In early November 1959, I had been appointed Deputy Officer i/c Seletar Pipe Band. This was not so much a new thirst for culture, for motivation arose when, during a conversation with Ken Mallett (also ex-Cranwell), mention was made of the several exotic destinations to which the band was sent for playing engagements.
My first assignment started on 28th November when, along with the band I was to travel with a special personal companion who, to my regret, was a very poor conversationalist. The previous evening, by arrangement with the St Andrew's Society of Singapore, I’d collected a haggis, packed in dry ice, which had to be delivered to the St Andrew's Society in the Philippines. Thoughtfully, the sponsors had provided me with full instructions on the care and protection of this rare 'wee beastie'. Instructions which even emphasised the need to watch for signs of oxygen- deprivation during flight, in which case a special miniature oxygen mask was to be applied to the
beastie's breathing aperture, until normal skin colour had been restored. About the only regrettable omission from these 'handling notes' was guidance on how to find the nose of a haggis. Fortunately, the dry ice seemed to be thoroughly effective and, in the absence of any cries of distress emerging from the packaging, the small creature was left undisturbed until the due time of its delivery to its new owner - who would also, of course, be its destroyer. With difficulty, I maintained total secrecy over the fact that Mr McHaggis was to be Guest of Honour at an historic ceremony that would reach its climax with an execution. The knowledge that the beastie was goingto die caused me no small degree of emotional tension, which I nevertheless did my very best to hide.
At 09.00 next morning we boarded a Valletta and departed for Kuching (Sarawak), where everyone was taken by individual hosts to be accommodated in private homes. (The 'beastie' was provided with its own refrigerated quarters.) We were brilliantly well cared for. At 18.00 that evening, the 23 musicians of the RAF Seletar Pipes and Drums 'Beat the Retreat' for the Governor, then everyone went on to the St Andrew's Society Ball which lasted until 05.00. This was not entirely good news, as the schedule called for an 07.30 take off for Manila!
En route to the Philippines, a brief refuelling stop was made at Labuan Island. Once in Manila I delivered Mr McHaggis into the hands of his new step-parents who, shamefully, were hell-bent on a remarkably brief period of parenthood, at the end of which they would take a very sharp blade and mercilessly destroy the little creature (and just when he’d qualified for his 'Frequent Flyer' benefits).
The band played at the St Andrew's Night celebrations at Manila's very up-market 'Polo Club', where I was seated on the top table, between the British and Australian ambassadors. It was 'Your Excellency' right and left, until the Australian ambassador (Michael Shand) said "Oh, just call me
Mick!". So I did, although this was very much against my natural instincts. The night was long, proceedings not winding up until 05.00 once more.
The next day started with a curry lunch!
Drum Major – Sgt. Ken Groves
I joined the pipe band as drum major at the beginning of 1959 and remained with them until returning to the UK in February 1961. Pipe Major at the time was WO McDade, but I cannot remember names of the other members. One memorable occasion was when Singapore gained its independence and elected Lee Kuan Yew as Prime Minister. A celebration dinner was held in his honour at the Singapore Golf Club and the pipes and drums were asked to perform a full Beat the Retreat, which we did. Afterwards, Jock
McDade played the pipes for the Scottish dancing and, as is tradition, went to the top table to salute the Prime Minister, guest of honour, and to receive his customary "wee dram" of the amber liquid, which, tradition dictates, should be "downed in one". We were watching through the bar window (naturally) and imagine our horror when the Prime Minister handed Jock a half pint glass of what we took to be beer! Down in one it went, and Jock then marched the dancers back to the bar. The pipes were dumped into a chair in a hurry, and Jock shouted "Give me a cold drink, quickly". The half pint had been neat whisky! Right drink, too much of it!
I went to the Astra Cinema one evening in 1949 and saw a notice asking for volunteers to play in the Pipe Band. They promised to teach you from scratch - pipes or drums -
the added incentive being that band members were excused all guard duties; a very attractive offer, being as these came round every seven days or so! Despite this, very few came forward. We practised one night a week, in the band room located at the end of “B” Block. I was shown how to hold the drumsticks and had to practice the “para diddle” to learn rolls. In between times I would disappear into the drying room with a block of rubber, rehearse the various beats. On practice nights we would tighten up the drums, which drove the occupants of “B” Block up the wall. Learning to play was an art acquired by lots of practice, and at one stage I thought I would never master it. It
certainly took time, but after three months I was deemed fit to join the band on various duties, mainly parades, usually as a reserve, helping with the equipment. On outside appearances we were always well received and treated very generously. Later on, once I was qualified, I was the only side drummer to show up for a colour hoisting, so had to do it all myself.
We were once travelling to a Red Cross function and I remember the lead piper say to the driver, “Well done, Barney,” as he took an amber light. Unfortunately, the driver of a small van attempted the same thing and we met in the middle of the junction with a loud bang. Although shaken, no one was seriously injured, but there was a need to settle our nerves with generous amounts of Tigeronce we arrived at the venue. There was a rumour circulating to the effect that the lead piper used to flush his bagpipes with Tiger; maybe it made him play better! When a band member was being repatriated it called for an impromptu gathering outside “B” Block, but there was an occasion, in April 1951, when we piped off Air Commodore Proud from Singapore docks. He was returning to the UK on HMT Dunera. Any money donated to the band on any occasion went into the Band Fund, not to the musicians. They were normally rewarded by being plied with drinks, which was usually the preferred payment anyway. This was the certainly case when the band fulfilled a request to play in married quarters one weekend. They willingly obliged, marching through the camp on their way. It was fortunate they had not turned out in uniform or full regalia, for they were duly primed with drink, so much so that upon their return they noticed they were one body less. After a few hours searching he was discovered at the bottom of a monsoon drain, sleeping it off but sunburned down one side.