This is a blog about music, photography, history, and culture.
These are photographs from my collection that tell a story about lost time and forgotten music.

Mike Brubaker
{ Click on the image to expand the photo }

Bandsmen of the Black Watch

04 January 2013

If there was any band that truly deserved to have their sepia tone photo colorized, it was this one, the Pipe Band of the Black Watch. These 15 pipers, 12 drummers, and one drum major are members of the Black Watch , a Scottish Regiment of the British Army. The postcard publisher lavished extra attention to painting their white tunics and brightly colored tartans, even adding just the right amount of gold gilt to the drums. 

Like all Scottish apparel, the distinctive plaid pattern of the tartan is an important element of a piper's livery. The name Black Watch comes from the kilt and cloak's dark green and black weave worn by the soldiers whose duty was to "watch" or guard the Scottish Highlands.

But pipers were given the honor of also wearing the more familiar red plaid of the Royal Stewart Tartan which is the pattern reserved for the British Royal colors.

This Black Watch Piper from the same postcard series wears the Royal Stewart sash and kilt while his jacket and bagpipes are in the Black Watch.  He also sports a tall  feather bonnet made of ostrich feathers, which resembles a British Foot Guards bearskin hat, but is more lightweight. Attached on one side is the Black Watch regimental plume, the Red Hackle, supposedly of vulture feathers, which marks an heroic military action in 1795 and is an award worn only by the Black Watch. As it happens, the official Red Hackle Day is celebrated on January 5th which makes this photo an appropriate choice to start the new year.


This card is captioned Kettledrummer, “Black Watch” but the bandsman's instrument is actually a field drum or side drum. Drummers were used by armies for thousands of years, even into World War One, to play the signals used to direct troop movement on the battlefield. The Scots added the bagpipes as a way of getting these important orders heard over the din of battle. The drum heads are held together with rope and tensioned with the white leather tabs on the side. Typically there was also a snare of wires that vibrate on the lower head and could be released if desired.

The Pipe Major of the Black Watch was the band leader and responsible for  directing the music and keeping the musicians in order. This postcard of the Pipe Major dates from around the same period but was published in a Valentine's Series postcards whereas the others are marked P & W.M. , Ltd. All of the cards were never posted, but I have found identical cards that are postmarked 1904-05, so these bandsmen were photographed pre-WW1.

The pipe major wears the same uniform and feather bonnet with red hackle as the previous piper with only a slight difference in colorizing. His sporran, the traditional Scottish men's purse, is made of horsehair and has a distinctive design with five black tassels that was unique to the Black Watch. His bagpipes are held with the three drones draped over his arm and the chanter in his hand. Adjusting the drone's single reeds to be in tune with the chanter's double reed is a very challenging skill, and one that often requires the assistance of a third hand. No doubt this was an important duty of the pipe major to have all his pipers agree on pitch.

Besides a pipe band, there was also a Brass Band of the Black Watch. Here the 52 musicians are dressed in just the green and black tartan with white tunics and green field caps. The caption says brass band, but there are some clarinets lying on the carpet next to some horns, and a string bass player hiding behind a cornet player on the right. According to the official Black Watch museum, the unit's band was discontinued in the 1990s. 

The last card is marked Drummer, Black Watch but this imposing bandsman plays the big bass drum. You may have noted the medals on the other uniforms, which I was unable to identify, but this soldier's campaign medal colors were very carefully painted. The red/blue/yellow/blue/red are the insignia for the Queen's South Africa Medal for service in the Boer War in South Africa between 1899 and 1902. The number 42 on the drum refers to the 42nd (Royal Highland) Regiment of Foot which was one of the Scottish regiments that merged to form the Black Watch. It's quite possible that this drum may have even kept the beat since the Napoleonic Wars.

Just to right of the Black Watch brass band is a sign on the wall. It says:

Regalia Open
Sundays 10 to 4
Weekdays 11 to 3


It is the sign on the Royal Palace at Edinburgh Castle informing the public when they may see the Scottish Crown Jewels. The great castle in Edinburgh has been around since medieval times and in the 19th century was used as a prison and army garrison. The Black Watch was officially established in 1881 and when these postcards were published the castle management was being transferred from the War Office to the Office of Works which handles the Royal household's many residences and castles. This included watching over the Honours of Scotland, also known as the Scottish regalia which came in three parts - the Crown, the Sceptre, and the Sword of State. Having a band play music for the public who came to see these symbols of Scotland and Britain was the beginning of a tourist entertainment that continues in Edinburgh today.

The Royal Palace at Edinburgh Castle

The heritage of military band music is observed every year with performances on the castle's esplanade of the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo. The term Tattoo comes from the Dutch phrase "Doe den tap toe" used as a tavern call of "Last orders".  It translates as "close the (beer) tap". The British army encountered this lamentable concept in the 1740s during the War of the Austrian Succession  and adopted a practice of having drummers or pipes & drums play a special late evening signal advising tavern owners to close their taps and send the soldiers back to their barracks. Later it became another name for an evening entertainment by military musicians. The first Edinburgh Military Tattoo was in 1950, and it has since become the most popular tourist attraction in Edinburgh.

In order to demonstrate the collective noise of a pipe band, here is a terrific YouTube video taken this past year during Queen Elizabeth's Diamond Jubilee. This excerpt comes from the middle of the show and includes some precision marching. Extra points if you can count them all. If you look closely in the center of the diamond formation you will spot one bass drummer who wears a white hat, presumably not made from a polar bear but of white ostrich feathers. He seems to be the chief drummer in charge of changing the beat. Watch at around 2:12 and 2:40.

(This is part 2 of 3, and I recommend parts 1 and 3 if you would like the full Scottish experience.)

