Piping in WW2: The Army School Expands Its Teaching to All Serving Pipers

Willie Ross and a P/M’s course during WW2

The Piobaireachd Society had founded and paid for the Army Class in 1910. Its aim was to improve the standard of piping in Scottish regiments. By 1939 it had grown into the Army School of Piping and P/M William Ross was in charge of the school based in Edinburgh Castle.

In December that year, three months after the outbreak of war, his services were placed, with his consent, at the disposal of the Army’s Scottish Command, the normal classes being suspended.

By Jeannie Campbell

With the agreement of the Piobaireachd Society a remarkable new scheme was drawn up. For the duration of the war the courses were to be of one month’s duration, and were to be open to all pipers in Infantry Battalions and Infantry Training Centres in Scotland as well as to members of the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force.

Each unit sending a candidate to the ten-man course subscribed 15 shillings (about 75p in today’s money) to the Piobaireachd Society who continued to pay Willie Ross’s salary, the rent of his flat in the Castle, and his telephone bill.

The official announcement read: ‘With the co-operation of the military authorities it has been arranged that the services of the Society’s instructor, Pipe Major William Ross, will be utilized to give tuition to pipers selected from units presently serving in Scotland.

‘Each class will run for a month. The first class is already under way and much enthusiasm and keenness is evident amongst its members. It is hoped to pass through the class ten members per month for the duration of the hostilities.

‘The Society is very pleased to be able in this way to extend its services to pipers whom in ordinary times it might perhaps not be able to reach.’

P/M Willie Ross teaching at the Castle. The piper on the left is P/M Donald MacLeod. Students of piobaireachd will note on the blackboard how P/M Ross taught the movements, dre, chedari, embari, ademda, hiharara, and hihorodo

Between 1919 and 1939 P/M William Ross had taught about 112 military pupils at the Army School in Edinburgh Castle.

The men were billeted in a lodging house in the city and were taught in another flat in Crown Square in the Castle. As Scotland acted as a major training and staging centre for the military throughout the war, the courses became international in character and pipers from all over the world, especially the countries of the Empire, flocked to attend.

For the first time the teaching of the great Willie Ross became available to the average as well as the able players. Canadians, South Africans, Americans and Northern Irish were among the pupils.

These war time courses were popular and highly regarded and there are many pipers in later life who spoke with great affection of the all too short time they spent under the tuition of ‘the grand old man’, then in his sixties, but still the unrivalled master and teacher.

By the time the war ended Willie Ross is believed to have taught some 700 pupils on these one-month courses.

Gloomy days at the Castle

This amusing story appeared in the Evening Times newspaper in August 1942 when a piper blamed wartime shortages for landing him court:

‘William Sinclair Rosie was arrested while trying to play the bagpipes in the street and charged with begging and breach of the peace.

‘He was found to have over £3 in small change in his pockets. In court the police report was read out and it stated, ‘His efforts were not in keeping with the traditions of the national Instrument.’ 

‘In his defence Rosie stated that he had learned to play the pipes during his three-years of service with the Seaforth Highlanders during the previous war and he blamed a shortage of reeds for his bad playing.

‘When the bagpipes were produced in court the judge remarked, ‘You deserve to be sentenced for playing those pipes.’ Rosie was jailed for 20 days on each of the charges, the sentences to run concurrently.’

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