Monday morning, the first day of practice was exciting, confusing, exhilarating and terrifying
all at the same time. At 6AM we awoke and began the task of discovering our "camos" which we
were to wear for the rehearsals. As headgear we had decided to wear the baseball type caps
the SANDF now sport which frankly made us look more like Cuban revolutionaries than anything
else, they did however shield our soft South African skin from the harsh Scottish sunlight.
Once suitably attired we headed off to breakfast which was organized by an outside contractor
who used Czech female university students to dish up, suffice to say that most of the
lads in the band were in love after the first breakfast (especially to the little
lovely on the left hand side who had a serenity that was well ... very nice. Maria was her name ...
(siiighh). The food was very good which was a relief and although fried breakfasts were
the same everyday most of us varied by taking the cereal option on some days.
The parade ground in front of the infantry barracks was our next port of call. We assembled
at the back of our barracks and marched up resplendent in our camos looking like a platoon
of Che Guevara's and halted at the entrance to the parade ground. It was then for the first
time that we saw all the bands we would be spending a month with here at the barracks and
on the "holy ground" of the "esplanade" (its actually the car park) of Edinburgh castle.
The pipe bands included:
The Black Watch
The Scots Guards
The Irish Guards
The Kings Own Scottish Borderers
The Royal Highland Fusiliers
The Argyle and Sutherland Highlanders
The Royal Scots
The Royal Gurkha Rifles
The Scottish Universities Officer Training Corps
The Rats of Tobruk Memorial Pipe Band
From New Zealand
The City of Wellington
And of course us
The South African IRISH Regiment
The first thing the pipe bands do during the rehearsals is a procedure called "proving
the music" which involves the pipers of all the bands standing in a huge circle around
the "Director of Music" and his helpers. The "sets" are then played, while the Director
stands to one side with a view to seeing just what the quality is like and if any bands
need to go away and learn the tunes. We had all heard horror stories about this and had
heard that a Canadian band was taken aside a few years ago and given tuition by the
Scots because they had arrived barely knowing the tunes.
"Right March on set please" was our cue and with two three beat rolls from the massed drums
we were away. It went well and with a few re-starts to get everyone coming in together and to
adjust tempo the bosses seemed pleased (and relieved). We were certainly relieved, as it's
a little unnerving playing whilst these rather impressive officers and NCOs walk in front
of you with very educated ears.
"Ok formation set please" heralded our first pass at the set that would take us into
forming a huge anchor in commemoration of Nelsons victory at Trafalgar two hundred years
ago which was the theme of this years tattoo. We did this a few more times than we did the
march on set as there was some issues around breaks from hornpipes into jigs and also
whether the slow air should be played once or twice and with or without seconds. Minor
stuff and before long as before the bosses seemed satisfied. Now we had expected senior
NCO`s doing the typical "have some halitosis" in your face, shout and scream type of
management, so when Capt Samson (Director of Army Bagpipe Music) said it was the best
he'd heard the relief was palpable.
This took us to lunch - yum Czech lovelies.
After that first lunch we were back on the parade ground where we were sorted into
the positions we would occupy at the tattoo. The Irish were on the left flank one
band in from the end, the Black Watch was on our left and the Highlanders on our right.
Once this was all sorted out, it was our first attempt at the "March on Set".
It was here whilst waiting for the command that we were introduced to certain of the
British Pipe Majors who had the people skills of Attila the Hun. We watched in amazement
as young squaddie pipers were verbally shredded and reduced to quivering wrecks
unable to play a note. We all mentally said to ourselves "say that to me bru and
ahm gonna geeve you a snot klap".
This all went pretty well and it didn't take long before they were happy with that
and we were able to move on to the "Formation Set". In this set as the theme of the
Tattoo was the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar we had to form a big esplanade
sized anchor. We were surprised when we realized that we had a pivotal role in this as
we along with our mates the Irish Guards were to form the inner curved surface on the
blades of the anchor. It became obvious that what the organizers had envisaged was
a double loop of Saffron - RIGHT AT THE FRONT OF THE TATTOO ... yee haa!
Our cue to march off came from the Tattoo narrator who had just practiced introducing
the parade band by band and had introduced us as the "South African Irish Pipes and Drums"
and dropped the "Regiment" bit. This annoyed Colonel Eddie Watson our contingent
commander who promptly informed this man of the error of his ways; from that
moment on we were the "South African IRISH Regiment" with the "IRISH" being a decibel higher than the rest.
The cue was " ... a nautical set starting with "The New Rigged Ship"" . Off we went with
the Black Watch and with the Highlanders stalling a few bars so as to arrive after us
at the bottom of the esplanade. It went very well and with a few takes that allowed
people to line up with the right markers we had it, well we had it getting down there
but getting back was a completely different experience. The mission was with the command
"reform bands" we were to turn around and haul ass up the esplanade to get back to our
drummers in time to all, last man included, step off to "Cock of the North". It sounds
simple but the fact that unlike some of the other bands our pipers were now in a semi
circle with the Pipe Major being in line with the last pipe laterally across the
esplanade meant that at least 50% of our pipers had to go the wrong way before they could go
back up to the drummers. This meant that the last piper had to set the pace and he had to
move it. He also had to navigate through pipers from other bands "crossing" in front
of him in directions and at speeds that made the All Black back line look positively
"law abiding" by comparison. The first time we did this we had a secret weapon in
the form of Rory "SQQUUEEAAKK" Bellingan who whilst not the longest legged piper
(frankly other than some of the imports - we are all short) in the band had a turn
of speed which combined with the build of a prop forward was able to bash through
at least two famous highland regiments and drag the band back to the drummers in
time for a cup of tea, a smoke, a scratch of ones nuts (those of us that have nuts)
and a quick phone call home! Suffice to say that boy is quick.
There was still a problem ...
His stand in for the alternate nights is of a more "distracted" disposition (Editor's note: Also
the author of this document!) and whilst he was keen had failed to absorb some of the urgency
required in terms of getting back to the drummers which resulted in one take turning into
a shambles for the Irish as half the band had to turn back halfway up the esplanade to march out.
"Ah can the last piper o the South African Irish gi us a wee turen o speed
there please ... we have nae orl day tae get back to the drummers!" The piper
in question, now smarting from this request which came out of the stands over the
public address system found himself somewhat famous for being the first individual
to be singled out thus far in the Tattoo. It didn't take long though for the message
to sink in and this individual to adopt an attitude similar to a starved
Ethiopian at a Southern Sun breakfast.
The problem resolved we were ready for our first steps on what for pipers and
drummers is hallowed ground - the Esplanade at EDINBURGH CASTLE!!