The 91st at Modder River.

The Modder River is a tributary of the Riet River that forms part of the border between the Northern Cape and the Free State provinces of South Africa. On November 21, 1899 the river’s banks were the scenes of heavy fighting in the beginning of the Second Boer War (from October 11, 1899-May 31, 1902).

A British column attempted to relieve the besieged town of Kimberley, and forced Boers to retreat to Magersfontein where they would clash again a few weeks later. (The British suffered heavy casualties at Magersfontein and that battle is remembered in John MacLellan’s 3/4 march, The Highland Brigade at Magersfontein).

A contemporary sketch depicting the 91st wading the Modder River.

During the fighting, two officers waded the river up to their waists and formed a hand-to-hand chain to get all the men across. In the Piping Times of November 2005, David Murray pictured the scene: “… the 91st wading the Modder River in their sodden kilts rubbing agonisingly against their blistered knees (they had lain face down all day under fire beneath the African sun) to clear the enemy form the far bank and make possible the first British victory of the South African War.”

Sherlock Holmes author, Arthur Conan Doyle Doyle served as a volunteer doctor at nearby Bloemfontein between March and June 1900 and later wrote two accounts of the war. In one of them, he wrote of Modder River:

Modder River – 28 November 1899

British Victory – Was a tiring day again with the heat and especially after forming at 4:30 am and being the 3rd battle in a week. Boers fled after British catch vital positions. Fiercest battle yet fought in the war. An almost impossible offensive task. The total Boer casualties may perhaps have amounted to 150, mainly due to shell-fire. 70 British were killed and another 413 were wounded.

Arthur Conan Doyle, The Great Boer War

Today, a windswept cairn marks the spot where the battle took place.

Archie McNab’s rarely heard setting of the tune as it appears in the ‘Cabar Feidh Collection’.

Pipe Major William Robb of the Argylls, composed the 2/4 march to commemorate the victory. Over the years there has been considerable debate as to the title of this outstanding composition, whether it was the 91st – the 1st Bn. Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders – or the 93rd Regiment – the 2nd Bn. Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders – that was engaged in the action. Archives record that during the Boer War the 93rd was in northern India.

The printed version of this excellent tune first appears in ‘Peter Henderson’s Tutor for Bagpipe’, published around 1908, under the title, The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders at Modder River. It is interesting to note the first F in the first bar of the second part is a dotted quaver, today most pipers slide up on the F to high A, and make them equal value.

Pipe Major James Robertson of the Royal Scots, published a book in 1925 wherein he included the tune, but named it 93rd at Modder River. He excluded the dot on the aforementioned F, the first note of the second part. Ex-Argyll Pipe Major, Willie Gray, maintained that the omission of the dot on the F in Robertson’s version, was probably a ‘printer’s error.’

* Listen to Bobby Allen playing 91st at Modder River as part of his MSR submission at the 2019 Atholl Gathering: