Blue Bonnets to Amazing Grace – the origins of the Pipes and Drums of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards

By Andrew S. Gardiner

The Pipes and Drums of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards playing in George Square Glasgow, August 2014. Photo: © Brian Playfair.

During a televised programme of an Edinburgh Tattoo broadcast, there were occasional close-up shots of drummers in bearskins, overalls and spurs, highlighting the presence of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards in a display of massed Pipes and Drums. Such glimpses reminded me of an observation made some ten years ago by the former Assistant Curator of the Scottish United Services Museum,

‘Bill’ Boag, a well-known authority on military music. “Cavalry regiments” he said, “should not possess pipe bands!”. The comment arose when I was describing for him the uniforms and musical repertoire of a pipe band formed during the Second World War by the 1st Lothians and Border Yeomanry.

There is, however, amore significant association between the two events, one perhaps not widely known, namely, that the Pipes and Drums of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards are directly descended from that wartime creation.

The 1st Lothians, went to France as an armoured regiment in January 1940. Unfortunately, like so many others, the regiment effectively ceased to exist with the fall of France in the following June. Only three officers and 17 other ranks succeeded in avoiding capture after the final stand of the 51st Highland Division at the port of St Valery-en-Caux. This handful, together with some 60 officers and men, ie those back at base and the earlier evacuated wounded, provided the nucleus around which the regiment began to reform at Bovington in August 1940. This was accompanied by two further moves, first to Tidworth and then to Whitby in March 1941, where it eventually grew to full strength.

Such military musicians, as the regiment possessed previously, had disappeared ‘into the bag’ in France and it was at Tidworth that the possibility of forming a pipe band was first explored. The prime-mover of this novel idea was Lieutenant, The Hon F. M. Hepburne-Scott (later Major MC, with the 2nd Lothians & Border Horse) who had recently joined the regiment and who had practised piping, whilst a member of Eton College OTC.

A notice attached to Regimental Orders, Part II, asking for those who could play the pipes or drums to append their names, produced an initial response of three, all pipers; a number which gradually grew as prospective members were discovered among the various new intakes arriving at Whitby. Thus, within a period of a few months, Lt. Hepburne-Scott’s brainchild became a practical proposition. The all important supply of instruments was arranged by the Commanding Officer, Lieutenant-Colonel J. G. Crabbe MC, and thus, the 1st Lothians acquired an unofficial pipe band which reached in time a full strength of thirteen pipers and seven drummers. For its first public appearance, the pipe band led the regiment around Whitby for the purpose of ‘showing the flag’, which then became a popular weekly event, until the regiment moved to Helmsley. The regimental establishment did not carry provision for a Pipe Major; nonetheless, Sgt. Frank MacKay, a native of Stornoway, was given this title for the rest of his military service. At the same time, the members of the band were, in the first instance, all tradesmen, employed on the varied duties of an armoured unit and normally distributed among the four squadrons of the regiment.

During the war years, the band wore the standard battle dress and black beret. Pipe bags, however, were made distinctive by the Shepherd tartan and the drones were set off with ribbons of French-grey, the colour used on the facings of the regimental service-dress. Both the bass and tenor drums bore the Regimental Crest with the latter also displaying the Battle Honours; South Africa 1900-01, France and Flanders 1915, Doiran 1918 and Macedonia 1915-18. For formal parades, Blue Bonnets was adopted as the regimental march-past.

The 1st. Lothians’ Pipe Band playing at a football stadium in Deventer, The Netherlands in April 1945.

On a number of occasions during the campaign in Europe in 1944-45, when the regiment was being re-fitted, it was possible to bring together the members of the pipe band. One memorable event took place at St Valery, when they were invited, albeit as spectators, to witness the massed Pipes and Drums of the 51st Highland Division beating retreat in celebration of the town’s liberation. With the cessation of hostilities, all members of the band were transferred to HQ Squadron, then stationed in Holland and retreat was beaten in such towns as Apeldoorn, Arnhem and Denventer. During the regiment’s service in Germany, a visit was made by the pipe band to the 2nd Lothians, then stationed in Milan in Italy. By the spring of 1946, demobilisation had taken a considerable toll of numbers; it therefore seemed only a matter of time before the band would cease to exist, but for the fortunate take-over of another regiment by the Lothians in April of the same year.

This unit was the Reconnaissance Regiment of the 52nd Lowland Division, with a flourishing pipe band under the leadership of Pipe Major ‘Jock’ Gray, who had once served with the 4th (Territorial) Battalion, The Kings Own Scottish Borderers.

By this date, only five members remained of the original 1st Lothians’ pipe band, who soon found themselves outfitted in kilts, sporrans and hose-tops of the Black Watch pattern, which had been adopted by the pipe band of the former Recce Regiment, who in turn exchanged their badges for the Lothians’ garb.

In May 1946, preparations were in hand for victory celebrations on a wide scale. During that month the rejuvenated Lothians’ pipe band joined the pipe bands of the 52nd Division at Bielefeld in Germany for extensive rehearsals, prior to a three-day visit to Paris. A move to London then followed to meet up with the pipe bands of the 51st Highland Division for the Victory Parade in the Mall. This UK visit was subsequently extended to cover parades in Edinburgh and Glasgow by the 52nd and Aberdeen by the 51st.

On returning to the continent, the pipe bands of the 52nd Division, including the Lothians, went on to tour various cities in Switzerland, only for the latter to discover at the end of this tour that their parent regiment had been suspended with the termination of the ‘period of embodiment’ for the Territorial Army. But at least some prospect of continuity was at hand, when they received orders to report as a group to the Royal Scots Greys in Liineburg in the autumn of 1946. On the other hand, all instruments, with the exception of privately owned sets of bagpipes, had been returned to the custody of Col. J. G. (later Sir John) Crabbe MC. But, it was not long before Pipe Major Gray with the co-operation of the Adjutant, Capt. A. Sprot, had convinced the CO, that here was an asset, which could be put to good use, particularly as the Greys’ military band was at that time in the United Kingdom.

Progress was swift, as Jock Gray’s enthusiasm soon persuaded the regionally stationed Royal Scots Fusiliers to part with spare sets of bagpipes, side drums and a bass drum. Thus, within a month or so of his arrival, the Greys found themselves the possessors of a pipe band; ‘Jock Gray’s’ pipe band as it was affectionately known during those early years. Like their wartime predecessors, they first paraded in battledress with black glengarries for the pipers and black berets for the drummers, in both cases set-off with white hackles. But in the following year a supply of kilts, sporrans and hose-tops of the Black Watch pattern was obtained. Invitations were received from other units in the area especially those with no military musicians of their own. When the neighbouring 2nd Royal Tank Regiment left the town, their send off from Lüneburg Station was accompanied by Jock Gray’s adaptation of My Boy Willie. The popularity of the pipe band extended to the civilian population and it was once the subject of a short piece in a local Lüneburg newspaper.

The eventual arrival of the Greys’ regular military band under Bandmaster C. Ashley Holt in 1947 did cast, understandably, a shadow over the future of the pipe band. But perhaps it was its popularity, and the fact that some members had taken up Regular Army engagements or more importantly its intrinsic Scottish nature that prevented the axe of disbandment from ever falling. On one notable occasion in 1948, both bands took part in a radio broadcast from Hamburg, combining in a finale of Highland Laddie, a precursor of what has become a regular feature in the military parades of today, notably the Edinburgh Military Tattoo. Whatever the reason, it is clear, when we see the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards taking part in such events, that the existence of the pipe band, provisional as it was in the late 1940s, assumed in time a more permanent nature; one signifying a continuing historic link between Blue Bonnets and Amazing Grace.

* Andrew S. Gardiner is a member of the Lothians & Border Horse Yeomanry, Regimental Association.

• From the July 1998 Piping Times with permission from the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards’ Band International.