The Pipe-Majors of Lochside:Part 2
Adventures in India
When 17 year old Henry Sinclair Mackay trudged back from Reay to his Isauld home one afternoon in 1848, his feelings were a blend of family pride and personal frustration. His elder brother, Angus, having just taken the Queen's shilling had marched away with the 93rd Sutherland Highlanders. Steeped in family traditions of the Army and piping, the brothers Mackay lived for the day they could don the scarlet coat and Sutherland tartan kilt of the 93rd. With Angus gone, all Henry could do was go home to his crofting tasks. His was indeed a hard life; nevertheless, he had the consolation of monotony-relieving evenings with his bagpipes.
Seven years later, Henry groped his way through the gloom of a military hospital, oblivious to the rats who ran over his toes, his ears deaf to the groans of wounded men, his nose stopped against the nauseating stench of human excrement. This was the Crimea where, proudly dressed in the uniform of the 93rd Highlanders, Henry Mackay was fighting the Russians. Today, however, he was searching among the wounded for a familiar face.
He found it. It was a face worn with fatigue and the pain that came from a shell-shattered arm. But it was a brother's face. Angus Mackay had been caught by a Russian bombardment in the trenches before Sebastapol. Lucky to be alive, he feared he was to lose his arm, a double tragedy for a man who was one of the regiment's finest pipers. It was a sad reunion for the two brothers from Isauld. In the event, Angus recovered, regained the use of his arm, returned home to Isauld and rekindled his career as a piper, albeit in civilian garb.
Angus's place as piper in the 93rd was taken by another exponent of the sublime art - his younger brother, Henry Mackay. The Crimean conflict slowly wore itself out. It was a tiresome, soul-wearing slog, a war whose victories were scarcely more profitable than its defeats. The 93rd stayed on to the bitter end, returning to Britain in June, 1856.
A month later, in camp at Aldershot, the regiment was honoured by a visit from the sovereign herself. Queen Victoria poked her head round the doors of their huts, dipped bread in their fireside cooking pots and handed out medals where due. In company with many of his comrades, Henry Mackay was entitled to wear the clasps "Alma, Balaclava and Sebastapol" on his Crimean War Medal. Then, the great Queen was gone from Aldershot; the 93rd were not slow in following.
Cape Town was chief staging post on sea route to China, a journey the 93rd commenced in June 1857, remarkably at full strength, for in those days it was usual for a regiment to have not a few of its members either gone AWOL, or clapped in irons in a military jail. China they were destined never to see.
At Cape Town came changed orders; the Highlanders were to go post haste to India to suppress a rebellion. The British conquest of India was facilitated by the fragmented nature of that country's population. Enfeebled by generations of pacifism, a gentle majority endured the rule of a once fierce race of hardy tribesmen. But the Moghul's were but a shadow of their former martial selves when the British arrived in India. Worn out by sensual excess, rotten to the core with political corruption, its ruling houses racked with murderous petty jealousies, the Moghul war lords became, for the most part, mere pensioners of their British conquerers.
There were, of course, a few warlike peoples in India. These the British overcame on the battlefield, or won over with bribes, or by appealing to that common bond of contempt with which martial races ever regard their more peaceable neighbours. Thus it came about that a handful of resourceful and daring adventurers lorded it over a huge country with a teeming, varied population. A century of British rule passed away with nothing but a few minor wars, isolated expressions of native unrest, easily put down in most instances.
Political philosophy is one thing, religious sensibility quite another. Secure in the combined power of their arms and a system of official bribery, the British foresaw no problems when, in 1853, they introduced a new type of cartridge into the army. This cartridge was covered in tallow and beeswax to ease its passage into the rifle barrel. Before the cartidge could be loaded it was necessary to bite the end off it.
Outraged by rumours that these new cartridges were in fact coated in animal fat, the native troops of the Indian Army, known as Sepoys, refused to use them. Force was used to persuade the Sepoys, who defied their officers orders. At one stroke the British had achieved the impossible; they united Hindus - to whom cows were sacred - with Muslims, who regarded the pig as an unclean animal. Their religions offended, stirred up by malcontents and political criminals, the Sepoys turned on their white masters with savage ferocity.
