By Andrew Parsons
Curator and Archivist
In September 1918, a slim volume of verse was published by the London Scottish Regimental Gazette. It was simply titled “Grey Kilts” and bore the badge of the London Scottish Regiment on its cover. The title referred to that Regiment’s unique Hodden Grey tartan and the subject matter is mostly related to the London Scottish. It was modestly described on the title page as “a collection of War Verses and other trifles of the old Territorial and Volunteer days”. It was all the work of one man, an extraordinary Territorial soldier named Duncan Tovey.The book is at the same time extraordinary yet typical, as indeed was Mr. Duncan Tovey. Why, after four years of war, would an infantry regiment publish a book of light-hearted verse? It says much about the kind of organisation the London Scottish Regiment was and the strata of Edwardian society from which sort of members were drawn. The London Scottish were one of a small group of metropolitan rifle volunteer regiments (Territorial after 1908) which behaved more as well armed social club than a typical army regiment. Founded in 1859 and recruited from Scots resident in London, they were in all aspects a Highland Volunteer regiment, except located in London. In the first instance, members had to be Scottish by birth or by parentage. Recruits had to pay an entrance fee (one pound in 1914) and pay annual subscriptions thereafter and, of course buy their own uniform. Within the umbrella of the Regiment were sports clubs, reels clubs, amateur dramatics and the usual social life centred on messes and canteens. It follows then, that the individuals who joined were also out of the ordinary.
Duncan Tovey was one such character. He was born in 1872, the son of a minister of the Church of England, who was also a published author and significantly, was the Rector in Worplesdon, Surrey. Tovey’s brother, Sir Donald, was Professor of Music at Edinburgh University. Duncan, himself, was educated at Selwyn College Cambridge and King’s College, London. He made a living variously as a journalist, actor, playwright and writer of “military songs”. Having once held a commission in the Cambridge Officer Training Corps, he enlisted as a “gentleman ranker” in the London Scottish Rifle Volunteer Corps in 1898. In 1914, at the age of 42 and with the rank of Sergeant, Tovey volunteered for active service in France. He was with the Regiment at the famous battle of Messines on October 31st in which the London Scottish were the first territorials to engage with the enemy in WW1. He was wounded in 1914 and later commissioned into the School of Musketry where he taught at a sniper’s school on the western front. Ill health dogged him as a result of the war wound and in 1918 he was discharged from the Army.
In the London Scottish, Tovey took full part in all aspects of military and social life. He was a prize winning shot and would have spent many hours practising his marksmanship at Bisley. Conveniently, his Father’s vicarage was in the nearby town of Worplesdon and it was there that Tovey entertained comrades after a long day on the ranges. This gave birth to not only a song but a nickname and a dining society. He commemorated their happy meetings by inventing the more Caledonian sounding “Glenworple” from Worplesdon and then went on the create a whole history of the world according to the mythic “Glenworple” Highlanders – fuelled mostly by whisky. Tovey would contribute verses to the Regimental Gazette under the nom de plume of “Glenworple” and later became know by that nickname. Such was his affection for his old comrades (and a jolly good dinner as well) that when an old friend from the regiment was visiting London from India in 1912, he gathered the old gang at Ye Old Cheshire Cheese in Fleet Street. They enjoyed it so much that they did it again, and again and the tongue-in-cheek Glenworple Highlanders dining society was born. One hundred years later members and ex-members of the Regiment still partake of the Glenworple Highlanders dinners. While one may be forgiven for thinking that while quaint, the whole thing is very parochial but it is interesting to note that the “Glenworple Highlanders” is the Regimental song of the Calgary Highlanders of Canada. (I don’t know how that happened).
The verses describe common soldiering activities through the uncommon lens of Tovey’s absurd view. A pastiche of Kipling details exercises on Salisbury Plain in The Young Territorial. A disastrous annual camp is chronicled in The Legend of Sheppey, and regular route march through Scotland is described in Inverness August 1906. Personalities are celebrated in Sandy the Piper and The Big Drum Major. Perfectly common things but related in a most uncommon fashion. Much of the charm of these poems and songs is in the way in which Tovey tells them but we must not forget the raw material either, for the London Scottish Regiment was no ordinary unit and the men who soldiered in it were no ordinary people.
Back to the book. Why was something as frivolous a book of humour verse published in 1918? It was the Regiment commemorating one of their own through this quite passionate celebration of the Regiment of which he was a member. People need to laugh and what better way to remember Duncan Tovey than to publish his poems and offer some light relief. Tovey died on the 5th of May 1918 at the age of 46. He left a widow two sons and a daughter. The book was published posthumously and in September 1918 a run of 1250 were produced and sold for two shillings and six pence and all profits went to his widow. By December they were sold out.
This year (2019), the Scottish folk musician Ian Bruce has taken some of the poems from Grey Kilts and set them to music. There will be two concerts at the London Scottish Regiment Drill Hall and while some of the more familiar songs are regularly sung at reunions, many will be having their first airing since the First World War and all will have completely new music. This revival of Duncan Tovey’s work is not only a great tribute to the man but also a celebration of the traditions and history of the extraordinary London Scottish Regiment.