Travel Stories

A Drummer’s Tribute to Veterans
by Kevin Campbell

Marching through the streets of Glasgow like legions of our Scottish ancestors, we played vigorously and fast paced, our dark green Black Watch kilts swaying with every stride. Thousands lined the streets on each side, but the picket fence of the crowd seemed faceless. We were serious in our desire to play and uphold the sounds native to Scotland.

We were marching to the town center, George Square, to commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of V-J day, the allied victory over Japan that ended World War II. We had no idea of the size of the crowd or enormity of the event when we arrived at Kelvin Hall just outside the town center. We just knew we had to wear our dress whites, which are mainly for more solemn occasions. As far as we could tell, we were just one of numerous pipe bands. After dressing, we formed up in a courtyard to tune and play a warm-up tune, “Garb of Old Gaul.”

The sky was overcast and gray, but it didn’t have the feel of rain. The surrounding buildings were dark like charcoal, but not as medieval as those in Edinburgh.

We were led to our position in the parade directly in front of another pipe band from Canada, the Black Tusk Caledonia from Vancouver.
I was playing lead tip for the drum line. The position of our band in the parade posed a serious issue for me. I had a hard enough time hearing the Pipe Major or Drum Major calling off the tune from the front of the band. Now I have a band behind me playing as well, which also affected my pacing and sense of time. These would be issues throughout the entire parade.

As a distraction, I stared at the policewoman standing to the right of us. We quickly learned that she was going to accompany us along the entire parade route. She was assigned to protect us from the horde of onlookers. She was a petite blonde. While her stature seemed small, her fierce intensity in her squinting blue eyes conveyed another message. In addition to the policewoman, there were roaming sets of policemen walking down and seriously eyeballing every band member of each group scanning for anything unusual. The Pipe Major joked with her about keeping step.

We marched slowly up a hill with numerous intermittent stops, praying the whole route wasn’t one continuous uphill battle of starts and stops. As we rounded a corner to the left, we found out that we would be placed in front of retired veterans from the Cameronian Regiment. This somewhat eased my tension about playing back to back with another Pipe Band.

As it turned out, every other group would be a pipe band. So, the Pipe Major would listen to the band in the front of us before determining what tune to call out. We didn’t want to play the same tune that was played in front of us. Fortunately, we had our American set and some other tunes that we knew no

one else would play.
As we approached the stepping off point, we came around a corner of a square that all participants wrapped around before the official start. I could hear the band that had just left as well as the approaching band to our right. The combination of tunes was disconcerting. Moreover, the time of each tune didn’t match. One was a four-four march and the other was a three-four march.

The Pipe Major called off “Garb of Old Gaul.” I was just happy that I could hear him. Remarkably, the other bands faded out. I was not sure if this was my concentration or that the other bands had ended. As we rounded the corner, I could see a long straight downhill with thousands of people on each side. I was trying to play loudly. My arms were failing me, as my left forearm was cramping. I wasn’t able to play the triplet flams cleanly. I just kept trying to relax as I played. This helped until I tried to play the solo parts at the appropriate volume.

We kept marching when we would stop or finish a tune. I would tap out the cadence for the left foot. This was a chance to relax and look around at all of the people. However, I was too intense on watching the other band members and listening for the next tune. I didn’t have to wait long. It was “Scotland the Brave.”

Again, my arms were failing me. Was this nerves? Had I not eaten right? More importantly, would it get worse? If it did, I would have to let someone else lead. I just tried to let it flow and relax.

The next tune was “Green Hills of Tyrol,” which is one of my favorites. Maybe this tune would snap me out of this grip that held me. I could concentrate on the tune and the down beat. It also gave me the chance to look around again. The crowd was denser. I usually remember a face or make eye contact with a pedestrian, but nothing stood out in my mind.

We turned another corner. There were more people. The parade route was fully engulfed by onlookers.

We could tell when we had to turn, as two of the streets at an intersection would be blocked by the spectators. It seemed like we were winding through all of the streets of Glasgow. There was no way that I would remember the parade route. We turned left and right, left, left, right, right. I had no idea in what direction we were going.
In the midst of negotiating the parade route, one of our older members veered out of formation and made his way to the curb. Two family members of the band helped him and his pipes to a spot. The band kept playing. I think we were playing our American set. It was muggy, but it wasn’t overly hot.

At last I had hit my stride. My arms were relaxing. The volume and the clarity were coming back. We went into Green Hills again. The pace was incredibly fast. It was as if it would end the parade quicker. We might as well be running at this pace. When we finished the tune, the Drum Major stopped the band. The Pipe Major came back to me to tell me to slow it down.

Our next tune was a four-four set. I controlled the pacing as we wheeled to our right. Our pace became more natural. We had crescendoe’d with “Green Hills” and now the band was relaxing.

We followed to the right. The crowd was now more compact then ever. We could feel the end of the parade looming ahead of us. We then went left and left again. This parade was turning into a labyrinth of people.

After the last turn to the right, I recognized where we were. I could see George Square and the large granite statues in the middle. I could see the various bands that preceded us into the square standing at attention. We were again playing our American set, which seemed appropriate. On our next turn to the right, we were marching in front of the town Council, the Lord Provost, Jack McConnell, the Scottish Prime Minister, and most importantly the World War II veterans. Most of them were sitting. The Drum Major saluted to the left as we marched past. I turned my head to the left as well out of respect.

Two more right wheels and we would join the other bands. The Pipe Major called off “Green Hills.” We

played our drum setting as we entered George square. It was a proud moment to be the only band playing as we entered the square. There might have been other pipe bands playing on the street that we just marched, but I couldn’t hear them. All I could hear was us and I was enjoying being the lead.
We finished the tune just before we marched into our final position in the square. We were just to the right of a large white granite statue of an eagle. The Canadian band didn’t take long to flank us on the left. A little while longer, the Royal Air Force from Leucars came up on our right dressed in their powder blue and grey doublets and bonnets.

We all stood at attention. Regimental youth immediately worked their way through the bands handing out water. Other regiments kept playing their way into the square. As soon as they were all assembled, which seemed like an hour, the Town Council started the presentation. I couldn’t see the presentations and I could only clearly hear the piped in recorded bits. Therefore, the presentations were hazy to me. I could hear the benediction and I recognized the introduction to the laying of the wreath.

The Royal Legion bands performed for the ceremony. Their pipe majors called off instruction as loudly as I have ever heard anyone yell. Sadly, there was much confusion about where to march. Half of British Royal

Legions ended up in one location and the other half had to be led back to the assigned position. Moreover, not everyone knew to play, so I could hear random pipers play.
We were fortunate as a guest band to have escaped that mess, but I still felt bad, as this was a solemn occasion. For these aging World War II veterans, there probably wasn’t going be another V-J Day celebration, as these occur only once every ten years. It was still special.

The service ended solemnly. The bands were dismissed unceremoniously. We just stood regarding the veterans as the crowd dispersed. We greeted the Royal Air Force band mingled with our Canadian friends. We also had to wait for our coach to arrive.

The Pipe Major decided to have us round up. We played “Scotland the Brave,” as the Canadian band joined in with us. We then expanded the circle to accommodate all the members of both bands. I was asked to step forward into the center with the Pipe Major and led both bands in “Highland Cathedral,” which has a beating similar to Ravel’s “Bolero.” We played “Green Hills” one last time and finished off with “Amazing Grace.”

By the time we finished playing, we had drawn quite a large number of spectators from the stragglers of the ceremony, most of them veterans. They appreciated our playing and many of them talked to the band members. After a while, we slowly dispersed and

headed to our black bus. All in all, it was a great parade. Being a member of the only American guest band, I was both proud to be an American and proud also of my Scottish heritage.