Marching With God

When considering the nature of Scottishness in the modern age, it’s hard to stay entirely removed from our bagpipes, kilts and tartan heritage. Yet for most of us this is not an everyday occurrence. The image sells us in a global marketplace and draws millions of visitors every year. Internationally, this stuff sells; even the tunes are massive Scottish exports. You can’t help but be proud of the reach this part of our culture has had, and I wanted to know more about it. But I needed an insider and who better to speak to than a man who spent a lot of his life looking like this.

Jim Robertson has been a Seaforth Highlander, a policeman, a drum major and a drum major adjudicator amongst many other things in his 83 years. His image has graced numerous postcards and even Scottish themed colouring books.

Jim is an awesome guy, full of great stories and well known in his home village and beyond. Whenever you meet someone from the village, they always have a kind word to say about Jim and his late wife Bertha. I feel very lucky to have known both of them, and their son Andrew Grant. I was very excited to be able to have a chat with Jim solely about his life, and this world I know so little about.

“The judging of a drum major competition is held in three parts” Jim explains. “The first part is dress, twenty points. It starts at the head and you work your way down from the glengarry to the tails to the badge and the jacket. You check if there’s any hairs or anything on it, then the kilt and sporran. The cantle at the top of the sporran has got to be one hands width from the waist belt and it must be centred. The leg dress, hose or spats lose more points than any other part of the dress. That’s the first and most important part of the competition.”

This is all incredibly detailed, and I’m already fascinated. Thankfully the other parts of the competition are more obvious to the crowd. The second part, 40 points for marching and deportment. In other words, how the drum major carries themselves. The third part, again 40 points, is for flourishing. Flourishing?

“If you don’t flourish, you’ve had it. It depends on the degree of difficulty and the variety. That’s what we are looking for, if you’re doing the same things all the time that’s no any good.”

Pipe band tunes are played twice over. After the first 16 paces the drum major must flourish, and only has this second 16 to do it in. Before and after, is not allowed; normal marching style only. Flourishing is the crowd pleaser. Picture a row of men in full dress kilts throwing a mace up and down in time with the pipe band. It’s quite a sight and something that American drum majors really took to, forcing the Scots and Irish to up their game.

“A normal flourish, like throwing a triple to the front is quite good, but twice is ok. You need to look out for the wind, sun and rain. If it’s windy you’ve got to prepare for that. If its really bright sunshine and you’re looking into it you don’t do the more difficult moves. Likewise if it’s wet and the mace is slippy. If you drop it you’re going to lose a lot of points. But there is dozens of wee things that the public don’t notice. They don’t see what I’m looking for, but it’s not the big things.”

Jim’s mace is older than he is, being presented to West Calder police band in 1937.

“My mace is shoulder high, a lot of them nowadays are shorter. It has a large silver head with criss-cross chains all the way down. Newer ones have chord instead of chains so it’s easier to grab and they’re lighter. Some of them are so light and small when you throw them up they forget to come down. I wouldn’t like to put a price on mine, and it’s as good as it was 83 years ago.”

Jim had an interest in pipe bands from an early age but, as I was to find out, this was and still can be an expensive hobby. Being the eldest of a family of ten, his parents couldn’t afford for him to go to a pipe band. However, at the age of seventeen and a half he joined the Seaforth Highlanders, where he remained until 1959. He learned quickly the Highland regiment staples of discipline, marching, drill, and uniform. Serving in the police after the army, Jim was on duty one day in North Berwick where he happened upon an international drum major’s competition for the first time. Jim had previously been a drill instructor, yet he was amazed at the standard of discipline, dress and marching that these drum majors held. Upon moving from East to West Lothian, he was approached by the pipe major of Torphichen and Bathgate band to become their drum major.

“And I thought, strange, I don’t know anything about it, but I do know lots about marching, dress and everything else. So I became their drum major; my dress was perfect, my drill was more than competent but I had to learn how to be a drum major. I didn’t know how to flourish and I had to learn the mace drills. I competed for a few years, won the Lothian Championships several times and my best position in the World Championships was 8th out of nearly 100 entrants.”

Jim doesn’t remember who first suggested that he be an adjudicator but they thought he would be good at it. He was a senior drum major judge from the 70s up until his retirement a few years ago. This role meant Jim and his family travelled a lot. From April until September competitions run almost every weekend with five major competitions for drum majors throughout the British Isles and Europe. And this is how the Robertson family spent most of their weekends for years.

“It’s been a wonderful, wonderful outlet for my Saturdays and Sundays. We’ve met a lot of nice people, a lot of lovely families and it’s just been part and parcel of my life.”

Also true of the Robertson family is their legendary hospitality, hosting countless visitors at their home from all over the world; Bertha making sure everyone was taken care of.

“We had nine Dutch people staying at one point that all had to be fed and watered. Annually we had an entire Dutch family, all staying with us for ten or more years. We just enjoyed that, being sociable with people and that’s been more or less our lives.”

It was a visitor from the U.S. that invited Jim to judge at the North American Championships held in Sacramento. Jim would be the first Scottish drum major ever to judge in America, and would return many time, to many different places.

“Once at Pleasanton, California the competition was held at the race course. The stadium that overlooks the track holds about 60,000 people. There was couple of Scotsman doing the commentating and they got me to explain things to the audience. It went down well. At the finale for the drum majors we had to march back and forth with the mass bands on the racetrack. I was asked to march with the senior American drum major at the front, who turned to me afterwards and said ‘I thought I was marching with God’”.

