By Major D. M. Henderson, Women’s Royal Army Corps TA
Continuing the article 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.
After the First World War there was a serious shortage of mature Army pipers and many of Willie Ross’s pupils were young and inexperienced. He himself was at the height of his powers, consistently competing in and winning at all the major piping competitions. In addition, he composed and published widely. Willie was a master of piobaireachd as well as of light music, (marches, strathspeys and reels) and he matched this ability with a warm Highland personality, an impish humour and a fine turn of phrase. Arriving at the Castle in October 1922, the 17-year-old piper John Slattery of the 2nd Battalion King’s Own Scottish Borderers recorded:
“After a long journey from Ireland I arrived at Edinburgh reporting to Willie Ross, and of course Mrs Ross who was a fine lady. I had my Pipes in an empty sandbag, not having a pipe case. This didn’t impress Willie Ross very much …
“On Monday at the commencement of the course everybody had to play a selection on the Pipes so that Willie could hear what sort of standard we were … I was very soon introduced to Piobaireachd, and we were more or less expected to learn one in one or two days … there was no music for marches, strathspeys or reels. They were all taught by ear from Willie Ross, all off the fingers and when we learned the tune we wrote it into our book …”
Until 1927, correspondence, administrative matters and the arrangements for the payment of the annual grant to the Society had been conducted through Kneller Hall. However, once the teaching of the Army Class became established in Edinburgh Castle it seemed only sensible that the point of liaison between the Piobaireachd Society and the War Office be changed to Scottish Command where there was a considerable number of knowledgeable, playing, serving Officers who could use their expertise to assist in candidate selection.
In the same year, as a result of problems with standards, a detailed syllabus was drawn up by the Society and specimen examination papers were circulated to piping regiments. The six-month course was divided into four parts; the first month was given over to theory with elementary music reading and writing, the second month concentrated on piobaireachd. In the third month the pupils continued theory, reading and writing to an advanced level and for the final three months they learned more piobaireachd together with “difficult marches, strathspeys and reels”. Graded certificates were also introduced.
At this time relations between the War Office and the Piobaireachd Society could not have been better. The annual grant was increased to £75 and it was without reserve that the War Office wrote in 1927:
… Commands both at home and abroad have expressed … a unanimously favourable opinion on the training given at the course, and a strong desire that the facilities afforded may be continued. In this opinion The Army Council concur, and desire to record their appreciation of the work done by the Society to maintain and advance the standard of Piping in the Army.”
Between 1919 and 1939 Willie Ross taught about 112 military pupils at the castle and upon the outbreak of the Second World War his services were placed, with his consent, at the disposal of Scottish Command, the classes and the grant to the Society again being suspended. With the Society’s agreement a remarkable new scheme was drawn up. For the duration of the war the courses were to be of one month’s duration and were to be open to all pipers in infantry battalions and Infantry Training Centres in Scotland as well as to members of the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force. Each unit sending a candidate to the ten man course subscribed 15/— to the Piobaireachd Society who continued to pay Willie Ross’s salary, rent and telephone account. The men were billeted in a lodging house in the City and were taught in the flat in Crown Square.
As Scotland acted as a major training and staging centre the courses became international in character and Pipers from all over the world, especially the countries of the Empire, flocked to attend. For the first time the teaching of the great Willie Ross became available to the average as well as to the able players and Canadians, South Africans and Americans were amongst his pupils as well as the first recorded Irish soldiers, Pipe Major Phair and Lance Corporal Samson of the Irish Guards. These war time courses were popular and highly regarded and there are many ex-pipers today who speak with great affection of the all too short time spent under the tuition of “the grand old man”, then in his 60s, but still the unrivalled master and teacher. By the time the Second World War ended Ross is believed to have taught some 700 pupils on these one-month courses.
The post-war period started badly. Apparently, without consultation with the Piobaireachd Society, and before the War Office grant was restored, Scottish Command announced a proposal to set up a Central School of Piping under Pipe Major Ross. Ross was by now in his late 60s, but he was still the Society’s tutor and not a serving soldier. No mention was made in these proposals as to how Ross was to be paid or whether the Society was to be recompensed in any way for their pioneering efforts or the loss of their tutor; the Army was desperately short of Pipers, but the Society considered that Willie Ross’s talents would be completely wasted in the teaching of beginners and that it was virtually an insult to ask him to undertake the work. Thus a great deal of lack of tact and hurt pride was involved in the arguments which followed.
In 1946 however the War Office grant was restored to the Society and the six month courses resumed under Pipe Major Ross. Standards were low and a “Preliminary Class” was introduced at Dreghorn Barracks, Edinburgh, to try to prepare players to the required standard. The Army pressed for the acceptance of Irish and Gurkha Regimental Pipers on the courses, but this move was resisted by the Society.
