McAdam’s roads and the history of the march

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By DAVID MURRAY Piping Times, February 2000

Some time ago when I was presenting ‘The Noble Instrument’ on BBC Radio Scotland I talked about the origins of the bagpipe march. The feedback was encouraging enough for the Piping Times to urge me to commit my thoughts to paper and I thought I’d use this month’s column for the first excerpt. But first, a short marching tale of long ago.

ww1 band lead
The Pipes & Drums of Canada’s Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry leading the regiment during World War 1.

The days when the infantry marched everywhere are long gone, but in the years immediately following the Great War it was still the normal method of progression. In 1921 my father was commanding a company in the 1st Cameron Highlanders, then stationed at Rawalpindi, a major garrison in Northwest India. His company piper was one Donald MacDiarmid, a veteran of the Great War and, some said, of the Boer War also. By our standards, Donald would not have rated highly as a player, but like all the old regimental pipers, he had an almost inexhaustible fund of marches.

One day my father took his company out for a route march, which at that time meant a ‘stroll’ of some 20 miles. Physical fitness played a minor part in Donald MacDiarmid’s lifestyle but once he felt the bag under his arm his stamina was legendary. On this particular day a young piper had been detailed to play along with Donald. After the third short halt the company moved off and the pipers struck up. Ten minutes later, my father glanced at his watch; the pipers showed no signs of stopping. After 15 minutes Donald had still not given the stop at the end of the repeat signal. After 20 minutes of non-stop marching and playing over rough terrain the young piper gave up, exhausted. Donald turned to him and said in all seriousness: “Is there something the matter with you this morning?”

Pipes have been played during journeys on foot for centuries but until the beginning of the 19th century the roads were little better than cart tracks. Marching as we understand it was not possible but there was no reason why the pipers shouldn’t have given the clansmen, and later the soldiers, a tune as they went on their weary way, the soldiers carrying all their household goods on their backs. The earliest pipe marches were adaptations of folk songs, arranged for the pipes. They were played, but not in the same form as the songs from which they originated. These were considered too simple, and beneath the dignity of the piper. To make them worth playing they were re-arranged in the form musicians call diminished, that is the notes were given half their value. Thus they were played very much faster, giving the piper a chance to show off the dexterity of his fingering. They were also extended by the addition of a further two parts or measures. Three of these marches are the Haughs of Cromdale, Killiecrankie and Macpherson’s Lament. They’re all traditional songs. The diminished march settings can be found in any of the old collections. It is ironic that when they’re played these days, the simple song versions are what we hear.

A march is defined as a piece of music in strongly emphasised regular metre, primarily intended to keep marching soldiers in step.

Pipe marches fall into several categories. The first is the march composed with the marching pipe band in mind, fairly simple in execution and consisting of two or four parts either in 2/4, 4/4, or 6/8 time. The second is the competition march in 2/4 time, more complex in execution, usually of four parts but sometimes of six. The third category derives from the military ceremony known as Retreat, usually beaten or sounded at sunset. The 19th century regulations specify that the marches played during the Retreat ceremony must conform to the regulation drum beating, three beats in the bar. For this reason Retreat marches are either in 3/4 or 9/8 time.

Let us first dispose of the piobaireachd pieces we call marches: Glengarry’s, Black Donald’s, Donald Gruamach’s, and the other tunes with the secondary title of marches like Mary’s Praise and Maclachlan’s March. Anyone can hear that in no way do they conform to the standard definition of the march. My own contention is that these were recognition signals like the marches played and beaten during the Thirty Years War (1618-48) such as the Scots March when the soldiers, like the clansmen, went to war in their own clothes distinguished only by their field marks. A blue ribbon is said to have been the field mark worn by Montrose’s army of the same period.

Marching in step dates from the mid 18th century, and was confined to the parade ground, where the highland pipe had little to offer, mainly because of its inability to produce instant sound and to stop elsewhere than at the end of a measure or part. Music for parades was provided either by the Military Band, consisting of brass, reed, and integrated percussion instruments, or the Corps of Drums, the drum and flute combination.

John Loudon McAdam, 1756-1836.
John Loudon McAdam, 1756-1836.

What changed the situation was the invention and development of the metalled all-weather road by the Scotsman, John Loudon McAdam. The metalled road surface now made it possible for formed bodies of troops to cover long distances marching in step and time to music. The music had to be audible with a prominent marching beat. The Highland regiments began to combine their drummers with an augmented pipe corps to form pipe bands in which the drummers role was to accompany the pipers music with a strong marching beat and not to display their own virtuosity.

Suitable music designed for the purpose was now required. The pipers rose to the challenge. The mystery of John MacDonald and his inspired 79ths Farewell to Gibraltar is another story, as is the 78ths Farewell to Belgaum. Belgaum is a small station in southern India about 200 miles south of Poona (modern spelling, ‘Pune’). The 78th had been sent to Belgaum in 1845 to recuperate after cholera had killed; 535 men and 202 wives and children in eight months while at Sukkur in Sind Province, northwest of Bombay (modern spelling, ‘Mumbai’). The 78th left Belgaum in 1848.

Both tunes can be dated to 1848 with some certainty. The Crimean War (1854-56) and the Indian Mutiny also led to the composition of more marches for the pipe and drum combination, as did later campaigns and incidents of regimental life. Tunes also began to be named after prominent regimental personalities, some no doubt with tongue in cheek. Many, perhaps the majority, of such tunes turned out to be ephemeral and are better forgotten. But some, like Colonel Craig Brown, remain surprisingly popular years after their first appearance. By this time, the piper had begun to replace the fifer in the daily task of notifying the various stages of the soldier’s day. The lack of suitable music can be seen in the extremely limited range of tunes selected by the different regiments, each applied to a particular event of the day. The pipes and drums also took over the formal duties carried out by the drums and fifes.

The popularity of retreat marches dates from the middle of the 19th century. What is strange is that the fashion for composing in this time signature does not appear to have got under way until the South African War at the end of the century. As is well known, The Green Hills of Tyrol was first arranged for the pipes in the Crimean War, and Sir Colin Campbell’s Farewell to the Highland Brigade, may also date from the same period. But 3/4 marches are rare until the opening decade of the 20th century. And the currently popular 9/8s seem to date from the Great War, and the Battle of the Somme.

More on what I think is the fascinating history of the pipe march in my next column.

• Click here to read part 2 of David’s article.