A record of pipers and piping in The King’s Own Scottish Borderers

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(alias The King’s Own Borderers, 25th Regiment,
Leven’s Regiment, The Edinburgh Regiment.)

By Major C. G. Wood.

On March 19, 1689, Leven’s Regiment was formed in a great hurry to protect Edinburgh against Bonnie Dundee and his Highland army. This set something of a recruiting record in that 800 men joined the colours in approximately four hours. Four months later the regiment met the Highland army at the battle of Killiecrankie, where it was one of only two battalions to stand their ground and eventually withdraw in good order after the Highlanders broke King William’s army under General MacKay. After this, the grateful magistrates of Edinburgh conferred on Leven’s or the Edinburgh Regiment, the unique privilege of beating through Edinburgh at all times without asking permission of the Lord Provost. An honour retained to this day.

The first mention of pipers comes in 1691 when the town piper of Musselburgh, one James Waugh, was forcibly carried off to be a soldier in the Edinburgh Regiment whilst playing in the street. On application to the law courts he was released. The next evidence of pipers in the regiment is from 1770. A set of paintings of the regiment in Menorca shows a piper wearing a dark green belted plaid or breacan an fheilidh of the Government tartan, a feathered bonnet, and carrying his pipes. Also shown are the fifers and drummers. Malcolm, in The Pipes in Peace and War, claims pipers to be present for almost the whole of the period prior to 1770, but where he got the evidence from is not known.

2/K.O.B. and 2/K.O.S.B. Pipe Major MacKenzie is near the centre.

By the early 1800s the King’s Own Borderers, as they had become, were particularly interested in their pipers and attracted a number of well known players. A look through Notices of Pipers published in earlier volumes of the Piping Times shows the following names:

Alexander Sutherland — boy piper in the 25th Regiment, won fifth prize in the Highland Society competition in Edinburgh in 1811.

Pipe Major John MacKay held the post of Pipe Major from 1856-1869 after transferring from the 78th Regiment.

Duncan Stewart retired from the Regiment as Pipe Major in 1877. He was a pupil of the MacKays of Rassay.

Donald MacKenzie. Undoubtedly the star. The son of John Bàn, the ‘King of Pipers’, Donald became Pipe Major of 2/25, King’s Own Borderers in 1857. The 92nd Highlanders (Gordons) attempted to recruit MacKenzie, to the wrath of the C. O. of the 25th. The acrimonious correspondence still exists as evidence. MacKenzie remained with the regiment and went on to gain many prizes including the Inverness Gold Medal in 1861.

John MacKay transferred to the 25th from the 78th Rossshire Buffs to be Pipe Major from 1856-69. He is known for a number of pipe tunes.

Robert MacKenzie was a man with a remarkable career. He served with the K.O.S.B. from 1878-99, seeing active service in Egypt and the Northwest Frontier of India. He rejoined in 1914 as Pipe Major of 6/K.O.S.B. He played in action several times with distinction and was then detailed as post sergeant in consideration of his age. He insisted on playing the Battalion over the top once more on September 25, 1915. He was severely wounded and died the following day. He had already been recommended for the D.C.M. (aged 60).

John Balloch, M.S.M., was a contemporary of MacKenzie. He originally joined the Cameronians in 1878 but transferred to 1/K.0.S.B. as Pipe Major in 1886. He retired from the army in 1899 and rejoined in 1914 as Pipe Major of 8/K.0.S.B. He served through the Great War and was invalided home in 1918. He is known for a number of good compositions, in particular, 25th K.O.S.B.’s Farewell to Meerut and Auchmountains Bonnie Glen.

Daniel Laidlaw from a 1920s photograph.
Daniel Laidlaw from a 1920s photograph.

Daniel Laidlaw, V.C., the ‘Piper of Loos’, 7/K.0.S.B. At 06.30 hours on September 25, 1915, 7/K.O.S.B. were part of the big attack which came to be known as the Battle of Loos. The battalion was gassed severely whilst in the trenches trying to cross the start line. Seeing the men were shaken, Laidlaw climbed up on to the parapet and marched up and down until wounded. The men rallied and the attack got under way. Laidlaw survived the war. He died in 1950 and was buried in Norham Churchyard near Berwick upon Tweed.

Between the wars both regular battalions and the two Territorial Army (T. A.) battalions maintained strong bands. A good idea of life at that time is given in Pipe Major John Slattery’s account, A Lowland Piper Looks Back, published in the Piping Times , volumes 24, numbers 9-12, volume 25, numbers 1-7.

