Lt. Col. David Murray was a renowned piping historian, writer, piobaireachd authority and judge. Before he died in 2017 he sent the following article to the editor. It records Lt. Col. Murray’s time on the sub-continent judging the bands of the Pakistani Army. We are fortunate that Lt. Col. Murray included some never before published photographs of himself peforming his judging duties.
At a time when music in any form in the British Army struggles to survive it comes as a distinct shock to realise that every battalion in the Pakistan Army – and there are several hundred – maintains by Army Order, at the private expense of the officers, a pipe band of a dozen pipers and seven drummers at least, dressed in the full dress of the regiment.
In 1960, when The Queen and The Duke of Edinburgh paid their previous state visit to Pakistan, some two thousand pipers and drummers Beat Retreat in their honour in Lahore. The Duke of Edinburgh was so impressed that he offered to present a trophy for annual competition between the pipe bands of the Pakistan Army,
This the Pakistan Army jumped at – no similar offer was made to India, their sworn enemies – with the result that I found myself in December 1963 standing once again on a sunbaked parade ground in the Lahore Cantonment, the garrison quarter, still very much as the British had left it in 1947, if distinctly less well maintained.
I wasn’t the first; Major John Allan had nobly judged the first competition as ‘the exigencies of the service’ had kept me at home, not unwillingly, as I retained vivid memories of the scented east, the heat, the dust, the poverty. But at least I carried no emotional baggage about the Pakistan Army.
I had seen at first hand how splendidly those soldiers fought and I well remembered the advice given me when I joined another colonial force after the war – ‘Remember, it’s you who are the foreigner first, last, and every time!’
The competition itself was a leisurely affair. Five bands were judged each day – there were about a hundred competing. Fridays – the muslim Sabbath – was a holiday, as was Sunday, a relic of the ‘British time’. We began about 10am, with a break for tea and curry puffs after the third band.
After the five bands had been heard, we adjourned to consolidate the marks. It very quickly became clear that although I had no special status, it was going to be up to me to ensure that the right band won.
The other judges, mainly members of the staff of the Army School of Music plus some retired pipe and drum majors, were quite blatantly out to make sure that the bands of their old battalions took first place.
Astronomically high marks were awarded regardless of performance by my Pakistani colleagues; I had to counter their little plots by giving correspondingly low marks to compensate. No Pakistani would see anything the least bit out of order in this process. Everybody would expect a judge to fiddle the marks to make sure that his own band won.
I attended as the British judge for several years and in course of time the Duke’s trophy became accepted as a good source of brownie points. It was a very handsome drum major’s staff in solid silver, which of course meant that there was only one place in which it could be securely held. The bank? Don’t be naive!
The profession of soldier ranks high in Pakistan and service is eagerly sought after in the family regiments. The ‘izzat’, or honour of the battalion, was still something for which every soldier would willingly die, so the Quarter Guard of the victorious unit was the only place where the trophy would be safe from theft or worse. Firmly under the Quarter Guard’s care the Duke’s trophy remained.
This intense competition led to some vicious infighting, no holds barred. I must say that no attempt was ever made to influence me directly. It’s hard to accept nowadays, but thirty years ago and indeed much later the British were still looked up to.
The ‘British Time’ was looked back on as a golden age of peace and prosperity and it was assumed that any British officer would observe certain standards. At a time when Americans were being mobbed in the bazaar, I was told I would be quite safe in my British uniform. Things would be different now.
The playing standard? Not good by our lights. The old Indian Army had no School of Piping, battalion bands being taught whenever a Scottish unit could be persuaded to send along a piper and a drummer for six months or so. The first Adjutant General of the Pakistan Army had set up a School of Music on the British lines, complete with piping courses.
The men themselves were absolutely mad keen, and would practise and drill by moonlight if allowed to. However, the eastern ear genuinely prefers a high, reedy, tone, and when playing indigenous instruments accurate fingering is not required.
From long tradition, the Pakistan Army did no work after lunch at 2pm so I filled in the hours by taking a chanter class with the pipers of the unit to which I was attached, and later did what I could for the band. A brighter, better motivated lot of ‘jawans’ lads – I’ve yet to meet.
After a while, it became clear why the competition took so long. If it could be extended until everyone was absent from their home stations for more than twenty eight days their allowances doubled – a relic of the British time – so after the last band was heard the time was devoted to rehearsing for the massed band spectacular at the end.
This really was something to behold. It took twenty minutes for the massed band to get into the arena. The drill was universal so the sequence was well known and all the beatings, tunes, and so on were announced well in advance. In any case any piper who didn’t know the tune merely stopped or else played any other tune he fancied.
Over the years things changed politically and at one point Pakistan stormed out of the Commonwealth. The Duke promptly asked for his trophy back, but the Pakistan Army pleaded with him to be allowed to continue to hold the competition which the Duke agreed to in memory of the two hundred years when they had fought shoulder to shoulder with the British. Now they’re back in and all goes on as before.
Off and on I suppose I went to Pakistan over about thirty years. ‘We make the best friends and the worst enemies’, they say; and once you’ve gained a Pakistani friend, he’s yours for life, regardless of what you do. But beware; every insult must be avenged. The Pakistani hill men are not the men who keep the corner shops!