Saturday Snippet: The pipes are calling


We’ve met the late George MacDonald Fraser in these pages on several occasions.  Best known as the author of the highly amusing Flashman Papers, he served in combat during World War II and wrote a memoir of his experiences, “Quartered Safe Out Here“, which remains (IMHO) one of the finest memoirs of that war by an enlisted soldier.  We’ve already shared one excerpt from it in this Saturday Snippet series.

Fraser was later commissioned, and served in the Middle East and in Britain in a Highland regiment, about which he wrote very amusingly in his McAuslan trilogy, recently published in a single volume as “The Complete McAuslan“.

Again, we’ve already shared one excerpt from the first volume in the trilogy in our Saturday Snippet series.  This morning I’d like to share another, a chapter titled “Johnnie Cope in the Morning” from the second book in the trilogy, “McAuslan in the Rough”.  I’ve had to abridge it somewhat to keep it to a readable size for a blog article, but all the meat of the story is still there.  Enjoy!

When I was a very young soldier, doing my recruit training in a snowbound wartime camp in Durham, there was a villainous orderly sergeant who used to get us up in the mornings. He would sneak silently into our hut at 5.30 a.m., where we were frowsting in our coarse blankets against the bitter cold of the room, suddenly snap on all the lights, and start beating the coal-bucket with the poker. At the same time two of his minions would rush from bunk to bunk screaming:

‘Wake-eye! Wake-eye! I can see yer! Gerrup! Gerrup! Gerrup!’

And the orderly sergeant, a creature devoid of pity and any decent feeling, would continue his hellish metallic hammering while he shouted:

‘Getcher cold feet on the warm floor! Har-har!’ and sundry obscenities of his own invention. Then all three would retire, rejoicing coarsely, leaving behind them thirty-six recruits suffering from nervous prostration, to say nothing of ringing in the ears.

But it certainly woke us up, and as I did my first early morning fatigue, which consisted of dragging a six-foot wooden table-top down to the ablutions and scrubbing it with cold water, I used to contrast my own miserable lot with that of his late majesty Louis XIV of France, whose attendants used a very different technique to dig him out of his scratcher. As I recalled, a valet in velvet-soled shoes used to creep into the royal bedchamber at a fairly civilised hour, softly draw back the curtains a little way, and then whisper: ‘It is my humble duty and profound honour to inform your majesty that it is eight-thirty of the clock.’ That, now, is the way to break the bad news, and afterwards the body of majesty was more or less lifted out of bed by a posse of princes of the blood who washed, fed, watered and dressed him in front of the fire. No wooden tables to scrub for young Louis.

And as I wrestled with my brush in the freezing water, barking my knuckles and turning blue all over, I used to have daydreams in which that fiend of an orderly sergeant was transported back in time to old Versailles, where he would clump into the Sun-King’s bedroom in tackety boots at 5.30, guffawing obscenely, thrashing the fire-irons against the fender, and bawling:

‘Levez-vous donc, Jean Crapaud! Wake-eye, wake-eye! Getcher froid pieds on the chaud terre! I can see yer, you frog-eating chancer! Har-har!’

While I concede that this kind of awakening could have done Louis XIV nothing but good, and possibly averted the French Revolution, the whole point of the daydream was that the orderly sergeant would undoubtedly be flung into an oubliette in the Bastille for lèse majesté, there to rot with his red sash and copy of King’s Regulations, while virtuous recruits in the twentieth century drowsed on until the late forenoon.

And while I stood mentally picturing this happy state of affairs, and sponging the icy water off the table-top with the flat of my hand, the sadistic brute would sneak into the ablutions and turn the cold hose on us, screaming:

‘Two minnits to gerron rifle parade, you ’orrible shower! Har-har! Mooo-ve or I’ll blitz yer!’

I wonder that we survived that recruit training, I really do.

You may suppose that that orderly sergeant’s method of intimating reveille was as refined a piece of mental cruelty as even a military mind could devise, and I daresay if I hadn’t later been commissioned into a Highland regiment I would agree. But in fact, there I discovered something worse, and it used to happen once a week, regularly on Friday mornings. In nightmares I can hear it still.

On the other six days of the week reveille was sounded in the conventional way at six, by a bugler on the distant square playing the famous ‘Charlie, Charlie, get out of bed’. If you were a pampered brute of an officer, you used to turn over, mumbling happily, and at six-thirty your orderly would come in with a mug of tea, open the shutters, lay out your kit, and give you the news of the day while you drank, smoked, and coughed contentedly.

But on Fridays it was very different. Then the duty of sounding reveille devolved on the battalion’s pipes and drums, who were bound to march round the entire barrack area, playing full blast. The trouble was, in a spirit of schadenfreude comparable with that of the Durham orderly sergeant’s, they used to assemble in dead silence immediately outside the junior subalterns’ quarters, inflate their beastly bags without so much as a warning sigh, poise their drum-sticks without the suspicion of a click, and then, at a signal from that god-forsaken demented little kelpie of a pipe-sergeant, burst thunderously into the squealing cacophony and ear-splitting drum rolls of ‘Hey, Johnnie Cope, are ye waukin’ yet?

Now, ‘Johnnie Cope’ is one of the most magnificent sounds ever to issue from musical instruments. It is the Highlanders’ war clarion, the tune that is played before battle, the wild music that is supposed to quicken the blood of the mountain man and freeze the foe in his tracks. It commemorates the day two and a half centuries ago when the broadswords came whirling out of the mist at Prestonpans to fall on Major-General John Cope’s redcoats and cut them to ribbons in something under five minutes. I once watched the Seaforths go in behind it against a Japanese-held village, and saw for the first time that phenomenon which you can’t really appreciate until you have seen it – the unbelievable speed with which Highland troops can accelerate a slow, almost leisurely advance into an all-out charge. And I’ve heard it at military funerals, after ‘Lovat’s Lament’ or ‘Flowers of the Forest’, and never failed to be moved by it. Well played, it is a savage, wonderful sound, unlike any other pipe march – this, probably, because it doesn’t truly belong to the Army, but to the fighting tails of the old clansmen before the government had the sense to get them into uniforms.

But whatever it does, for the Jocks or to the enemy, at the proper time and occasion, its effect at 6 a.m. on a refined and highly-strung subaltern who is dreaming of Rita Hayworth is devastating. The first time I got it, full blast at a range of six feet or so, through a thin shutter, with twenty pipers tearing their lungs out and a dozen side-drums crashing into the thunderous rhythm, I came out of bed like a galvanised ferret, blankets and all, under the impression that the Jocks had Risen, or that the MacLeods were coming to settle things with me and my kinsfolk at long last. My room-mate, a cultured youth of nervous disposition, shot bolt upright from his pillow with a wordless scream, and sat gibbering that the Yanks had dropped the Bomb, and, as usual, in the wrong place. For a few deafening moments we just absorbed it, with the furniture shuddering and the whole room in apparent danger of collapse, and then I flung open the shutters and rebuked the musicians, who were counter-marching outside.

Well, you try arguing with a pipe-band some time, and see what it gets you. And you cannot, if you are a young officer with any notions of dignity, hie yourself out in pyjamas and bandy words with a towering drum-major, and him resplendent in leopard skin and white spats, at that hour in the morning. So we had to endure it, while they regaled us with ‘The White Cockade’ and the ‘Braes of Mar’, before marching off to the strains of ‘Highland Laddie’, and my room-mate said it had done something to his inner ear, and he doubted if he would ever be able to stand on one leg or ride a bicycle again.

‘They can’t do that to us!’ he bleated, holding his nose and blowing out his cheeks in an effort to restore his shattered ear-drums. ‘We’re officers, dammit!’

That, as I explained to him, was the point. Plainly what we had just suffered was a piece of insubordinate torture devised to remind us that we were pathetic little one-pippers and less than the dust beneath the pipe-band’s wheels, but I knew that if we were wise we would just grin and bear it. A newly-joined second-lieutenant is, to some extent, fair game. Properly speaking, he has power and dominion over all warrant officers, N.C.O.s and private men, including pipe- and drum-majors, but he had better go cannily in exercising it. He certainly shouldn’t start by locking horns with such a venerable and privileged institution as a Highland regimental pipe band.

‘You mean we’ll have to put up with that . . . that infernal caterwauling every Friday morning?’ he cried, massaging his head. ‘I can’t take it! Heavens, man, I play the piano; I can’t afford to be rendered tone-deaf. Look what happened to Beethoven. Anyway, it’s . . . it’s insubordination, calculated and deliberate. I’m going to complain.’

‘You’re not,’ I said. ‘You’ll get no sympathy, and it’ll only make things worse. Did complaining do Beethoven any good? Just stick your head under the pillow next time, and pretend it’s all in the mind.’

I soothed him eventually, saw that he got lots of hot, sweet tea (this being the Army’s panacea for everything except a stomach wound) and convinced him that we shouldn’t say anything about it. This, we discovered, was the attitude of the other subalterns who shared our long bungalow block – which was situated at some distance from the older officers’ quarters. Complain, they said, and our superiors would just laugh callously and say it did us good; anyway, for newcomers to a Highland unit to start beefing about the pipe band would probably be some kind of mortal insult. So every Friday morning, with our alarms set at five to six, we just gritted our teeth and waited with towels round our heads, and grimly endured that sudden, appalling blast of sound. Indeed, I developed my own form of retaliation, which was to rise before six, take my ground-sheet and a book out on to the patch of close-cropped weed which passed in North Africa for a lawn, and lie there apparently immersed while the pipe band rendered ‘Johnnie Cope’ with all the stops out a few yards away. When they marched off to wake the rest of the battalion I noticed the pipe-sergeant break ranks, and come over towards me with his pipes under his arm. He was a small, bright-eyed, elfin man whose agility as a Highland dancer was legendary; indeed, my only previous contacts with him had been at twice-weekly morning dancing parades, at which he taught us younger officers the mysteries of the Highland Fling and foursome reel, skipping among us like a new-roused fawn, crying ‘one-two-three’ and comparing our lumbering efforts to the soaring of golden eagles over Grampian peaks. If that was how he saw us, good luck to him.

‘Good morning to you, sir,’ he said, with his head cocked on one side. ‘Did you enjoy our wee reveille this morning?’

‘Fairly well, thanks, pipey,’ I said, and closed my book. ‘A bit patchy here and there, I thought. Some hesitation in the warblers – ’ I didn’t know what a warbler was, except that it was some kind of noise you made on the pipes ‘ – and a bum note every now and then. Otherwise, not bad.’

‘Not – bad?’ He went pale, and then pink, and finally said, with Highland archness: ‘Would you be a piper yoursel’, sir, perhaps?’

‘Not a note,’ I said. ‘But I’ve heard “Johnnie Cope” played by Foden’s Motor Works Brass Band.’

For a moment I thought he was going to burst, and then he began to grin, and then to laugh, shaking his head.

‘By George,’ said he. ‘A brass band, hey? Stop you, and I’ll use that on Pipe-Major Macdonald, the next time he starts bumming his chat. No’ bad, no’ bad. And does the ither subalterns enjoy oor serenade?’

‘I doubt if they’ve got my ear for music, pipey. Most of them probably think that if you played “Too Long in this Condition” it would be more appropriate.’

He opened his eyes at that. ‘Too Long in this Condition’ is a pibroch, long and weird and full of allusions to the MacCrimmons, and not the kind of thing that ignorant subalterns are expected to know about.

‘Aye-aye, weel,’ he said, smiling. ‘And you’re Mr MacNeill, aren’t you? D Company, if I remember. Ahhuh. Chust so.’ He regarded me brightly, nodded, and turned away. ‘Look in at the office sometime, Mr MacNeill, if you have the inclination. Chust when you’re passing, you understand.’

And that small conversation was a step forward – a bigger one, really, than playing for the company football team, or getting my second pip as a full lieutenant, or even crossing the undefined line of acceptance by my own platoon – which I did quite unintentionally one night by losing my temper and slinging a mutinous Jock physically out of the canteen, in defiance of all common sense, military discipline, and officer-like conduct. For the pipey and I were friends from that morning on, and it is no small thing to be friends with a pipe-sergeant when you are trying to find your nervous feet in a Highland regiment.

He was in fact subordinate to the pipe-major and the drum-major, who were the executive heads of the band, but in his way he carried more weight than either of them. He was the musician, the authority on air and march and pibroch, the arbiter when it came to any question of quality in music or dancing. Years at his trade had left him with a curious deformity in which the facial muscles had given way on one side, so that when he blew, his cheek expanded like a balloon – an unnerving sight until you got used to it. He had enormous energy, both in movement and conversation, and was never still, buzzing about like a small tartan wasp, as when he was instructing young pipers in the finer points of their art.

‘God be kind to me!’ he would exclaim, leaping nervously round some perspiring youth who was going red in the face over the intricacies of ‘Wha’ll be King but Cherlie’. ‘You’re not plowing up a pluidy palloon, Wilson! You’re summoning the clans for the destruction of the damned Hanovers, aren’t you? Your music is charming the claymore out of the thatch and the dirk from the peat, so it is! Now, tuck it into your oxter and wake the hills with your challenge! Away you go!’

And the piper would squint, red-faced, and send his ear-splitting notes echoing off the band-room walls, very creditably, it seemed to me, and the pipey would call on the shades of the great MacCrimmon and Robin Oig to witness the defilement of their heritage.

