Scottish Life Magazine
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Notes from the Isles

An Island Journal by Kate Francis

We went to watch a Beating of Retreat recently, at Fort George on the Moray Firth. It was nighttime, freezing cold and blowing at least Force 8. I was quite reluctant to go but my husband said we must because it was in aid of SSAFA (Soldiers', Sailors' and Airmen's Families Association), which is a good cause. I said couldn't we just send our donation and save them the price of our wine and canapès, which was part of the package. My husband, who has much more of a public conscience than I have, said no, because if everyone did that it would be a dismal failure. So off we drove into the teeth of the icy gale with me muttering bolshie (rebellious) threats.

Some chairs had been arranged in a horseshoe shape under the high walls that encircle the gable end of the magazine, floodlit to enhance the fort's pinkish stone. Everyone was dressed as for the Arctic and some had had the forethought to bring thick tartan rugs. We took our seats, shivering and stamping our feet, and glaring at our watches. I overheard a hoarse croak behind me: "Are we all mad?" And then we heard that heart-wrenching sound of distant pipes, coming nearer through the darkness, echoing round the massive bastions, until we could see the movement and the shapes of them, marching round the corner onto the grassy arena before us.

It was truly wonderful. I have witnessed more Beatings of Retreat than I can possibly count, and I can truthfully say that this was one I shall never forget: the Pipes and Drums of the Black Watch, their kilts and plaids and feather bonnets streaming in the wind. It wasn't the full band -- just the right amount for the occasion. They played all my favourite tunes, including "Highland Cathedral," which the purists sniff at and say is naff, and there was an excellent Highland Fling, danced by three of the soldiers, who managed to look entirely masculine despite their intricate footwork, delicate hand gestures and swinging kilts. The whole display only took about 25 minutes and during that time the cold and the wind merely enhanced the performance; it was as if we sat there in suspended animation, all our senses focused on the spectacle before us.

The full text of this article is available in the Spring 2009 issue of Scottish Life.

Click here to preview our feature article on Calum's Road by Richenda Miers .

Click here to preview our feature article on Tartan Masterpieces by Terry Williams.