|A Drum Major and Two Pipers|
|Written by Atlantic Branch Patron|
The Pipes and Drums in The Black Watch were unique organizations.
They were a great source of pride to both battalions of the Regiment and when the bands from the first and second battalions were massed in full ceremonial dress, it was an amazing experience.
The music they provided for parades, mess dinners, route marches and various duties during the years when the two battalions of The Black Watch were in the regular order of battle of the Canadian Army, stirred all of us and helped to generate that incredible pride that set The Black Watch apart from every regiment in the Army.
The Pipes and Drums were also manned by an amazing group of characters. Three come to mind – Drum Major Mike Phelan of second battalion, Pipe Major Bill Magennis of first battalion and Corporal Davie McIntyre who had also served in second battalion.
Mike Phelan was the ultimate drum major.
He was impressive on and off parade with a word of command that every young lance corporal tried to emulate. He was tough, having been a Canadian Army light heavyweight boxing champion during the war and an oil rig roughneck after the war before he rejoined the Army in 1950. He also had an iron grip on the Pipes and Drums and being Irish, Mike had the happy gift of being able to talk anyone into just about anything.
As one of the drummers pointed out, “The drum major could talk a dog off a meat truck.”
Mike had also spent time at the Army Service Corps School in Camp Borden as a sergeant recruit instructor in the early 1950s, before he came to The Black Watch. One officer who served there with him recalled the day that Mike confronted a young soldier in need of a shave on morning parade.
He was about to charge him but the recruit hastily explained that he was sufficiently keen that he got up every morning to shave at 0300, which was probably the reason he had a bit of beard at the 0800 daily parade.
Mike was impressed with the young man’s diligence and let him off the hook.
However, it wasn’t to end there.
The next morning at 0300, Mike was in the barracks, standing beside the soldier’s bed.
“Why are you sleeping boy?” Phelan said, prodding him with his drill cane.
“It’s 0300. Get up. It’s time to shave.”
With that, he dragged the soldier out of bed, marched him to the ablution rooms and stood over him as he groggily shaved.
After a week of that, the recruit had learned his lesson.
He later admitted, he never failed to shave again in the morning before first parade. The vision of Mike Phelan standing over him in the barrack room at 0300 every morning for a week stayed with him for the rest of his life.
Not long after second battalion moved to Gagetown, the Pipes and Drums were given a room in the barrack block to store drums that were not being used. The battalion second in command had a problem with lights being left on. During his weekly inspection of the lines on Friday morning, he discovered, with a degree of horror, the light had not been turned off in the storage room.
He turned to the drum major and demanded to know why the light was burning.
Phelan, who had forgotten to turn off the light when he checked the room before the inspection, thought fast. Then he looked at the second in command with a somewhat startled expression.
“Why sir,” he said very seriously, pointing to the stack of drums with his drill cane. “I realize you are not a drummer, but surely you know that we have to keep the lights on to keep the drum heads dry!”
The major knew nothing about the care of drums but the suggestion was so bizarre, he believed every word of it. From that point forward, every Friday before the weekly inspection, the drum major made a point of turning the light on in the storage room before the arrival of the battalion second in command.
In 1967, there was a competition for the best pipe tune.
It was a national centennial year project as part of the Canadian Armed Forces Centennial Tattoo. The winner of the competition was to be given one hundred newly minted, uncirculated centennial silver dollars at a formal reception in Vancouver. Since the silver dollars were in mint condition, everyone knew it wouldn’t take long for them to significantly increase in value.
Pipe Major Bill Magennis decided to go for it and calculated that those hundred silver dollars would be worth at least a thousand if he held on to them for a few years.
He wrote a superb pipe tune. The general opinion, amongst all the pipers in The Black Watch, as well as among his civilian friends who were pipers, was that it would win the competition hands down. It was, in everyone’s view, an incredible piece of pipe music.
However, Bill thought it would be interesting to also finish in second place, so with that in mind he dug another one out of his collection.
He called it “Maid of The Mist.” Then he gave it to Frank Bryant, one of the pipers in the band, to submit for the contest.
Bryant agreed somewhat reluctantly, signed his name to the document and sent it in. The way Magennis saw it, to have the top two, despite the fact that Bryant would get credit for having written it, would be the stuff of legends in the piping world.
As expected, Bill’s tune won the competition.
But there was a small problem.
The winner wasn’t the one with his name on it.
Bryant modestly accepted the velvet bag containing the hundred centennial silver dollars at a posh reception and even had his photo in the Vancouver Sun……...
Davie McIntyre was a man of many parts. He was a Scot, an old soldier, an excellent piper and a very successful breeder of Sheltie dogs.
He had a streak of independence as well.
When Davie was the duty piper, he occasionally ignored the tunes assigned by the pipe major and on Saint Patrick’s Day, played “Wearing of the Green.” Figuring the commanding officer wouldn’t bother to pay attention when he piped the colonel into his office in the morning, he frequently played “This Old Man.”
In addition to being an outstanding piper he was also a very skilled composer of pipe music.
When I took over as commanding officer of second battalion of the Royal Canadian Regiment following the disbandment of the regular battalions of The Black Watch, he wrote a pipe tune for me.
It was a splendid piece of music and I was enormously impressed with what Davie had written. One evening, after a long mess dinner when McIntyre was one of the duty pipers and, in accordance with tradition, I joined Davie and the other pipers who were there that evening for a drink after they had finished playing for the dinner.
With the encouragement of a great deal of scotch that I had consumed during the evening, I heaped great praise on the tune he had written for me.
In view of the amount of alcohol in my system, I couldn’t shut up.
“It’s a great tune,” I said, for the fourth or fifth time.
“Aye sir, it is,” McIntyre replied, a little embarrassed by my comments.
“No, no,” I went on, “it’s not just great. It’s an amazing piece of music.”
He looked at me, frowned a bit, agreed yet again that it was a formidable composition, but his patience was obviously starting to wear a bit thin.
“It’s one of the best pipe tunes I have ever heard.” I was rambling on now. I wasn’t about to shut up and I continued to heap great praise on the tune he had written.
He agreed yet again.
After a few minutes of me babbling on about how great the tune was, McIntyre was at the point where he couldn’t take it anymore.
“Could I say something about the tune, sir?”
“Why of course,” I replied, and drained my glass.
He looked at me for a moment, shook his head, and said,
“It is a great tune, you’re right about that. But, I have to say sir, if I had known how good it was when I wrote it sir, I’m not so sure I would have named it after you.”