• From the June 2005 Piping Times
By David Murray
Chatting on the telephone to Captain Stephen Small of the Army School of Piping the other day, Stephen mentioned that he had just had attended a course at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst.
“Tactics?” I enquired.
“No, no”, said Stephen, “equal opportunities, human rights, health and safety, duty of care, and all that”.
Changed days! thought I to myself, my mind going back 50 odd years to the time when I was Training Officer at the Cameron Barracks in Inverness. National Service was then in force, and the majority of recruits were young men doing their compulsory two years in the army. During the Second World War, 20 years earlier, men had been called up for ‘Three Years or the Duration’. Times had been hard, really hard, during the Depression of the 1930s. The majority of the men called upon to fight and die for King and Country in the infantry had been the less fortunate. Their King they had never seen; their Country to them meant slum streets, a cinema, a cheap dance hall, pick and shovel jobs, a chip shop, and, occasionally, a spit and sawdust pub. They were a tough, hard bitten, and cynical set of men. Life had done them no favours. To lead them, an officer needed his authority on his face as well as on his shoulder straps. I determined then that if I ever had the responsibility for training men I would make sure that they had seen at least something of the beauty of their own lovely Scotland, a land close to my own heart, and one that I had been prepared to die for.
The War Office in Whitehall laid down the training syllabus, but with a little judicious fiddling it was possible to create enough time to get out and about and see something of the hills and glens. When training out of barracks we always wore the kilt, the dress of the regiment, and marched to the sound of the pipes playing the old tunes, now largely forgotten except of course for The Green Hills and After the Battle.
It was the time when I was still a trainee judge, very much under the wing of J. P. Grant of Rothiemurchus, the ‘Sheriff’ of piping folklore. He asked me to join him on the bench at a competition being organised by the local piping society in a city not a hundred miles from Inverness. We drove over from Aviemore on the Friday before the event, and sitting that evening after supper I mentioned to him that I was going to take the senior intake of recruits on their final exercise over the Pass of Corrieyairack from Fort Augustus to Garvamore during the following week. The road, now a track, had been made by General Wade in the early 18th century to connect the garrison of Ruthven Barracks near Kingussie with the fort at the south end of Loch Ness.
A century earlier, in January 1645 during the Civil War, the Marquis of Montrose, the King’s General in Scotland, had found himself trapped between two hostile armies, the northern clans under Seaforth at Inverness, and the Campbells under the wily Earl of Argyll at Inverlochy to the south. Montrose led his royalist army of Clan Donald and their allies from Kilcumein at the south end of Loch Ness up to the top of the Corrieyairack Pass. There they had turned southwest, down Glen Roy, across Glen Spean and down Glen Nevis, surprising the Campbells and attacking them from the flank. The Campbells were routed. The pìobaireachd, Black Donald’s March may be connected with the battle. Rothiemurchus told me that according to Highland folklore on misty evenings as darkness fell a body of armed men had been seen hurrying over the pass. From eyewitnesses’ descriptions, historians had identified them as Montrose’s army on their daring night march to Inverlochy.
Rothiemurchus said,”If anyone can see them, it’ll be you, David, a Highland soldier!” I have to confess that I was flattered, but promptly forgot about Montrose’s ghostly army.
There’s a good story about the start of the competition next day, but it can wait. Accordingly, on a cold and grey morning at the end of March 1958, the senior intake set out on the 18-mile march from Fort Augustus over the Corrieyairack to Garvamore Barracks near Laggan in Strathspey. Garvamore is a day’s march west of Ruthven near Kingussie, where our redcoat predecessors 200 years before had staged for the night. It was now deserted.