‘It’s enuff to make the Celtic aura of my blood turn to effluent!’ was one of his more memorable observations. ‘It’s a gathering of fighting men you’re meant to be inspiring, boy! The noise you’re makin’ wouldnae collect a parcel of Caithness tinkers. You’ll be swinging it, next! Uplift yourself, Wilson! Mind, it’s not bobby-soxers you’re tryin’ to attract, it’s the men of might from the ends of the mountains, with their bonnets down and their shoes kicked off for the charge. And again – give your bags a heeze and imagine you’re sclimming up the Heights of Abraham with Young Simon’s caterans at your back and the French in front of you, not puffing and wheezing oot some American abomination at half-time at a futball match!’

And eventually, when it had been played to his satisfaction he would beam, and cry:

‘There! There’s Wilson the Piper, waking the echoes in majesty before the face of kings, and the Chermans aall running away. Now, put up your pipes, and faall oot before you spoil it.’

This was his enclosed, jealously-guarded world; he had known nothing else since his boy service – except, as he said himself, ‘a wee bitty war’. Pipers, unlike most military bandsmen, tend to be fighting soldiers; in one Highland unit which I visited in Borneo only a few years ago, the band claimed to have accounted for more Communist terrorists than any of the rifle companies. And in peacetime they were privileged people, with their own little family inside the regiment itself, and the pipey presided over his domain of chanters and reeds and dirks and rehearsals and dancing, and kept a bright eye cocked at the battalion generally, to make sure that tradition was observed and custom honoured, and that there was no falling off in what he would describe vaguely as ‘Caledonia’. If he hadn’t been such a decent wee man, he would undoubtedly have been a ‘professional Highlander’ of the most offensive kind.

The only time anyone ever saw the pipe-sergeant anything but thoroughly self-assured and bursting with musical confidence was once every two months or so, when he would produce a new pipe-tune of his own composition, and submit it, in a state bordering on nervous hysteria, to the Colonel, with a request that it might be included in the next beating of Retreat.

‘Which one is it this time, pipey?’ the Colonel would ask. ‘“The Mist-Covered Streets of Aberdeen” or ‘“The 92nd’s Farewell to Hogg Market, Calcutta”?’

The pipey would scowl horribly, and then hurriedly arrange his face in what he supposed was a sycophantic grin, and say:

‘Ach, you’re aye joshing, Colonel, sir. It’s jist a wee thing that I thought of entitling “Captain Lachlan Chisholm’s Fancy”, in honour of our medical officer. It has a certain . . . och, a captivatin’ sense of the bens and the glens and the heroes, sir – a kind of . . . eh . . . miasma, as it were – at least, I think so.’

‘Does it sound like a pipe-tune?’ the Colonel would ask. ‘If so, by all means play it. I’m sure it will be perfectly splendid.’

And at Retreat, with the pipey in a frenzy of excitement, the band would perform, and afterwards the pipey would approach the Colonel and inquire: ‘How did you like “Captain Lachlan Chisholm’s Fancy”, Colonel, sir?’

And the Colonel, leaning on his cromach, would say: ‘Which one was that?’

‘The second last, sir – before “Cock o’ the North”.’

‘Oh, that one. But that was “Bonnie Dundee”, surely? At least, it sounded like “Bonnie Dundee”. Come to think of it, pipey, your last composition – what was it? – “The Unloading of the 75th at Colaba Causeway”, or something – it sounded terribly like “Highland Laddie”. Of course, I haven’t got your musical ear . . .’

‘And he can say that again, and a third time in Gaelic,’ the pipey would rage in the band-room afterwards. ‘God preserve us from a commanding officer that has no more music than a Border Leicester ewe! “The Unloading of the 75th”, says he – dam’ cheek, when fine he knows it was caalled “The Wild Green Hills of – of – of – ach, where the hell was it, now . . .’

‘Gorbals Cross,’ the pipe-major would suggest.

‘No such thing! And, curse him, he says my composeetions sound like “Bonnie Dundee” and “Highland Laddie”, as if I wass some penny-whistle street-musician hawkin’ my tinny for coppers along Union Street. Stop you, and I’ll fix his duff wan o’ these days. I’ll write a jazz tune, and get it called “Colonel J. G. F. Gordon’s Delight”, and have it played in aall the dance-halls! He’ll be sorry then!’

And yet, there was no one in the battalion who knew the Colonel better than the pipey did, or was more expert in dealing with that tough, formidable, wise old commanding officer. The truth was that in some things, especially his love for his regiment, the wily Colonel could be surprisingly innocent, and the pipey knew just where and when to touch the hidden nerve.

. . .

Mention ‘pipers’ to me, and my immediate recollection is of ‘Johnnie Cope’, and the way they used to batter our ear-drums on a Friday at dawn.

Incidentally, that peculiar little bit of subaltern-baiting came to an abrupt end, thanks to the cunning of Lieutenant Mackenzie, in a week when I was out on detachment. It seems that the Colonel stayed late in the mess one Thursday night, his wife being away in Cairo, and yarned on with the subalterns in the ante-room until after two in the morning. And being too tired to make the two-mile drive home to the married quarters, he accepted the suggestion of Mackenzie that he stay over for the night – in a vacant room in the subalterns’ quarters. So the Colonel borrowed a pair of pyjamas and burrowed in for the night, remarking cheerfully that he hoped he’d sleep as soundly as he used to do when he, too, was a one-pipper with not a care in the world.

‘And he did, too – until precisely 6 a.m.,’Mackenzie informed me later. ‘And then the pipey and his gang sneaked up, as usual, and took deep breaths, and started blowing the bloody roof off, right outside the old boy’s kip. I’ve never,’ Mackenzie went on contentedly, ‘actually seen a hungry hungry vulture with a fire-cracker tied to its leg. And, brother, I don’t need to. He came out of that room like Krakatoa erupting, fangs bared and blood in his eye. I’d no idea the old man could shift like that. And I’ll bet you’ve never seen an entire pipe band in full flight, either – not just retreating, but running like hell, and somebody with his foot through the big drum. If the Colonel hadn’t been in bare feet, he’d have caught someone, and there’d have been murder done. Anyway, when the smoke had cleared, he was understood to say that the pipe-band could henceforth sound “Johnnie Cope” on the other side of the barracks, round Support Company, and if they ever set foot within two hundred yards of any officers’ quarters again, he, personally, would reorganise them in several unusual ways. This is an edited version, of course. And that,’ concluded Mackenzie smugly, ’is the pipey’s eye on a plate. Thank your clever old Kenny. We’ll sleep in peace on Fridays after this.’

Strangely enough, we didn’t. Probably we were suffering from withdrawal symptoms, but Friday reveille, with only the distant drift of the band, found us fractious and peevish. Even my room-mate said he missed it, rather; he liked the bit where the drummers crashed out their tattoo at the beginning, it made him feel all martial, he said. We didn’t actually go the length of asking the band to come back, but there was no doubt of it, Friday wasn’t the same any more.

The only time I heard them beat reveille outside the subalterns’ quarters again was a long time after, when we had moved back to Edinburgh, and the old Colonel had gone. It was on my last Friday in the Army, just before I was demobilised, and I like to think it was the pipey’s farewell gift. It had all the old effect – I finished up against the far wall, thrashing feebly in a state of shock, while ‘Johnnie Cope’ came thundering in like a broadside. I had a new room-mate by this time, a stranger to the battalion, and when he could make himself heard he announced his intention – he was a large, aggressive young man – of going out and putting an immediate stop to it.

‘Don’t you dare,’ I shouted above the din. ‘Let them alone. And think yourself privileged.’

Nowadays, in my old age, I’m accustomed to waking up in the ordinary way, with a slightly fuzzy feeling, and a vague discontent, and my old broken shoulder aching, and twinges in my calves and ankles. And sometimes, if my thoughts turn that way, I can think smugly that one of the compensations nowadays is that there are no tables to scrub, or men of ill-will hitting the coal-bucket with the poker, or hounding me out into the ablutions through the snow – and then I feel sad, because never again will I hear ‘Johnnie Cope’ in the morning.

In honor of the story, here’s one of my favorite renditions of “Johnnie Cope” performed by The Tannahill Weavers in a medley starting and finishing with “The Atholl Highlanders”.  Lyrics may be found here if you need them (you will, if you don’t understand the Gaelic words interspersed among the English).

A good tale, well told, and stirring music to boot.



  1. I've been reading his books for years, my introduction was the short story, "The General danced at dawn". I've replaced my copy of "the Compleat" several times. His interview to be a scout sniper in "Quartered safe out here" is a superb story. It's a pity the Marble Arch was destroyed. I'm trying to find the old fort he mentioned in the Beau Geste story in Google Earth. "Night train to JerusaIem" was an eye opener. think I have everything except the Flashman series.
    Thanks for posting this. His writing is memorable.

  2. Ha! Just read that chapter the other night, I think I have everything he wrote. I think I have purchased close to 7 or 8 editions of 'Quartered Safe Out Here', only to loan them to the 'it's too good and I won't return it' club (I now have an Xcel spreadsheet with a borrowed tag) for my personal library. Now, that the weather in PA is warming and the ground drying, it should allow me to walk along the Delaware River with my pipes, far away from discerning ears. Although if I can annoy somebody in New Jersey, win-win.

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