By Lt. Col. David Murray
Forty years ago HM The Queen paid her usual autumn visit to Edinburgh, arriving by train which in those days still ran to time. The protocol was that she was greeted at the station by a Guard of Honour found by the Scots Guards, specially imported from London, and at Holyrood Palace by one from the garrison battalion. On this occasion that battalion was the Cameron Highlanders, due to amalgamate with the Seaforth Highlanders in a few months.
As the Senior Major, I was detailed to command the Guard of Honour consisting of three officers, one carrying the Queen’s Colour and a hundred men plus the Band, Pipes and Drums. Our own Pipe Band was touring the United States at the time and the Seaforth had kindly sent over their Pipes and Drums from Germany for the occasion. The Pipe Major was Willie ‘Pipes’ MacLeod, an old friend from India days.
A couple of years previously an officer about to retire had handed on to me two of his father’s pre-1914 dress shirts. They were Irish linen, made to last, showed just the right amount of cuff, ideal for special occasions with the Number 1 green coatee:
This was the last Royal Guard the Camerons would mount so more than the usual amount of time was devoted to drill and turnout. Came the day, the Guard was inspected at Redford after which we all moved to Holyrood Park, ready to fall in for the march to the forecourt of the Palace itself.
In those far off days officers still had a batman to look after their kit. On occasions like this one it was usual for the batmen to give their officers a final brush up just before the Guard fell in. Let’s call my own man Private MacSporran, a friend as well as a good soldier.
As MacSporran was giving me a final once-over, the Right Guide of the Guard, CSM MacDonald 33, aka ‘Black Jock’, sought me out, halted smartly, saluted and said, “Are you wearing the same shirt you wore on the dress rehearsal?”
Puzzled, I replied, “No, but I’m wearing one just like it’. ’33’ went on: “Well, when you turn about your kilt flies up and we can all see your shirt tail!” With an effort, I refrained from pointing out to ’33’ in lurid terms how well I thought he had timed his message. Upper lip stiff, I managed a strangulated “Thank you, Sergeant Major!”
Now, I reckoned my personal drill was as good as any and better than most so I was ready to give the Sovereign a complete demonstration of how to command a Guard of Honour. Needless to say, the procedure involved turning about on several occasions, one in front of Her Majesty herself. I thought fast and made my decision. “MacSporran,” I said. “Take my sgian dubh and cut 12 inches off the tail of my shirt!” “Do what?” he replied. My patience snapped. “You heard me! Now do what you’re bloody well told!”
By this time all the Guard had realised the situation and were watching MacSporran and me with some interest. So were the citizens who had gathered to see the show. Knowing full well that the Edinburgh folk enjoyed nothing better than an officer making a fool of himself, I called on the Guard to stand around me.
After some tugging and stabbing at the offending shirt tail MacSporran reported ‘It’ll no’ cut, sir!’ By this time, I was thinking clearly. I drew my broadsword, — it had been my father’s and surely wouldn’t fail me in my hour of need — “Try this!”
More stabbing, tugging and pulling. “It’s no go, Sir!”
Disaster! What to do? Another blinding thought! I knew that the Seaforth Pipe Major carried an officer’s dirk and these, like our own, were sharp on one side of the blade. “Go to the Pipe Major and ask to borrow his dirk”. The dirk duly arrived. “It’s cutting now, Sir!” God bless Willie Pipes! Cabar feidh gu brath!
Having made the initial cut, MacSporran now proceeded to tear off the tail. However, being of genuine pre Great War Irish linen, the shirt tore right up the line of the seam, across the shoulder, and down the other side. MacSporran was left holding up something resembling a tablecloth. From having too much shirt tail, I now had too little. In the Cameron Highlanders, the kilt was worn in the traditional manner, without underwear. You get the picture?
When the time came, the Guard marched boldly on, myself at their head, albeit somewhat pensive. When the preliminaries demanded, I turned about demurely, taking care that my kilt didn’t fly up too much, if it all. While we awaited the arrival of Her Majesty, I considered my problem. The Duke of Edinburgh, our Colonel-in-Chief, would be watching. HRH was well known as a ‘Jonah’; his presence could reduce normally competent officers to idiocy. Was I to be yet another scalp for his collection?
Her Majesty arrived. The Guard, as always, rose to the occasion. The time came for me to march up to her and report the Guard. I turned, and lo and behold, Lieutenant General Sir George Collingwood, the Commander in Chief Scotland, was escorting The Queen towards me! Situation saved! And by sheer luck! I wouldn’t have to march up to her, report, and turn about in front of her! Oh, ye of little faith!
CSM MacDonald ‘33’ had the last word. “What star were you born under, sir?”
• From the December 2001 Piping Times.