We were about 80 strong, the column headed by our pipers, Iain MacFadyen with the 1957 Northern Meeting Gold Medal under his belt, Ian Fraser a pupil of Rothiemurchus’s from Carrbridge, nicknamed ‘Sheriff,’ of course, and Jock Smart, a former boy soldier; good players all. No matter how long the march, they were always up for a blow when the boys began to feel the distance. Wherever possible we marched across country, but not even the deepest heather could defeat our pipers. When keeping the step became impossible, the strains of the Highland Wedding, Atholl Cummers and Pretty Marion would waft across the Highland countryside, the pipers playing off each other’s fingers. However, there were nine miles to cover to the top of the pass, and nine miles down to Garvamore, so we set off up the hill to a selection of ‘wee’ Donald’s latest compositions.
About five miles up the road I fell behind the column. We were marching through thick mist. As I hurried to catch up, the sun broke through behind the mist. The pipes were playing Cabar Feidh, one of the magic tunes. It’s a moment I’ve never forgotten, the must, the sun, the kilted soldiers, and the pipes. About half way to the top is a little sheltered spot out of the wind that the English soldiers had christened ‘Snugborough’, and there we halted for a while. The climb then started in earnest and as all hill walkers know the weather above 1,500 feet can change quite dramatically. We had crossed the snow line, and as we climbed the wind blew stronger and visibility decreased steadily as the frozen snow was whipped up by the wind. But provided you can keep moving the kilt is the finest garment yet devised for hill walking in the Highlands.
It was as far back as it was forward, so on we pressed, in single file, each man holding the bayonet scabbard of the man in front. The pipers led the way, as always, ‘Sheriff’ Fraser in front. He had been a hill shepherd before he started soldiering, so this weather was nothing to him. Visibility was almost nil. I battled up the line of soldiers to the front. “Can you see the path, Ian?” I shouted over the wind. “I’m following the birds, sir,” Ian shouted back. There on the barely discernible path were a couple of ptarmigan in their white winter plumage, walking sedately a few yards ahead of us up the track. When we at length reached the other side of the pass, the birds suddenly flew off. Then it was a steep descent downhill to the floor of the glen.
By this time we were pretty well wet through. The pipes were soaked, totally unplayable. We cleared the snow line, reached level ground, halted, ate our haversack rations and had a quick roll call. Everyone was present, in good heart. They were hardy lads. I was proud of them. Then it was a long, hard slog with the wind and rain at our backs along the track to Garvamore. But dreich going it was with no music.
At Garvamore was waiting the administrative party, cooks and drivers, under Colour Sergeant Eddie Kearney, formerly a piper with the 2nd Camerons, and a veteran of the Western Desert and Keren. Owing to the lay of the land, we only came in sight a couple of hundred yards from their position. To my surprise, everything was ready for us, tea boiling, and stew hot and ready to serve.
“Good show!” I said to the Colour Sergeant.
“We knew you were coming”, was his response. “We heard the pipes coming down the glen!
“But, we haven’t played a note since the other side of the Corrieyairack!”
“We heard the pipes, didn’t we, lads?”
“Yes, we heard the pipes coming down the glen!” chorused the assorted cooks and drivers. “And I’m a piper, too, I know the pipes when I hear them,” said Kearney.
Well, well! I looked around. The rising wind had an eerie howl to it. The roar of the river, now running in spate, took on a sinister note. The Monadhliath Mountains frowned darkly through the cloud, the mist and the mirk. ‘Dark lowered the night’, indeed! Then I remembered Rothiemurchus, and his story about Montrose’s phantom army crossing the Corrieyairack. And then I thought of the two birds that had led us over the pass. How had they come to be there, and why had they decided to lead us, armed men in the kilt? What or indeed who might they have been? The situation grew weirder by the moment.
Being the son of a fey Highland mother, I made up my mind, fast. This was no place for us! My next order I had given only once before, during what might be best described as a spontaneous readjustment of the tactical situation during the Battle of Kohima, years before. “Let’s get the hell out of here!”
Ten years later Captain John MacLellan entered a competition organised by the Saltire Society for modern classical bagpipe composition. He won the Prince Charles Trophy and the Saltire Award with his tune. I believe it’s his best. He called it The Phantom Piper of Corrieyairack.
• Listen to a recording of the tune as played by Captain John’s son, Colin at an Eagle Pipers social evening in 2011: