Battle of The Somme
The march of Willie Lawrie
H ow proud Willie Lawrie’s descendants must be, and we all should be, to have heard his great retreat march The Battle of
the Somme played by a lone piper at the Thiepval Memorial at the close of the BBC’s moving coverage of the Battle of the Somme commemoration.
The march has a special poignancy for me, since my grand-uncle Eric, who was in the same battalion as Willie Lawrie, was with him in the trenches earlier in the war, and would have heard Willie’s rousing pipes on the first day of the Somme on July 1, 1916.
Willie Lawrie was born on May 23, 1881, at West Laroch, Ballachulish, the son of Hugh Lawrie, a slate quarrier, and Agnes Falconer. Willie was seven when his father began his son’s piping tuition. Still only a boy, Willie joined the local Argyllshire Volunteers so he could develop his piping. In Oban and in Glasgow, he had tuition from John MacColl of that great piping dynasty which continues to excel to this day.
Who could compete with the brilliant piper from Ballachulish? Willie Lawrie took the silver medal at the Argyllshire Gathering in 1907; the gold medal in 1910; the March in the same year; and the following year his inspiring playing secured him the Strathspey and Reel. His conquests at the Northern meeting were: the March in 1907; the Strathspey and Reel in 1907; the gold medal in 1910; the clasp in 1911.
Many of the lairds of that time retained pipers. Willie’s rousing pipes wakened the Earl of Dunmore in the morning; and Colonel MacDougall of Lunga rose to a reveille tune. For a time, Willie was also piper to the Macdonalds of Dunach.
Every time I am on Edinburgh’s Princes Street I pay whichever piper is playing to hear Willie’s march Mrs H L Macdonald of Dunach, my favourite of all pipe tunes.
Charlotte Theresa, a Macdonald from Tote on Skye, married Henry Lachlan Macdonald of Dunach, Loch Feochan. He was a noted cattle and horse breeder, a gifted footballer and cricketer.
A native Gaelic speaker, Char- lotte was a tireless supporter of the Mòd, and particularly of Oban Gaelic Choir, pledging that wherever the choir was singing, she would be there.
Willie Lawrie composed his tune for Mrs Macdonald when he was piper at Dunach, and when she died suddenly at Ardgour in June 1933 and was buried in Pennyfuir cemetery, Oban, Willie’s tune for her was played at the graveside.
Willie Lawrie went out to France in 1915 with the 8th Argylls. The battalion pipers served for more than a year in the trenches, and were only allowed to play when out of the line.
His commanding officer was Colonel John Campbell of Kilberry, and Willie is said to have complained to him: ‘ What sort of life is that for a pipe major – living like a rat in a hole?’
The Colonel liked his whisky, and legend claims that Willie, weary after a long evening’s playing in the mess, held a note on his pipes while leaning over to avail himself of the bottle on the table as the colonel was nodding off.
In July 1915, the Argylls were stationed at Bousincourt with a Breton regiment. The Scots and the French became friends, and when the Bretons moved on, some of the 8th Argyll pipers accompanied them for part of the way. Willie composed The 8th Argylls Farewell to the 116th Regiment de Ligne to mark the harmonious meeting.
Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen are immortalised for their war poems. But what about pipers of equal genius like Willie Lawrie? His health weakened by the appalling conditions in the trenches, he witnessed the carnage of the first day of the Battle of the Somme.
The pipers were allowed to play once more, but a pipe-bag under an arm and the drones proud in the sky were an easy target. Yet Willie survived that terrible first day to commemorate the battle, his comrades, survivors and the dead, in his The Battle of the Somme.
Willie’s health deteriorated. He was invalided home, dying in hospital in Oxford on November 28, 1916, aged only 35, 10 days after the end of the Battle of the Somme, but with the 8th Argylls bogged down in the quagmire of France.
He left a widow and three children.
Willie Lawrie was buried in St John’s Churchyard near his home at Loanfern, Ballachulish, but his stirring compositions endure, and are played wherever bagpipes are tuned and dancers take to the floor. Also, his musical skills have descended in the Lawrie family.
(Grateful thanks to Jeannie Campbell MBE of the College of Piping, Glasgow, for information. Photograph of Willie Lawrie, aged 20, courtesy of Andrew Berthoff and pipes/drums.)