From humble beginnings — the story of the Army School of Piping; part 1

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By Major D. M. Henderson, Women’s Royal Army Corps TA

Piping and dancing competitors at the highland games held in Poona, India in 1904. (Photo: National Library of Scotland).

The following article is reprinted from British Army Review of 1988. We are grateful to Brigadier P. H. O’meara and to the author, Dr Diana Henderson, for permission to publish it here.

Through an arched grey stone walkway of Edinburgh Castle and at the top of a narrow winding stair, lies an important military and musical teaching establishment, The Army School of Piping. The School has for many years enjoyed a world wide reputation amongst Pipers and the teaching there has produced and nurtured some of the great players of this century. Ironically however, the Army can claim little credit for the establishment and development of this unique facility and behind the efficient, modern, military teaching of the Great Highland Bagpipe lies a romantic and quite remarkable story.

Although pipers had played, served and fought with the British Army for many hundreds of years, it was not until January 28, 1854 that orders were issued to each highland regiment to include one Pipe Major and five pipers as additional to their establishments. The instructions related only to the highland regiments, and the Guards, lowland Scots and Irish battalions, who were not included at that time, merely held their pipers on strength as ordinary soldiers or drummers. The Pipe Major and five official pipers in the 42nd, 71st, 72nd, 74th, 78th, 79th, 92nd and 93rd Regiments now comprised an elite in the British Army and received a special rate of pay of 1/10d per day for the Pipe Major and 1/1d for a piper.

Evidence would suggest that most of the Army pipers of the 19th century could already play when they enlisted and their instruction in the Battalion was the responsibility of the Pipe Major, who taught his group of select players according to his own ability and knowledge. Few of the tunes were written down and most of the teaching was done by following the teacher’s fingers on the chanter, listening to the melody, or by singing in the highly stylised and traditional Gaelic verbal notation known as canntaireachd. Some Pipe Majors were more attentive to their duties than others, but most appear to have taught their players well and a considerable amount of regimental pride was involved in having a good Pipe Major who could play all the branches of pipe music, from the great classical pieces known as Piobaireachd, to strathspeys, reels, slow airs and the more modern march, which began to appear in Pipe repertoires in the early 19th century.

Often working in isolation in far flung outposts of Empire from Canada to India, these Pipe Majors not only developed individual styles of playing, but also made a substantial contribution to the composition of pipe music, especially marches. There was, however, no central teaching organisation and the quality of playing varied widely. With the inclusion of drummers and the development of the pipe band in the 1860s and 1870s, the playing of the ancient classical pieces, piobaireachd, seriously declined and few Pipe Majors played or taught any more than a small selection of favourite classical compositions, often cutting them short when playing at Mess or in competition.

It was with the aim of preserving, collecting, recording and playing traditional piobaireachd that a group of interested Highland officers and Highland gentlemen, all of whom were pipers, met at the Argyllshire Gathering in the autumn of 1902 and formed The Piobaireachd Society of Scotland, now known simply as The Piobaireachd Society.

The Society, dominated in its early years by military members, at once set about organising and endowing Piobaireachd competitions, laying down in the rules of those competitions the tunes and the style, or setting, in which the tunes were to be played. The first competition was held at Oban in 1904 and the winners were Pipe Major John MacDonald, 1st (Volunteer) Battalion Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders, Pipe Corporal G. S. MacLennan, 1st Battalion Gordon Highlanders and Corporal Piper William Ross, 1st Battalion Scots Guards. The competition was open to all players civilian or military and the results illustrate the important standing of Army piping at this time.

L-R: Pipe Major Willie Ross, George S. MacLennan and John MacDonald (Inverness).

In order to encourage the playing of older and less popular tunes The Piobaireachd Society then began to publish piobaireachd in broadsheet form and, in addition, held classes of tuition over the winter period of 1906-07. The tutors of these classes, paid for entirely by the Society, included Pipe Major John MacDonald of the Cameron’s Volunteer Battalion based at Inverness. His ability as a player, teacher and interpreter of Piobaireachd attracted pupils from far and wide and amongst these pupils were serving Army pipers who were given special leave to attend the classes.

