A Day at Inchdrewer and a Passing Out Parade at the Army School of Piping

Lance Corporal McCaskill had just finished his half hour performance and I turned to Jimmy Banks and Jimmy turned to me and Finlay Johnston turned to him and we all agreed what a joy it was to hear a live bagpipe.

The occasion was this week’s Army Pipe Major’s Course Passing Out where we three were the panel. It was the first time in many months we had heard pipes in close proximity and how refreshing it was.

By Robert Wallace

Each of the three pipers had to prepare three 6/8s, and six of everything else, MSR and piobaireachd, one of each asked for. They had already completed and passed a lengthy theory and history exam. L/Cpl McCaskill, of 3 Scots (Black Watch) and from Kelty in Fife, played cleanly and expressed his tunes well for a ‘Distinction’ pass.

He was followed by Lance Corporal Waugh from the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, not so strong on the piobaireachd or in pipe tone, but a good ‘A’ grade pass nevertheless.

Lastly we had L/Cpl Christie from the Reserves, another ‘Distinction’ and a satisfactory day all round at the Army School, Inchdrewer House, Edinburgh.

Last year’s Passing Out was done on the web, but this time it was a sort of half way house. We sat in one room, the pipers played in another. There was a video link, but through an open door we could hear everything perfectly well and I found that that was the best way to do the work.

The Army School was the brainchild of the Piobaireachd Society, and every year the Pipe Majors’ Certificates have to be signed by the Society President. I was honoured to do the honours once more and, at the conclusion, also gave a brief summation of what the panel had heard.

Each piper was called back into the room to be given his good news in turn. I must say they were all immaculately turned out and a credit to their units and to Army piping in general. They were trained to be ambassadors for their regiments said Major Rowan, the School’s Director. Job done.

Major Rowan has done estimable work in keeping things going through the pandemic, resisting severe pressure from on high to close down. He knew that if that happened it would set Army piping back many years – five he thought.

He sensed quickly that to keep the brass onside he had to introduce strict quarantine and separation rules for the various residential classes. No socialising; no mixing. Rule breakers would be sent back to their units – and, on a couple of occasions, were. Though never the favourite medium of the school, more work had to be done online.

The result? When all around was chaos and closure, the Army School of Piping and Highland Drumming stayed open for business. And it needed to.

There is now a large demand for pipers and drummers within the Army. Commanding Officers realise that the chance to become a piper or drummer is a recruiting draw. Young men and women are more likely to want to be soldiers if they can be musicians too.

Moreover, with well trained pipes and drums, a regiment has a chance of performing at prestige events at the Cenotaph in London on Armistice Sunday, at State Banquets or the Edinburgh Tattoo.

Outdoor distanced learning at the Army School last summer

It was good to hear from Major Rowan that these officers had a pride in seeing their charges fulfilling these engagements and were not content with just the good look. Their soldiers had to play well too.

The School is now overwhelmed with pipers and drummers applying for their ‘zero to hero’ Class 3 beginners course. Major Rowan and his Senior Pipe Major, WO1 Peter MacGregor, have accepted a recent intake of 24 pipers when they should only have 19, and 16 drummers when the figure should be 12.

After 28 weeks, progress is to Class 2 (10 weeks) then Class 1 (seven weeks) before hopefuls are put forward for their P/M’s course and certificate. So you can see there is a clear path to the top in Army piping and this well delineated career structure is proving attractive as the figures illustrate.

The school is doing so well that they are now in a position to launch, with the Edinburgh Military Tattoo, what they call the Midlothian Schools Project. Instructors from the ASBMHD will be going to a chosen school in the area to give free lessons to state school kids otherwise denied the opportunity of learning pipes and drums.

‘We’ve been in Indrewer for more than 20 years,’ said Major Rowan. ‘We are part of the community and this is our way of giving something back.’

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