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The Bands of The King's Own Scottish Borderers


Though the 25th Foot can be assumed to have had drummers at an earlier date, the first reference to a band comes with a passing comment in an inspection report dated 13 May 1768. The following decade an inspection in June 1777 notes:

The Drum-Major plays on the cymbal. 15 Music. The Musicians now wear hats with red feathers, instead of caps, which they had last year.

The musicians' headwear is a perennial concern of these inspections. The report from 1768 had mentioned drummers wearing 'fur hats with plain fronts', whilst in 1803 complaint is made that the drummers are 'incorrectly dressed, as having queues with their bearskin caps instead of plaits'. Evidently the Regiment allowed its musicians some leeway when it came to sartorial expression.

A further exemption from normal practice was authorized from Horse Guards in 1816; though the size of infantry bands had been set at one man per company plus a Master of the Band in 1803, the 25th Foot was allowed two extra men to carry the Turkish cymbals presented to the Regiment by General Sir James Leith.

The first bandmaster we know of with the Regiment is Ernst Klussman, in charge of the 1st Battalion Band during the 1820s and early '30s. Though we know little of him save for his name and the fact that he transferred to the 9th Lancers in 1835, it seems a fair assumption that, following the fashion of the times, he was a German musician.

The immediate succession is unclear, but Sergeant F H Torrington took over at some point in the middle of the century, and on his retirement was followed by a Kneller Hall appointée. Sergeant McEwan had served with the Band prior to his Kneller Hall training.

By this stage too the 2nd Battalion had come under the centralizing influence of Kneller Hall, its first official bandmaster being Sergeant William Davies, appointed in 1869.

In 1858 authorization was finally received for the Regiment to have pipes, at which stage it was discovered that they had actually been present all along (a painting of the Regiment in Minorca shows a piper as early as 1770), though no-one could remember who had sanctioned them. The Adjutant-General's Department took up the issue with the Duke of Cambridge, the Commander-in-Chief, and a ruling was eventually given that pipers were to be allowed but that:

These men are to be on the footing of bandsmen and not of drummers, as regards their being borne on the strength of the Regiment, and also the public is to be put to no expense for their clothing as pipers.

There were three official pipers - one with the Colonel's Company and one each with the flank companies, the Grenadiers and the Light - but it is likely that, in common with other Scottish regiments, there were also men from the ranks who could play the pipes. Certainly by the 1880s both battalions had sizeable pipe and drum bands in addition to the military bands.

The pipers adopted the Royal Stewart tartan, though again official approval was not given until well after the fact in 1920. (The piper in the 1770 painting is wearing what appears to be a Goverment No. 1 tartan, more commonly known as the Black Watch.)

By 1880 the 1st Battalion Band had begun to earn itself a reputation for its string orchestra. Stationed in India, the strings were in constant demand for dances and other engagements and when the 2nd Battalion relieved the 1st in 1890, it appears that many musicians chose to remain.


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During the Boer War the bandsmen of the 1st Battalion served both as stretcher bearers and as fighting troops, but the Band was re-formed in the aftermath. Meanwhile, the string band seems to have gone from strength to strength, and was to be one of the great successes of the 1911 Coronation Durbar in India. 2nd Lieutenant Hutchenson tells the story of that day:

'The King's Own String Band' was playing softly from a tent immediately behind the throne. Suddenly there was a cry of 'Fire!' . . . . [At] this moment a drummer from the band stepped through the aperture behind the throne and without the least concern leaned forward confidentially towards His Majesty and broke the tense silence, announcing 'Some mucker's done this on purpose', in the broadest Scots accent. The King Emperor roared with laughter, so infectious that it immediately communicated itself to everyone present.

Drummer Dalton was later awarded the Durbar Decoration in recognition of his presence of mind under fire.

With the coming of war, the call to military duty again took precedence over music, and most musicians served in the ranks. At the outbreak the 1st Band had been 50 strong; some 21 men and boys remained behind, and were attached to the 3rd Battalion. A Divisional Band, under Band Sergeant T McDonald MBE, was also active in Egypt around 1916.

The pipers, meanwhile, fulfilled what has long been accepted as their battlefield role, that of inspiring the troops. Amidst the horrors of the trenches, Piper Daniel Laidlaw, a reservist with the 7th Battalion, won enduring fame as the Piper of Loos, playing fearlessly along the parapet. Though wounded, he continued to play 'The Standard on the Braes o' Mar' and the regimental march 'Blue Bonnets'. During the same battle, Robert MacKenzie, a former pipe-major of the 2nd Battalion, returned to service at the age of 59 as Pipe-Major of the 6th Battalion. He too played the men over the top, and was fatally wounded.

In September 1924 Walter FitzEarle was appointed Bandmaster of the 2nd Battalion; he was to remain with the Regiment for 25 years, transferring to the 1st in 1938. Most of his time with the 2nd Band was spent abroad in Egypt and India, where he built it back to its pre-war strength, though the string band had sadly disappeared forever.

When war was again declared, the Band of the 1st Battalion - then engaged in a series of concerts on the South Parade Pier in Southend - packed away its instruments once more and reverted to its war-time establishment of one sergeant and 20 stretcher-bearers. Mr FitzEarle and the boys returned to the depot and the remaining bandsmen were issued with rifles and sent to join the British Expeditionary Force in France.

Band Sergeant 'Skip' Skinner, who had enlisted in 1924, commanded a platoon in the first conflict in North-West Europe, and was awarded the Regiment's first Military Medal of the hostilities, later being promoted to the rank of Captain. Completing a unique succession, the first band sergeant after the war, Charles Packer, was also the recipient of a Military Medal, the citation concluding that 'No praise is too high for the magnificent work that he has done.'

Writing in Fanfare magazine in 1989, Mr Packer recalled the cost to the Band of the conflict:

At Dunkirk, we had one of our bandsmen killed, two went missing and one was taken prisoner, but in the D-Day landings and the days that followed, we lost five former members of the band, amongst them Sergeant Major Wally McLeish.

Between the two North-East Europe campaigns, a nine-man dance band was formed, featuring Mr Packer. It survived for a short while after the conclusion of hostilities, and even spent five months in Norway, having been selected by the War Office to accompany a composite Foot Guards regiment assisting the return of King Haakon VII.


The wartime dance band of
The King's Own Scottish Borderers, Harwick 1943

Back home the depot band gradually re-built during the war, and was soon performing at recruiting functions and morale-boosting events. It was to form the basis of the post-war band. The 2nd Battalion, however, was disbanded in 1948 and its band disappeared.

Memories of the war were re-kindled in 1969, when the Band returned to the island of Walcheren for the 25th anniversary of the great battle to open the port of Antwerp, in which the 4th and 5th Battalions had fought so famously.

1989 was the tercentenary of the Regiment and the Band played a great many engagements in celebration, including 21 beatings of retreat throughout the country, from Stanraer to London.

On 15 March 1994, under Options for Change, the Band of The King's Own Scottish Borderers disappeared into the amalgamated Lowland Band.

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


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