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The Piper In Peace And War
Part II - Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders


The Cameron Highlanders are enthusiastic about piping and their pipers; the officers used to strive to maintain the traditions of the regiment even to the extent of having a couple of bearded pipers for the flank men of the front rank, but not even an extra penny on the day’s pay will tempt the fashion-loving, shaven piper of to-day to forgo the use of the razor.

There are many customs of the regiment not noted in the Orders, and many creditable deeds of pipers and others which find no place in the regimental records; the old-time chroniclers did not see the necessity of recording more than was absolutely imperative and refrained from any display of undue pride in their personal performances. There are many things that might have been told. To this regiment is ascribed the introduction of the green doublet which is worn by the pipers of all regiments, but no credit is claimed for the idea. They do not permit the pipers or the band to play on Sundays, though there is no written order against Sunday music. Nor is it stated why, on the first march of the original regiment in 1794, from Fort William to Stirling, for official inspection, the “79th” pipers played, not “Pibroch Donuil Dubh," their marching tune, but “Gabaidh sinn an Rathad Mhor,” which means, “We’ll keep the High Road.” It was certainly a more appropriate melody for the occasion, besides being one with historical associations, for it was the MacIntyres’ clan tune before the Stewarts adopted it in the sixteenth century. As there were many Stewarts in the regiment and among the pipers in 1794 and for many years afterwards, the choice of the marching tune is easily accounted for.

“Gabaidh sinn an Rathad Mhor” had, moreover, sounded loud and clear on the field of Sheriffmuir in 1715, and was in consequence long remembered as “The Sheriffmuir March,” and it was that very tune that rang through the Canongate of Edinburgh when the hundred pipers of the Jacobite army announced to the panic-stricken Hanoverians the entrance of Prince Charles to the capital of Scotland.

We have no record of what the pipers of the Camerons did in the campaign in the Low Countries and in the Peninsular War, but it can be safely assumed that, opportunities for heroic deeds failing, they brightened the tedium of the long marches and stirred the blood of the soldier in battle.

Not until the eve of Quatre Bras do we hear again of the pipers as a force in the regimental life, and the report comes from the outside, how in the early hours of a June morning in 1815, the citizens of Brussels were awakened by the pipes of the Camerons, and looking from their windows they saw rank upon rank of warriors in waving tartans led by their pipers, marching towards Quatre Bras. Meaningless to the Belgians, the tune “Bonnie Loudon’s Woods and Braes ” reminded the troops of Scotland. The foremost poet of the age has described the scene in the famous lines :—

And wild and high the “Camerons' Gathering” rose,
The war note of Lochiel, which Albyn’s hills
Have heard, and heard too have her Saxon foes:
How in the noon of night that Pibroch thrills,
Savage and shrill. . . .

Now the reticent chronicler was forced to take note of one of the pipers, for everyone who had been present at the battle of Waterloo told of the heroism of Piper Kenneth Mackay of the Camerons. When the regiment had been formed into hollow squares, ready with fixed bayonets to receive a charge of the French cavalry, the pipers being inside the squares, Mackay coolly stepped outside the square of his Grenadier Company, and marched round and round the bristling bayonets of his comrades, playing “Cogadh no Sith” (“Peace or War”). The incident thrilled all who saw it and all who heard of it, even to the old King George III. himself, who testified his admiration of the gallant deed by sending a handsome set of silver-mounted pipes to the piper. Piper Kenneth Mackay’s action was the subject of a spirited painting, which was exhibited in the Royal Academy in 1893 by the late Bogle Lockhart, A.R.A. The picture was afterwards purchased by the officers of the regiment for their mess. When the Czar of Russia was in Paris in 1815, he asked to see some Highland soldiers at close quarters. General Lord Cathcart, the British Ambassador, a soldier and a Scot, ordered Piper Mackay to play “Cogadh no Sith” for the benefit of the Czar, but his Imperial Majesty did not ask for an encore.

On the return of the regiment to Scotland the pipers of the Camerons entered for the Highland Society’s competitions, and acquitted themselves with credit. In 1818 the pipe-major, Alexander Sutherland, won fifth place. Six years later Piper Donald Stewart was placed second, and he wron the first prize in 1825. The name Stewart is long found on the roll of pipers of the Camerons, and each bearer of the historic name appears to have been an expert player, John Stewart, in 1837, maintaining the reputation of his clan by winning the “handsome Highland sword” of the Highland Society.

In the following decade greater honour was brought to the regiment, and pipe music was enriched by Pipe-Major John Macdonald, whose “79th’s Farewell to Gibraltar,” composed on the departure of the regiment from the “Rock” in 1848, is still a favourite melody with regimental and civilian pipers.

