Restored bagpipe rekindles memory of fallen WW1 hero

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In 2010, renowned pipe maker and restorer, Blue MacMurchie of West Calder, Scotland, was asked to refurbish a set of pipes that belonged to a solider who was killed playing them just before the Great War ended. Blue wrote the following account in the November 2010 Piping Times:

By Blue MacMurchie

Like so many of the fallen of the First World War, Duncan MacKenzie of the 10th Cameronians is now but a name, perhaps faceless, on a war memorial somewhere. But Duncan MacKenzie was more fortunate than most. He was a piper and luckily his instrument survived the hostilities and is still with us today. It was my honour to be given the job of restoring it to playing condition.

Happily, this has been accomplished to everyone’s satisfaction. Recently, the pipes were played by me for the first time since his tragic death all those years ago. Could we now say that Duncan, who fell in 1918 during the last months of the Great War, lives on through this instrument?

The carefully tended cemetery at Buzancy, France where Duncan MacKenzie is buried.
The carefully tended cemetery at Buzancy, France where Duncan MacKenzie is buried.

He was born in Letters, Loch Broom, Wester, Ross, in 1885. He “joined the Cameronians in May 1916 and left for France that September. After seeing a lot of action he, was fatally injured on July 23rd, 1918, and died of wounds the following day aged 32: He is buried at Buzancy.

The only correspondence we have concerning his death was scratched onto a piece of brown paper. It reads:

“26th September. Dear Mr Sutherland, Please excuse me for not answering before your letter of 26th asking for information about Pte D. MacKenzie. I was separated from the Battalion for some time so could find out nothing about him. I hear the poor fellow was wounded on the 23rd of July and died the following day. He was lying out for several hours before he could be got in. But they tell me his wound was so serious he never could have pulled through. He was buried a short distance behind the fighting line not far from Buzancy. Yours sincerely, James M Lamont, Scottish Rifles.”

The pipe chanter and drones.

We don’t know who Mr Sutherland was. Duncan’s pipes were shipped back from France with the rest of his belongings to the MacKenzie family and have lain in their possession since.

When I first saw them in their wooden box it was like hundreds I had seen before, the box scarcely large enough for the pipes. The ferrules were loose and there was a box of four pipe chanter reeds of which two still worked. I placed the ‘workers’ in the chanter and it was a spooky feeling knowing that these reeds had not been played since Piper Duncan MacKenzie had last played them sometime at the front in France in 1918.

The bag, cover and stocks were missing. Why? Who knows? Maybe another battlefield piper had had his instrument shot up and needed these parts to get his own back into working order so that he could play to rally the troops. We can only guess at that one. I think I would have volunteered to go back to Scotland to personally supervise the fitting of replacement parts but I doubt if my superiors would have allowed that. They would have been right not to let me go. I wouldn’t have been rushing back to the hell of the trenches too quickly.

Blue MacMurchie playing the pipes in 2010.
Blue MacMurchie playing the pipes in 2010.

Upon examination of the pipes, my son John discovered (with keener eyesight than mine) the maker’s stamp — Chisholm of Glasgow*, who I believe was in business from 1901 to 1925. The pipes are of cocus wood and stained black, though a lot of the stain has gone and reveals the natural colour. The workmanship is very good. The chanter is around concert A in pitch and I believe the lovely drone tone drone would complement any modern chanter.

Upon making the required parts, bag, reeds and getting the Douglas ribbons and cover made, they once again where assembled and ready for playing for the first time in more than 90 years. As a matter of interest, where the ferrules and mounts were loose I used the original hemp and some glue to fix them onto the parts.

I know that the Cameronian pipers had Black Douglas tartan but according to those at the Cameronian’s Museum, the 10th Battalion was raised quickly and they had run out of kit. Anything went.

I played the pipes with new cane drone reeds, leather bag and original chanter reed and set the drones to the position as set by Duncan all those years ago. The result was a sonorous, steady tone if a little flat. I think Gold Medal performances amongst the gunfire, shell bursts and complete mayhem would not have been a priority for him. Going over the top and someone saying ‘hey MacKenzie ya need to sink the reed and put a bit tape on the F ‘n’ G!’ would have brought forth a suitably salty reply.

