Tunes of Glory:
The Green Hills of Tyrol

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The Green Hills of Tyrol

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The Green Hills of Tyrol

The Green Hills of Tyrol is one of the best known, and oldest, tunes played by pipe bands today. It was originally from the opera "William Tell" by Rossini, but was transcribed to the pipes in 1854 by Pipe Major John MacLeod after he heard it played by a Sardinian military band when serving in the Crimean War with his Regiment, the 93rd Sutherland Highlanders. Pipe Major MacLeod himself was well liked in his Regiment, and had a reputation for selflessness and amiability.

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Soldiers of the 93rd in
their camp at Balaclava

In October of that year MacLeod and five other pipers participated in the event that made the Regiment’s reputation. The Russian heavy cavalry had taken the Causeway Heights, and its gun emplacements, above the supply port of Balaclava.

Only the Sutherland Highlanders under Sir Colin Campbell stood between them and the port – the capture of which would have ended the campaign there and then.

The heavy cavalry rolled down the hill onto the 93rd. Ordered to die where they stood if need be, the 93rd was formed into an extended line two ranks deep rather than in the defensive square formation more usually adopted by infantry facing a cavalry attack. The 93rd stood its ground, firing controlled volleys into the attacking cavalry. The cavalry faltered and veered to the left of the 93rd exposing their flank to more fire.

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The "thin red streak tipped with a line of steel"

The Russians were then beaten off by an audacious uphill charge by a smaller brigade of the British heavy cavalry. Some of the 93rd then made out to charge with the bayonet, but Sir Colin Campbell put paid to the notion, reputedly bellowing "93rd, damn all that eagerness". In any event Balaclava was saved and the Sutherland Highlanders secured their place in history.

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A set of bagpipes played at the siege of Lucknow, and now held in the museum of the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders

The repelling of a heavy cavalry charge by grossly outnumbered infantry was an unprecedented achievement. The feat was witnessed by The Times’ war correspondent who immortalized the 93rd as "the thin red streak tipped with a line of steel".

Almost immediately the 93rd embedded itself in the Victorian popular consciousness as "the thin red line" and came to symbolize the perceived stoic bravery of all British soldiers. Unfortunately the debacle of the charge of the Light Brigade later that same day led to a stalemate at Balaclava and the war dragged on throughout the winter.

When the Crimean campaign finally ended the 93rd were immediately dispatched to fight in the Indian Mutiny. In this campaign Pipe Major MacLeod distinguished himself at the siege of Lucknow when he was first through the breach and almost immediately began playing the pipes.

The Green Hills of Tyrol is also known to many as "Scottish Soldier", because of the lyrics added to the tune some years ago, rather in the manner of Ireland's "Minstrel Boy".

The Scottish Soldier
There was a soldier, a Scottish soldier
Who wandered far away and soldiered far away
There was none bolder, with good broad shoulder
He's fought in many a fray, and fought and won.
He'd seen the glory and told the story
Of battles glorious and deeds nefarious
But now he's sighing, his heart is crying
To leave these green hills of Tyrol.

Because these green hills are not highland hills
Or the island hills, the're not my land's hills
And fair as these green foreign hills may be
They are not the hills of home.

And now this soldier, this Scottish soldier
Who wandered far away and soldiered far away
Sees leaves are falling and death is calling
And he will fade away, in that far land.
He called his piper, his trusty piper
And bade him sound a lay... a pibroch sad to play
Upon a hillside, a Scottish hillside
Not on these green hills of Tyrol.

And so this soldier, this Scottish soldier
Will wander far no more and soldier far no more
And on a hillside, a Scottish hillside
You'll see a piper play his soldier home.
He'd seen the glory, he'd told his story
Of battles glorious and deeds victorious
The bugles cease now, he is at peace now
Far from those green hills of Tyrol.