Within three weeks I am the accredited P/M of the Pipes and Drums of the University of Glasgow OTC. Ailig’s promises are fulfilled. With all the free drone and chanter reeds that were passing through my hands I possess the best-sounding bagpipe south of Oban.
He’s right about the other members of the band too. Technically the pipers have fingers like tongues. The only tunes they half-know are The Old Rustic Bridge, Rowan Tree and The Green Hills of Tyrol. I go through them like a scissor through cambric, demolishing bridges, uprooting trees and laying low distant hills. The first thing I have to do is sharpen up their technique. For at least a couple of hours each Saturday morning we sit at a round table smelling of competing aftershaves in the Smoker with practice chanters and copies of Book 2 of Willie Ross’s Collection of Bagpipe Music. Slowly, but surely I force these privileged lads to expand their repertoires. I think they like me, though my ideology is at odds with theirs. Most of them are the products of independent or semi-fee-paying schools like Hutcchesons’ Grammar, Glasgow Academy, Kelvinside Academy and The High School of Glasgow, and since they were members of their schools’ Army Cadet Force, they are pretty clued up about future career prospects and how their membership of the OTC may enhance them.
If you’re studying for a BSc degree you go Engineers or Artillery. If you’re swotting for MbChb degrees you go Medic. Most of these grim-faced young medics see themselves as consultants by the time they reach thirty. While all the future docs retain a degree of rigidity, at least one of these stethoscope-fetishists is a certifiable weirdo. I have just returned from our annual camp in the north of England where I shared a tent with a second-year medic. Above his camp bed he had suspended on a wire a human skull.
“Where did you get the human skull?” I’d ask this freak.
The answer was always the same – “some deid guy.”
Aaaaaarrgh! Almost a doctor? I’m never going to be ill for the rest of my life!
If you’re doing an Arts degree, and I was the only one in the band doing this, then you go Infantry. Of course infantry skills are a kind of hard sell should you ever leave the army. A civilian employer, if he hears REME or Medical Corps, imagines the applicant has a little bit of a brain. Do your two years National Service with the Infantry, okay, you know how to survive Arctic cold and desert heat, oh, and you know how to kill people. These are not the best credentials for success in civilian life. When asked what I’m going to do about mortgages and car payments I shrug my shoulders and smile as wide as a bell.
Right, that’s the backtracking over. So I go forward to Edinburgh again. I’m battering out Scotland the Brave or Somebody’s Farewell to Somewhere on a sweet pipe on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh. As ‘leader-aff’ of the students I’m at the head of the second file on the right and my troops, all eight of them, are gamely following me.
Here’s a wee run-down on the disposition of the various bands as we were assembled by the stone-faced RSM who is mad keen on foot drill. At the far right of the parade is a column of pipers from The Gurkha Regiment, their P/M who technically is in charge of the full . . .um, Bhuna, looking smart in cutaway jacket and Douglas tartan trews at their head. On my left is the P/M of a battalion of the Gordon Highlanders. Further along from him are files of pipers from, among others, the Jordanian Army, the Black Watch and the Second Battallion of the Scots Guards. The ‘Jock’ representatives are all competent pipers and are recognizable by their Psych. Ward haircuts.