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“The tune is beautiful and haunting… and easy to learn”: Alastair Campbell on piping for ‘The Forgotten Dunkirk’

© University of Glasgow Alastair (right) piping at Glasgow University
Alastair (right) piping at Glasgow University

My dad, Donald, a Tiree-born vet, taught me the pipes as a young child, growing up in Yorkshire, and though I didn’t always enjoy it at the time, my appreciation for what he passed on to me grows with time.

Especially since Dad and then my brother Donald, also a piper, died, I have become ever more passionate about the pipes. Just in the last two months of lockdown, I have played most days, including at all the Thursday night claps for carers. I’ve written new tunes, played virtually for a funeral, and taken part in a recording of what became a No. 1 charity hit single organised by Martin Gillespie of the band, Skerryvore.

And now, there is another great piping event to look forward to, one that looks certain to be the greatest virtual piping gathering of all time, as pipers from all over the world play the same tune, at the same time, in tribute to the thousands of Scots who were killed or captured during what is known as “The Forgotten Dunkirk” 80 years ago. This Friday, June 12, 10am UK time. I’ll be there. The tune, a beautiful, haunting march, and quite easy to learn, is Heroes Of St Valery. It was composed by Donald MacLean, a Lewis-born Seaforth Highlander who was captured at the battle of Saint-Valery-en-Caux in 1940.

He was lucky to survive, but endured a forced march from France to Poland with little food or shelter and held as a PoW until the end of the war. His tune commemorates those who fought and fell at St Valery, including pipers and drummers, resting in the military cemetery above the town.

More than 200 pipers registered for Friday’s event in the first week alone, and many more have joined since. The world record for the largest ever piping ensemble saw 333 participants at an event in Bulgaria in 2012. Due to the coronavirus, this will be a virtual rather than physical event, but, given the level of interest, it seems sure to be the largest mass playing of the pipes ever.

I am especially pleased to be joining in because funds raised will go to three military charities of which my brother Donald, a Scots Guardsman who was invalided out when diagnosed with schizophrenia, would thoroughly approve, Legion Scotland, Poppyscotland and RCET: Scotland’s Armed Forces Children’s Charity.

To take part in the piping or to donate visit: