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Preparing for war: the training of army pipers

Blog posted on behalf of Club 21 placement volunteer Karen Oakley:

During the War, the running of the Pìobaireachd Society carried on as in times of peace and matters including the payment of membership fees continued to be flagged up in letters. Annual subscription to the Society cost £1.1s (or a Guinea) and this was used to help towards the publishing of pìobaireachd books and the provision of lessons.

“We will be obliged if you will inform us if you are making special arrangements with reference to the Subscriptions of any of your members who may be serving out of this country in His Majesty’s Forces.” (DC80/372/74)

“We will be obliged if you will inform us if you are making special arrangements with reference to the Subscriptions of any of your members who may be serving out of this country in His Majesty’s Forces.” (DC80/372/74) [Click to enlarge]

Yet, with the possibility of war being over by Christmas looking less likely, the Society was encouraged to suspend membership and refund those who were serving in the forces. Over time, this must have put the Society in greater financial difficulty.

A more pressing matter, however, was the training of army pipers, as had always been a priority for the Society. Letters of correspondence suggest that the Highlands and Islands were where the bulk of activity took place, with classes in Inverness and Uist amongst those mentioned. A high standard of playing was expected of the pupils, as this next letter shows.

The tutor of the class in Inverness, John MacDonald, informs the Society that the class had been “rather slow in picking up the different movements of Pìobaireachd” but are “now making quite good progress.” (DC80/372/4)

The tutor of the class in Inverness, John MacDonald, informs the Society that the class had been “rather slow in picking up the different movements of Pìobaireachd” but are “now making quite good progress.” (DC80/372/4)

You may be wondering why it was felt so important to train pipers for the army.

As highlighted in my introductory post,  pipers have a long tradition of leading the rest of the army into battle. Off the battlefield, they are also known to have provided entertainment to other soldiers. Indeed, some of today’s most well known tunes such as The Battle of the Somme and The Bloody Fields of Flanders were written in the trenches. A solo piper would also play when laying the fallen to rest and this symbolic role continues to this day. The next letter highlights how pressing it was felt that the Society continued to supply pipers to the army.

“… without pipers a Highland Regiment is like Hamlet without the Prince!”

Lieutenant Col. John Grahame of the Highland Light Infantry writing to the society requesting 3 or 4 pipers. He expresses concern at the fact that they currently only have one piper, “and without pipers a Highland Regiment is like Hamlet without the Prince!” (DC80/373/15)

Lieutenant Col. John Grahame of the Highland Light Infantry writing to the society requesting 3 or 4 pipers. He expresses concern at the fact that they currently only have one piper, “and without pipers a Highland Regiment is like Hamlet without the Prince!” (DC80/373/15)

With rising numbers of casualties, and not enough voluntary recruits to supplement the armies, conscription was introduced in Britain in March 1916. With more men leaving the country to serve abroad, it became more difficult for the Society to continue to run piping classes. This, as well as the wider impact of the war on the Pìobaireachd Society will be the subject of my next post. I hope you can join us then.

If you’re interested in what you’ve read so far and would like to see the collection for yourself, please do contact the Duty Archivist by emailing: enquiries@archives.gla.ac.uk

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