Pipers and Pipe Music of the Great War – Part 3

Now to conclude this series, we will begin with more on Pipe Major William Lawrie, 8th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and other famous pipers. Willie Lawrie, a native of Ballachulish in Argyll, was a pupil of John MacColl, Oban, and won both Gold Medals at Oban and Inverness in 1910.

Like MacColl, Willie was a gifted composer; his tunes include the competition 2/4s John MacDonald of Glencoe and John MacColl’s March to Kilbowie Cottage and the strathspey Inveraray Castle. He died in 1916 from the effects of gas at a military hospital in Oxford. He was only 34.

HArry Stevenson

By Harry Stevenson

Another top WW1 piper was Pipe Major William Gray  of the 2nd Argylls, also a Gold Medallist. He was a member of the Govan Police Pipe Band, forerunner to the City of Glasgow and Strathclyde Police bands. Along with Drum Major John Seton he published two books with super settings of many of our well-known competition tunes. In 1920 he led the City of Glasgow Police to win the World Championship at the Cowal Gathering.

P/M Robert Reid also served in WW1, his regiment the Highland Light Infantry. He was a pupil of John MacDougall Gillies and a prolific prize winner and teacher and after the war set up business as a bagpipe maker in Glasgow’s George Street.

He was the leading exponent of the so-called Cameron style of piobaireachd playing. He made several recordings on the old 78rpm format, and in 1933 published ‘The Piper’s Delight’ a small book of tunes which is still in print today. Two of his most famous pupils were Robert G. Hardie and William Connell, both famous pipe majors in their own right.



In wartime we sometimes forget that it is not only the military who sustain casualties; civilians also suffer, especially those who fall foul of the occupying forces. One famous casualty was British nurse Edith Cavell. 

She was born in 1865 in Norfolk, the daughter of an Anglican vicar. At the outbreak of the war she was matron of a large teaching hospital in Belgium.  The hospital was subsequently commandeered by the Germans.

Nurse Cavell treated both wounded German and British soldiers and she helped over 200 British soldiers to escape into neutral Netherlands. But she was betrayed, arrested, court martialled and sentenced to death. There was a huge international outcry about this sentence, but it was ignored by the German High Command.

Edith Cavell, still wearing her nurses uniform, was executed by a German firing squad on 12th October 1915. After the war her body was brought back to England and is buried in Norwich Cathedral. Alexander Taylor Cameron from Matarua on the South Island of New Zealand composed a moving slow air in her memory.  

The final two  pipers of whom I will speak are P/M Henry Forsyth (right) and William Sloan. P/M Forsyth of the 14th Argylls had been a Pipe Major of the Scots Guards in the late 1890s. On the outbreak of war 1914 he voluntered but rejoined the Argylls. Nothing particularly unusual except that Henry Forsyth was the personal piper to King George V. During the 1920s P/M Forsyth went on to make recordings, one of which I still have.

Co-founder of the RSPBA (then the SPBA), Willie Sloan was a member of the 16th Middlesex Regimen, the first English regiment in the British Army to have a pipe band.

They recruited their pipers from Glasgow. Willie was wounded in July 1916 at the Somme. After the war he was P/M of the Clan MacLean pipe band winning the world championships in 1927, 1928 and 1935. He is remembered in Angus Lawrie’s tune Willie’s Brogues.

P/M Willie Sloan, Worlds winning pipe major and co-founder of the Scottish Pipe Band Association

Now for a personal connection to the war. Lt. Edward Brown of the Royal Irish Rifles was my wife’s uncle. He was killed at Ypres in Aug 1917. He came from Lisburn, worked in the linen trade, and was goalkeeper for the Lisnagarvey hockey team. He was 24 when he died.

As well as battles on land there were naval actions, the most famous of these the Battle of Jutland, fought between the British Grand Fleet and the German High Seas Fleet on 31st May 1916. Losses were severe on both sides and both sides claimed victory.

One ship from that famous sea battle is still with us, HMS Caroline, a light cruiser built in 1914 by the Cammel Laird yard in Birkenhead. The Caroline also saw service in WW2 and is now permanently berthed in the Alexandra Dock here in Belfast. During the post war years she was a training ship for the Royal Naval Reserve and had a pipe band. The pipers played the two drone Irish warpipe.

