The History of Army Piping and Regimental Pipe Bands – Part 1

alistair aitkenBy Alistair Aitken OBE

The precise history of bagpipes is unclear and there are various claims as to their origin.  It has been suggested that they originated in the Middle East and were brought to Scotland by Celtic forefathers; whereas others claim that the instrument was introduced to the Scots by the Romans. 

Wherever the credit lies, it cannot be denied that the pipes were adopted by the Scots, who gave them the distinctive music and idiom which has become identified as Scotland’s national musical instrument.  There is also no doubt that it was in the Scottish Highlands that the modern Great Highland Bagpipe was developed.  For example part of our early piping history can be traced directly to the MacCrimmon family in the Isle of Skye,  hereditary pipers to the Clan MacLeod between 1600 and 1825, and who ran a College of Piping at Borreraig from around 1670.

Early Army pipers

There are, however, also strong links between pipe music, pipe bands and the British Army; and clear evidence that Scottish Regiments played a major role in the development of piping and pipe bands.  Between 1740 and 1840 it was customary for Highland chiefs who raised regiments to take their personal piper with them to battle; but it was not until 1854 that pipers were recognised officially by what was the UK’s War Office.  Drummers on the other hand were recognised in military circles much earlier, as in these days military commands were beaten out on the drum. Before the advent of General Wade’s roads and pipe bands, pipers played mostly piobaireachd, classical pipe music, and dance music. In these days there were no surfaces suitable for marching on and hence no need for marching tunes.

Army pipe bands developed around the mid-1800s, when regimental pipers and drummers would play together on long route marches in order to keep a steady tempo and maintain the morale of the troops.  Like any new development, pipe bands became more and more popular with greater emphasis placed on music more suited to concert playing. The Head Piper became known as the Pipe Major.  As the British Empire expanded, so its Scottish troops travelled the world taking with them their national music.  Scots who emigrated to the New World and beyond also effectively spread Scottish culture and traditional Scottish music around the globe.  There is evidence that the suppression of the Highland clans by the British Army following the Battle of Culloden was a major factor in Scottish emigration to America and other countries.  All this contributed to generating the strong interest in piping and pipe band music which exists worldwide today.  Bagpipes are also often referred to as an instrument of war and there is no doubt that they were used as a motivational tool for British troops and as a means of creating fear among the enemy, even as recent as World Wars I and II.


The origin of the Army School of Bagpipe Music and Highland Drumming (to give it its full title) can date back to the year 1902 and the formation of the Piobaireachd Society, when a provisional committee of five piping enthusiasts consulted interested friends on the proposal to form a Society which would have as its objectives ‘the preservation of all Old Highland Piobaireachd and the dissemination of knowledge concerning them’.  The impetus for such a Society was a need to improve pipers’ repertoires and the standard of playing, the urgent need for some kind of collection and preservation of piobaireachd manuscripts, and the lack of piobaireachd study generally.

The Society duly formed and held its first meeting in Edinburgh on 19 January 1903.  From the outset it had a very strong military flavour, the majority of its members being serving officers.  Teaching was not one of the early objectives but it soon became apparent that, if more pipers were to be encouraged to play piobaireachd, there would have to be more teaching.  It was not until 1907, however, that the following three instructors were appointed: John MacDonald (Inverness), John MacDougall Gillies and John MacColl.

A number of other prominent pipers taught on behalf of the Society but these three were the main instructors. Their first priority was to teach the tunes the Society had chosen for the major competitions at Oban and Inverness, and among the many aspiring pupils were Regimental Pipers.  In view of the interest shown by Army pipers an arrangement was made with the War Office that the Army would provide the facilities if the Piobaireachd Society paid the instructor.  On 15 October 1910 John MacDonald was duly appointed instructor for ‘The Army Class’.  Although the Piobaireachd Society wanted the Class to be held in Edinburgh, the War Office decided that it would be held in Cameron Barracks, Inverness.  The Passing-Out Parade was, however, held at Edinburgh Castle on 17 January 1911.  The Class lasted for three months but was deemed to be too short and was subsequently increased to six.

John MacDonald complained continually about the facilities in Inverness and the lack of inspections by the Piobaireachd Society, primarily due to the distance between Inverness and Edinburgh.  The Class was, therefore, moved to Edinburgh Castle on 5 January 1914, although the accommodation there realistically was no better than at Cameron Barracks. The 1914/15 Class did not assemble due to the outbreak of World War 1.  John MacDonald enlisted in the 4th Camerons and, after a short period as Pipe Major in Bedfordshire, was medically discharged, later finding employment as a traveller for beer brewers William Younger.  During the war years 1914-18, Pipe Major John Grant ran the Classes at 27 Comely Bank Street, Edinburgh.  For whatever reason this did not prove satisfactory and John Grant was dismissed in 1918.  It is rumoured that some of the students complained about P/M Grant to Shrf. J P Grant of Rothiemurchus, a senior, and very influential, member of the Society.

P/M Willie Ross
P/M Willie Ross and class at Edinburgh Castle

In 1919, Pipe Major William (Willie) Ross (ex-Scots Guards) was appointed instructor, initially on an interim basis as it was hoped that John MacDonald would return as instructor.  Willie Ross was apparently unaware of this but, as John MacDonald did not want to return, Ross was, on 20 January 1920, made the official instructor.  Pipe Major Ross remained at Edinburgh Castle until 1957, when at the age of 78 he became too ill to continue.  The 1957/58 Class was completed by Pipe Major George Stoddart BEM, The Royal Scots Fusiliers and Pipe Major of The Lowland Brigade.  The next Class was taken by Pipe Major Donald MacLeod, The Seaforth Highlanders, Pipe Major of The Highland Brigade.  It became clear that Willie Ross would be unable to continue and that the Piobaireachd Society would be unable to provide him with a pension and fund a replacement at an suitable salary.  As a consequence, following a meeting between the Society and the Army in early 1959, Lt. Col. (then Major) D J S Murray of the Cameron Highlanders, an amateur piper who played like a professional, was asked to prepare a paper which in due course would become the ground-plan for The Army School of Piping.


Captain John A. MacLellan
Captain John A. MacLellan

The scheme, in outline, was to appoint a full-time military instructor to teach, on a much broader basis to a variety of classes and standards, a School of Piping which would be wholly funded, managed and disciplined by the Army.  By October 1959 the Army School of Piping was duly formed and  Pipe Major (WO1) John A MacLellan appointed as Chief Instructor.  John MacLellan was RSM of the 11th Seaforth Highlanders and he had turned down a commission to be appointed to the Army School.  He remained as Pipe Major until 1968, when he was commissioned and appointed the first Director of Army Bagpipe Music.  At the same time the title of the School was changed to The Army School of Bagpipe Music.  The Army School remained at Edinburgh Castle until April 1999, when it merged with the Piping and Drumming Wing to form The Army School of Bagpipe Music and Highland Drumming.

The Piping and Drumming Wing had been established in April 1995 as a result of the closures of the Divisional Piping Schools  –  The Guards Depot Piping School, The Scottish Division School of Music and The Irish Depot, Ballymena.  The combined School was situated at Milton Bridge Camp, Glencorse Barracks, Penicuik, and it became the centre for basic piping and pipe band drumming instruction in conjunction with Advanced Drumming courses.

The Army School of Bagpipe Music and Highland Drumming is now located at Inchdrewer House, Colinton Road, Edinburgh, within the perimeter of Redford Barracks.  It is commanded by the Commanding Officer, Headquarters Infantry Training Centre, Catterick, as part of the Army Recruiting and Training Division (ARTD).  The Senior Commander in Scotland is responsible for all Army piping policy and is President of The Army Piping and Highland Drumming Committee.  The Officer Commanding the School, who is its Chief Instructor, is the Director of Army Bagpipe Music.  The aim of the School is to improve the standard of piping, pipe band drumming and bugling of those regiments which have pipe bands.  The School offers a co-ordinated Centre of Excellence where pipers and drummers from all established Army pipe bands receive instruction at all levels.  All courses now also offer the opportunity to achieve Piping and Drumming Qualifications Board (PDQB) qualifications which are certificated by the Scottish Qualifications Authority.  The courses on offer are:

Class 1 Piper Course 7 weeks 1 per year
Pipe Major Course 28 weeks 1 per year
Class 3 Drummer Course 22 weeks 2 per year
Class 2 (Elementary) Drummer Course 6 weeks 1 per year
Class 2 (Intermediate) Drummer Course 10 weeks 1 per year
Class 2 (Instructor) Drummer Course 6 weeks 1 per year
Class 1 Drummer Course 10 weeks 1 per year
Drum Major Drill Course 2 weeks 1 per year

In addition to his role within the Army School, the Director of Army Bagpipe Music visits all piping regiments in the Regular Army at least once every two years.  A report of their present standards is sent to the Unit Commanding Officer, the Director of Infantry, the respective Divisional Headquarters and the Divisional Lieutenant Colonel of the The Scottish Division.  The Director of Army Bagpipe Music also co-ordinates the music and Massed Pipes and Drums for

The Centenary Dinner

the annual Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, and is responsible for any parade in which more than two military pipe bands are participating. The Centenary of The Army Class was celebrated with a dinner (above) at Inchdrewer House on 25 February 2011 to which senior office bearers of the Piobaireachd Society were invited.

• Part Two to follow in due course.


4 thoughts on “The History of Army Piping and Regimental Pipe Bands – Part 1

  1. I hope it is acceptable to post this request here.
    I have always been told that my paternal great-grandfather was a piper at Edinburgh Castle but I not been able to confirm that. I think his name was Frank Lowe and he may have lived in Leith.
    His son, my grandfather, was John Lowe and it seems he was born in 1894, so it’s likely Frank would have been around in the late 1800s/ early 1900s.
    Has anyone any information, or suggestions where I might look?
    Many thanks,

    Gary Lowe

  2. I am trying to find the army record of my late dear friend pipe major George MC Cray

  3. I enjoyed the article, however I have spent many years trying to locate my grandfather military record. He was a Pipe Major with the Seaforth Highlanders, and survived to be transferred to many other Highland Regiments. My only picture of him was when he and three other Highland Regiments were pictured in front of the Star of India date unknown? He was born in Seaforth and I have letters from my grandmother who lived at 1 Seaforth road until her death. I have memories of my grandfather attending hospital to have his was pension for serious injuries re instated. As I said he was a pipe major and when one of his sons was to marry he took me to the regimental kilt maker to have a kilt made for the wedding the tartan was obviously Mac Inytre. Thank you

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