History: When Did the Army Officially Recognise Pipers?

I read recently on Piping Press: ‘But it was not until 1854 that pipers were recognised officially by what was the UK’s War Office’. Although from an interesting article, this statement does not hold true. It is belief still commonly held however, but easy to disprove. The evidence that pipers had formally been a part of Scottish regiments is easy to find and starts with the Acts of the Scottish Parliament for 1643.

It began when the then Lord Sinclair was commissioned by that parliament as Colonel of a regiment whose establishment included a piper and a drummer to each company with their pay set at £12 Scots per month.

by Keith Sanger 

Subsequently in June 1649 the parliament passed an Act of Establishment of the Army which, based on that earlier regimental establishment, again included a piper and drummer to each company at the same rates of pay.

The accounts of the Commissary General passed by the parliament in August of that year also recorded ‘an allowance to each company one drummer and one piper’, confirming that the provision of pipers to a regiment was officially sanctioned from the very top.

This is also shown in numerous Muster Rolls that officially remained the establishment up to the Union of the Parliaments in 1707, after which the situation did become a little unclear. Certainly, the Act of Union did state that Scots Law was to remain independent from English law, but in terms of the military, the situation was more complicated.

At that period standing armies were quite small, regiments being raised when needed and promptly disbanded to save cost once the need had gone. So only a few Scottish regular regiments existed and they were placed under the new parliament at Westminster and assumed the same conditions as English regiments. Likewise, any new regiments were authorised via the new united parliament and followed the former English structure. 

The problem of pipers being on the establishment only returned with the formation of the Black Watch when the original six independent companies, who certainly had pipers, were augmented with an additional four companies and placed on the establishment as a regular regiment.

The warrant from the War Office authorising the raising of the extra companies makes no mention of pipers – or drummers for that matter. In 1775, the colonel of the 42nd, as the Black Watch had been numbered, petitioned the King via the War Office to be allowed to drop a drummer and add a piper on the books for each company.

Lord Barrington, the Secretary at War, replied saying that, ‘The King does not approve of any pipers being nominally on the establishment, but does not object to one drummer in each company being employed as a piper’. 

However, within a few weeks of that letter, and in response to events in America, a warrant was issued to Fraser of Lovat by Lord Barrington by order of ‘His Majesty’, to raise two battalions of ‘Highland Foot’ which were to officially include two pipers to each grenadier company.

A copy of the 1775 Warrant to raise the ‘Fraser Highlanders’. There are actually a lot of these copies around since legally every recruiting party had to have a copy and show it to the local Justice of the Peace or equivalent for the district in which they wanted to recruit before they could start. The reference to two pipers is indicated

This ‘two pipers’ structure was followed in all the other warrants issued to raise regiments of ‘Highland Foot’ throughout the rest of the American war. Following the United Kingdom’s ignominious defeat and the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783, most of the regiments raised for that conflict were as usual stood down and disbanded, at least until the next time the size of the army needed to be increased.

This was to occur when the Napoleonic Wars commenced when there was an urgent need to raise regiments, not just to fight abroad, but, with the real risk of an invasion, for home defence.

The ‘Fencibles’ raised for this were regular regiments, the only difference between them and a regiment of the ‘line’ being that they were only to be deployed within the UK and the recruits were to be released from service once the war was over.

(When the Fencibles were stood down once the threat of invasion was past, a large number of the soldiers actually volunteered to be transferred to a line regiment.) All the Royal Warrants issued during this period to raise ‘Highland Foot’, whether Line or Fencible regiments, specified that there were to be two pipers to each company.

Once the war ended in 1815, surplus regiments were disbanded but any of those remaining ‘Highland Regiments’ who had been raised during that or the previous war who continued in existence, would under the conditions of their original Royal Warrant, have officially had two pipers to their grenadier company.

However, things evolve, and unlike the question of which came first the chicken or the egg, it is clear that the fife and drum band, while providing the inspiration for the pipes and drums, preceded them. This was primarily because creating a fife and drum band was easy to do within the regimental establishment.

(For many years Drum Majors were recruited for their ability to teach the fife as well as drumming, and any drummers with the aptitude could also double up as a fifer. Hence out of the normal complement of twenty drummers to a regiment it was possible to assemble a band size ensemble of fifers from within that official establishment of drummers.)

Once the concept of having a pipe band caught on, various creative methods were found within the Highland regiments to increase the numbers of pipers – two pipers do not a pipe band make. What happened in 1854 was that the War Office, on behalf of ‘Her Majesty’, formerly recognised this situation by approving an establishment of a Pipe Major and five pipers to certain specified regiments.

This authorised the additional pipers required for a full band, supplied, paid and equipped under various internal devices involving regimental funds, and often requiring officers to put their hands in their pockets to pay a pipe band levy.

This of course superseded the establishment of the original two official pipers that had existed from the time some of those regiments were originally raised, a fact that has with time been forgotten.

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