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Scottish Drum Major

The Official Home Of Drum Major William Jordan

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History of the Drum Major 

It was in 1747, in the aftermath of the last Jacobite Rising, that the Lord Chief Baron in sentencing to death Piper James Reid of Prince Charlie’s army observed that”…a Highland regiment never marched without a piper…therefore his bagpipe, in the eye of the law, is an instrument of war.” To this day the military pipers of Scotland still hold a very special place in their regiments.

In the 18th Century, the official musical establishment for a regiment included two drummers for each company and two fifers for the Grenadier Company. The officers were also allowed to maintain, at their own expense, a ‘band of musik’ consisting of clarinets; oboes, bassoons and horns which later evolved into the Military Band of today. But the War Office firmly refused to allow pipers on the establishment. Although it is known that most Scottish regiments did, in fact, maintain pipers, it was not until 1854 that the War Office bowed to pressure and allowed every Highland regiment an increment of a Pipe Major and five pipers on it’s establishment. Since that historic break-through, pipers have become a recognized part of every Scottish regiment, and ‘pipe bands’ are popular all over the world. But how did these bands evolve?

Reverting to the 18th Century, the main duties of the drummers were to pass messages by drum beat on the battlefield, and to announce the routine events of a soldier’s day. The four main occasions were Reveille, the Troop (or Assembly), Retreat, and Tattoo, and each was announced by the drummers who were accompanied by the fifes. In the Highland regiments, as in the days of the clans, these routine events were also announced by the pipers playing a ‘duty tune’, normally an easily recognizable melody. After 1854, when the pipers were officially recognized, it was not long before the pipes began to super-cede the fifes in providing the music for routine ceremonial. They were capable of a more versatile, louder, and therefore more impressive accompaniment to the drums in beating the routine calls of the soldier’s day. In the Highland Regiments the ‘Fifes and Drums’ soon became the ‘Pipes and Drums’.

As musical techniques developed, the evolution of the Pipes and Drums into a ‘Pipe Band’ became, not only a normal part of every Scottish regiment, but a traditional aspect of Scottish life world-wide.

“Pipe Major!”

“Yes, sir!”

“The windows of the band block could do with a wash.”

“Oh, aye sir. I’ll mention that to the Drum Major, we’ll have them seen to straight away.”

(from the movie, Tunes of Glory)

The history of the position of Drum Major is a long one, indeed it is so long that we can reference it back only as far as it appears in military documents and letters, but it was surely in existence for quite some time prior to these.

Drums and Fifes are among the oldest forms of military music. The drum had long been known in Eastern Countries and the Egyptians combined the trumpet and the drum to provide their military music. The Greeks on the other hand, favored the flute, the soothing tones of which kept their fighting men cool and firm. These remained instruments of martial music until the crusaders returned with fresh ideas from the Far East. They had seen the value of the drum as an adjunct to military art in the armies of the Saracens and introduced this instrument into England in the Eleventh Century under the names of the Tabour and Naker.

It seems however, that the drummer for a considerable number of years was only employed as one of the retinue of Great Officers and not generally included as a part of the establishment of the army. In the list of the army employed during the disastrous war with France in 1557 drums were appointed to Regiments of Foot in the proportion of two drummers to a company of a hundred men. Those early drummers and fifers were often not ordinary soldiers, but hired musicians who usually signed for short periods only. It is reasonable to assume that the Corps of Drums as we know today did not come into being until the Cardwell reforms of 1872 although the drums and fifes had of course played together long before this date.

One well known ceremony is Beating Retreat, which has it’s origins in the Sixteenth Century. A book that was published in 1598 states,

‘ye Drum Major will advertise (by beat of drum) those required for watch.’

Later, in 1727, it was customary that

‘half an hour before the setting of the sun the drummers and Port -Guards are to go upon the ramparts and beat a retreat to give notice to those without that the gates are to be shut. The Drummers will not take more than a quarter of an hour to Beat Retreat.’

By 1662 it appears that the established strength of drummers had increased to 3 per company, at least in the extra four Scots Foot Guards Companies; although it had decreased to 2 per company by the recruiting of the companies in 1793. These companies however were smaller than the King’s Company of 1662- 75 rank and file as opposed to 120. The earliest recorded name of a Drum Major in the Scots Guards is Alexander Innes on the 1st September 1684, he was paid 2/6d.

The Drum Major of this time was generally the most lavishly dressed man in the Regiment, and held a rank somewhat similar to that of a present day 1st Class Warrant Officer. His staff (or mace) was considered part of his insignia, and one of the oldest examples of this mark of office is that of the Honorable Artillery Company of London, dated 1671, still extant. Some regiments treasure staves that have been captured from the enemy as trophies.

As late as 1777 The Rudiments of War, according to which every regiment that had a Drum Major, explained that, ‘he was always that person who beats the best drum.’ During the whole of the 18th Century only the Foot Guards and the Royal Artillery were officially allowed a Drum Major, although most, if not all, infantry regiments had one.

In Advice to Officers of the British Army of 1783, there are the following nuggets of wisdom for the Drum Major and Drummers-


The title of Major is as applicable to you as to the Sergeant-Major. You should therefore insist on that appellation from all your Drummers: and as you are, in all probability, the handsomest, the finest and the youngest of the two who will be the most likely to pass for the Major of the Regiment. As you are Postmaster-General to the Regiment, much is to be gained from that department; and that by the simplest means- only by charging the officers and men for letters they never had, and double postage for what they really received. In winter quarters, or at any time when you have nothing else to do, flog all your Drummers. If they do not then deserve it, it is pretty certain they lately have, or shortly will; besides, correction tends to keep them good, when they are so.