Tattoo groupies and John MacLellan’s burst bag


• From the October 2000 Piping Times.

By David Murray

With the Edinburgh Tattoo season over for yet another year, it seems to me that it’s a good time to ponder a little on the now accepted arrangements for band, pipes and drums, not to mention the choir, which are now an integral part of the show especially in the Finale. All a bit much, perhaps, for one brought up in the older tradition of pipe music. But the fact remains that this business of combined playing goes back a long way, almost a hundred years. Contrary to general belief, it didn’t begin back in the heady days of 1970, when Amazing Grace topped the charts and the Royal Scots Greys sat back and watched the money roll in; good luck to them.

F. J. Ricketts.
F. J. Ricketts.

The process began in the decade before the Great War, when the 2nd Battalion The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, the old 93rd, was stationed at Fort George. The bandmaster was one of the finest musicians to grace the world of British military music, F. J. Ricketts, who composed under the pen name Kenneth Alford. After the war the business was put on a sounder footing. Major Eric Moss of Glencoe enlisted in the 93rd as a boy piper in 1925, when Ricketts was still Bandmaster. The Pipe Major was Jack Lawrie, and Eric recalls that he and Joe Ricketts carefully selected the tunes. Only a few were considered suitable. Eric describes how the pipes were tuned to the military band, and the difficulty the pipers had in setting their pipe chanters when the pitch in which the band played was lowered from 452 to 440 cycles per second in 1931. Ricketts treated the pipes as the solo instrument, while the band supplied the harmony, Ricketts writing all the band parts himself. Eric described the result as unique.

Others were quick to see the possibilities. In those days, before the advent of the package holiday, Benidorm, Ibiza, and all that, holidays were spent closer to home. Glasgow folk went ‘doon the watter’, the better off as far as Arran, while Edinburgh people favoured North Berwick and Dunbar. In the south of England, people went to the channel coast. A military band would spend several weeks touring various seaside resorts playing two programmes every day and travelling to the next venue on the Sunday. Off-season, the band could always pick up paid engagements in the Waverley Market and the Kelvin Hall in Edinburgh and Glasgow.

In the Highland regiments, it was usual for the pipe major and four pipers/highland dancers to go with the military band. In each half of the programme the pipers would play a set, beginning in the distance and marching on to the bandstand for the strathspey and reel, and marching out into the sunset, so to speak. A couple of items later, the pipers would perform a Highland dance to the pipe major’ playing, one in each half of the programme. For the Finale, the bandmaster would devise a retreat/tattoo type sequence with the pipers coming in to play the Green Hills with seconds, and perhaps the pipe major acting as Lone Piper. Not a dry eye in the house!

This suited everyone concerned. The band could charge more for the week’s engagement, which pleased everyone, because at the end of the tour the fee was shared out according to rank and instrument. The bandsmen enjoyed the frequent breaks and the opportunities for some constructive square pushing among the groupies who even then were a part of the band scene. (The pipers got their chance while the band was playing). The Bandmaster had fewer pieces to prepare and rehearse. The pipers had a few weeks peace away from the battalion and got their share of the fee as did the pipe major, who ranked with the band sergeant for the divvy up. The perennially impoverished Pipe Fund also benefited. In those days only six sets of pipes were issued and maintained by the system. With 20 pipers in the pipe band this went nowhere!

John MacLellan
John MacLellan … burst bag.

It was a simple step to have the band as backing group playing chords and humchucks during the pipers’ selections. Back in 1937, I remember hearing Pipe Major lan Maclean playing along with the band of the 1st Cameron Highlanders in Glasgow. The pipe major played a very strong instrument, with a crow on the high A. He made no concessions at all to the band. The result, let us say, was striking! Ian Maclean was the first to spot as prospects Evan MacRae, John MacLellan and Hugh Fraser who all served under ‘The Bochd’, as Ian was known to the Cameron pipers. Nobody knows why! He was a popular and respected man, who used to devote much of his spare time to teaching the youngsters. On one occasion, just before the Pipes and Drums fell in to march to the Aldershot Tattoo, four miles there and four miles back, John MacLellan found that his pipe bag was leaking. Gleefully, he reported to the pipe major expecting to be allowed the night off. Not a bit of it. “You’ll find my spare set under my bed, MacLellan, and you’ll march behind me and Ill be listening to make sure you’re blowing them!”

