• From the July 2000 Piping Times.
The final part of our story on the office of Sovereign’s Piper, with excerpts from articles by Neville T. McKay and Bryan Douglas, Royal Scottish Pipers Society, the latter an interesting tale concerning King Edward VIII and Society member, Colonel CM Usher.
In London, the pipe majors of the Scots Guards were granted a warrant in 1932 as Household Pipers to the Sovereign, and required to provide 12 pipers to play at state banquets.
The manner in which George V’s interest was aroused in piobaireachd affords an intriguing story. In 1927 the late Seton Gordon, known to the King as a naturalist and author, was judging the piping competitions at Braemar Gathering. One of the competitors was Robert Brown, an employee on the Balmoral estate and the King asked how he had played. Seton Gordon replied that Brown had played very well but would be even better if he could be sent to Inverness during the winter for advanced tuition under John MacDonald. The King replied: “I can’t spare him; he trapped three thousand rabbits for me last winter.” Seton Gordon answered: “I would rather have a piper who had been under John MacDonald than a man who had trapped three thousand rabbits.”
The King readily saw the point and both Robert Brown and his colleague Robert Nicol were released for tuition several weeks each winter until the outbreak of war in 1939.
They were encouraged by the King to compete at the major gatherings, where they won the principal awards, and he would ask them to play their competition pieces to him on their return.
In 1935 John MacDonald was awarded the MBE for services to the art of piping and his status amongst pipers was confirmed by a special appointment as Honorary Piper to the King.
After the investiture he was invited to play at Balmoral where he found the King to be an attentive listener.His appointment as Honorary Piper was continued through succeeding reigns until his death in 1953.
Henry Forsyth retired as piper to George VI in 1941 and no further appointment was made until after the end of the war when P.M. Alex MacDonald of the Scots Guards was selected. He continued to serve the present Queen until 1965. Following his retirement, it was decided to remove the post from the Queen’s civil list and draw for the future on the services of an experienced Army pipe major who would retain his Army status and pay although a member of the Master of the Household’s department at Buckingham Palace.
Andrew Pitkeathly of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders was the first to be appointed on this basis. He had won the Gold Medal at Inverness in 1949 and held the rank of Warrant Officer Class 1. The change in 1966, which removed the post of royal piper from the Queen’s salaried staff to one of secondment from the Army as a serving soldier, had an important effect. It settled the question of status which, as a royal servant, had been somewhat ambiguous and had led to contention over which additional duties might be required.
Since the Second World War the rank of pipe major in the Army allows progression to warrant officer; anyone qualified for secondment to the Palace would probably be a warrant officer and his subsidiary duties would be consistent with this status.
The story of the office of Piper to the Sovereign provides evidence of the major influences that have contributed to the status of the Highland bagpipe in Scotland today. Royal patronage conferred respectability but also encouraged a new style of ceremonial piping that was a departure from the traditional pattern based on piobaireachd.
Paradoxically, the performance of piobaireachd benefited from the facilities which the social season on Deeside offered for some of the best performers to meet and exchange their favourite music. Their influence extended through John MacDonald to the Balmoral pipers Robert Brown and Robert Nicol, and in their lifetime Deeside once again became a centre of excellence, with pipers from many parts of the world seeking tuition from them.
Colonel C.M. Usher, Gordon Highlanders was responsible for another significant chapter in the history of royalty and piping. Col. Usher, DSO, OBE will be known to many pipers as the title of the tunes Captain CM Usher’s Reel by P.M. James Robertson and a 2/4 march believed to be the last tune composed by the great G. S. MacLennan. Colonel Usher was taught by both GS and his father Lieutenant John MacLennan, and, as one would expect, was said to have been competent piper who was very enthusiastic about piobaireachd. He was also an outstanding rugby player who was capped 16 times for Scotland. There were fewer international games in those days so this is a formidable record, particularly as he played for his country in 1912, 13 and 14 and after war service in 1920, 21 and 22.
The Gordons were among the first troops across the channel after the outbreak of World War 1. During the retreat from Mons some of the troops did not receive the order to withdraw and Usher was among those eventually captured. He continued to play the pipes in captivity and organised a pipe band and reel dancing to help to maintain fitness and morale.
Later in his career he was to play another interesting role in piping. HRH the Prince of Wales, briefly King Edward VIII, and thereafter the Duke of Windsor, had been taught to play the pipes by Willie Ross and apparently was quite keen on the ‘noble instrument’.
The Prince was going to visit Edinburgh in 1935 and Col. Usher arranged that he would make an informal visit to the Scottish Pipers’ Society (founded on November 21, 1881) at one of their meetings. The Prince duly attended, accompanied by various dignitaries, including Colonel Usher, and fell in with the Society band. By royal request they played The Green Hills, Nut Brown Maiden and the Skye Boat Song. A member of the Society played the Prince’s composition, Mallorca, a seldom heard slow march. Then, full marks for courage, the Prince entertained those present with a slow march before joining the members for a dram or two. In 1937 King George VI granted the title ‘Royal’ to the Society which has since been known as the Royal Scottish Pipers’ Society.