If, like many, you enjoy piping history, you will read the following with avidity. It is from P/M Sandy Hain, formerly of Fife and now domiciled in Ohio, USA. Sandy ‘did the course’ at the Army School of Piping, Edinburgh Castle, 1950 -51. He has many stories of his time there with P/M Willie Ross, great piper and a great character (as you will see). We asked Sandy if he would kindly commit some of his anecdotes to paper for the benefit of our readers and our history in general…..
Tales From My Time at the Castle with
P/M Willie Ross
by P/M Sandy Hain
P/M McKinnon, KOSBs, was a transfer from the Royal Air Force where I believe he was a pilot but couldn’t fly any more. He wore his wings above his medals. One day he had done something unusual which prompted Willie to make the remark to the Senior Pipe Major, ‘Pipe Major, has McKinnon been up in a airyplane again?’
One day Willie broke his glasses. I asked him where I should take them to be fixed. His reply, ‘Ach, take them to Glens, the bagpipe maker, he’s as good a man as any.’
Willie kept a black book on his desk to keep track on everyone’s tunes and their performance of them. Each pupil had a separate page. When you played a tune to his satisfaction he would make an oblique mark / . The fourth time you played it correctly he would make it a cross X. The goal was to get three crosses after every tune. He always took this book home with him at night.
Well, one Friday he forgot to take it (I think this was to test our integrity). We all had fun looking to see how we were doing. One of the guys who was lagging behind in Xs decided to help his cause a bit by adding a few. We all went home for the weekend and on returning on Monday morning the book was still there. Alas, the page that had been altered was missing. Needless to the piper concerned had to start over again. He failed at the end and it was a good lesson for the rest of us.
Willie frequented the Rendezvous Bar on the Royal Mile, just down from his apartment at the Castle. He liked his gin and would often sit in a private room with his glass. We would go in there sometimes after our evening practice and he would always tell the bartender to give us a drink on him.
Our classroom was heated by a coal fire and there was a coal bunker in the room. Willie was rumoured to have kept a bottle of gin hidden in there. Around 10am every morning he would wander over to look out the window. One of the universities had a clock tower which he could see. He would come back to his desk pull out his gold pocket watch. (It was rumoured that the watch never worked). He would say, ‘It’s time for your tea break now.’ We would all leave and that’s when we think he had his wee nip from the coal cellar. He had a rather large bulbous nose which was pock-marked. The joke was if you could squeeze his nose you would get a shot of gin.
The floor in our room was made of wood and you were not allowed to put water on it. It was our job to dry scrub the floor every Friday afternoon (with sand). When we were done we could leave and go home for the weekend. The floor was never really dirty, so one day we gave it a quick sweep and were gone by 2pm. Willie must have been watching for us out the window and saw us leave early. When we came in the door on Monday morning there was a little square that he must have spent all day Sunday scrubbing himself with the white sand. Needless to say, we got the message and never left until 4pm after that.
On the Preliminary Course we were told, for some reason, ‘Do not play any GS McLennan tunes. Of course Cpl. Symon being a Gordon Highlander started to play the 2/4 march, P/M John Stewart. He got as far as two bars in when Willie stopped him.
‘What is the name of THAT tune,’ he asked.
‘Pipe Major John Stewart, sir.’
‘My, my,’ said Willie, ‘I have played bagpipes all these years and I have never heard that tune before.’
We all got the message. He never wanted to hear it again.
Periodically we would have to leave our pipes on the table at night. This was under the guise of getting them inspected by the Castle doctor for any germs that might be lurking in them. We were pretty naïve about this until it dawned on us that these so-called inspections also coincided with Highland games that weekend. Willie’s star pupil John Burgess was invariably scheduled for a lesson the night before, so if he needed any reeds changed he had seven sets of pipes to pick from. I believe John told us that one himself!
Before starting the Pipe Majors’ Course we all had to get Willie’s five books, the Kilberry Book and a Robertson pipe chanter. P/M George Stoddart took our Prelim Course and he wanted to borrow my chanter to play at the Northern Meeting in Inverness. He thought the C was flat so sharpened it a little bit by burning out the hole with a red-hot knitting needle. When I had to play for Willie he noticed it right away and sent me back to Robertsons with it and I was to tell him it was defective. When I was repeating this to Mr Robertson his face started to turn purple.
He said, ‘You go back and tell Pipe Major Ross that this chanter would not have left the shop unless it was perfect.’
There was no way I was going to be the middle man on this one, so I chickened out and bought a new one!
I always found it odd that the course was run by the Piobaireachd Society but we never used their books. The only time Willie mentioned any other style of piobaireachd playing was when P/M Robert Reid played on the radio. He said that was the West Coast style.
At our final exams we were in a tuning room and Willie was tuning the pipes for us. He was pacing up and down most of the time and listening to how we were doing. To try to put us at our ease he tried some light-hearted banter saying,
‘Why do Uist people walk in a syncopated way?
‘Because they are never in a hurry. They bill a dance to start at 9 and nobody shows up until 11.’
We had Highland dancing on our course for the first, and I think only, time. It was the brainchild of Col. ‘Scruff’ MacLean, who had Bobby Cuthbertson teaching us. We had to dance a dance and play for one as part of our final exam. The colonel was producer of the Edinburgh Tattoo and was related to the MacLeans of Pennycross. He was in the Camerons.
• We would welcome any further stories from the Castle from other readers who may have been ‘on the course’ or who knew P/M Ross.