Tunes of Glory:
The Heights of Dargai

MIDI File: The Heights of Dargai

The Heights of Dargai tune commemorates an important Battle Honour of the Gordon Highlanders, now part of The Highlanders (Gordons, Seaforths & Camerons). But before the piping, a bit of background to the battle.

Background: The Tirah campaign of 1897 on India's notorious North-West frontier was part of what was known at the time as the "Great Game" between Britain and Russia. Throughout the last half the 19th century Russia's territorial and colonial ambitions rivalled those of Britain and nearly brought the two Empires to war. (In the 1880s the "Russian threat" was even taken seriously as far away as New Zealand where coastal batteries such as Fort Kelburn in Wellington were established).

Afghanistan was the crucible of this strategic conflict. The north of India, the jewel in the Imperial crown, is bordered by the Himalayas, and to the north west by a spur of the Hindu Kush range. Afghanistan was situated across this range with the inhospitable deserts of central Asia to its north and Persia (i.e. Iran and Iraq) to its east.

However this natural barrier could not be relied upon for India's security. Several passes existed through the range, including the famous Khyber and Bolan passes, the former of which for centuries had been the trading route between India and the Orient and middle east. The strategic importance of the passes cannot be overstated. The termini of these passes fell in what, by the latter half of the 19th century were Britain's possessions in greater India (i.e. the Punjab and Kashmir, now mainly Pakistan). The entrance to the north-western ends of the passes was in Afghanistan - a country into which at the beginning of the 19th century no "infidel" white man had hitherto entered.


The Drum Major and
Pipe Major of the
Gordon Highlanders
prior to amalgamation
in 1994

Throughout the 19th century Britain oscillated between "close" and "forward" defence policies, each change of Government seemingly also changing the defence policy. The Indus river, which separated the Punjab and frontier provinces from central India, was eventually acknowledged to be inadequate to halt an army invading through the passes.  The critical question in north-west frontier policy was always to what degree Britain should attempt to extend its control beyond its immediate Indian territories to thwart any encroachments by Russia which had begun to extend its influence in both central Asia and Persia.

For this reason Afghanistan and the north-west frontier were always foremost among the Imperial Government's concerns. The first Afghan War of 1839 ended in disaster for the East India Company's Army of the Indus. Having entered Afghanistan through the Bolan pass and occupied Kabul, the army became complacent. Opposition was mobilized, and the army was surrounded at Kabul and forced into a humiliating retreat through Afghanistan. Only one man of the 30,000 army was allowed to survive the harrowing ordeal - and only then so he would be able to tell the story.

Britain kept away from Afghanistan until 1879 when the Russian threat could no longer be ignored. Territorial encroachments and the advance through Afghanistan of a Russian sponsored army on a "Jihad" (holy war) against the British forced the Government's hand - but not before the British Residency in Kabul was stormed by Afghan troops who killed all its valiant defenders. Afghanistan was invaded for a second time, but by a very different British Army. After the Indian Mutiny of 1857 the East India Company's powers were diminished with administration of the colony now overseen directly by the British Government through the Vice Roy of India. The Army was reformed, with many Sikhs now forming its backbone. Replacing the "Brown Bess" flintlock of the Napoleonic era was the Martini-Henry breach loading rifle, which would be pitted against the match-lock "jezails" of the Afghans.

It was the first time the Khyber pass had been carried by force (Alexander the Great is thought to have entered India in the fourth century BC through the Bolan pass to the south). After the tremendous successes of the early campaign, the catastrophic defeat at Maiwand in the south of Afghanistan was redeemed by the triumph of the march from Kabul to Kandahar. After the War the British were able to establish a relatively stable and not entirely hostile regime, and Britain retained control of the passes and mountain provinces to prevent further threats. Needless to say, Scottish soldiers (the 78th Rossshire Buffs, later the Seaforth Highlanders) featured prominently in these actions.


Officers of the Gordon Highlanders in their "indecent" dress!

