This wee song has taken me on an amazing journey. In 2004 I visited the war graves with a group from my home town of Hawick, led by Ian Landles and Derek Robertson. It began with a “Golden Thread” moment (see song notes for Golden Thread). I was living in Yorkshire and was soon to be returning to Scotland. I visited the Yorkshire show and was chatting to Donald Whillans, an old band mate who was there selling local cashmere and lambswool knitwear for which Hawick is famous. Donald told me he had just booked himself on a war graves trip, something he’d always wanted to do. I had long been fascinated with stories from WW1, though never sure why that particular war held my attention. I went home, contacted the organisers and booked myself on the trip. It left the day after I returned to my home town and as it turned out, Donald wasn’t able to make it. His (legendary) father Chas (Chuck) Whillans and his lovely wife Nan were going in his place.
The trip was a real eye-opener. I was deeply touched by the stories of soldiers, of all nations, in WW1. Being there and seeing the graves and memorials brought it home to everyone on the trip what they went through to preserve our freedom.
I was particularly interested in the pipers who played such an important role in different aspects of the war; playing formal marches as part of pipe bands leading route marches and parades, playing to entertain, playing on the ramparts to rally the troops into battle and playing laments to the fallen.
I wrote the song when I returned home to Scotland. It was first recorded in New Zealand in the studio of my friend, the amazingly talented guitarist Kevin Timm (Ok – it was his front lounge but it was pretty well set up for recording). The original recording became available on an early digital download site “Scotloads” and from there it found its way across borders.
Derek Robertson posted the song on the Great War Forum where it was picked up by Erwin Ureel, a tireless worker for the fallen. Erwin approached me to ask if they could use Calling Doon the Line as the fund-raising anthem for the raising of a new memorial to fallen Scots in Passchendaele. I felt honoured to have been asked. This led to me being asked, with Major Gavin Stoddart, former Director of Piping at Edinburgh Military Tattoo, to write On the Road to Passchendaele for the official unveiling of the monument.
I sang Calling Doon The Line at concerts as support to the local “folk n’ roll” band Scocha. I later joined Scocha but the song was considered too sombre for the band at the time.
This changed when we played Tartan week in New York. During our gig at the after party at Stout near Maddison Square Garden, an ex-pat from Selkirk, Kenny Turnbull, asked if we could play The Green Fields of France. Chappy (David Chapman) explained we didn’t do that one. But Kenny persisted. Eventually Chappy announced that we’d had a request for a WW1 song that we didn’t have in the repertoire but “Alan has one and he’s going to sing it before we come on for the second half.”
Thanks to a warm and enthusiastic audience in a packed venue, the song went down a storm (Thanks Kenny). From then on it was a popular song at Scocha gigs and appeared on the album “Gie’d Sum Wellie”.
After the song had received some radio play I was challenged on one of the lines in the song. “And the piper played Scotland the Brave as they waved the boys away.” The challenge was that this was impossible because Scotland The Brave was written in the 50s and therefore could never have been played at the time of WW1.
However, just to set the record straight, it was the words that were written by Cliff Hanley in the 50s – not the tune. The fact is that Scotland the Brave was already one of the most popular pipe tunes when words were added. Malcolm, in the book The Pipes of War published in 1927, describes Scotland the Brave as one of the regimental favourites. I have a book of pipe tunes published in 1911 which includes the music to Scotland the Brave.
It continues to amaze me how often Calling Doon the Line has been covered by so many people and bands on YouTube and at gigs and clubs internationally. It has also been recorded and released by North Sea Gas who do a great version that has proved popular.
The original digital version is still doing the rounds and the song is often played at remembrance services.
The new version on Reflections, is laid back in tempo, sombre, reflective (no pun intended) and focussing on the lyrics. I play a whistle in the intro to compliment the wee guitar pick melody I’m often asked about and the accompanying instruments are as I’d imagine a wee group in a wee bar in the WW1 era (a scene Ian Ballantyne commented on when we were mixing the track).
The lament at the end of the track is taken from a video recording of me playing Floors o’ the Forest in the last post ceremony at the Menin Gate at Ypres, Flanders in 2004, on the trip that inspired the song in the first place. A reflection of an emotional journey.
Calling Doon the Line. © Alan G Brydon
The boys stood on the platform in 1917
Waiting for a train to Salisbury Plain
They were only in their teens.
A lad to his mother said dinnae fret
We’ll be home by Christmas day
And the piper played Scotland the Brave
As they waved the boys away
Calling doon the line
Calling doon the line
And they rallied roond to the piper’s tune
(that was) Calling doon the line
The Sgt Major pushed them hard
They were trained in only days
For to bear the brunt of the Western front
They would soon be on their way
So off they marched, rifles shoulder high
And all at once they sang
For we’re no awa, tae bide awa
Tae the pipers in the band
The thunder echoed through the trench
As the shells abin them rained
And the generals lost a thousand men
For every inch they gained
And the brave young men faced their battle dawn
So proud to do their jobs
And the piper stood in the line of fire
And played them ower the top
When no man’s land fell silent
And they counted all the dead
The victory claimed would disguise the shame
And nothing more was said
And the fallen brave on a foreign field
They gave their very best
And the piper played a sad lament
As they laid the boys to rest
And they rallied roond
Tae the pipers tune
That was calling doon