Somme hero’s pipe brought back to life


A light has been shone on the historical provenance of a set of pipes sold recently at an online auction for almost £5,000. As reported on Bagpipe.News, the instrument was sold at the auction organised by Lockdales of Ipswich, England on May 13 and drew quite a lot of attention.

The pipes, said to have belonged to (21/1230) Piper William – ‘Willie’ – Alexander Scott [pictured], a soldier in the 2nd Tyneside Scottish (21st Battalion, Northumberland Fusiliers) who was killed on July 1, 1916 during the disastrous first day of the Battle of the Somme. The attack was astride the Albert-Bapaume Road, centre of the British trenches opposite the village of La Boisselle.

The historic pipes were purchased by a current serving member of the Australian Defense Force, who wishes to remain anonymous. After the sale, the buyer arranged for the renowned piper maker and refurbisher, David ‘Blue’ MacMurchie of West Calder in Scotland to take a look at the pipes. (Blue was  the first native born Australian to achieve the British Army’s coveted Pipe Majors’ Certificate.)

The pipes are said to have been played by Scott, as he, incredibly, piped his way into the German trenches before being killed. “Inevitably, the pipes have been damaged quite a bit,” Blue told Bagpipe.News. “The original blowstick and mouthpiece is missing and there’s damage to the bass drone top which has been whipped later. I’ve made another top so that the pipes can be played properly.

Blue MacMurchie with Piper Willie Scott’s pipes outside his workshop in West Calder. Blue was a member of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards and passed the Pipe Major’s Course in 1983. On retiring from the Army he began manufacturing and refurbishing pipes. In the November 2010 edition of the Piping Times he wrote an article about another set of pipes from the First World War that he refurbished. Read the article here.

“I’m aware that after reading reports of the sale that some people were questioning the authenticity of the pipes. I can confirm that the provenance is genuine. Everything is as described by the auctioneers. The ivory is real and original. 100%. The slides are nickel.”

The pipes, said Blue, were not as some thought, made by R. G. Lawrie. They are in fact a set made by the firm of Daniel McCullough of Belfast, Northern Ireland. McCullough was making pipes there in the 1890s and, according to Jeannie Campbell’s Highland Bagpipe Makers, began to manufacture the Irish ‘warpipe’ in 1900 under the direction of David Glen of Edinburgh. Around 1926 he opened another factory, this time in Dublin in the Republic of Ireland, and published a tutor and tune book.

What is interesting is that Willie Scott’s father – who is believed to be 21/1150 Piper Alexander Scott – was a member of the same Pals Battalion.* Both Alexander and Willie are recorded in The Pipes of War.** Willie was killed while Alexander was wounded during the same day, known as The Big Push.

21/558 Piper George Griffiths, who was also a piper in the same regiment, states in his memoirs:

“At the given signal we jumped from our trenches and struck up our pipes. It was like all hell let loose. I got so far and then got caught on some barbed wire. After I got disentangled I had to abandon my pipes and take my rifle.

“Fellow piper, Willie Scott, a shipyard worker from Elswick in Newcastle, was still ahead of me playing. When I reached the German trenches and jumped in, the first man I saw was Willie – dead, but still holding his pipes. If ever a man deserved the VC [Victoria Cross] Willie did.”

21/1150 Piper William Alexander Scott has no known grave. His name is bestowed at the Thiepval Memorial in Picardy, France.

A contemporary newspaper cutting that came with the lot contains an article where Piper Griffiths states in a letter home: “It was a sad blow to me to lose such a good pal and faithful friend. He was very well liked by officers and the men of his Battalion. He died a hero, for he played the men into action, cheered them up to Victory.”

Willie’s father, Alex. He was wounded on the day.

Griffiths goes on to say that Willie’s father was among the walking wounded that day but that he “is doing well.” Piper Griffiths later retrieved his own pipes and, in 1959, were presented to a local museum in Tyneside.

