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.

Tales From The Lines (3)

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Royal Tournament 1967 poster

Our next "Tales from the Lines," is a lovely yarn from, appropriately enough, the 1967 Royal Tornament at Earls Court, passed to me by one of the participants.

It was during the Tournament that the announcement was made the very fine regiment, the Cameronians was to be disbanded the following year. This obviously didn't go down at all well with the massed pipes and drums of the Scottish Division who were at the Tournament. My friend takes up what happened,

"I posted a while back about our exploits at the Earls Court Royal Tournament in 1967 where all the pipe bands of the Scottish Division took part. This was when the guys in the Cameronians found out 'officially' that they were to be "No More". Yes, grown men do cry.

On the evening when Field Marshall Montgomery was taking the salute, unbeknown to the drum major or pipe majors, ALL the Scottish Regiment's pipe bands had decided to "mark the occasion" by playing the Cameronian Regimental march, The Athol Highlanders, instead of the 'normal,' (as per the programme), Scotland the Brave and the Black Bear, as a show of support for our good pals in the Cams Pipe band and Regiment who would be gone the following year.

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Massed Pipes & Drums, Scottish Div

Well we did it, and when we stepped off at the end of our performance and marched past the saluting dias, we were marching at 140 paces to the minute so were hawfway oot the arena before old Monty got aff his erse to take the salute. Needless to say, he was NOT amused, and the senior Drum major and Pipe major were summoned forthwith and given a rolliking (remember, they knew nothing about it) until 240+ massed pipers and drummers were passing THEM on the arena on the way oot.

So what, we had to go back on and do it again, PROPERLY. We had made our statement and it was our way of sticking two fingers up at the the establishment for getting rid of one of our own. Yes we suffered for it, but it was worth it and I will go to my grave with the memory of the old nutter hawfway oot his seat to take the salute and all he saluted was the back of our kilts swinging good style oot the arena. Funnily enough, we were never invited to take part again (as the Scottish Division), but once was enough."

Incidentally, I wrote previously about the Cameronians and their emotional farewell. If you have never listened to the address to the 1st Bn by the Rev Dr Donald McDonald it's well worth doing so. One of the finest pieces of oratory I've ever heard.

The Cameronians Marched Off With Heads High

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It strikes me that the Coalition Government are playing a cynical game in respect of the Strategic Defence Review. Having leaked a few weeks ago, some possible outcomes, they have sat back to see if there is any fall out in the press and public opinion. There is, but it's muted at best. 

Part of the reason is that the population centres are now so diluted that the collective memory of past service, past sacrifice and ownership of local regiments and corp cap badges is not what is once was. Army recruiters often find there is a dramatic difference in local pride and sense of belonging between the urban centres and the smaller towns and villages outside the cities where tradition, local pride and connections with the services have much more resonance. What they don't have though, is votes in great numbers.

Added to this, the Telegraph today suggested that the Government may introduce more benefits to servicemen such as free train travel, university tuition paid for and fast tracking to work as teachers. None of this is very radical. Indeed, Bob Ainsworth when he was Minister for the Armed Forces introduced free further education for servicemen after five years service; I know, because I went to see him and proposed it. Moreover, soldiers don't want free rail travel; why should they get it and not say, nurses? What they want is to keep their jobs and the Army, Navy and Air Force to be maintained at current levels, however modest they may be. More people now work for Marks and Spencers than are in the Army............... some clever clogs has obviously decided that we will never again have to fight a war with a determined enemy in strength.

So, the inevitable review will be announced and with it some platitudes and a trolley full of consultant-speak which will be another way of saying, "Look, you're all very brave and tough but frankly, there are no votes in this and we have to keep the lie-down-and-cry-liberals happy and keep paying out grants to India and China so some regiments are for the chop. Live with it."

It is an enormously sad day when a regiment disbands. The biggest and most tight knit families in our country march off into history. Men who have given their whole adult lives to the well being of those around them and honouring the traditions created through hundreds of years of battle are left with a sense of nothing less than bereavement. 

You may be wondering what I'm talking about. Let me illuminate such an event for you.

One such regiment to go were the Cameronians who, on Douglas Dale on the 14th of May 1968 disbanded just in the place they were raised in 1689. On that day, the remarkable Rev Dr Donald McDonald addressed the 1st Battalion. He gave what, I think, is one of the finest speeches I have ever heard but from it you will get a very real sense of the emotion and heavy hearts that follow disbandment of a fine regiment.

I have nothing but contempt for all those reptilian, lying, shortsighted and mendacious politicians and everything they're too feeble to stand for. At least the Cameronians marched off with their heads held high with these stirring words from the Rev McDonald echoing in their minds,

"It is not YOU who are being proved unworthy or unwilling to share the solemn trust of maintaining the dignity and furthering the destiny of this realm. Recent years speak their witness on that point, and it is a witness which can stand alongside the heroic story already engraved upon your annals.

You now move out of the Army List because of changes of emphasis in our Defence Systems coupled with economic duress and political expediency. But ‘be not disheartened.’ The Army List is a document of temporary significance, liable to amendments or excision according to the whim and swing of governments.

Pray, one day, those who defend us might get the government they deserve and have earned a hundred times over."