The Afghans had encountered the kilted regiments before. In 1869 Sher Ali, the new Amir of Afghanistan, was invited by the Indian Viceroy to a Durbar at Ambala. The British rolled out the full pomp and circumstance of the Raj. On watching a march past of the Gordon Highlanders in full dress uniform, the normally stern Amir remarked to the Viceroy through an interpreter that "the dress of the Scots is beautiful, and indeed terrific, but is it decent?".

"Control" in the north-west was always more nominal than real however. The mountain regions, including the passes, were the home of the violent Pathan tribesmen (pronounced "P' than")  - Muslims unswerving in their hatred of the British. "Subsidies" for good behaviour were paid to the tribes but even this did not guarantee their fidelity. Millar ("Khyber: British India's North-West Frontier", 1977, MacMillan Publishing, New York) describes the Pathan tribesman thus:

"Between a dust-layered blue turban and a shaggy, scrofulous black beard (usually dyed when it began to whiten) were fixed the eyes of a hawk, the beak of a vulture and the mouth of a shark. The owner of these features, as a rule, stood slightly taller than a jump center and moved with the silent grace of a tiger on the stalk. Beneath his long, unwashed white robe he was likely to have on a pair of tattered, ankle-length pajama pants and a loose, dirt-caked tunic festooned with charms and amulets. The cotton cummerbund holding the trousers and tunic in place was also a repository for an oversize flintlock pistol, two or three knives and a long curved tulwar that could mince a floating feather. In addition to the sidearms, there was a long-barrelled jezail, held casually over the shoulder or cradled in the crook of the arm - always loaded and ready to fire. Roses, worn behind the ears, often rounded off the getup. They did nothing to dispel the notion that here was a creature whose sole purpose and pleasure in life was the inflicting of a death as uncomfortable and prolonged as it might be possible to arrange".

The Battle: The Pathans has been overcome in the 1879 war, but trouble was never far away - One Pathan saying is that peace in the mountains is always the prelude to war! The wounds of the second Afghan War festered throughout the 1880s and 90s, and were exploited by a Pathan religious leader, dubbed the "Mad Mullah" by the British. A punitive expedition mounted against the renegade Chitral province in northern India proved the catalyst for a general uprising against the British. A further punitive campaign was launched the following year, 1897, into the Tirah area of the Pathan's mountain homelands.


Piper Findlater plays while his comrades continue advancing up the ridge

Pushing into the Tirah the British soon came to a point at Dargai where the enemy was entrenched on on the heights commanding an important mountain pass. Now armed with superior Long Magazine Lee-Enfield rifles (the bolt-action "Long Tom" later used in the Boer War), several British Regiments had already been repelled in trying to carry the Heights, when it was the turn of the Gordon Highlanders to try. After their Colonel announced "you will take the heights", the Gordon Highlanders heroically accomplished the deed in 30 minutes.

The event was indelibly impressed on the popular conscience of the time by the deeds of one Piper Findlater. Playing "The Haughs of Cromdale" (MIDI file), the Regimental "onset", at the front of the charge Piper Findlater was twice shot, and his pipes were partially shot away also. But he continued playing until losing consciousness.

Reports of this event created a sensation in Britain and when he was invalided back to Britain Queen Victoria herself personally awarded Findlater the Victoria Cross. Another piper, Milne, was also wounded displaying similar bravery. Milne was awarded the Military Cross. As a result of his leg injuries Findlater was unfit for further service, but such was his celebrity after his decoration that he was able to command considerable fees by playing his pipes in popular music halls.


A romanticized depiction of Findlater's deed


Piper Findlater wearing his Victoria Cross

"Profiting" from a military decoration was frowned on by the authorities, and in the ensuing controversy pressure was brought to bear on the music hall operators. But the affair focused the publicís attention on the plight of soldiers whose bravery had deprived them of any livelihood, and the Government was forced to substantially increase the pensions given to soldiers decorated for bravery. This was the lasting legacy "The Heights of Dargai".

(The full circumstances surrounding Findlaterís VC and its aftermath are discussed in detail here).