Bat­tle of The Somme

The march of Wil­lie Lawrie

The Oban Times - - Leisure - Dr Lorn Mac­in­tyre

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.)

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.