After the restoration, which Duncan’s family had rightly told me to keep to a minimum, I decided to go from the workshop to the local war memorial at West Calder, West Lothian, and strike the pipes up. I felt I needed to pay both piper and his pipes some respect. So, what was the first tune played on that bagpipe since 1918? MacRobert’s Lament (The Flight of the Eaglets) by Pipe Major Willie Ross. Though written about a family’s loss in the Second World War, I thought the poignant melody appropriate.

• Duncan’s great nephew was Ian MacKenzie. Ian worked at the School of Scottish Studies in Edinburgh for nearly 25 years. It was a lifetime ambition of Ian’s to have the pipes restored and played in public. This wish was fulfilled on December 12, 2010 when the BBC’s Gary West played the pipes at a memorial concert for Ian in the Columcille Centre, Edinburgh. Proceeds went to the School of Scottish Studies archive. Gary played Cabar Féidh in honour of the MacKenzie clan. Ian’s widow, Talitha MacKenzie, a Scottish music lecturer at the RSAMD, has been the driving force in getting the pipes restored and organising the concert for her late husband.

* According to Jeannie Campbell’s Highland Bagpipe Makers book, John Chisholm first appears as a bagpipe maker in 1901 at two address in Glasgow city centre, one at Argyle Street, close to Central Station and one at the other end of that street near the Trongate (Glasgow Cross). In 1912, Chisholm entered into a parnership with Hunters, a dealer in diamonds, gold and silver watches, guns, musical instruments and antiques etc. The company continued to make bagpipes untl 1949.


History of the Cameronians

The reforms of the army during the 1960s saw several regiments amalgamated. The Cameronians chose to disband rather than amalgamate with another Lowland Scottish regiment. The 1st Battalion, The Cameronians, was disbanded in 1968, with its recruiting area taken over by the King’s Own Scottish Borderers; the Regimental Headquarters closed in 1987. The name of the Cameronians continued through the Territorial Army, with two companies of the 52nd Lowland Volunteers badged as Cameronians. One company was disbanded in 1992, and the other was rebadged as the King’s Own Scottish Borderers in 1997.

On August the 13th, 1914, the 1st Battalion (the old 26th Cameronians) left Maryhill Barracks, Glasgow, for France. The Battalion was recalled from manoeuvres in the Highlands and was in the pink of condition. It took its place at the Battle of Mons on the extreme left of the line, and was involved in the retreat to Paris, being present at the Bloody Battle of Le Cateau and also at Nery. The 2nd Battalion (the old 90th) was not long in arriving from Malta, and took part in the terrible Battle of Neuve Chapelle where it was almost wiped out. Its gallant conduct on this occasion was specially noted by the Commander-in-Chief. It again suffered heavily shortly afterwards at the Battle of Fromelles.

The 6th Territorial Battalion fought gallantly at Festubert. It was not long before the regiment was reinforced by the addition of numerous Service Battalions, the 18th Battalion being in action at the signing of the Armistice in 1918.

The badge of The Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) is a Mullet of the Coat of Arms of the Douglas family upon a stringed Bugle Horn, within two sprays of thistles.

Bugles were used in light infantry regiments to give signals in the field in the same way as the drum was used in infantry line regiments. In 1881, the new amalgamated regiment was designated as a rifle regiment. The Cameronians did not wear tartan until 1881 when, in common with other Lowland regiments, they adopted the Government, or Black Watch, tartan. It was only in 1891 that the regiment was authorised to wear the Douglas tartan, which was taken into use the following year. The use of the Douglas tartan reflects the origins of the 26th Cameronian Regiment.

In 1881, when the regiment was designated a rifle regiment, the officers and men were clothed in the distinctive Rifle Green cloth with bands of black thistle lace on the shako and black cords. The pipers of the regiment also wore the Douglas tartan.

Though now gone, the name of this proud regiment lives on in The Cameronian Rant one of our greatest ‘competition’ strathspeys.

* Here is a clip of Bobby Allen from North Lanarkshire in Scotland playing The Cameronian rant and John Morrison of Assynt House. Bobby was 13-years-old at the time: