March of The Cameron Men

Brian Hopkins, singing The March of the Cameron Men (in Gaelic and English) 

I came across a piece of music this morning on a Regimental Facebook page which I would like to share. Although somewhat eclectic for some tastes the joy of this being my own blog is that I can post whatever I please. So I shall. 

The clip above is a recording of Brian Hopkins, made when he was a member of the Queens Own Highlanders regimental Band. The Queens Own Highlanders of course were the young offspring of the forced marriage between the Seaforth Highlanders and Cameron Highlanders, an amalgamation among many that happened in the period between the late fifties and late sixties following the 1957 Defence White Paper. Some regiments such as the Cameronians chose the abyss of suspended animation or disbandment rather than amalgamation. Having taken their pain early the Queens Own Highlanders took another political sucking chest wound when they amalgamated with the Gordon Highlanders, another fine regiment, in 1994, to form The Highlanders. Then, ten years ago all the Scottish regiments were brought together to form the Royal Regiment of Scotland with the Kings Own Scottish Borderers and Royal Scots amalgamating to form one regular battalion of four in the RRS, (plus two reserve battalions) with the Argylls reduced to company strength, (Balaklava Company). 

(picture by Graham Bonnyman)

If you are losing track don't worry. It's been difficult enough for former members of regiments to keep up with the rapid change both to Scottish regiments and others throughout the Army. However much we wish it the clock is not going to be turned back and we all are duty bound to get behind and support the young soldiers of the new entities. Some new regiments such as The Rifles have succeeded following 'buy in,' from all their constituent parts from the retired cadre of more individual regiments than I could possibly remember from the Devon & Dorsets to the Durham Light Infantry, to the newest recruits. Others will take longer. That is probably the case in Scotland, which is historically more tribal, but there are deep seated cultural and historical reasons for that. 

One other consequence of military downsizing, (the Army is now 50% of the size it was when I first enlisted), is that the military and pipe bands have also been compressed in size. The Royal Regiment of Scotland for example has been reduced from one military band in each of the old seven regiments to just one regular band. Does it matter? Well, not to anyone in government, of whatever hue, and certainly not to anyone in the Ministry of Defence. I happen though to think that it does matter a great deal. 

Band of the Royal Regiment of Scotland

I'm firmly in the camp that believes the MOD has been misguided in downgrading military music over the last 20 years. The failure to appreciate it's positive impact on the Army way of life, it's ability to strengthen the bond between civilians and military and as an aid to recruitment has been unhelpful in every way. Moreover, the musicians were always the unofficial custodians in battalions of deep seated and hard won tradition through music, song, poetry and with some traditions, dance. Importantly, they sustained and renewed those traditions by writing new music but it tended to be music that maintained the cultural thread with the home and hearth of the individual battalions recruiting area. In this regard, pipe tunes such as The Barren Rocks of Aden, The Crags of Tumbledown Mountain and The Sands of Kuwait spring to mind. I have no doubt the current band of the RRS do a fine job and are very fine musicians but the game has changed for it cannot be the same. As an aside and of passing interest, much American Bluegrass, Country and Gospel music has it's roots in Appalachian ballad singing which has a direct line through Scots emigrants to the style and tradition of the song above.

My view from the cheap seats then, is that recordings such as the one above by Brian Hopkins are something to celebrate, not just because it is a fine and gentle melodic piece in its own right but also because it echoes with rich history and deserves to be remembered. I'm told that Brian taught himself the Gaelic with help from native Gaelic speakers in the Pipes & Drums and that another Corporal from the band, Tommy Graham, taught himself the clasarch (small harp) to accompany the song. The song would often be given a formal rendition after dinner at an Officers Mess dinner night. With so few bandsmen available I wonder what they do today? Put on a CD? Or perhaps the Adjutant makes the youngest subaltern learn and sing it which, however painful it might be to hear, would be better than letting such gems fade from the collective memory. 

The Rev Dr Donald MacDonald

Finally, as you sit there reading and wondering what all this blether about amalgamations is all about and why it is an emotional subject, may I direct you to a previous post about the Cameronians amalgamation which offers one of the finest pieces of oratory I have ever heard by their regimental Padre, the Reverend Dr Donald MacDonald. For good measure, this was the response of the Massed Bands of the Scottish Division after the announcement.