No record of the pipers in the Crimean War has been preserved, beyond the fact that they took part in the display provided for the benefit of the Turkish commander-in-chief, Omar Pasha, who was accompanied by Lord Raglan and Marshal St Arnaud. The last item in the proceedings was a charge of six battalions of infantry, in which the Camerons rushed forward cheering wildly, with drums beating and pipers playing. This incident delighted the Turk who dropped his reins and clapped vigorously.

The hardships of the campaign told heavily on all, and two pipers, Charles Donald and Andrew M‘Rae, died between November and the end of 1854. Although the 79th shared with the 42nd, the 93rd, and the Guards the glory of carrying the heights of the Alma, their pipers could only share in the silence of the victorious advance, and it was a 42nd piper who celebrated the event in a classic melody.

Nothing is known of the doings of the pipers of the 79th in the Indian Mutiny. Of the five who were with the regiment one did not survive the campaign.

In the Coomassie campaign 135 volunteers from the Camerons served with the Black Watch, but it is not among the Battle Honours of the regiment. In the same year (1873), however, Queen Victoria granted the title, “Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders,” a distinction which entailed a change in the facings and the “Colour” from the previous green to dark royal blue, and the substitution of eagle feathers for black cock in the glengarries of the pipers, but did not alter their dark green doublets.

From its formation in 1793 the regiment seems to have been a specially favoured corps. When certain Highland units had in the first decade of the nineteenth century been compelled to give up the kilt for trews, the Camerons were excepted; and when in 1881 the whole army was reorganised, regimental numbers being dropped for a territorial or other distinctive title, and all line regiments were linked in pairs as first and second battalions, the Camerons were allowed to continue as one battalion, not sharing the glory of the name with a less distinguished battalion. Some misgiving was caused in 1893 by a proposal of the Secretary for War to convert the regiment into a third battalion of the Scots Guards. The scheme was dropped when, after strong protests from the various Highland societies, the Queen expressed her disapproval to the Duke of Connaught who promptly informed the War Secretary.

The formation of the second battalion of the regiment in 1897, as the result of direct recruitment, gave great satisfaction to the Camerons, for it was an evidence of the popularity of the corps.

At that time there were still some serving who had been in the Egyptian War of 1881-84, and these veterans told of the long, silent, tiring march over the loose sand of the desert, guided through the darkness by a naval officer. Coming unexpectedly upon the enemy’s forts at Tel-el-Kebir at early dawn, they made a wild rush upon the entrenchments, Private Donald Cameron ahead of all. According to the reports of newspaper correspondents the pipers struck up “The Cameron Men," but pipers who were there said they were quite unprepared to play anything and simply rushed forward with the rest of the battalion, and that Pipe-Major Macgregor Grant did not play till they had cleared the first barrier.

Interviewed by the chaplain, the Rev. Patrick Mackay, the pipe-major said that he played “The Standard on the Braes o’ Mar," and after that “onything that cam’ into my heid.” That is definite enough, and the colonel expressed his admiration of the piper’s action, speaking often of Grant and his pluck. Grant died of cholera a year later.

The pipers who heard these tales in 1897 were to have experience of battle in the following year. They were placed in the rear of the battalion in the advance on the dervish zariba at Atbara, where they played “The Earl of Mansfield.” In the action Piper James Stewart, emulating Mackay at Waterloo, stood close to the most formidable of the enemy’s stockades playing “The Cameron Men” for the encouragement of his comrades. He presented an easy mark for the dervishes and fell, hit not once but seven times. That, and the saving of General Gatacre’s life by Private Cross who killed a dervish about to spear the general, were the outstanding actions of the rank and file of the Camerons in that engagement. Cross, who was killed later, was recommended for the V.C., but there were soldiers who maintained that Piper Chalmers, one of the best shots in the regiment, and also one of the most notorious defaulters, had a share in Cross’s act, but was debarred by his “conduct sheet” from receiving any reward. Many stories are told of that excellent but misguided piper.

The regiment sailed from Egypt for South Africa in January 1900. At Lagos, where their transport anchored for a day, the men were disembarked and paraded through the town, where the main interest of the natives centred in the pipers. The conditions were not favourable to pipers in the South African War, for silence throughout the operations was as a rule imperative. Only during the entry into a town — as at the capture of Pretoria — did the pipes and drums call out the inhabitants to see the rooineks pass to the strains of “The March of the Cameron Men.”

On the outbreak of the Great War the 1st Battn. of the Cameron Highlanders marched down the Castle Hill of Edinburgh, with pipes playing amid all the emotion aroused by the spectacle of a regiment leaving for the front. On entering France the pipers had to lay aside their pipes and act as runners. On this service two of them were killed before the close of 1914, and three were wounded. One of the two left unhurt, Piper Henderson, hearing that one of his officers was lying badly wounded and unable to move out in “No Man’s Land,” ran out to his aid and succeeded in bringing him into safety, for which act of disinterested gallantry he was awarded the D.C.M.

Only two pipers with the Cameron Highlanders! More were sent out from the reserve, but not to play, for these fresh pipers were put into the trenches for some considerable time.

All the pipers of the 2nd Battalion had to put away their pipes on entering France, for every one of them was a marksman, and was therefore required for sniping. At St Eloi, Hill 60, Ypres and Armentidres they were actively engaged, but escaped lightly, only two pipers being wounded. On their removal in November 1915 to the Balkan front, the pipers were again snipers under the leadership of Pipe-Major Mathieson, “best shot” of his company in prewar days. Sergeant-Piper James Johnston, also “best shot" of his company, shone as a guide, sniper, and scout, and thoroughly deserved the D.C.M. and M.M. which were awarded him. Only in rest billets could the pipers practise their art, and there one of them, Piper Gillon, composed two pipe tunes — “The Battle of Arras,” and “The Balkan Hills.” No further contribution was made by the four pipers of the 2nd Battalion on the expedition to South Russia to assist the Loyalists against the Bolsheviks. Russia does not seem to have inspired any piper of the Royal Scots or Camerons to compose a pibroch, a salute, or a march.

The 4th (Inverness) Territorial Battn. of the Camerons marched out of Bedford for France in 1915, their six pipers playing “Lochiel’s Awa to France.” A young officer of the Seaforths, Lieut. E. A. Mackintosh, M.C. (killed in action in 1916), has expressed in the opening verse of a spirited poem his feelings on the occasion.

The pipes in the street were playing bravely,
The marching lads went by,
With merry hearts and voices singing,
My friends marched out to die;
But I was hearing a lonely pibroch
Out of an older war,
“Farewell, farewell, farewell, MacCrimmon,
MacCrimmon comes no more!”

Many of these young “MacCrimmons” “came no more!”

Not allowed to play their companies, the pipers were either in the ranks or bearing stretchers, though they sometimes resumed their pipes when their companies were going into action. Donald Patterson fell at Festubert in 1915. Two very young pipers — W. F. Macdonald, a son of ex-Pipe-Major Macdonald, Seaforth Highlanders, and Robert Tolmie—were promoted to commissioned rank in the Seafortbs, and two years later, in 1918, both fell in action.

The 5th (Lochiel’s) Battalion pipers were duty men when they landed in France, Pipe-Major Beattie becoming R.Q.M.S., while the pipers went into the trenches. In the battle of Loos, which caused the loss of so many pipers, three pipers of the 5th were killed, three were wounded and one was gassed — the whole pipe band gone! The officers tried to repair these losses by drafts from the 1/lth and 8th Battalions, but death and wounds continued to play havoc among the pipers, only six of the twenty-five so added being with the battalion at the close of the war.

The pipers of the 6th and 7th Battalions were mainly occupied in ammunition and ration carrying, after the action of Loos where three pipers of the 7th were killed and several wounded. In consequence of these losses the remaining pipers were transferred to the carrying of rations and ammunition and to stretcher work. The change did not altogether please the pipers who sighed for the return of the times when they played their comrades into action. Their opportunity arrived at the battle of the Somme in 1916. Battalion after battalion had tried in vain to capture a German trench. The pipers thought they knew why all the previous attempts had failed, and when it came to the turn of the 7th Battn. Cameron Highlanders to make the attempt, the pipers were ready, with the drones of their pipes decorated with the Scottish colours. On the order to advance the pipers stepped out to the tune of “The March of the Cameron Men”; the 7th Camerons took the trench, and the four pipers who returned unscathed stoutly maintain that the success was due to the music of their pipes.

The inhabitants of a certain village not many miles from Mons entertain very pleasant memories of the 1st Battalion, and in these memories the pipers have a large share. For it was there that, during the retreat in 1914, the Camerons found themselves for a time. During their sojourn the natives made friends with the regiment and loved to listen to the piper who taught them to distinguish “The Cameron Men” from all others. The Camerons marched away to fight at the Marne, the Aisne, and all the other earlier battles of the Great War, and their numbers were still further reduced in the subsequent actions. In 1917, by a curious coincidence the same battalion was again in the village, but only one or two of the original battalion were with it. There were the natives who had been under the yoke of the Germans till then, and their joy at finding themselves relieved by the Highlanders was heightened when they heard the old familiar tune of “The Cameron Men.” Till then they did not recognise the newcomers as their old friends — or at least, as the representatives of their old friends—but the tune settled it. It is one more “honour” to the long list already ascribed to the pipers of the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders.

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