By 1909 the demand for tuition from the piping battalions was such that the Society simply could not afford to bear the cost of the tutor’s fees alone, and well connected military members of the Society, including Lord Lovat the Society’s President, approached the Commandant of The Royal Military School of Music, Kneller Hall, with a view to some sort of financial assistance for piobaireachd teaching. The requests did not fall on unsympathetic ears as the Commandant of Kneller Hall at that time was Brigadier General Sir Alfred Granville Balfour, a Scot, who had served in the Highland Light Infantry and the Cameronians (Scottish Rifles). Balfour was conscious that pipers, piping and pipe bands formed an important branch of contemporary military music, but at the same time they had no comparable central military teaching system similar to that of Kneller Hall where Bandmasters and military band musicians were taught. The Commandant therefore supported the proposal for a subsidy for a piping class for Army scholars under the management and direction of the Piobaireachd Society, to be taught by the Society’s instructor and examined by a representative military officer with Piping knowledge and Piobaireachd Society Office bearers. The certificate to be awarded at the end of the course of instruction would entitle the bearer to be considered for the post of Pipe Major and confirm his efficiency in the theory and practice of all branches of pipe playing and pipe band management.

At the time these were radical proposals indeed. Not only was the grant suggested at a figure of £200pa, but the proposition was designed to remove part of the traditional regimental teaching role of the Pipe Major and place examination and eligibility for promotion virtually in the hands of a small private society.

Opposition to the proposals came from several sources, but mainly from the Financial Branch of the War Office who eventually proposed a grant of £40pa to allow three men to receive instruction at Inverness under Pipe Major John MacDonald. Only Pipers serving at Home were allowed to be selected as “passage money” from overseas was not allowed. Entry was further restricted to regiments where Pipers were officially recognised. By 1910 these were the highland regiments and the Scots Guards but not the Lowland or Irish Battalions. No firm arrangements could be agreed regarding accommodation or teaching facilities and a pall of doubt, difficulty and indecision now hung over the whole scheme.

The Piobaireachd Society however, strong, determined and influential, were in no way daunted by the icy water of the Financial Branch. Led by Lord Lovat, they pursued a single minded course in promoting the development of formal military piping tuition.

Left: Lt. General Sir Spencer Ewart KCB, Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders, Adjutant General 1910-14. Right: Pipe Major Willie Ross and students.

General Balfour became a member of the Society as did the Secretary of the War Office Sir Edward Ward and when a Cameron Highlander, Major General Sir Spencer Ewart, became Adjutant General in the summer of 1910 the seal was set.

Lovat, formerly an Officer in the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders Militia Battalion and the man who raised and commanded the Lovat Scouts, summoned representatives of all interested Piping Regiments, members of the Piobaireachd Society and War Office representatives, including the Adjutant General designate and the Commandant of Kneller Hall, to his London home in the early summer of 1910. At this private meeting it was agreed that a course of instruction for Regular and Reserve Pipers was necessary, that the first course would commence in October 1910 in Inverness under the instruction of John MacDonald, that the men would be housed in Cameron Barracks, the Depot of the Cameron Highlanders, that the Board of Examination would comprise three Piobaireachd Society members and three knowledgeable Officers with one Piobaireachd Society member as President and that the military authorities should not promote any man to the rank of Pipe Major without the Society’s certificate.

In spite of some last minute toothsucking, the first course assembled at Cameron Barracks on the 15th October 1910. As the War Office would only pay for three men to attend, the Piobaireachd Society themselves paid for a further three men and in addition made up John MacDonald’s salary to £60 by adding £20 from their own scarce resources to the £40 War Office grant.

The assembly of this course marked a major triumph over official opposition by a private society and also marked the beginning of a teaching tradition and co-operation that has no parallel in the British Army.

Pipers vied to attend the pre-war courses under the knowledgeable, charismatic and prestigious John MacDonald. He was officially appointed the Army’s first ‘Professor of Piping’, but he was much more than that. He was essentially a Highland gentleman who through teaching and innate skill had inherited a unique piping tradition, particularly in piobaireachd interpretation. His competitive results were without rival and there would be few who would dispute his title as the founder of modern Army piping.

The first course confirmed the Society’s fears. Many of the six men could play quite well in a band, but individual technique was poor as was musical theory and piobaireachd. The first Board of Examination met at Edinburgh Castle in January 1911 and only two men, Sergeant A. Ross and Corporal A. McKim, both of the Scots Guards, passed outright. Piper John Smith of the HLI, who was the best player, and Lance Corporal Haywood of the Seaforths were referred for a further course as they were unable to master the theory.

John MacDonald and the pipe band of the 4th (Territorial) Battalion QOCH, c1912 (Photo: NLS).

The Board recommended that it was impossible to teach a man to the standard required of a Pipe Major in three months and that the courses should be of six months duration.

