Stories of the Tunes: Cock of the North

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An artists impression of Findlater's winning of the Victoria Cross at the Heights of Dargai.

Last week we kicked off an occasional series looking at the stories behind some of our well known tunes. The tune we looked at was Pibroch of Donald Dubh. Today we look at Cock of The North.

In the late 1890s, when news came of Piper Findlater’s exploits at Dargai in 1897 and his award of the Victoria Cross in 1898, Cock o’ the North became the ‘must play’ tune and advertisements for Highland Games would contain the line ‘Pipe Band will play The Cock o’ the North’ … despite even Findlater himself being unsure which tunes he had actually played.

The following was written by James E. Scott, a regular contributor to the Piping Times during the first decade since its first appeared. This particular piece was published in the magazine’s November 1961 edition.

An artists impression of Findlater’s winning of the Victoria Cross at the Heights of Dargai.

By James E. Scott

I have no doubt some of your older readers will remember the storming of the Heights of Dargai by the Gordon Highlanders and a battalion of Ghurkas. As was usual at one time, the fierce tribesmen of the North-West Frontier were causing trouble and a punitive force was sent against them. On arriving at Dargai this force found their advance checked by the tribesmen being strongly entrenched on the Heights of Dargai. It was essential for the success of the Force that the tribesmen be dislodged and driven from their position, and this task was allotted to the Gordons and Ghurkas. As they charged up the hill Piper Findlater of the Gordons was shot in the ankle. Unable to go forward, the gallant piper propped himself against a rock and cheered on his comrades to the strains of the Cock o’ the North.

When the news of this exploit reached home the tune became very popular and every piper included it in his repertoire. Today we never hear the air.

It is a very old tune. Even if we do not accept the tradition that it was played at the execution of Queen Mary, we know that its age takes us back to the 17th century. Mr. Pepys, of Diary fame, tells us that when the English sailors left the deserted “Royal Charles” in the Medway in 1667, a Dutch trumpeter sounded the tune from the deck of the captured ship.

According to musical authorities, the structure of the tune shows it to have been originally a trumpet one, and strangely enough, throughout the whole course of its existence it seems to have been used in defiance or ridicule.

Pipe Major Bob Nicol with the 2nd Batt. Gordon Highlanders at Le Thuit in France in 1944. The Corporal is Findlater, son of Findlater VC.
Pipe Major Bob Nicol with the 2nd Batt. Gordon Highlanders at Le Thuit in France in 1944. The Corporal is Findlater, son of Findlater VC.

We have a striking instance of this use during the siege of Lucknow in the Mutiny of 1857. It was the practice to signal by flag and bugle call from the City to the Residency, both in a state of siege. On one occasion a drummer boy, named Ross, after the signalling was over, again climbed to the high dome from which it was conducted and, in spite of the Sepoy rifles, sounded The Cock o’ the North as a defiance.

The original name of the tune was “Joan’s placket is torn”(Placket is an obsolete word meaning a petticoat). It is difficult to find out when the tune was first named The Cock o’ the North, or when it was adopted as a British army tune under that title. We may surmise that the title comes from the Marquiss of Huntly who was familiarly known as The Cock o’ the North, and whose family name was Gordon.

The tune is in David Glen’s Collection of Bagpipe Music as a quickstep in three measures. In the 17th century it had only two.

• Watch the massed Pipes and Drums play Cock o’ the North at Gordon Barracks, Bridge of Don, Aberdeen, Scotland as was part of the 2019 Armed Forces Day celebrations in Scotland: