Marching on in Edinburgh in tune with changing times

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PIPING, the military and Edinburgh go together like haggis, neeps and tatties. The distinctive sound of bagpipers playing for royalty has been written into Auld Reekie history books since the early 19th century - but nothing (except, perhaps, for PipeFest 2005) will compare with the Royal Review of 1881.

The review was to pay tribute to the Scottish Volunteers and celebrate an Army reorganisation that would fold the disparate group of soldiers into the Royal ranks. The volunteers, formed in 1860, were the forerunners of today's Territorial Army. Concerns about relying on the Navy as the country's main defence prompted self-run military units to emerge, particularly in Scotland, and they quickly received Royal endorsement.

"The whole thing was reformed so that the government could control it more effectively," notes Stuart Allan, curator of military history for the National Museums of Scotland. "In the 1870s, the government started developing the army structure to try and better organise home garrisons and foreign service, and incorporate the volunteers into the system."

The reorganisation of regimental districts in Scotland was partly influenced by the desire to preserve the distinctive tartans of the old Highland regiments, and all Scottish regiments were given doublets and tartan trews, if not kilted. Volunteer battalions were to wear the uniform of the regiments and its badges, but not its battle honours. The new organisation came into force on July 1, 1881.

This redistribution and renaming of military units has a familiar ring to today, as the government prepares to amalgamate six Scottish regiments into one by March next year. "It all sounds a bit familiar," Allan says. "It's a bit like what's been happening of late. In a sense, it's the same thing, but, of course, we're talking something on an even bigger scale at that time."

Much larger indeed. To celebrate the coming of age of the 21-year-old Scottish Volunteers, organisers planned the grandest parade Edinburgh had ever witnessed. Tens of thousands of soldiers from the Army and volunteer corps would march before Queen Victoria on Thursday, August 25, 1881, where, in the volunteer force's infancy, it had paraded before her in 1860.

However, there was one problem - the weather. It rained on the Queen's parade like it had never rained before.

The review was massive even by today's standards. Records from the National War Museum of Scotland note the parade included 39,473 officers and troops, as well as spectators numbering up to 400,000 on the hills of Arthur's Seat and along the road leading into Queen's Park. That's not a bad turnout for a city that in those days had 320,000 inhabitants.

Music for the march was furnished by the military bands, including the 1st Battalion Royal Highlanders (42nd infantry), 1st Battalion Highland Light Infantry (71st), 2nd Battalion Royal Dublin Fusiliers (103rd) and the 2nd Battalion Inniskilling Fusiliers (108th).

The day was filled with anticipation and preparation; it's no easy feat shuttling tens of thousands of troops from as far as the Highlands and Islands, and Royal forces from England. No preparation could stop the city from receiving a royal soaking, however. The Met Office reported that on the day before the parade there was "heavy rain for 26 hours", and "gales and rain squalls" on the 25th. During August 23-25, Edinburgh received 3.07in of rain, a little more than half the total for that month.

One unidentified soldier who participated in the march wrote in his diary: "I got literally soaked to the skin and was ankle-deep in mud, through which, and various streams of water, we had to wade." Oh, for a fine pair of wellies.

The parade organiser, Field-Marshall HRH the Duke of Cambridge, wrote in his private diary: "Nothing could exceed the loyal feeling of the public, and we were much cheered, but for the dreadful downpour of rain which lasted the whole time of the review, or rather increased in intensity as evening advanced, the sight would have been magnificent - all the hillside up to Arthur's Seat and on both flanks being crowded with spectators, all, alas!, with umbrellas up, thus spoiling the coup d'œil."

The Duke concluded: "Thoroughly drenched, I reached home at six o'clock, had a hot bath, feeling very cold, and some brandy in my tea, and felt none the worse."

The Queen later wrote to the Duke: "You have, I hope, not suffered from the wet, nor any of the officers, who must also have been saturated!"

Lewis Spence was only seven at the time, but he remembered the day well. Writing for a British paper to mark the 50th anniversary of what by then became well known as the "Wet Review", he said: "You have to think of immense brigades, thousands of men in a single mass, keeping step as one, marching and counter-marching across the broad area of the Queen's Park during the drenching hours of waiting. Scotland's capital, I am convinced, has never before or since witnessed a military display so imposing as she saw that day.

"The uproar past, the massed bands brayed out God Save the Queen, as her Majesty approached."

The following day The Scotsman dedicated about one-third of its 10 small-type pages to reporting the big event. Calling the review "eminently successful", it said: "No-one who was present is ever likely to forget a scene which was as instructive as it was grandly impressive."

The Wet Review became fixed in many people's memories, the soggy story taking on a certain level of folklore. The city held official Wet Review parades to honour the former troops of the 1881 event. Edinburgh played host to reviews on August 29, 1931, on the 50th anniversary, when 1,600 veterans marched past the Mound, and during the Second World War, on August 29, 1941, when 200 vets from the original parade marched past the review stands in front of the Royal Scottish Academy.

In 1905, Holyrood Park (or King's Park as it was known by then) was again the centre of attention for a Royal Review. Approximately 40,000 soldiers from the Scottish Volunteers - including military pipe bands - marched for King Edward VII.

Hugh Cheape, head of the Scottish Material Culture Research Centre, who himself played for 25 years in a pipe band, says: "What has struck me is that Edinburgh has produced notable bagpipe makers because of the influence that the military has had on the city. There were the guards at Holyroodhouse, a garrison in Leith and one in the castle. You get the strong association of piping and the military."

Cheape says it's wrong to underestimate the importance the military had in maintaining an interest in piping. "Piping might have died if it had not been adopted by the armed forces, particularly in the late-18th and early-19th century. The tradition had narrowed to just the military, and there's so much music that reflects its patronage."

It was not until after the Second World War that grand parades returned to Edinburgh. Beginning with the post-war victory parade of August 1951, the city moved the route march to Princes Street, and the participants were mainly pipe bands. About 35 pipe bands marched from the High Street down the Mound, west along Princes Street and finally to Shandwick Place.

Officially called the March of the 1,000 Pipers, it was marked by problems of crowd control and traffic delays. Pipers from several countries were in the city for the world championships, and the honour of leading the march went to the defending title holders, the Edinburgh City Police pipe band.

The Scotsman reported: "Swinging smartly into line, with the different-coloured tartans making a riot of colour, the pipers began the rousing march, 'Glendaruel Highlanders'. As the Mound was reached, the tune changed to 'Leaving Port Askaig'.

Police working the parade struggled to control the half-million well-wishers who crammed the pavement and steep north-facing slope of the castle. Thomas Johnston, an event organiser, said: "The crowd was so great that the pipers who marched did so with the greatest difficulty. It has been a great event in Scots history, and will have far-reaching effects, not only from the tourist point of view but from a cultural view as well." How right he was.

Another 44 years passed before a grand event piped along Princes Street. In 1995, Thomas Grotrian, a founding member of Edinburgh's Stockbridge Pipe Band, organised a parade of 2,700. Witnessed by 300,000, the event raised more than 100,000 for Marie Curie Cancer Care.

Grotrian teamed up with fellow piping enthusiast Magnus Orr, a member of Edinburgh Officer Training Corp Pipes and Drums, to form Epic Concepts aimed at promoting piping events. They delivered a piping encore to 1995 just five years later, with the Millennium Piping Festival. Approximately 8,500 pipers strutted through the city centre in what is believed to be the largest assemblage of its kind.

Based on their parade successes, and prompted by then-Edinburgh Lord Provost Eric Milligan, Grotrian and Orr promoted the April 2002 Tartan Day parade in New York, where 7,000 pipers from round the world marched up 6th Avenue.

Now the quest is on for next Sunday - back in Holyrood Park - where organisers hope to attain a new plateau in piping. Can the mark of 8,500 pipers be pipped? If history is any gauge, anything is possible.

Additional information on these historical events can be found in The Scotsman Digital Archive at archive.scotsman.com. Plus, see heritage.scotsman.com to read lively and compelling stories on Scottish heritage and culture.