During World War II, K.O.S.B. battalions were in action all round the globe. The Pipes and Drums of the various battalions carried out a variety of tasks within their units such as stretcher-bearers, drivers and defence of battalion H.Q. On June 6, 1944, pipers of 1/K.0.8.B. and 6/K.0.S.B. played their comrades ashore at Normandy. By September, the pipers of 1/K.0.S.B. under Pipe Major Willie Denholm of Duns were trying out his new tune, The Caen March. Pipe Major Denholm had already made his name in writing the winning tune for the El Alamein march.

On the September 17, 1944, 7/K.O.S.B., the only Scottish regiment in 1st Airborne Division, flew from Wiltshire in gliders to take part in the battle of Arnhem. This was to be the first and only action of the war. At 1.30 p.m. the Borderers’ gliders landed and their pipers, playing their company marches, acted as company rallying points. None of the battalions’ pipers withdrew at the end of the battle. They were stretcher-bearers and remained with the wounded, going with them into the prisoner of war camps. This battle is commemorated by another Denholm tune, Red Devils at Arnhem.

On the other side of the globe, near Kohima, 2/K.O.S.B. in 85 Indian Brigade took part in a battalion attack against the Japanese led by their pipers, Cpl. Walls and L/Cpl. MacDonald.

Pipe Corporal Robert Renwick at the gate of the Depot, 1967.

These are just a small selection from countless such events. Possibly lacking the drama surrounding their First War counterparts, but requiring the same qualities from the pipers as was required of the previous generation. Highlights of what was otherwise hard slog route marches, duty pipers when out of action, keeping the pipes in good order in dust, mud, heat and cold, besides the fighting skills required by the battalion.

Only once since World War II did pipes play in action again. 1/K.0.S.B. was sent to Korea from Hong Kong in April, 1951. During a battalion attack later that year, Pipe Major MacKinnon at Battalion H.Q. took out his pipes and played 1/K.O.S.B. across the start line. Otherwise the Pipes and Drums were employed in its World War II role.

The last 28 years have seen the Pipes and Drums employed in a variety of roles all round the globe — Malaya, Aden, Borneo and Northern Ireland. In each place the men have been given a mixture of operational tasks, guards and ceremonial duties. In the periods of ‘piping peace’ there have been many memorable tours that come the way of all good bands. At the time of writing 1/K.O.S.B. are at Fort George, Inverness and have just returned from six months in Central America. The Pipes and Drums are on tour again to Denmark.

The dress of the K.0.S.B. bands has a varied history. In common with other Government regiments, the pipers wore the Government tartan until 1805, when the regiment became a royal regiment. From then on the pipers of the regular battalions wore the Royal Stewart tartan. The 1st and 2nd battalions differentiated their pipers in a number of ways. For example whilst the 1st Battalion wore a full regimental cap badge, those of the 2nd Battalion wore a circular badge of a garter surrounding the crown and lion. In the T. A., the pipers of 4th (Border) battalion and the 6th battalion, never wore the Royal Stewart tartan. Instead they adopted the Buccleuch tartan on the authority of the present Duke.

The K.O.S.B. are still following the example set in previous years of a thriving band, well supported by all ranks in the regiment. In 1978 the band came fifth in their grade in the World Pipe Band Championships, no mean feat considering they returned from Belize only two weeks before. In addition, they and the military band launched a very successful record. 1979 looks to be another successful year with a tour to America after a tour in Ulster, a healthy state for a regiment that is one of six in the Army still to remain unamalgamated and looking forward to its tercentenary in 1989.

Postscript — The above is the tip of the iceberg. Documented information that is available in the history books. What is at risk is much more. Tunes written to commemorate particular events, individual acts of gallantry, photographs to confirm members of bands and the dress of the time. The author is gathering this material on behalf of Regimental H.Q. so that the latter can answer better the many questions to come in.

The pipes and drums have had great success in the competitions over recent years. In the World Championships at Hawick in 1976, the band was first in piping preference and third equal over all. In 1977 at Aberdeen it was again first in piping preference and fifth over all, and in 1978 at Lanark came third and fifth respectively. In addition, in 1976 the band defeated the world champions (Dysart and Dundonald) at the Gorebridge open trio competition by coming first. The players that day were Pipe Major Bob MacPhee, Sgt. Tony Wilson, Sgt. Rab Pinkman. Few regular Army bands can boast this standard at the moment.

• From the September 1979 Piping Times.

* In 2006, the K.O.S.B. amalgamated with the Royal Scots to become 1 SCOTS of the Royal Regiment of Scotland. The Pipes and Drums of 1 SCOTS has now been disbanded.

Watch a short clip of the K.O.S.B.’s last parade: