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The Black Watch
(Royal Highland Regiment)


42nd Foot raised

73rd Foot raised

amalgamated to form The Black Watch


The Bands of The Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment)

The 42nd Foot is the oldest Highland regiment in the British Army, dating back to the 1720s. In 1758 it added a second battalion to its strength, which subsequently became a separate regiment, the 73rd Foot, before the two were finally re-united in 1881 to form The Black Watch.

The title of the Regiment - 'Am Freiceadan Dhu' in Gaelic - is believed to be in reference to the dark tartan, which was specially designed to have no association with any particular clan, and to the regimental duty of keeping a watch over the Highlands at a time when the threat of the Jacobites was still very real.

Inspection reports from as early as 1768 refer to pipers in the 42nd, and in 1773 mention is made of '2 pipers and a very good Band of Music'. Two years later this band is shown as '10 Music', and by 1790 it had more than doubled to 21 musicians. The 73rd meanwhile was slower in acquiring a Band, and did not even have pipes prior to the 1881 amalgamation.

In his Retrospect of a Military Life, QMS James Anton of the 42nd writes of the fashion in the British Army for holding balls during the Napoleonic era, and his comments give some indication of the position of bandsmen within the hierarchy:

Our Corporals followed the example set by the Sergeants, the musicians that by the Corporals, the drummers that of the musicians, and last, though not least, the officers' servants had a ball.

Less information survives of the early bandmasters. There are passing mentions of two German musicians in the 1850s and '60s, but little more. In 1851 the 42nd moved to Halifax, Nova Scotia, following postings in Malta and Bermuda, and the following year, we are told, the Bandmaster, Mr Goldbergh, was dismissed as being unsatisfactory. There is then a gap in the available evidence until early 1863, when Private A W McIntosh recorded in his diary (now in The Black Watch Regimental Museum) that:

A Band Master had been engaged for the Band and joined us here, he is a German named I. I. Bader, he has a wife and two children who came along with him.

The same source also gives us an insight into the music played by the Band in the mid-19th century; Pte McIntosh mentions at various points 'The Girl I Left Behind Me', 'Hurrah for the Highlands', 'Here's a Health Bonnie Scotland to Thee', 'Blue Bonnets Over the Border' and 'Auld Lang Syne'.

The secondary medical role of bandsmen was becoming established by this time, and the musicians of the 42nd served in the Crimea, having been taught the basics of medical care en route from Turkey. These skills, however, were of little use a few years later in 1861, when the Regiment was stationed at Agra, Bengal in the midst of a cholera epidemic. A policy known as 'cholera dodging' was introduced, moving camp every day in an attempt to stay ahead of the infection; the Band's task was to play the men out onto the road with a selection of up-beat strathspeys, reels and hornpipes to help maintain morale. The ravages of the disease were not entirely avoided, and amongst those who died was Pipe-Major Irvine.

The first official bandmasters were James Wilson of the 42nd, who had risen through the ranks and attended a course at Kneller Hall before being appointed in 1868, and Walter Buck of the 73rd, who joined from the 14th Foot the following year.

Mr Wilson was succeeded by William Scott, who remained at his post for a quarter of a century before being in turn replaced by Edward Murray. It was during the latter's incumbency that a hugely successful tour of Canada was undertaken in 1904. Two weeks at the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto were followed by a 50-concert tour that covered some 6000 miles. The President of the National Exhibition later wrote that:

Conductor Murray won golden opinions from the public for the modest and unassuming, yet artistic manner in which he conducted the concerts . . . the popularity of the Band increased every day, reaching its climax at the extra concert given by them at the close of the Exhibition.

Around the same time the 2nd Battalion acquired the services of Percival O'Donnell as bandmaster. Mr O'Donnell was one of three brothers who were all destined to become directors of music in the Royal Marines.

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Despite a peaceful existence, the musicians were still serving soldiers, a fact that the Standing Orders of the 1st Black Watch, published in 1906, reiterated: 'As bandsmen are liable to serve in the ranks on any emergency, they are to make themselves thoroughly efficient.' It was a timely reminder; in 1914 the Bands returned to the battlefield for the first time since the Crimean War. As on that occasion, the men acted in the capacity of medical orderlies and stretcher-bearers.

