There were several prominent
piping figures named ‘James Robertson’ during the first half of
the 1900s; this one, James (“Robbie”) Robertson of Banff, a
Gordon Highlander, was a prolific composer. (above).
Born in Bannffshire on August 23rd, 1886, he began learning
pipes at the age of 15 from P/M William Sutherland of Airdrie.
In 1906 he enlisted in the Gordon
Highlanders, where he would befriend and come under
the influence of the great G. S. McLennan, the greatest Gordon
piper of all. G. S. taught Robertson from 1906 to 1913,
recommended him for promotion to Lance Corporal in 1912, and
oversaw his advancement to Pipe Corporal in 1913.
before the Great War, he attended the Military School of Piping
at Inverness under John MacDonald of Inverness, where he
certainly would have studied piobaireachd, and became the tenth
graduate of what would come to be known as the Army School of
August 1914 he went with the 1st Battalion of the Gordons to
France as part of the British Expeditionary Force. The
Gordon Highlanders Pipe Music Collection Volume II (1985)
describes his trials and adventures during the war years:
“On August 13th there were eighteen pipers in the Battalion,
most of whom had been pupils of G. S., but by 27th August only
two had escaped capture or death. Robbie was amongst the former
being taken with the majority of the Battalion at Bertry on 27th
August, and he was to spend virtually the whole War as a
prisoner. He was sent to Sennelager near Paderborn in September
1914 and was court martialled by the Germans on three occasions
during his time as a POW for ‘refusing to carry out work of a
military nature, i.e. building Zeppelin sheds and, as a
Non-Commissioned Officer, inciting men to refuse similar work.”
For years afterwards, Robbie, in his inimitable, amusing style,
would recount his experiences as a prisoner in charge of
liquidizing human excrement prior to its application as a
fertilizer on the surrounding German farmland. This typically
efficient German approach was frequently sabotaged by the
prisoner in charge, which leaves much to the imagination!
Indeed, on 17th December, 1915, so difficult had he become to
his captors that he was sentenced to one year’s imprisonment.
Actually, a large part of this period was spent in solitary
confinement and the sentence took one year, ten months to
complete. He would not give in. Indeed, such had been his
example to others that in February 1920 he was awarded the
Meritorious Service Medal in recognition of his valuable
services as a prisoner of war."
April of 1918 he was exchanged as a prisoner and the next year
he rejoined the 1st Battalion in Limerick where he composed his
most famous of many compositions, Farewell to the
champion boxer in the regiment as a young man, he was respected
as a pipe major, a piper and a soldier, though the war and his
foreign service perhaps robbed him of his due as a competitive
serving in Malta and finally at the depot in Aberdeen, he
retired in April, 1927 and worked as a janitor at the Banff
Academy until 1953. He also served as a Special Constable in
Banff, achieving the rank of Sergeant.
his latter years he taught and judged at games such as Braemar,
Aboyne and Lonach in the northeast of Scotland and was a
founding member of the Turriff and District Pipe Band.
died in 1961 and lies in Banff cemetery.