Back to the land war. The Battle of the Somme began on 1st July 1916 and ended in November 1916. Over the course of the battle there were over one million casualties, a figure that is very hard to imagine.



On the first day alone nearly 60,000 British soldiers were casualties of whom 20,000 were killed. Our own 36th Ulster and 16th Irish Divisions played a very important part during the Somme offensive and both divisions suffered many killed and wounded.

I have found four tunes associated with the Somme. The first is Sunset on the Somme is by GS McLennan. GS wrote about the sun dying down each day to hide the horrors of the battlefield. The 17th Batt. Royal Scots crossing the Somme was written by their P/M, Donald MacLean, who was later commissioned into the Gordon Highlanders but was killed in July 1918. Raised by Lord Rosebury, each man in the battalion was between 5′ 3″ and 5′ 6″ in height and they were known as Rosebury’s bantams. 

The 2nd Batt. Tyneside Scottish March to the Somme was written by P/M Munro Strachan. Some of his tunes are to  be found in Logan’s Book 8. He was related to my very good friend the late Bill Strachan of London and Fraserburgh, a man who helped me build my music collection. The Tynesiders were attached to the Northumbrian Fusiliers (in WW2 they were affiliated to the Black Watch). They suffered heavy casualties at the Somme, where, we should remember, 11 pipers were killed on the first day. 


The most famous tune associated with this carnage is the The Battle of the Somme by P/M Willie Lawrie, mentioned at the top of this article. It is a fine, and still popular, pipe tune in 9/8 time. This was possibly the last tune composed by him before his death in November 1916.

In the aftermath of war there are still tragedies. On New Year’s Day 1919, a  ship, the Iolaire (Gaelic for eagle), carrying returning soldiers back to the isle of Lewis foundered on rocks within sight of Stornoway harbour. Two hundred and five men perished. Nearly every home on Lewis lost a father, son, uncle, nephew or cousin.

P/M Donald MacLeod of the Seaforth Highlanders, himself a Lewisman, composed a very beautiful piece of ceòl mòr, The Lament for the Iolaire, in commemoration. 

The final tune in this series is The Bloody Fields of Flanders from the pen of John MacLellan, Dunoon. It is, in my opinion, the most beautiful tune to come out of the Great War. The region of Flanders in Belgium was continually fought over from Oct 1914 until near the end of the war in November 1918. 

The battlegrounds of Ypres, Passchendaele, Kemmel Hill, Messines, Hills 60 & 62 and Sanctuary Wood are all in Flanders. The Scottish folklorist Hamish Henderson put words to the tune for his anthem ‘Freedom Come All Ye’, a tune many say should be Scotland’s national anthem.

The Great War was to be the ‘war to end all wars’, yet in 1939 the world was again fighting, this time with even more terrible weapons. Again pipers were in the thick of it and some very good tunes came out of WW2 – but that’s a future project.

  • Read part one in this series here.

2 thoughts on “Pipers and Pipe Music of the Great War – Part 3

  1. Another tune that must be associated with WW1 is “Longueval”. I now can’t remember the composer but I am fairly sure that it was not composed at the time but far more recently.

    Longueval is a town on the Somme battle front, alongside Delville Wood. The 9th (Scottish) Division were ordered to take Longueval on the 14th of July 1916 because it was key to the capture of HIgh Wood. In turn, vital to the capture of Longueval was the capture of Deliville Wood, a task give to the South African Brigade which was part of the 9th Division for most of the war and included the SA Scottish regiment. Ferocious battles raged for both positions, with little to show for it. When the SA Brigade was finally relieved on the 20th, according to Wikipedia “[Colonel] Thackeray marched out of the wood, leading two wounded officers and 140 other ranks, the last remnant of the South African Brigade. Piper Sandy Grieve …. who had fought against the South African Boers as part of the Highland Brigade in the Battle of Magersfontein in 1899 and been wounded through the cheeks, played the South Africans out”. The 9th Division suffered about 7,500 casualties in this battle and of those, the SA brigade accounted for about 2,500, out of the 3,100 men with which they started out.

  2. Not a comment, but a question. Among his other tunes William Laurie composed, was Tricia’s Song. Does Mr. Stevenson happen to know who Tricia was? Members of our band are using the tune as a teaching tool, it might be nice to who Tricia was and perhaps why the tune was composed.

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