By David Murray
It was on Sunday, September 3, 1939 that the Second World War began, and readers may be interested to learn what it was like to be a young piper aged 18 on that fateful day. No Scots family had come unscathed out of the Great War, which had ended just over 20 years before. Nevertheless there was, among the younger generation, no reluctance to enlist and I joined a queue of lads of my own age at the High School Yards in Edinburgh in late September. The authorities were determined that there would be no repetition of the early days of the 1914 war when the numbers of recruits had simply overwhelmed the system. We were all enlisted for three years or the duration, sworn in, given a day’s pay and ration money, and sent home to await call-up. We had taken the King’s shilling.
The next nine months were hard to bear. I was walking out with a girl who lived beside Redford Cavalry Barracks in Edinburgh. Before the war, she, like every other nice girl of the time, wouldn’t have looked at a soldier, but attitudes soon changed and she dumped me for a trumpeter of my own age in the Royal Dragoons. His breeches and spurs did it. Rejected, I tried vainly to get into the Army, only to be turned away because I was deemed to have already enlisted. However, when Hitler took a hand in May and June 1940, the situation changed, and I was allowed in, no questions asked. Once in uniform I started to walk out with the younger sister of the girl who had dumped me. Perhaps it was my Royal Scots glengarry that did it. Anyway, she was much the prettier of the two; what happened to the trumpeter I never knew.
I joined the Young Soldiers Company of the 10th Royal Scots then forming in Edinburgh. It was billeted at the Dalmeny Street Drill Hall in Leith. The 10th Battalion had no Pipes and Drums but I was soon nobbled by Ginger Crombie, the Pipe Corporal who had been on the Pipe Majors’ Course at the Castle (Ginger had failed) and knew I had been a pupil of Willie Ross’s. Together we played the company on route marches all over central Edinburgh with the old favourites Farewell to the Creeks, The Highland Brigade at Tel el Kebir, and Major John MacLennan among others. Passing the harbour at Newhaven we always played Caller Herrin’, to great acclaim. When we came in sight of Dalmeny Street we always broke into the Blue and the lads marched at the slope and tried to look like soldiers.
We must have been an odd-looking pair of pipers, Ginger and I. Ginger wore the Royal Stuart kilt, diced hose, and glengarry, while I was dressed in ill-fitting battle dress, boots and gaiters, topped by the huge Cap Tam o’ Shanter of the day. Ginger tried in vain to win a kilt for me, without success. Still, we sounded all right! When the then Princess Royal inspected us one day in June 1940 we were reinforced by a couple of learner pipers whom Ginger had previously rejected because of a lack of tunes. Marching to the parade ground we played the 79ths Farewell and Dornoch Links; marching back we played Dornoch Links and the 79ths.
Eventually, I was transferred to The Black Watch. The majority of pipers in the army in those days would today be regarded as badly taught, although they knew lots of tunes. I first heard the Meeting of the Waters and The Rose Tree played by the two pipers who accompanied us on the weekly route march. But apart from the orderly piper droning out Johnny Cope at reveille, Brose and Butter for breakfast, dinner, and tea, and Donald Blue at Lights Out, (all with squeaks and skirls on cold mornings) the Pipes and Drums never played in barracks, although what we now call the Crimean Reveille was sounded on the 15th of every month. It was not until years later that I discovered that all the officers and sergeants had to watch while the Pipes and Drums performed. At the time I was much too busy sweeping out under my bed and generally doing my barrack room chores to look to see what was going on.
The piper, like everyone except the officers, wore battle dress until formal guard mounting was re-introduced. When the guard marched off at 120 paces to the minute with the wretched piper trying to get his fingers round the relevant duty tune I Am A Young Man (no doubt wishing that he still lived with his mother), I was glad that I had left my pipes at home!
It was still the era of the compulsory church parade and on a couple of Sundays the entire Black Watch Infantry Training Centre paraded in battle dress with belt and sidearm (bayonet) and solemnly marched to church. Why, we never knew; probably some regimental anniversary. Loch Tummelside was the half hour warning tune and when we were all formed up one piper played the first line of what The Black Watch call The Gathering of the Clans. A good player, he was the younger brother of the famous Pipe Major Rob Roy DCM. I heard that he was killed in Korea after the war.
The recruits were all trained to march at the drill pace of 120 to the minute. The Pipes and Drums led off at about 108 with predictably disastrous results. Next day our squad was turned out in our best battledress to march round and round the square behind the Pipes and Drums as the RSM with pace stick and stop watch tried to sort things out.
The Royal Scots and The Black Watch were and are first class regiments and I am proud to have served in the First of Foot, and also to have worn the red hackle of “The Black Watch of the Battles, first in the field and last to leave”.
* From the October 1999 Piping Times.