By Mike O’Connor
When we first heard that the band was invited to play for the 2000 Edinburgh Military Tattoo, it was with a mixture of disbelief and nervousness that we began our long journey toward fundraising and learning the music. Many long hours of dedicated practice were devoted to rising to the challenge, both in becoming proficient with the scores, and honing our dress and deportment in a manner befitting the best traditions of the Canadian Military.
When we arrived at the Calgary Airport on July 23rd, our disbelief turned to euphoria as the event we had worked so hard toward was finally at hand. We pulled into Redford Barracks in Edinburgh in the early evening the next day, which is the home parade square of our sister regiment, the 1st Battalion, Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.
The following week was spent practicing for the Queen Mother’s birthday performance, nicknamed “the Big Blaw.” We only had four days to play together as a massed band, together with other regiments from all over Scotland and the Commonwealth, so our days tended to be rather long. The dress rehearsal was, for most of us, the first time we had ever been in the shadow of Edinburgh Castle; an awe-inspiring experience for all. Since the Regimental Pipes and Drums of the Calgary Highlanders were the largest single Canadian contingent in the performance, some members of the band were designated to flesh out the ranks of other Commonwealth bands. On performance night, Her Majesty the Queen Mother saw the bands of the Royal Victoria Rifles from Australia, The Wellington and Tarranakie Regiment from New Zealand, The Cape Town Highlanders from South Africa, and Canada’s own Cameron and Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) bolstered by members of the Calgary Highlanders.
After the performance, all the other bands were given a well-deserved weekend off, while we boarded a bus to the hometown of Drum Major Jim Stewart. En route, we put on a minor performance on the shores of Loch Fyne for the local community, followed closely by a reception at Inverary Castle. That was truly our first taste of true Highland hospitality, as we were presented with individual gifts, fed and watered to our heart’s content, and treated like royalty. After a week of British Army mess hall food, the catered lunch and bar was a welcome change! We were then herded back onto the bus for the journey to Lochgilphead.
This lovely “wee” town nestled in a glen at the apex of Loch Fyne opened its welcoming arms to us. The Drum Major’s emotional return home began as he led the band down the main street to the square in front of the town’s war memorial, where the Canadian flag was flying in the breeze in our honour. We then put on a performance that was received with ovation and hearty cheers. As the sun set o’er the Loch we were invited as the guests of honour at the Grand Ceilidh put on by the people of the town. There we were wined, dined, danced and entertained to the small hours of the morning. It was with a sad heart (and more than one aching head) that we boarded the bus back to Edinburgh, to begin work in earnest for the Tattoo.
The following week was by no means less arduous than the last. We fought through twelve hour days of endless repetition and adjustments to the music, most of which was undertaken in the midst of torrential downpours and continually bellowing British NCO’s. The hard work was worth the effort though, when on the first night of the Tattoo and the massive doors to the ancient castle burst open with the entrance of the pipe band, the proudest members of the largest assemblage of military pipers and drummers in the Tattoo’s history were those members from Calgary. For many of us, a lifelong dream was realized as we crossed the drawbridge and marched smartly onto the esplanade of Edinburgh castle. We performed the show 27 times, and each time we maintained that same level of pride.
Over the course of the next five weeks in Scotland, we were honoured to participate in many other special events. The Millennium March saw the streets of Edinburgh flooded with massive pipe bands; rumour has it that there were over ten thousand participants on parade.
Under the hill where the Wallace monument stands proudly, we competed at the Bridge of Allen Highland Games. To promote the Tattoo, the pipes and drums played several small shows throughout Edinburgh, and even one in the Glasgow Cavalcade.
On one afternoon, we were provided with a bus to travel to the Regimental Museum of the 1st Battalion, Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders housed in Stirling Castle. Our sister regiment was kind enough to invite both the Calgary Highlanders and the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada to their Sergeant’s mess for dinner and drinks. There we were honoured with a presentation of the band’s own paining of the “Thin Red Line,” which now hangs in the Pipe Major’s office.
Our trip was not all work though. After settling into the routine of the Tattoo performances, we had our days free to ourselves allowing us to take in the sights and sounds of Edinburgh. At the time, the Edinburgh festival was in full swing, attracting all manner of performers and visual art from all over the world. It was possible to walk along the street and not hear the same language spoken by the passing tourists for blocks on end. The nightlife was exotic, the culture and history fascinating, and the people we met will be remembered in friendship forever. We were also able to maintain the well-known Canadian reputation for being friendly, professional, and lots of fun at parties. There were many nights in the NAAFI (a junior ranks club for all intents and purposes) where it was the Canadians, and particularly the Calgarians, that were the first to make friends, the first to start having fun, and usually the last to leave any good time. It can truly be said that it was the experience of a lifetime.
We in the band would like to thank the Regimental funds foundation for its tireless effort and support in making this trip happen, as well as the members of the Regiment for their support. In fact, in the year 2000, close to six hundred thousand people saw the Regimental Pipes and Drums in live performances in Canada and Britain. The reputation of the Calgary Highlanders was maintained with pride and dignity in its best tradition. The band stands ready to represent and serve the Regiment at home or abroad.