The many traditions of the Scottish pipe bands are now part of the musical culture of many nations that were once part of the British Empire - Canada, Australia, Pakistan, and even America where pipe bands are now frequently played at the funerals of police and fire department officers. Unfortunately the hymn tune Amazing Grace gets over-used and loses some of its ceremonial power I think, because there are other fine tunes for the bagpipes. 

One was performed on this remarkable video that I discovered. The occasion was also a funeral and one that truly deserved a pipe band - the state funeral of Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother, in March of 2002. Be patient until the pipers pass and I know that you will be as moved as I was. There can be no better musical tribute.

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where the skirl of bagpipes are sounding this week. 


Wendy said...

The postcard publisher didn't count on you being around to spot that identification error. The history and symbolism of the tartan, instruments, duties, etc. is very interesting - especially that vulture feather. I don't think there is an uglier creature on earth, but that is indeed one beautiful feather. Apparently they make better vultures in Scotland. The ones I've seen don't have red feathers.

21 Wits said...

Oh this is just too perfect! I was wondering if you would go with a genuine Scotish flare, and you did! How ever do you do it, I don't know, but I sure enjoy your posts!

Howard said...

A fascinating diversion from your usual posts Mike. I agree, Amazing Grace has been done to death and should be retired permanently. You can get some great sounds from bagpipes, but Amazing Grace is not one of them. Happy New Year!

Barbara Rogers said...

I'm glad to know about Hackles day, tomorrow, and love having just found out that hackle feathers are the ones on the necks of birds that can be raised. Thus raising of our hackles. Great postcards...and nary a smile among the lads. We must be taken seriously!

Brett Payne said...

I suppose it's not surprising that my post also includes a reference - albeit oblique - to the Black Watch.

A fine set of postcards, I must say. My own research into James Valentine postcards of Derbyshire suggests that the 60,000-69,999 negative numbers were first published around 1907. I have seen an example of JV 65196 (yours appears to be JV 65092) postmarked 3 June 1907. My feeling is that the actual photographs for the 60,000-69,999 series could not have been taken much earlier than that, because there are negatives up to 58612 with a registration date of 14 August 1907. From what I can tell, the bulk of Valentine negatives were registered sequentially in order of the numbering.

Unfortunately none of this series is included in the University of St Andrews Photographic Archive, which is a pity, as many of those include registration dates.

The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo has even played in New Zealand. I read or heard somewhere that there are more pipe bands on New Zealand's South Island per head of population than anywhere else in the world, including Scotland. Perhaps it was one of those rubbish statistics that are repeated ad infinitum until everyone believes them?

Kristin said...

That last funeral procession was moving.

tony said...

Yes! I can see how the sound of the bagpipes would help overcome the sound of warfare!
I heard the music in my head as I read your post!

Bob Scotney said...

L nearly went with a Black Watch picture too. Thanks to Brett for reminding me of the St Andrews archive - I spent happy years at the University.
Mike. I never knew the Black Watch had a brass band as well. To see and hear their pipes and drums is something I will never forget.

ScotSue said...

Thank you for this fascinating history. Last year I visited Fort George, on the Moray Firth near Inverness which has current links with the Black Watch - built cafter the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion to keep the Scots in check (though never used for this purpose). It is an impressive structure, with water on three sides. Well worth visiting.

Postcardy said...

Beautiful cards and very informative post!

Alan Burnett said...

Fascinating and immaculately researched as always, Mike. You are the kind of blogger who stimulates a discussion through the comments page that is almost as fascinating as the main article itself.

Oregon Gifts of Comfort and Joy said...

Fantastic! I learned so much. Those postcards are beautiful, and it is neat to see the castle still standing proudly. Thank you for all the work you put into this post, Mike. It is quite a history lesson.

Kathy M.

Bruno Laliberté said...

This prompt was a natural for you!!
What a bunch of distinguished gentlemen, in all their fineries. I must say bagpipes ahve always made quite emotional.

The closest I've come to Black Watch was elementary school's uniform, even if it has no scottish affiliation. But we do have the regiment here in Montreal:

Queen Mommy had planned her own funerals, so I expect she would have been pleased with this. A dignified farewell!!

But Diana's funerals moved me more. How the people covered the hearse with flowers, now THAT was from the heart.

Great post!!
Happy New Year!!

Kathy said...

Thank you for another beauty of a post. I always learn so much.

Tattered and Lost said...

As usual and amazingly interesting and informative post.

The cards are wonderful and have me envious.

I have a program of when I saw the Black Watch perform in the San Francisco Bay Area in I think the late '60s. I have to dig out the program.

I also got to see them in '73 when visiting the castle. Some might find the drone of the pipe annoying, but maybe it's my Scottish heritage that instead makes the sound heavenly.

Kat Mortensen said...

What a fabulous post! I can't help wondering how the ones with the white tunics kept them so white? Some menial soldier must have been hard at work in the laundry, I think.

Now I'm wondering if this where the term, "Getting your hackles up" comes from. Oh, I see B. Rogers has addressed this already.

As a Cape Breton descendant, I'm one for the pipes - in moderation.

I shall have to remember Red Hackle Day next year. (Just prior to Epiphany. That will help me out.)

Teresa Wilson Rogers said...

Every time I get ready to click on your link I know I am in for a treat and you did not disappoint me today! These photos were wonderful and your research mind blowing. I've had a curiosity about the Black Watch for some years, finding the stories of them patrolling the Highlands in the 1700's very interesting.

I'm so sorry I did not get to see the Military Tattoo when I was in Edinburgh (was there too late in the season) but I did get to see the crown jewels (well, the fake ones).


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