Henry Mackay and his Highland companions knew nothing about Indian politics, all they knew was that at a place called Cawnpore, 240 British soldiers had been treacherously massacred by the mutineers. Far worse, 200 women and children, kept captive for a fortnight after the death of their menfolk, had been murdered in circumstances of revolting barbarity and their filleted bodies flung down a well. The spirits of the calmest soldiers are aroused by atrocities such as those lately enacted at Cawnpore. Despite the certain hardship of forced marches across an inhospitable land; despite the knowledge that they were outnumbered by twenty to one, the Highlanders of the 93rd had one thing only on their minds - revenge for the victims of Cawnpore.
From Calcutta, where they embarked on 20th September, 1857, the 93rd immediately set off on a 600 mile trek towards Cawnpore (which had been recaptured by the British) to rendezvous with a column sent out to relieve the beseiged city of Lucknow. Five weeks later they reached Kudjwa, a wretched village 24 miles from their destination. Here they met a force of 4,000 rebels, or ten times their own number. Without fear or delay the Highlanders attacked the village, driving the rebels from their positions at bayonet-point.
At Kudjwa the 93rd received a foretaste of the kind of men they had to deal with. The main body of Highlanders took possession of the village having left their wounded at a safe place in the rear. To this position the defeated rebels crept, intent on expunging their defeat in the blood of the wounded Highlanders. Unfortunately for the rebels, a good number of their enemies possessed rifles and had wits enough to use them. At a given signal, the wounded Highlanders opened fire as one, killing the rebel leader and scattering his men. The lesson was plain as day. There would be no prisoners in this war.
Meanwhile, at Lucknow the beseiged were at the end of their tether. For over five months the gallant British had held out against everything the mutineers could throw at them. But if help did not arrive soon . . . Early on the morning of November 14th, the weary defenders of Lucknow awoke to a strange sound. Fearing the worst, they hurried to the battered ramparts just in time to see a line of Highlanders breasting a ridge on the outskirts of the besieged city, flags waving, pipers playing. Henry Mackay and his comrades had arrived as part of a relieving army of 4,200 determined soldiers. Opposing this little army were some 80,000 fanatical rebels. It was going to be a long, hard day.
Sir General Colin Campbell, commander of the relieving force, colonel in chief of the 93rd Highlanders, knew that the key to Lucknow lay in the capture of two fortified strongholds that barred the road to the Residency, wherein the British defenders were holed up. All day long the Highlanders fought their way towards the Secundrabagh, the nearest of these strongholds. Fired upon by snipers, bombarded by artillery, their tempers frayed by heat, biting flies and the strain of simply staying alive, the men of the 93rd progressed slowly but surely towards their objective. The following day's dawn saw them in position ready to storm the Secundrabagh.
The attack on the Secundrabagh began at 6 o'clock in the morning with an assault by one of the Indian regiments still loyal to the British. It failed. Then the artillery succeeded in making a small breach in the wall of the rebel stronghold, a hole through which four men might squeeze into the Secundrabagh. The 93rd were ordered forward and, urged on by the stirring notes of the pipes, the Highlanders charged towards the breach. The first soldiers inside the Secundrabagh found themselves plunged into the heart of the rebels' nest. Shot at from every angle, bombarded with jagged rocks, menaced on all sides by swords and sharp spears, the Highlanders knew they were in for a fight. And so it turned out.
The combat at the Secudrabagh was the fiercest the 93rd were ever involved in. No quarter asked or given, a fight to the death within the close confines of a building dimly lit and filled with screaming Sepoys. Inspired by fear, hatred and all those undefinable emotions that are called courage, the Highland warriors fought like men possessed. "Six Victoria Crosses before breakfast", that was to become the proud boast of the Sutherland Highlanders. One of the V.C. winners was Private David Mackay of Alterwall by Lyth, who captured the colour of one of the rebel regiments. Then it all went quiet. No sound but the groans of the dying. Four Sepoys escaped the Secundrabagh. Behind them they left 2,000 of their comrades; not one of them alive.