While the Irish question was left unresolved, it was finally agreed that Gurkha soldiers be permitted to attend and the first men to receive this special teaching in 1952 were Pipe Major Padanbahadur Rai, 1/7th Gurkha Rifles and Sergeant Ranbahadur Pradhan, 2/10th Gurkha Rifles.
Throughout the early 1950s the military authorities continued to exert pressure on the Piobaireachd Society to expand the instruction and teach a wider variety of courses and a greater number of pupils. The Society had little money and, in loyalty to their now aged tutor, was reluctant to put too much strain on him or dismiss him in favour of a younger man. Pressure also came from the Ministry of Works who increased the rent of the Pipe Major’s flat in Crown Square, demanding to know why a civilian was living in the Castle at all. The situation was an impasse and it was only when Willie Ross became seriously ill and was forced to retire in 1958 that a way ahead was discussed on any sort of rational basis.
It was clear that the Society could no longer subsidise military piping tuition or pay the tutor and yet by the very success of their pioneering and unique venture they had created a demand and identified a clear gap in military musical instruction. Because of the nature of the instrument and its music Piping had to be taught separately by pipers, not ordinary musicians, and after lengthy consultations with the Piobaireachd Society and informed serving officers it was finally decided to appoint a full time military instructor wholly funded, managed and disciplined by the Army, while the Society would continue to be represented on the Boards of Examination and provide advice and guidance where required. The establishment was thus adjusted to allow Pipe Major (WO 1) John MacLellan of the Seaforth Highlanders to be appointed the first Pipe Major Instructor in October 1959.
The Army School of Piping, based at the outset in Edinburgh Castle, could not have had a more competent or capable instructor. A variety of courses was instituted covering a range of skills, and candidates from the Royal Scots Greys, the Irish Brigade, the Brigade of Gurkhas and the Commonwealth all became eligible for tuition along with Highland and Lowland Pipers. For some years the Piobaireachd Society continued to contribute towards the funds of the School, while Society members still sit on the Boards of Examination and the President’s signature is a required part of the coveted certificate awarded to the successful senior candidates aspiring to the rank of Pipe Major. The Society also presents a prize each year to the student who has shown the most progress and it was, in addition, closely involved in the elevation of the status of the ‘Pipe Major Instructor’ to ‘Director of Army Bagpipe Music’ (DABM) with commissioned rank, John MacLellan being the first officer to hold this appointment in 1968.
John was succeeded by Captain Andrew Pitkeathly of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and he, in his turn, by the present Director, the first appointee with field rank, Major John Allan, Queen’s Own Highlanders. Under Major Allan, a top class player in his own right, The Army School of Piping is presently responsible for the teaching, preservation, inspection and development of all branches of Pipe Music in the Army. While maintaining close contact with the curriculum at Ouston (for Junior entry) and the Scottish Divisional Depot (for Senior entry), the School also supervises and teaches six types of classes:
• The potential Pipers’ Course for beginners and novices which has recently moved location to the Scottish Divisional Depot. This is a popular course and has attracted many serving soldiers to piping.
• The week long Territorial Army Pipers’ Course, which is well attended and is of considerable value to TA and UDR players.
• The three week ‘Class 1’ or Senior Pipers’ Course, held three times a year. This course acts as an important teaching medium and screening process for the Pipe Majors Course, allowing players to display their potential, aptitude and musical skill.
• The one month Gurkha Pipers’ Course held in Hong Kong.
• The Piobaireachd Course lasting three weeks, which is designed for Army players who plan to compete at the highland games or improve their technique before attending the Pipe Majors’ Course.
• The traditional and now famous Pipe Majors’ Course, the satisfactory completion of which is still a prerequisite for consideration for the rank of Pipe Major. This course lasts for seven months.
The advice of DABM is constantly sought on all matters of piping and he spends a busy month between the end of the Pipe Majors’ Course and the beginning of the Edinburgh Military Tattoo carrying out pipe band inspections world wide. Combined retreats, highland dancing, pipe band drumming courses, advice to ACF, CCF and OTC pipe bands, as well as supplying Pipers for Headquarters Scotland and Scottish Division events, are all combined into a busy annual programme. The close and important liaison with the Piobaireachd Society is also maintained and DABM, apart from being a recognised and much sought after senior judge, is also a member of the prestigious General Committee of the Society.
In the Army today piping is popular, but it is consistently difficult to maintain standards when pipers and drummers are scattered in rifle companies and hold dual, and not always compatible roles, of piper and rifleman. All too often there is little sympathy for players who must of necessity memorise all their music, whose instrument is highly specialised and traditional and was never intended to be played with a military band, who maintain and wear a complex and expensive uniform and who must play their pipe every day to prevent the reeds and bag deteriorating. The School therefore tries hard not only to teach players, but also to promote a better understanding in all these areas.
In spite of pressing financial, manpower and training-time piping is conducted in an atmosphere of absolute enthusiasm for the instrument and its music which, but for the dedication of the few members of a private Society, might well have fallen from military popularity for want of support, tuition and expertise.
From the August 1990 Piping Times.