Great War left legacy of outstanding pipe music

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It seems astonishing that music of any kind could emerge from the wholesale slaughter of the First World War, yet out of the mud and the blood of the trenches we have been left with a rich legacy of often inspiring pipe music which has entered not just the military piper’s tune book but also the wider folk repertoire – sometimes, paradoxically enough, becoming used for dance music or for songs.

As we mark the centenary of the outbreak of the all too optimistically labelled “war to end all wars”, this legacy and the often extraordinary courage and fortitude of the men of the Scottish regiments who composed and played these tunes is being researched in a project called Pipers and Pipe Music of the Great War, run by the Scottish Pipers’ Association and funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. Next Saturday sees the first of a series of free concerts at the College of Piping in Glasgow, highlighting the music and its history.

The opening concert, focussing on the pipers of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, will feature two notable solo pipers, Stuart Liddell and Alasdair Henderson, as well as a quartet of young players from the Army School of Bagpipe Music in Edinburgh. The sets will be linked by military historian Colin Campbell, author of Engine of Destruction: The 51st Highland Division in the Great War, talking about the people and events behind the tunes.

It is vital to preserve not just the tunes – which tend to take on lives of their own anyway, by virtue of their musical merit – but the human stories behind them, Campbell agrees. “For musicians,” he says, “the important thing is playing the tune, but behind every tune is either a personality or a big event. My function at the concert will be to link each set with a very brief history of the Argylls through the First World War.”

He points to enduring tunes such as The Taking of Beaumont Hamel, Longueval and The Battle of the Somme – all of them commemorating grim episodes in which the Argylls played a prominent role. “I’ll try and say a little about them and also about the individuals involved.”

The exploits of regimental pipers under fire were frequently heroic – to the point of madness, those of us who have been lucky enough never to have experienced such horrendous circumstances might think. Most famous of the WWI pipers is almost certainly Piper Daniel Laidlaw VC, of the King’s own Scottish Borderers, who, during the Battle of Loos in September 1915, piped his fellow KOSBs “over the top”, marching along the trench parapet in the face of shelling, gas and his own wounds. The Victoria Cross he was awarded is on display in the National Museum of Scotland.

At least Laidlaw survived to collect his medal: according to figures released by the project, more than 2,500 pipers were involved in the Great War, of whom some 500 were killed and another 600 wounded.

Laidlaw’s heroism was commemorated by a tune, The Piper of Loos, by PM Angus MacDonald, whose handwritten manuscript, inscribed “Respectfully dedicated to Piper Laidlaw 7th KOSB”, is now in the care of Jeannie Campbell, researcher for Pipers and Pipe Music of the Great War. Herself a piper, she stresses the importance of reconnecting the tunes to the people and episodes behind them for present generations. “For example,” she says, “for most young pipers Kantara to El Arish is just a collection of funny words, and they don’t know about Pipe Major Willie Fergusson on the long desert march which inspired it. Or there’s The Battle of the Somme, the standard tune for the Highland dance known as The Lilt; but all those little girls in dancing competitions don’t think about the thousands of men who were killed at the Somme.”

Other tunes, such as The Shell that Shook the Billet and Sandy Strafed the Germans hint at stories which Campbell has yet to unearth. 

Today, another stirring tune from these grim days, PM John MacLellan’s The Bloody Fields of Flanders provides the tune for the late Hamish Henderson’s renowned “Scottish Internationale”, The Freedom Come-All-Ye, an anthem rather more life-affirming than the appalling circumstances that these tunes somehow transcended. As one pipe major recalled of his experience of trench warfare: “No life for a pipe major, living like a rat in a hole.”

• For further information on the Pipers and Pipe Music of the Great War, contact