Scotland

The Black Watch piper who played at Kennedy's funeral

The Black Watch band played for President Kennedy on the White House lawn
Image caption The Black Watch band played for President Kennedy on the White House lawn

Just days before US President John F Kennedy was assassinated, the pipes and drums of Scotland's Black Watch regiment performed on the White House lawn. It was such a special memory for his widow Jackie that she invited nine members of the band to take part in his state funeral procession through Washington DC.

A charity performance on the White House lawn was the highlight of a three-month tour of the United States by the military band of the Black Watch.

Bruce Cowie, who was just 24 at the time, remembers that it was "good fun" but he says: "We all did our traditional moaning because it was our day off."

Image caption Bruce Cowie said it was only later that he realised how historic it was

Fifty years later, Mr Cowie, who lives in Kirriemuir in Angus, told BBC Scotland that the president made a great speech that referred to the War of 1812, during which British forces captured Washington.

Mr Cowie says: "He said: 'I'm glad you are coming to the White House a bit friendlier because the last time the Black Watch were there they burned it down'."

Newsreel from the time shows a relaxed and happy President Kennedy with his two young children, Caroline and John Jnr.

Mr Cowie says that President Kennedy did not join the band after the performance when they drank Scotch in the White House.

However, there was a surprise for them as they left.

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Media captionThe last Black Watch piper to play for John F Kennedy

Mr Cowie says: "We got on the bus and just before we hit the gate the bus stopped, the door opened and on came President Kennedy.

"He apologised for not getting in to talk to us, which he had hoped to.

"'Duties of state', that was his words. And he came round and he shook hands with everybody on the bus. That made our day."

The event on the south lawn of the White House was on 13 November 1963. Nine days later the president was shot dead in Dallas, Texas.

His death shook the world.

Image caption The Black Watch event was said to be the last time the president spent a happy day with his children

The Black Watch band was still in the United States and heard the news from the bus driver while they were in Kentucky.

On the express wishes of the president's widow, the Black Watch were called to take part in the funeral.

The story goes that the performance on the White House lawn was the last time she had seen her husband happy with their children.

Mr Cowie says the rehearsals for the funeral procession were hurried and intense, and not everything went to plan.

He says they practised their standard laments Flowers o' the Forest and Land o' the Leal for more than two hours.

"The pipe major came in, and to say he was unhappy was putting it mildly," he says.

Image caption Bruce Cowie was just 24 when he took part in the performance at the White House

"The bonnet went flying into the corner and he said: 'You can forget it. They don't slow march, they trail arms'."

The band hastily tried out other tunes which could match the pace of music required for the procession.

The tunes they played included the Barren Rocks of Aden.

"It really didn't go down well with the band," Mr Cowie says.

"Everyone was complimentary in the paper but it really was not the tune we would expect to play at a funeral. But it was circumstances."

Mr Cowie says that, at the time, the historical importance of the event did not sink in.

"It was part of the job I suppose," he says.

"It was only later when you are sitting and saying: 'That was history'.

"But you don't think of these things when you are still a young man."

He left the Black Watch in the late 1960s.

Pipers from the modern-day Royal Regiment of Scotland will fly out to Washington to take part in events commemorating the 50 years since President Kennedy's death.