One of the other places Jim has judged in was Las Vegas. Part of the strip was shut off as the bands marched down it to an expectant Jim and Bertha waiting at the end. The bands got halfway down before the American drum major marched them off route and through a hotel, making ‘a right mess of things. I was very embarrassed.’ Jim proclaims that the job should have gone to the Irish drum major that was there; the Irish, in his opinion, still being the best in the world.

This is tradition, and one that I’m pleased that Scotland is still world leaders in. The pipe bands, the Highland Games seem to be getting bigger every year, and this can only be good for Scotland. Even the amount of people in the bands has increased. As a parent, Jim considers it a great thing for children to be involved in. As well as the opportunity for safe travel, a sense of pride about their band is evident in every member. You also have to work hard, pipe bands take a lot of money to run and ensuring everyone is kitted out in kilts is expensive.

“The first competition I went to was a world championships at Stirling. There was 80 to 100 drum majors all in number one dress, that’s the feather bonnet and spats and all the fancy stuff. Over the years, the pipe bands and drum majors couldn’t afford this. It’s a big thing and it’s far too expensive.”

Travel though is the biggest expense. Bands must have a minimum of eight pipers to enter a competition and the best way to make sure everyone is there on time is by coach. This might show the drum majors role in a different light.

“As a drum major you’re a disciplinarian, time keeping was down to me. It’s my responsibility to control things and make sure things are right. That is a massive responsibility. I always inspect the band before we went on parade. If a tie was loose or clips undone, if there was anything wrong, they got told not to come in front of me again. With the juvenile bands, I used to give a pound for the best dressed piper and drummer. I would never give it twice to the same person but it was a lot of money in those days and I’d make it round the band. The adults listened but the children listened even more.”

Jim recalls a time practising for a mass band event at Edinburgh Castle. The assembled bands met at a nearby barracks and in the morning all sections practiced separately. After lunch they amassed for full rehearsal, but there was a problem; a bass drummer had clearly been drinking. Jim told him to get off the parade ground, to which his pipe major replied that if the offending drummer was to go off, then the whole band would too. Jim’s eloquent reply was “Be my guest” and the band left. Half an hour later the pipe major approached, saluted Jim and asked for permission for the band to come back out, to which Jim simply replied in the affirmative.

“You can’t allow things like that. If he’s been drinking then others would. Nobody was allowed to touch drink until the end of the day or on the bus back home. The army was a great grounding for discipline. The idiots were always just marched off to the guard room”

I’m curious to know how this goes down abroad, particularly in America and Canada where I imagine there are a lot of passionate expats.

“Aye, especially in Canada, and there’s also a lot of really good bands there. When we go to Sacramento or San Francisco for the North American Championships, there’s maybe one or two great bands. The rest not so compared to the Scots and Irish where even juveniles and juniors bands are all pretty good. But it’s the enthusiasm they have for it there, they’re really well supported. Competitions in America have a big interest in pipe bands, but it’s only a small part of it there. They have huge tents where each clan has an area, there’s Highland dancing, big parades at the beginning, and they’re big on the re-enactment thing. We’ve been introduced to Mary Queen of Scots and her entourage several times. She knows her stuff. There’s massive support to all these things.”

And what of the Scottishness, where does that fit in?

“I’m just so proud of being Scottish. I’m sure Americans are proud and Germans are proud but there is something else about Scotland. Other people, from any other country, people want to know about your background and about your history. They want to know about your clan and if you’ve got any information. My father was Mackenzie as were the Seaforths so that connects quite well. We were at functions with the international police force in places like New York and Long Island and some of the guests just wanted us to speak to them. Once near Times Square we were conscious of a couple following us. I said can we help you and they said ‘we just love your accent’. They had been following us listening to us talk. They were from Toronto and offered to take us, all expenses paid, to be guests for a week at some event they were having. Unbelievable! People just wanted to hear us talk.”

When Jim first told me about the drum majors role, I was surprised at how little it had to do with music. It also surprised me that he never picked up an instrument.

“I suppose it’s the one sad thing about all this is that even though I was in a Highland regiment, I never played the pipes or drums. I led the mass bands of the Royal Legion of Scotland at Edinburgh Castle for quite a few years and it’s the best feeling a drum major could ever have, coming out of the castle onto the esplanade. Royalty, politicians, military, celebrities all were there.”

“I’ve had a wonderful life as far as every part of my life is concerned, from the family to police to pipe bands, all the associations I’ve been in; I’ve never been disappointed in any of them. I’m just a fortunate guy.”

And this is what I’m taking from my chat with Jim. All the parts of his life seem to have met in one cohesive whole, with total functionality. The knowledge and experience in the army that brought him to the drum major role. His career in the police force, not only afforded him a living but also the opportunity to travel. Likewise his weekend interests, which took him too many different places and meeting many different people. Though, when I say ‘him’, Jim does not often say ‘I’ or ‘me’. He always talks of ‘we’. He uses ‘us’; it’s always him, Bertha and Andrew Grant. There is an impressive lesson in synchronicity here that has maybe overshadowed my initial questions. A pure example of how to live deliberately.

Live Deliberately


Currently listening to: A whole load of pipe band tunes on Youtube and Krieg liegt mir im Blut by Skjaldborg