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Defiant pipers who kept a tradition alive

THEY are the gallant soldiers who defied a government ban and risked their lives to lead Scottish troops into battle during the First World War.

Scottish pipers gather at at a military horse show at a rest area behind the lines at Liencourt, near Arras, in May 1917Photograph:  Imperial War Museum
Scottish pipers gather at at a military horse show at a rest area behind the lines at Liencourt, near Arras, in May 1917Photograph: Imperial War Museum

More than 500 fell and at least 600 more were injured or wounded.

Now organisers of one of the world's biggest piping festivals, Piping Live, will from tomorrow host a series of events in Glasgow to mark the centenary of the start of the war and commemorate the heroism of the military pipers.

The government ban during the war came as a result of the high death toll among pipers.

But that did not stop them, and pipers consistently defied the order, knowing that the inspirational strain of the bagpipes galvanized their comrades.

Alistair McEwen - a historian who will be speaking at Piping Live about the role of pipers in combat - said it seemed that, whenever Scottish troops were flagging or struggling against the odds, a piper emerged and rallied the men.

When the pipers were killed, incredibly there were always fresh musicians to take their place.

Pipers - Highlanders, Lowlanders, or overseas Scots - accomplished the impossible, not rarely or just under favourable conditions, but almost as a matter of routine.

McEwen, who will make his own spoken tribute at the National Piping Centre in Glasgow, said: "Pipers can be proud of the part they played in the Great War.

"They have a long and honourable history. Wherever the troops were, the pipes were there as well. Pipers just didn't care about their own safety.

"Just before the war even got started, they were trying to make the British army into a khaki army, with uniformity of clothing and equipment. But when the war started the Scottish troops weren't having it. Scottish regiments kept the kilt and had special kilts made to cover the normal kilts

"You could say the role of the pipes in Scottish folklore was reinforced with what went on during the war. There are so many stories of what these men did. They just got up out the trench, they could see the men were flagging, or hesitating, and the piper would get up and start playing and the blood got fired up and off the guys went, quite often accompanied by the piper."

McEwen, also co-ordinator of the Edinburgh War Project, added: "The response to the sound of the pipes must be built into the Scottish genes somewhere."

The main tribute event is Pipers of the Great War - A Photographic Exhibition, a free show at the National Piping Centre all week.

A collection of pictures of pipers on the battlefield, on parade and on the march during the First World War will be on display.

With material from sources such as the Imperial War Museum and National Archives, this exhibition tells tales of pipers through history who risked their lives in service of their country and their music.

On Wednesday at 1pm at the New Athenaeum theatre at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland there will be a screening of the BBC documentary Pipers of the Trenches.

And at 5pm the same day a Great Composers of the Great War recital will feature some of the music of the greatest pipers from 1914-18 including William Lawrie, John McColl, John MacLellan DCM, GS MacLennan, and Willie Ross.

Performing will be staff of The National Piping Centre including Callum Beaumont, Margaret Dunn, Roddy MacLeod MBE, Stuart Samson MBE and David Shedden.

MacLeod, director of Piping Live! said: "We have worked with experts to programme four special events as part of the festival, and our staff here at the National Piping Centre have put a great deal of work into these events too.

"It's been an emotional experience as we have discovered some of the stories of allied forces pipers, who were often the first in line of fire as they played the troops out to battle, and it's an honour to put a spotlight on these brave men."

About 50,000 spectators and 8000 musicians from around the world are expected at Piping Live! which sees more than 150 events over seven days, including performances and competitions around Glasgow.

Musicians from as far afield as New Zealand, Australia, the US and Canada and 22 other countries are taking part.

Festival organiser Alisdair McLaren said: "It's going to be a fantastic atmosphere, especially after the Commonwealth Games. It's going to be a carry-on from that."

The festival hub is at the National Piping Centre but this year there will also be events in Candleriggs in the Merchant City, including performances and a street food festival.

The festival runs from tomorrow until August 17 and culminates in the World Pipe Band Championships.

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