Sir Colin Campbell called his Highlanders to him. They came, uniforms torn, emotionally drained, physically tired and bloodied, half expecting that their veteran commander was about to compliment them on their bravery. They were mistaken. Sir Colin told them to take the second of the rebel strongholds, the Shah Nujjih. With seven pipers leading the charge, the Highlanders stormed the walls of the Shah Nujjih. In an instant they had forced the gates and were pouring into the stronghold. The conflict was short and sharp, the mutinous Sepoys preferring flight to the wrath of their enemies. The heroes of the 93rd had survived the toughest days fighting any of them would ever remember.
Next morning to the inspiring sound of the pipes, the Sutherland Highlanders raised their colours above the ramparts of the captured Shah Nujjih, reassuring the defenders penned in the Residency that their salvation was at hand. But the 93rd played no further part in the relief of Lucknow, being employed as a reserve and to hold on to the positions they had won so dearly the previous day.
On November 19th, 1857, Sir Colin Campbell left Lucknow to the rebels, his tired and weary troops escorting the long-suffering European residents of the city to safety at nearby Cawnpore. to the 93rd fell the honour of guarding the rear of this straggling column of marching men and lumbering bullock carts. As he put his best foot achingly forward, Henry Mackay felt the want of a hot meal and a decent night's sleep. He was not alone. Every one of his companions was of the same mind, some envying the wounded their bone-jarring progress in the carts. Even the laudable attempts of Henry and his fellow pipers to raise the fagged-out spirits of the Highland soldiers were doomed to failure. Only the thought of bathing their tired feet in the slow-flowing Ganges at Cawnpore kept Colin Campbell's force in motion. But the Highlander's deserved rest was postponed. Breathless messengers met the column on the road to Cawnpore.
The city was under seige by an army of rebels. There was nothing for it but for the 93rd to quick-march the whole length of the column, and make all speed to Cawnpore. A gruelling two days of forced marching saw the Highlanders encamped on the banks of the Ganges opposite Cawnpore. It was midnight, everyone was utterly worn out; even the prospect of battle failed to inspire the jaded soldiers. Sir Colin Campbell was a hard man but a fair one. He knew his mens' limitations.
That night the whole force slept like corpses. Dawn brought with it a new day, new life, renewed vigour. Refreshed, the Highlanders sprang to arms, ready for the week of fierce fighting that now lay before them. During the night artillery had arrived to join the 93rd. Despite having had less than two hours sleep, the British artillery went straight to work. Now began a war of grape and round shot which lasted almost a week, at the end of which the rebels had scarcely any guns left firing.
It was now time to give battle; Sir Colin Campbell knew it and ordered the 93rd along with the Black Watch, to attack the rebel camp. Save for a few desultory volleys the Highlanders met little opposition. Bursting in on an empty camp they found the only traces of the rebels was a feast of boiled rice and spicy cakes. Less trouble than prisoners and far more tasty, the Highlanders soon despatched these edible spoils of war. Henry Mackay spent Christmas 1857 beside a campfire somewhere in the vicinity of Cawnpore.
It was a long way from Isauld. Still, Henry was surrounded by companions of his own race and clan, he had his beloved pipes and the war against the rebels had entered a pursuit phase, with much marching and little fighting. Things were not, perhaps, so bad. But the British had left unfinished business behind them. Lucknow had been relieved; the city had yet to be recaptured.
On March 1st, 1858, an army of 20,000 British soldiers pitched their tents around the walls of Lucknow, having the previous day snuffed out the last band of rebel marauders who barred their way to the city. That night the camp of the 93rd Highlanders rang to the sound of steel being scraped and sharpened; the Highlanders were preparing for the day's fighting ahead. Short stabbing swords, dirks, slashing bayonets; these were the tools necessary for the job the 93rd had to do.
For twelve days the battle for Lucknow raged. Street-by-street, hand-to-hand the struggle went on, a bitter struggle, artillery bombardments preparing the way, knocking holes in rebel strongpoints through which poured the British soldiers. The rebels fought like men who knew that their assailants were obeying an unofficial law, written in the blood of the innocent victims of Cawnpore - take no prisoners.
