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The Piper In Peace And War
Part II - Royal Navy


One is so accustomed to associate kilted pipers with Highland regiments that the spectacle of a party of bluejackets marching smartly along to the music of one or more of their own pipers, is apt to raise a smile on the face of the mere landsman.

Yet the piper in the senior service is not altogether a new departure. Though not officially recognised by the Lords of the Admiralty, he has become an institution on board several ships of His Majesty’s Fleet. None can say when the piper was first introduced into the navy; he may have enlivened the crews of those once famous battleships of James the Fourth of Scots — the Great Michael, the Yellow Carvel, and the Lion, but of that there is no record. The earliest hint of his popularity at sea is contained in an advertisement in the Edinburgh Courant of 2nd to 5th April 1708, for a “person that plays on the bagpipes willing to engage on board a British man-of-war.” When that notice appeared there were in Leith — the port of Edinburgh — thirty-four British and Dutch war vessels. Let us hope that more than one piper was engaged. It is almost certain that wherever a Scots officer was in command there a piper was on board.

Did naval pipers play in battle? Probably not as a rule. There is, however, one instance where an eighteenth century piper did actually play by order of his officer, throughout a three hours’ fight against the French. That was in June 1795 when seventy-nine non-commissioned officers and privates of the 97th Inverness-shire Highlanders were “borne as part complement of the Colossus — a 74-gun ship — per order of Sir Peter Parker, Bart.” Mr H. B. Mackintosh, who, in his account of that regiment, mentions the fact from H. S. Lecky’s A King's Ship, states that the piper was before the battle ordered to take up his position in the maintopmast staysail netting and there play as long as the engagement lasted. His music was obviously intended for the benefit of his fellow Highlanders, who must have congratulated the piper on accomplishing his mission without mishap.

Those more modern naval officers who employed pipers aboard their ships certainly did not avail themselves of the precedent of 1795. Admirals Lord Beresford, Sinclair, Lord Walter Kerr, Dundas of Dundas, and Duff, and Commodore Wilfred Henderson had the piper for those duties which he performs for officers in the army, particularly playing for the officers at mess. Lord Beresford stated that he “always made a point of having one of Scotland’s best pipers on every ship on which he had command; nothing cheers a ship’s company so well as the Highland bagpipe.” That famous officer, who was better known as Lord Charles Beresford, employed his piper on various offices, but when the appointed hours for piping arrived, he was there dressed in glengarry, kilt, and plaid, the tartan being Royal Stewart.

Not only do the bluejackets cherish the piper, but also that unique corps of Royal Marines — “soldiers and sailors, too.” For that the “Jollies” are indebted to their bandmaster, Major Miller, one of the most distinguished bandmasters that the regiment has ever had. The bagpipe, along with the fife and drum, is, according to that authority, superior to all other musical instruments for soldiers on the march. “Without the bagpipe, fife and drum, the musical forces of a foot regiment are incomplete.” Major Miller stressed the point in a letter to The Times of 5th April 1915, and reminded his readers that “these combinations can touch spots which are beyond the reach of a band; and, moreover, there is no suggestion of effort in their performance, however long a march may be. It is all so easy and enjoyable. Again, a fife and drum band or a pipe band can be split up so as to be useful, not only to a battalion on its march, but also to cheer the companies and platoons on their daily field-training exercises.”

Major Miller put his theory into practice by getting some of the Royal Marines’ bandsmen and buglers to learn the pipes. When they had attained a certain degree of proficiency they were posted as pipers to various companies. The earliest of these were Musicians Norman and Handford, clarionet players, and Bugler Haynes — all Englishmen; and Corporal Grier, an Irishman from County Kerry; with the sole Scots representative in Bugler M'Laren. Their choice of a regimental marching tune would not have satisfied the requirements of a pipe-major of a Scottish battalion, but the Royal Marines are a law unto themselves. Besides, the air of “Joan’s Placket is Torn” is their own regimental tune and goes well on the pipes — if the supporters of the “Globe and Laurel” may be reckoned to be judges of a good tune. Their example was, at any rate, followed by naval ratings at Portsmouth, Chatham, Sheerness, and Granton.

Prior to that the pipes of the Royal Naval (Howe) Division had been heard all over Gallipoli, and it is the boast of that Division that their pipes were the first to resound on that peninsula, adducing the 8th of April 1915 as the first day when they were played. Of their eight pipers one, Stoker T. Loney, a Belfast lad, was twice recommended for the Distinguished Conduct Medal.

