Charles Davidson Dunbar - British Army

British Army

Discharged from the school on 1 May 1886, two months before his 16th birthday, Charles Dunbar set his sights on joining the military. He enlisted with the Seaforth Highlanders as a piper on 6 October 1886. He stood only 5 feet 3 inches tall — probably the result of a scanty diet during his childhood — but it was often said of him that he appeared taller than he was because of his stature, stance and demeanor. Fraser’s Scottish Annual records that “he was fortunate that the commander of the Seaforth Highlanders at that time was Colonel Guinness, an officer who took exceptional pride in the efficiency of his pipe band.

“Colonel Guinness saw at once that here was a keen, ambitious, stripling of parts, and, although scarcely the age for enlistment, Dunbar being just 16, he was allowed to try the piping tests, and although these were fairly hard, set as they were for men of from 18 to 21 years of age, Dunbar passed very creditably and was taken on the strength of the regiment and posted to the pipe band. It was a proud day for the slim, fair-haired boy when he went through the ‘piper’s initiation’, and was fitted out with a uniform and kit, and a full sized bagpipe and the ivory-mounted ‘feadan’ (chanter) placed in his hands by a kindly pipe sergeant with the words: ‘Ye ken, my lad, the auld word, ‘learn young, learn fair. Ye’re young enough, in all conscience, but gin ye wish to gang far, ye’ll hae to wark hard and keep at it. Guid luck tae ye, my boy‘.”

This was an inspiring time for a young lad to enter the army as a piper, and William Dunbar took full advantage of the opportunity.

After service in Scotland and Ireland, he transferred to the 3rd Royal Scots on 1 January 1894. And, after just a year’s service with his new regiment, he became a candidate for the pipe major’s position with the 2 Battalion, Gordon Highlanders.

Selection was by competition — open to Army pipers and outsiders. William Dunbar won in a keen contest and, on 11 February 1895, formally joined the 2 Gordon Highlanders. He was promoted to sergeant piper and assumed the duties of pipe major on 3 March.

The regiment was quartered at Maryhill Barracks and was commanded by Colonel Oxley, who was succeeded by Colonel Dick Cunningham, VC. According to the historian Robert Fraser: “This promotion was recognition of his stature within the army as a piper. Already in 1893 he was performing full pipe programmes of marches, strathspeys, and reels. That year he established himself as a piper of the first rank, at Inverness. He had acquired a reputation as an obliging, trustworthy, honest, and able soldier. In May 1895, he completed his second class Army Certificate which gave him a good elementary education He was stationed in Scotland in 1895 and 1896.”

While his regiment was in Scotland, he met Margaret Dolina Murray, affectionately called “Maggie”. They were married on 39 April 1896, in Edinburgh. Their marriage certificate identifies Charles Dunbar as “Pipe Major, Guard in Highlanders, bachelor”; and Margaret Murray as a domestic servant and spinster. The document also lists Charles’ father as William Dunbar, general merchant, deceased, and his mother as Alexandrina Dunbar (Miller), deceased; witnessed by William A. Murray (Margaret's brother) and his fiancé Mary Hill.

Soon afterwards, the 2 Gordon Highlanders was moved to Aldershot where Margaret gave birth to the couple’s first son – William Charles Dunbar — on 8 May 1897. That same year, Charles Dunbar played for Queen Victoria when she visited the camp to inspect the Highlanders.

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