Niven photograph identification


We received quite a number of responses to the photograph that appeared on recently showing the legendary actor David Niven dancing as a group of six pipers played.

It seems the photograph was taken in 1947, around the time when the Queen Mary was refitted for passenger service following the end of the Second World War.

The piper at the front standing side-on is clearly Pipe Major J. B. Robertson, says John Shone, London, England. Andrew Bain is furthest away then David Ross, Rosehall, says John who goes on to say that he actually has a copy of the photo in a scrapbook which J. B. Robertson gave him many years ago. John will be giving a talk at next year’s Piobaireachd Society Conference on the subject of ‘The Boys’ Brigade and Piping’.

David Niven newly commissioned into the HLI.

Our post wondered whether the piper second from the back is Robert Reid but Colin MacLellan thinks not although he agrees that the piper behind J. B. Robertson may indeed be David Ross.

Willie Sinbaron reckons the third piper in facing camera is Jock Buchanan.

Yahya Hussein comments that after passing out at Sandhurst in 1933, Niven was gazetted into the HLI and no doubt knew how to dance as many young officers in those days had to learn. “Nice photo,” says Yahya but, my, Robertson’s top tenor!”

Interestingly, Niven’s father’s ancestry was Scottish and his mother’s French/Welsh. His father was an army officer who was killed in 1915 during the Gallipoli landings. In his biography, Niven mentions spending childhood holidays in Argyll and writes of rainy days spent being taught highland reels by a wounded piper of the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders.

Jeannie Campbell, Glasgow writes: “Niven went to prep school then Stowe public school then Sandhurst. Afterwards, when choosing his regiment, he put the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders as his first choice, The Black Watch as his second choice and his third choice as, ‘Anything but the HLI’. (This was a joke but partly because their officers wore trews; the men wore kilts and he wanted to wear a kilt).

“This backfired on Niven and he was commissioned in the HLI aged 18. At his first regimental guest night in the officers’ mess he described how at the Toast to the King several officers ostentatiously passed their glasses over their glass of water to show their loyalty to the exiled Stuart king over the water. Then, after the toast, the eight pipers played in and marched round and round the table then the Pipe Major played his solo pibroch, Desperate Battle of the Birds. The Colonel then led the officers into the ante room where they danced highland reels.

“Niven also described the Caledonian Ball in Grosvenor House, London where teams of officers from every highland regiment had to dance an eightsome reel. In the middle, the Duke of Atholl’s private sixteensome was positioned and, around them, the eightsome teams of the six Highland regiments (HLI, Black Watch, Gordons, Camerons, Seaforth, Argylls). Niven was in the HLI team and the Pipe Major had been polishing up their dancing for days.

“Niven left the army in 1933 and went to USA but returned on the outbreak of war, was commissioned in the Rifle Brigade then transferred to the Commandos and was stationed at the training base at Inverailort.”

Thanks to all who wrote in.