Ian Maclean was killed during the retreat to Dunkirk in 1940. He came from Dervaig on Mull. Iain MacFadyen, a Muileachd himself, had Ian’s pipes and later handed them on to Roderick Livingston, who still plays them. I wonder if he realises the provenance of his instrument.

Once the band and the pipers returned to the battalion after the tour all this came to a sudden stop. The Pipes and Drums and the Military Band resumed their mutual antipathy. The two never got on. Last year [1999] I went to the funeral of a Cameron bandsman who specifically stated that he wanted no piper at his funeral.

There were certain regiments where the two combined for a piece long hallowed by tradition as when the bands of the Royal Scots combined to play the battalion on to parade with The Scots Royals and for the march past Dumbartons Drums. The Pipes and Drums of the Highland Light Infantry combined with the Military Band and Bugles in Scotland the Brave. So Scotland the Brave was played combined as a compliment to him, not that he noticed, of course!

In the early days of the Edinburgh Military Tattoo the requirement was for an inspiring piece of music to be played for the march off of the cast at the end of the finale. Brigadier Alasdair Maclean, the then producer, decided that this was the place for Scotland the Brave played combined. There was a certain amount of tooth sucking among the cognoscenti and definite objections from Lieutenant Colonel Sam Rhodes, the redoubtable Director of Music of the Scots Guards whose agreement was much against his better judgement. Nevertheless, Scotland the Brave it was, and so it still remains. The result has been that the Tattoo or HLI setting is the only one we hear, and the correct setting of the second part 1s played no more.

Not everyone approved. When the Cameron Highlanders laid up their old Colours in Glasgow Cathedral in 1960 the day finished with a Retreat beating outside the City Chambers in George Square, attended by a coterie of senior officers among them the redoubtable General Wimberley of war time Highland Division fame. Angus MacDonald, Glasgow Police, had been General Wimberley’s piper and close escort during the North Africa campaign of 1942/43. At the end of the ceremony, as a compliment to the city and the Highland Light Infantry, The City of Glasgow Regiment, Scotland the Brave was played combined. General Wimberley, Tartan Tam to the jocks, commented to me, then a junior major: “I think we ought to leave that sort of thing to those regiments neither of whose bands is worth hearing on its own!” He named the regiments. We all laughed; little did we know!

The massed bands performance of Amazing Grace from the 2018 Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo.

So it went on until Amazing Grace amazed us all by its impact on the pop music scene despite the flat chanters. The floodgates opened. Many bandmasters tried their hands not only at copying the Greys, but also at composing ditties for the pipes, with varying success. Anyone remember Scotch on the Rocks? No? I thought not! To the Army’s credit, once it was realised that this combined playing was here to stay, it was decided that if it was going to be done, it had better be done well. Major Gordon Turner, Professor of Orchestration at the Royal Military School of Music, included in his syllabus several lectures on the art of arranging for band and pipes, stressing the strengths and weaknesses of our instrument. Consequently, arrangements made by bandmasters who passed through his hands tend to be among the more successful.

The best, however, are based on tunes composed by pipers and arranged by bandmasters who understand the instrument. It’s a hit or miss business. The bandmaster for once came up with a good arrangement, so said Jimmy Pryde of the Royal Scots Greys when telling me about Amazing Grace. The Sands of Kuwait by Gordon MacKenzie of the Queen’s Own Highlanders is a first rate piece of work on both counts.

Of the inclusion of the Highland bagpipe in various other musical combinations I leave it to others better qualified than myself to speak. Those which include the cold wind pipes in some form sound better to my ear, but no matter, as long as the tunes are getting played and the pipers continue to prosper. And here let me confess that as a lad of 15 in Greenock I used to play a miniature set along with a very good accordion player at various concerts. So Good luck to them, say I! Highland Cathedral? Oh, no, not again!