Thus the pattern of piping tuition in the Army was set for the next 60 years with a private Society leading a frequently unwilling War Office through the tangled paths of the teaching of marches, strathspeys, reels and piobaireachds. The pupils were far from unwilling, however, and the demand from the lowland Scots regiments was such that the authorities had to give way and allow them to be considered as candidates, Sergeant J. A. Dunbar, 2nd Royal Scots, being the first lowlander to attend in the spring of 1911. Neither the Piobaireachd Society nor the War Office would allow Irish Pipers to be considered at this time because they played a two droned pipe, entirely different from the great Highland bagpipe, and they had no comparable tradition in piobaireachd.

Pipe Major John MacDonald held five classes before the First World War. Standards were high and men failed if they could not match up to the goals set by the Society. As these men returned to their battalions however, they began to spread the method, teaching and interpretation of their master and a new awareness and professional pride became apparent, an awareness which received considerable support from the many knowledgeable serving Officers of the period.

In August 1914, John MacDonald, then aged 48, was ordered to join his battalion on the outbreak of war and the classes were suspended, while the Piobaireachd Society, comprising largely serving or retired military men, ceased to meet. Notable amongst those office bearers of the Society who joined the colours was Major Stewart MacDougall of Lunga. Born in 1854 MacDougall of Lunga was commissioned into the 93rd Sutherland Highlanders in 1876. In 1882 he was seriously wounded at the Battle of Tel-el-Kebir while attached to the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders and returned home to become Adjutant of the 4th (Militia) Battalion Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. He retired in 1892 and became a member of the honourable Company of Gentlemen at Arms. He joined the Piobaireachd Society in its formative years and was a leading figure in the early and difficult negotiations with the War Office regarding the Army Class. In 1914 he was called up as a member of the Reserve. His son Ian, Adjutant of the 1st Battalion Grenadier Guards, was killed on September 1, 1914 and thereafter Stewart MacDougall put all his efforts into raising and commanding the 10th Battalion Gordon Highlanders. He insisted on going to France with his Battalion and he was killed near the La Bassée Canal in the Loos Sector on July 21, 1915; he was 61 years old.

In January 1914 the last pre-War class had moved in mid-course to Edinburgh Castle where better accommodation was available, the Society providing all the necessary teaching equipment, including the blackboard. When classes were resumed, apparently in the autumn of 1918, however, John MacDonald was no longer available as he held a well paid civilian job and could not be tempted away by the relatively small salary that the Piobaireachd Society was able to offer. Deciding that Edinburgh was the best location, Pipe Major John Grant was appointed as the Society’s tutor and the Army Classes were held in his house in the City.

Although well qualified, Grant was not a success, and he was dismissed by the Society. Piobaireachd Society tradition has it that several of the soldier students met a committee member of the Society, J. P. Grant of Rothiemurchus, in an Edinburgh street and complained about the quality of tuition, whereupon immediate action was taken and Grant was replaced by Pipe Major William Ross of the Scots guards, (placed third in the Society’s first competition at Oban and brother of Sergeant A. Ross, one of the pupils on the first course at Inverness).

Lord Lovat, President of the Piobaireachd Society (Photo: QOH Regimental Museum).

Known affectionately as ‘Willie Ross’, this man was to become an outstanding teacher of Army pipers and a legend in his own time. Ross was born in 1879 on Lord Lovat’s estate in Ross-shire where his father was Head Forester. He joined the Scots Guards in 1896 and became Pipe Major of the 2nd Battalion in 1905, serving with the same battalion during the First World War. In 1919 he was invalided out of the Army just at the time that the situation of Tutor to the Society became vacant and he remained in that capacity until he became too ill to continue in 1958. To provide him with some sort of serving military status, if one were required, and an additional income, Lord Lovat was instrumental in having Willie Ross appointed Pipe Major to the Lovat Scouts soon after his arrival in Edinburgh.

The grant of £40pa from the War Office was resumed in 1918 and the Society continued to arrange and supervise all the teaching, providing the tutor and the equipment free of charge as well as the certificates and the President and Piobaireachd Society members of the Boards of Examination.

Willie Ross was housed in a corner of the old barrack block in the Castle at Edinburgh and when this was torn down in 1927 to make way for the National War Memorial (NWM), the Duke of Atholl, President of the National War Memorial Committee, agreed to make NWM funds available for the provision of a flat for Ross to live in. Teaching took place in a further flat in the Palace Block just across Crown Square. This latter flat became a Mecca for pipers from all over the world and in one small room with an open fire, upon which a pot of pungent bagpipe seasoning would always be boiling, Ross taught three generations of military players. The rent for the accommodation was paid for by the Piobaireachd Society.

* Click here to read Part 2 of Diana Henderson’s article.

• From the July 1990 Piping Times.