Seaforth Highlanders made on the people of Scotland on their return in 1860. When they marched into Edinburgh as the garrison battalion, they were feted as heroes and called the “Saviours of India.” Until 1859 their pipers had worn the buff doublet, a colour which was then changed for green, and that, along with the red sash and a dirk at the waistbelt, made the pipe-major look “unco smart inteet” as the pipe-major of the time expressed it — a dress that “weel becomes one with the rank of pipe-major” (Mackay-Scobie, Pipers of a Highland Regiment). The speaker was Pipe-Major M'Donald, one of the 72nd’s best heavy athletes in tossing the caber, throwing the hammer, etc., of whom the officers were very proud, and whom they honoured on his retirement to pension by having his portrait painted for their mess and presenting him with a set of pipes.

Very fortunate in their pipers and pipe-majors, the officers expected all their guests to appreciate the music which the pipe band rendered for their benefit. The pipe music being excellent, the officers in 1875 obtained a complete set of new pipe banners, with all the honours, mottoes, and regimental devices beautifully embroidered in letters of gold.

The bandmaster was inclined to resent the attention lavished on the pipers. One bandmaster used to tell how he had on one occasion prepared a most attractive musical programme for a distinguished visitor. Although the band played very well no word of appreciation fell from the officers. The artist’s thirst for praise impelled the bandmaster to ask the colonel whether the performance had given satisfaction. Judge of the musician’s feelings when he was told that he had done well enough, but that the band did not matter so long as the pipers were all right.

The pipers continued to maintain their high standard of pipe-melodies, and in 1878 their pipe-major, Alexander M'Kellar, who had held the rank since 1860, improved a pipe melody which has become one of the greatest favourites everywhere. “The Barren Rocks of Aden” owes its origin to piper James Mauchline of the 78th who was with the regiment in Aden in 1844. Mauchline recognised that his composition had been improved by M'Kellar. Ronald Mackenzie, who succeeded M'Kellar, accomplished much, but none of his works have the wide appeal of the classic “Barren Rocks.”

It is remarkable how strong is the enthusiasm for bagpipe music among soldiers in Highland regiments. In both the regular battalions of the Seaforths many had qualified as “acting pipers,” thus making the band assume enormous proportions. When the Great War opened these acting pipers reverted to the ranks in terms of the Service regulations, while the “full pipers” played their companies into action until the havoc wrought at Loos. There the pipers of most of the battalions of Seaforth might have been seen — and heard — playing the regimental charging tune “Cabar Feidh” at the head of their respective companies, but the results were disastrous. Of the two “New Army” battalions of the regiment, the 7th had lost four killed, and three wounded; and the 8th had also four killed and five wounded, two being captured. The 2nd Battalion, which lost six pipers, killed, and five wounded, before the close of 1915, used to recall the “leadership” of Piper M‘Lean. It was he who, in the advance on the hill held by the Germans at Loos, shouted during one of their brief halts: “At them, lads,” then putting chanter to his mouth, he dashed along with the men, playing the regimental charging tune, “Cabar Feidh,” until the objective was taken.

All this indifference to danger, and the high mortality which it entailed, led the officers of the Seaforth and other units to ban the piper from playing in action, an order which was not always observed. The 1st Battalion pipers, who were more fortunate in the earlier stages, counted several who, in prowess, skill, and versatility, maintained the pipers’ reputation. There was Neil M‘Kechnie, for example, who was one of the acting pipers whose services in the opening stages of the war took the form of a bomber. M*Kechnie’s exploits in that capacity had earned for him the Russian Order of St George — and a wound. On recovery he took part in Loos and emerged unscathed, and then turned to his pipes, playing his battalion into Mesopotamia. There he was noticed playing his company into the attack on a Turkish position at Sheikh Saad, where he was again wounded. After recovery he returned to his battalion, and on this occasion was put into the trenches. The officers deemed the trenches safer than the places usually taken by the pipers who played their companies into action. The majority of pipers were placed on stretcherbearing, or on ammunition carrying, or kept as runners. Some were in the transport lines. The runner and the stretcher-bearer were generally looked upon as doing the most hazardous work of all; the sight of small parties of stretcher-bearers tending the wounded under heavy fire and bearing them off to the rear was too often a thrilling experience for those who not seldom saw the gallant stretcher-bearers struck down with their helpless burdens. It was after several trying experiences in seeking the wounded at the battle of Port Arthur that the tireless energy, whole-hearted devotion, and utter disregard of danger of Pipe-Major D. B. Mathieson were recognised by his officers, who recommended him for the Distinguished Conduct Medal, and that was in due course awarded him. Every piper who was engaged in this heroic work might with justice be said to have earned a like distinction. But of course there was a limit to awards. Of the pipers of the Territorial battalions of the Seaforths, the l/4th, a Ross-shire unit had six killed, and ten who had to be discharged because of wounds. The pipers of the l/5th Battalion who hailed principally from Caithness and Sutherland, went to France twelve strong, and at the close of the War numbered but four — their losses being, like those of the l/4th, due to their services in carrying messages under fire and bearing wounded off the field. The officers of the l/6th Battalion (Elgin), realising how stretcher work accounted for many of the casualties to their pipers, released them from that work and placed them and the drummers on ration and ammunition carrying. Some of their pipers, however, elected to go into the trenches and others to volunteer as runners. Two youn<r pipers of the l/4th Battalion were sent off to a cadet school and duly obtained commissions. One piper of the l/5th was likewise promoted, and another in the l/7th; while the l/6th had two of their pipers promoted to commissioned rank. The D.C.M, and the M.M. were not uncommon on the breast of the pipers of the Seaforth battalions, but probably the most popular award was that meted out to Pipe-Major William Taylor of the 7th Battalion, a well-known ex-pipe-major of the 1st Battalion, whose first-class piping is now at the service of the boys of the Queen Victoria School at Dunblane. Taylor got both the Meritorious Service Medal and the Croix de Guerre.

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