The detachment of the Royal Naval Division, which was sent to relieve Antwerp in August 1915, and found itself cut off from further active service by being misled into neutral Holland, had among its officers Commodore Wilfred Henderson, an enthusiast of pipe music, and two pipers — Donald Campbell and Malcolm Macdonald — who were commandeered to play every day for the entertainment of their fellows in captivity. The interest thus created was increased by offers of more pipes and drums from friends at home. These, duly sent, were put into the hands of other interned prisoners willing to learn under the tuition of the two veteran pipers. In this way, by dint of much hard practice, the band of ten pipers, one bass drummer and three kettle drummers were able to take their place at the head of the battalion of men who had to take their daily route march, and also in the sports where dances — reel and sword — made more tolerable the enforced idleness of men in captivity. The march through the streets of the Hague with pipes and drums resounding, repeated so many times each week, may not have suggested to the Dutch folks the sense of the land of the mountain and the flood, but there is little doubt that it did remind the unfortunate service men of the happy days of home.

Commodore Henderson, who kindly provided these details, expressed his thanks to the Scottish Patriotic Society, The Association of Highland Societies, His Majesty’s Consul at Groningen, some Ross-shire friends, and to other Scots under the care of the Rev. Mr Sime — for sets of bagpipes.

While the Hague Pipers were thus beguiling their tedious days with the music of the bagpipe, the battle cruiser New Zealand had got together a full band of pipers and drummers, which delighted not only the ship’s company, but various concert parties, fetes, etc., organised by the Royal Red Cross Society. Their inception had been due to Lieut. A. D. Boyle, R.N., a New Zealander, then serving aboard, and their training to a gunner in the anti-air craft section of the R.G.A., and a pipe-major of the R.S.F.

Of the ten pipers all except the pipe-major, M'Neice, a North of Ireland man, and Durrant, a Londoner, who served as a Royal Marine artilleryman — were Scots, and all when “otherwise employed” were carrying out their several duties on deck, at the guns, or in the stokehold, and all, with one exception, took part in the battles of Heligoland, Dogger Bank, and Jutland.

H.M.S. Courageous had a pipe band of six pipers, of whom two were English — Edwin Short, from Essex, and Oliver Etherington from Cambridge.

On H.M.S. Barham there was no pipe band but a Scottish sailor solaced his occasional ennui with a tune on his chanter. Hearing him play an officer inquired whether he had no bagpipe, and learning that he had left it at home the sailor was sent off forthwith to bring back his instrument and with instructions to buy a Highland outfit. Thus equipped the A.B. piper was constituted official accompanist to the ship, playing at the officers’ mess and at the physical “jerks” of the Company. Some time later the piper was with others transferred to another ship, though the officers tried hard to have him retained. And so, while the Barham lost their piper the Valorous found him and welcomed him, much to the piper’s astonishment; he had had no idea that his pipe music would ever be appreciated by English and Irish officers and men.

Bluejackets who were stationed at Chatham during the War had their route marches made more interesting by the pipers who accompanied them. These were Scots attached to the R.N.R. and R.F.R. and numbered eighteen in all. That total was diminished in 1917, first, by the death of four in a hostile air raid on 3rd September, and later by the transfer of other four to a battleship.

To Portsmouth Royal Naval Barracks there was attached a band of pipers and drummers of which Chief Writer David Thomson, a native of Uddingston, was pipe-major. Mr Thomson, who is one of the Regular Royal Navy, is an enthusiast on pipe music, as the following interesting account which he kindly wrote will show :—

“In the Navy it is not uncommon to hear the skirl of the pipes reverberating from the surrounding hills of some landlocked harbour after the ships have dropped anchor and the ships’ companies have settled down to the evening routine.

“In the days of sail, when steam was quite a luxury in a man-o’-war, the musician of the ship was a recognised fiddler, whose primary duties consisted in encouraging the sailors who were ‘manhandling’ the capstan bars or manning the falls while hoisting boats, by playing airs on his fiddle to which the men would keep regular rhythm with the tramp, tramp, of their feet; but with the disappearance of sails and the personality of the fiddler, came the advent of the piper with his strathspeys and reels, and consequently, as necessity claims his services, the piper is quite an event in these evolutions. In addition to this he plays at officers’ mess during dinner and he may ‘give a turn’ at the ship’s concert which invariably is warmly appreciated, and it is not unusual on such occasions to witness some Scottish seaman dancing the ‘Highland Fling’ or the Sword Dance, while the strains of ‘Gillie Callum’ are heard far over the waters.”

Ashore the piper has more varied duties. At the depot or training barracks he leads off the men for drill, fatigues, and church parades. In this way the recruits become accustomed to the music of the pipes before joining their ship.

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