In 1915, when most Scottish battalions were bringing back their pipers, the 1st Battalion, The Black Watch went a stage further and revived its military band, though the members continued on active service. A photograph taken in Flanders that year shows the Regimental Medical Officer and his RAMC sergeant sitting in the midst of the Band.

The 2nd Battalion had appointed Harold Austing as Bandmaster in 1915, and under his leadership, its Band too was soon rebuilt. Mr Austing evidently possessed some technical imagination; at a time when the Boehm system had yet to replace the old simple system clarinet, he patented a device for the instrument that facilitated more flexible fingering.

It appears too that he was a man of uncompromising musical tastes, as hinted at by a correspondent in the regimental journal, The Red Hackle, in 1922: 'I hear favourable comments everywhere, but it is possible that if the Band played more numbers familiar to their audiences the comments and bookings would have been even better.'

Nonetheless, the effort seems to have been worthwhile. By the late '20s, when the Band instituted Sunday evening concerts during the winter months and announced that it would welcome requests for anything in the library, the same magazine could report: 'The pieces asked for have shewn a surprisingly high level of musical appreciation: Beethoven's Leonora overture, the 5th Symphony, Schubert's Unfinished Symphony, Wagner's Flying Dutchman overture and Lohengrin.'

These concerts became a regular feature of battalion life, particularly as the Depression began to eat into the civilian bookings that could normally be expected. 1932 is recorded in the Band Notes of The Red Hackle as 'our poorest year to date', though by 1934 the engagements seemed to be picking up again; the season that year included twelve days at the Daily Mail Brighter Homes Exhibition. The 1st Battalion, meanwhile, was stationed in India, where the Band made a number of broadcasts on the Calcutta Broadcasting Station.

Again in 1939 instruments were put aside and the bandsmen joined the ranks. For the 1st Battalion, it was to be a disastrous war; as part of the 51st Highland Division, it was trapped at St Valéry long after the Dunkirk evacuations and was forced to surrender. Under the leadership of Lionel Maiden, however, and with many of the bandsmen repatriated in 1943, the Band was re-formed. By October 1944 it was back in France on tour, later playing though the Low Countries and into Germany.

The 2nd Battalion was disbanded in 1949 and the Band, which had won great acclaim in the '30s as far afield as Finland and Italy, was amalgamated with that of the 1st under the baton of Laurie Hicks. There was a revival of the Battalion for four years in the mid-'50s that saw the re-emergence of the Band under Bandmaster Babbs, but it was a short-lived episode.

Black Watch, Sydney
The Black Watch, Sydney
Bandmaster L Hicks

In 1951 the Band toured Australia and New Zealand, the 39 musicians augmented by six pipers. The programmes included demonstrations of Highland dancing, courtesy of sixteen bandsmen, amongst them Brian Smith, who would later become better known as Director of Music of the RMA Sandhurst.

The tour was so successful that it cost the Regiment its Bandmaster. Returning to England just long enough to resign, Bandmaster Hicks left to become Director of Music of the Royal Australian Air Force.

In 1959 Duncan Beat, son of a former Bandmaster of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, was appointed Bandmaster. He was to end his career as Director of Music at Kneller Hall in the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel, but even this lofty height was to be surpassed by his successor in The Black Watch. Sam Holmes left the British Army in 1974 to take up a post as Director of Music of the South African Police, where he was eventually to be promoted to Brigadier; this is believed to be the most senior rank attained by a former British bandmaster.

His replacement was Norman Rogerson, who was to stay with the Regiment for just over a decade. During that time, the Band released a total of 24 albums, claimed to be a record for a British Army band under a single bandmaster. The most successful was the top twenty hit 'Scotch on the Rocks', the title track of which reached the top ten singles in 1975; the chart success brought in its wake appearances on Top of the Pops and a top of the bill appearance at the London Palladium.

Demonstrating that the British were prepared to let bygones be bygones, the Band combined with that of the Royal Marine Commando Forces for a tour of the US to celebrate the Bicentennial Independence Celebrations in 1976. Seventy musicians of The Black Watch, including pipes and drums, under Bandmaster Rogerson and 60 Marines under Captain W Shillito played 63 concerts in 47 cities. The Band returned three years later for a further tour.

In early 1994, under Options for Change, the Band of The Black Watch came to the end of its distinguished existence and was amalgamated into The Highland Band.

adapted from
The History of British Military Bands,
Volume Two: Guards & Infantry

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Bandmasters of The Black Watch
Band Histories