P/M Archie Cairns and the Sovereign’s Piper

By Robert Wallace
By Robert Wallace

I was sorry to learn the other day of the passing of Pipe Major Archie Cairns. Archie was aged 87 and throughout his life piping was central to everything he did.

An obituary in Canada’s ‘Your Life Moments’ reads: ‘Peacefully at home on 1 April, 2016, at the age of 87 with daughter Fiona at his side. He was a loving and devoted son, brother, husband, father, and grandfather. Archie is predeceased by his wife Joy, son Michael and daughter Tara. Archie served 52 continuous years in the Canadian Forces, with the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders of Canada (PL), 2nd Battalion The Canadian Guards, RCAF and the Reserve Force Cadet Instructor’s List. He retired in 1993 as a Major, being one of the few to have received the 4th Clasp to the CD. He was awarded numerous other medals and citations, including the Order of Military Merit (Member) for exceptional service and conspicuous merit in bringing credit upon the Canadian Forces through his specialized expertise and professionalism. Archie was the first to be appointed Senior Pipe Major in the Canadian Forces. His contributions to the world of piping can not be overstated…… In 2012, he received the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal. This was truly meaningful as Major Cairns had played at the Coronation Ball at the Savoy Hotel in London in June 1953, when he was Pipe Major of the Argylls….’

Read the full article here.

Archie in his playing days
Archie in his playing days

Archie regularly corresponded with pipers in Scotland. He never forgot his time on the P/Ms’ course at Edinburgh Castle and he retained a lively interest in all piping matters this side of the Atlantic, especially as they affected the military. The last email I had from him concerned the position of Sovereign’s Piper. It reads:

‘When I was on my Pipe Major’s Course at the Castle, I delved a great deal into history and one topic I also researched was the position of this piper. I learned and was taught that:

1 Many pipers have held the position as a Queen’s Piper, i.e. both Robert Brown and Robert Nicol, who were at Balmoral, had the designation as Queen’s Piper
2 All P/Ms in the Brigade of Guards, on appointment as Pipe Major, hold the position/title as Household Piper to the reigning monarch, or Queen’s Piper and
3 There is only one piper who holds the title of Sovereign’s Piper, and he is always referred to as such.

I don’t know if this situation has changed since I left the service, and I was a little surprised to see the position being referred to in the article [below] as the Queen’s Piper. However, nothing in life ever seems to stay the same, so perhaps this is a new use of this prestigious title.’

Out of interest, perhaps someone can clarify the points Archie raised. He also sent me the article in question. Most of it is not new but I thought we should run it on Piping Press as a matter of record:

The position of Queen’s Piper is one of the highest accolades available to a piper serving in the Armed Forces. The Piper is a member of the Royal Household whose principal duty is to play every weekday at 9.00 am for about fifteen minutes under The Queen’s window when she is in residence at Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle, the Palace of Holyroodhouse or Balmoral Castle.

He is responsible for the co-ordination of the twelve Army pipers who play around the table after State Banquets. The Pipe Major also acts as an Honorary Page of the Presence at events such as audiences, garden parties, Investitures, State functions and receptions. It is his job to escort The Queen to the various audiences that she has throughout the day.

In 1965 it was decided that the post would be given to a serving soldier and experienced army Pipe Major on secondment, who would retain his army status and pay although becoming a member of the Master of the Household’s Department at Buckingham Palace. Since then, The Queen’s Pipers have all been serving Pipe Majors.

The history of the post dates back to the time of Queen Victoria. She first heard bagpipe music in 1842, when she and Prince Albert visited the Highlands for the first time. They stayed at Taymouth Castle with the Marquess of Breadalbane who had his own personal piper. Queen Victoria was much taken with the idea, writing to her mother:

‘We have heard nothing but bagpipes since we have been in the beautiful Highlands and I have become so fond of it that I mean to have a piper, who can if you like it, pipe every night at Frogmore.’

In 1843, Angus MacKay became the first personal Piper to the Sovereign. He was a noted composer of pipe music, publishing a collection of piobaireachd (the classical music of the Highland bagpipe) as well as a volume of reels and strathspeys.

As well as playing regularly after breakfast, MacKay played at balls and special occasions including the erection of a cairn in 1852 to commemorate The Queen’s acquisition of the Balmoral Estate. The Queen wrote that he played for the hour it took to build the cairn and ‘some merry reels were danced on a stone opposite’.

In 1854, Angus MacKay was replaced by Pipe Major William Ross who had served in the 42nd Royal Highland Regiment, the Black Watch.

In a memorandum of 1854, the Piper’s duties were clearly indicated and included taking his turn of duty with the footman in the garden in the morning, waiting at dinner if required and receiving visitors to dinner. In those days there was often more than one piper. When Queen Victoria died at Osborne on the Isle of Wight in January 1901, two personal pipers took part in the first stage of her funeral procession.

After Queen Victoria’s death, successive monarchs retained the services of a piper. Since 1965 the post has been awarded to a serving soldier and experienced army Pipe Major on secondment, who retains his army status and pay although becoming a member of the Royal Household at Buckingham Palace.

The present Queen's Piper, P/M David Rodgers, Irish Guards
Former Queen’s Piper, P/M David Rodgers, Irish Guards

Sovereign’s Pipers since 1843
1843-54: Angus Mackay
1854-91: William Ross, 42nd Highlanders (Black Watch)
1891-1910: James Campbell, 42nd Highlanders (Black Watch)
1910-41: Henry Forsyth, Scots Guards
1945-66: Alexander MacDonald, Scots Guards
1966-73: Andrew Pitkeathly, Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders
1973-1980: David Caird, Royal Highland Fusiliers
1980-1995: Brian MacRae, Gordon Highlanders
1995-1998: Gordon Webster, Scots Guards
1998-2003: Jim Motherwell, Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders
2003-2006: Jim Stout, The Highlanders
2006-2008: Alistair Cuthbertson, The Royal Scots
2008-2012: Derek Potter, Royal Scots Dragoon Guards
2012 -2015: David Rodgers, Irish Guards (Read about David’s appointment here.)
2015 – Scott Methven, Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders

Current Queen's Piper, Scott Methven
Current Queen’s Piper, Scott Methven