Research on the pipes’ journey home continues with several possibilities being researched. Either Piper Griffiths retrieved the pipes from the dead Willie in the German trenches on his fighting withdrawal to his own lines, ultimately handing them to Willie’s father or having the pipes returned to Willie’s family later. The contents of the pipe case would suggest this is very plausible.

There is an alternative possibility: that the pipes are Willliam’s father’s. We believe he transferred to the Durham Light Infantry (Training Reserve Battalion) as the list suggests, with Alexander Scott discharging. Blue found a Peter Henderson Bagpipe Tutor among the lot items. The name “Piper Alex Scott” is inscribed on the front.

Blue states: “It was clear to me that someone has tried to play the pipes at some point as there’s yellow hemp mixed with the original white hemp.”

There was, though, another piper in the regiment with the surname Scott and both Blue and the buyer are currently attempting to determine if there is any correlation to the pipes. Blue says: “We will continue to work the story but the fact can’t be missed that the pipes have a story to tell. The pipes show all the hallmarks of war pipes and I have seen enough of them over the years. If we can’t make a definite connection, all won’t be lost as they did belong to a piper of the Great War and that, ultimately, is all that matters in remembering those that paid the ultimate sacrifice.”

Among the items in the pipe box were pieces of an Army-issue shirt torn into strips and highly like to have been used for ‘pull-through’, a broken pipe chanter sole, practice chanter, a cutthroat razor box, a cigar holder (probably to keep the drone reeds in), cane drone reeds, a shaped reed most likely drone cork, a pipe chanter, the bowl of which fits perfectly onto the stock. “There’s also,” says Blue, “a 303 calibre standard issue Lee Enfield rifle pull-through, the Henderson book with Alexander Scott’s name on it, a commercial table book, also with his handwriting on the inside, pictures, news articles and ribbons of the Tyneside Scottish. It’s quite incredible.

“I had a heck of a time removing the bag cover without further damaging it. The bag was shiny with grime – the dirt from the trench. Underneath the pipe bag cover there’s an undercover, a petticoat. This was common at the time and was a way of protection the uniform in the event of the bag leaked and the seasoning concoction leaking out. This undercover is made from an Army-issue khaki blanket and is properly stitched.

“The bag cover being a colour variation of The Black Watch design during this period, which is commonly known as ‘Sandbag Tartan’, is correct. The bag, practice chanter (a Metzler although it may have been made by Glen and Metzler had it stamped), plus other items will be offered for display to be determined in the near future. We are getting a bass drone silver shield stating the facts of these pipes and that the pipes were played at the time a bullet took the piper’s last breath.”

The buyer’s philosophy is that he is only the custodian of these items, items that remind us of the spirit of what these amazing pipers went through during the Great War. The pipes, once restoration is complete, will allow the buyer’s 12-year-old son – who is becoming an accomplished player at Scotch College, Swanbourne, Western Australia, to be the new custodian at an appropriate time.

Blue has written a tune in tribute to William Scott and hopes to have it played soon on the refurbished instrument.

* The Pals Battalions of the First World War were specially constituted battalions of the British Army comprising men who had enlisted together in local recruiting drives, with the promise that they would be able to serve alongside their friends, neighbours and colleagues, rather than being arbitrarily allocated to battalions.

** The Pipes of War, A Record of the Achievements of Pipers of Scottish & Overseas Regiments During the War, 1914-18 by Cable, Munro, Gibbs and Grant (University Press, c.1920).

The village of La Boisselle was strategically important to the Allies as capturing it would open up the road to Bapaume, allowing the Allies to attack Poziers, the next town further up the road, then from there, Thiepval.

The Tyneside Scottish was assigned to attack the village. However, the Germans held the best positions overlooking the two surrounding valleys.

Rather than try a head-on attack, the Allies decided to attack either side of the village. As part of this offensive, they set off two massive mines (one, Lochnagar mine, was 28,000kgs) at 07:28 on July 1. Two minutes later, the soliders went over the top.

La Boiselle had the highest casualty rate of the day with almost 6,500 men either killed or wounded. William Scott was among the 2,267 killed. 85% of the soldiers who died on this battlefield are unknown soldiers and have no known grave.