Fighting alongside the British was a force of 15,000 Gurkha's, sent by the King of Nepal. These Ghurkas were led by the country's first minister, Jung Bahadur, a most important person guarded not by his own troops, but by 7th Company of the 93rd Highlanders. At 4 p.m. on the 13th of March, the pipes of Henry Mackay and his fellows called the men of the 93rd to action. The battle for Lucknow was now in its final act.
Some 900 desperate rebels, together with a harem of 80 oriental beauties, were penned up in a palace called the Beguins Bagh, which had been under constant bombardment for 36 hours. All day long the Highlanders had driven the rebels further into the bowels of the Beguins Bagh; now they had the building surrounded, cutting off all hope the rebels had of bolting once things got too hot for them. Two hours later, at 8 in the evening, it was all over. Of the 900 rebel soldiers, not one remained alive; of the 80 harem ladies, not one had been harmed.
This is testimony of the highest order to the moral standards of the soldiers from the Far North. That men with minds in which all rational thoughts had been suspended, with tempers driven to the limit by constant fear and violence, inspired by revenge, living only by dog-eat-dog survival instincts and the jungle law of all-out warfare, that such men could refrain from forcibly sampling the physical delights of a captive harem is one of the miracles of human nature.
The rest of the British soldiers made up for the Highlanders restraint, celebrating the victory at Lucknow with an orgy of rape, looting and wilfull destruction. Save for a few isolated skirmishes, the 93rd Sutherland Highlanders involvement with the Indian Mutiny ended at Lucknow. By November 1858, the Mutiny was over, its leaders either dead or in prison awaiting execution. The regiment remained in India until 1871, garrisoning remote outposts, patrolling the frontiers, joining the occasional expedition sent to subdue some troublesome tribe.
A credit to the British Army, the 93rd impressed folk wherever they served, not least the Nepalese minister they had guarded at Lucknow. Jung Bahadur was so delighted with his kilted escorts that he offered to buy the regiment. Sir Colin Campbell politely informed Jung Bahadur that the British Government did not allow such purchases, but discharged soldiers could sign up for whoever they wished . . .
In 1866 a Durbar was held at a place called Umballa. All the local princelings were there showing off the parade ground skills of their own personal armies, among them the Maharajah of Patiala, who delighted everyone with his band of 14 drummers and 14 pipers. The native musicians in this band were dressed in tunics of green cloth over Sutherland tartan trews. Their leader wore a scarlet coat, covered in gold braid, and blue cloth trousers striped with gold. On his head was a gold and blue turban, while his waist was covered by a broad sash; clearly, he was an officer of no small importance.
This man was Henry Sinclair Mackay, and he was both leader and trainer of the Maharajah of Patiala's personal pipe band. It would appear that one day in 1866, the Maharajah had been present at an afternoon entertainment during which the pipers of the 93rd Sutherland Highlanders had played a selection of reels, strathspeys and marching tunes. Totally captivated, the Maharajah had offered to purchase the band. This being impossible, a diplomatic solution was arrived at which allowed for the discharge of one of the 93rd's pipers, and his enrolment into the Maharajah's service. Henry Mackay was the man who volunteered.
For 5 years, Henry served the ruler of Patiala, training his pipe band, playing for the Maharajah's personal pleasure or for his special guests. It was an easy life which had its material rewards. Henry, his wife (he married while on leave in Scotland sometime between 1859 and 1866) and adopted son had a house, a herd of cows, and their own buggy to drive around in. But India is not always a friendly place for those born in the bracing climate of Caithness. Henry's health began to suffer.
In 1872 the Mackay family left India and came home to Scotland. They were not poor; the Maharajah had been a generous employer, and we can believe that when Henry Mackay died in Aberdeen on March 22nd, 1893 at the age of 62, his remaining family were well provided for. Unlike his older brother, Angus, who came back to Isauld from the Crimea disillusioned with military life, the army had been good to Henry Mackay.
Meanwhile, at the time of his uncle Henry's death, young James Macdonald Mackay, son of Angus of Lochside, Isauld, was serving as a piper with the 1st Battalion, Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. His story will feature in the final part of this series on the fighting pipers of Lochside.
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David Bews 1998
Steven Cashmore 1998
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