Wednesday, June 30, 2004

The Bean Counters Strike Again

In the past few years the world has seen many famous old regiments of the British army vanish from the army list: the Gordon Highlanders, the Highland Light Infantry, the Royal Irish Rangers, the Queen's Own Highlanders (Seaforths and Camerons), and several others. This recent article from The Scotsman indicates that the Black Watch, the Kings Own Scottish Borderers, or the Royal Scots may be for the chop also. The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders have been mentioned also. Additional rumors report that the Royal Irish, the last Irish regiment of the line, may also be headed for oblivion to save a few pounds for Mr. Blair's over-extended exchequer. (Colonel Tim Collins whose speech to his men at the beginning of the second Iraq war caused much favourable comment, was colonel of the Royal Irish.)

The papers are full of the news that our own American forces are over-extended (the call-up of the ready-reserve was announced just yesterday). But the British forces are also greatly over-extended, more so than ever before in their history so some stories say. In that light this story is astonishing. The move is foolish from a miltary defense point of view and catastrophic from the view of those who look at history and tradition. Certainly it is so from the point of view of a piper. It could be politically dangerous, too.

The last time Scottish regiments vanished under government economies, General Peter Graham, the Colonel of the Gordons, said that the tories who were in power at the time had just made Scotland a tory-free zone. They'd never get another vote in Scotland. And in large part, they haven't. (Of course, they didn't get all that many to start with.) One corresondent, a former army piper, believes that the Labour government may have learned from the past and have this round of regimental disbandments fashioned more carefully in the political sense. There are no Labour votes to be lost in NI; they don't get any now. So pulling the plug on the Royal Irish is easy. And the Black Watch recruitment area typically votes SNP or Scottish Liberal Democrat; same rationale.

This is very sad news for almost everyone who has played in a pipe band. Even the most civilian of bands takes its traditions from the Scottish regiments. In Scotland the army was always a great resource for training pipers and drummers. It really provided almost the only full-time employment for a piper as a piper in the world. This has been true less and less since the end of the second world war. The remaining bands and pipers actually on the roster as such (not all are) are now so few that the tradition hangs by a thread. The Army School of Piping remains one of the principal sources of piping education in the world. But if the trend continues, who will be left to educate?

Pipe Sgt. Brian Donaldson of the Scots Guards is supposed to have predicted a few years ago "Let's face it, in 20 years they'll ALL be gone."