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Historical Background

In the 1700s, it was the fashion in British Army regiments to employ drummers from Africa and the West Indies.  Officers on inspection tours rated these drummers very highly in terms of musical abilities.  Major General Sir William Howe, upon inspecting the 29th Regiment of Foot at Dover in 1774, remarked that the African musicians "play and beat well" on fife and drum.  The 29th Regiment was again inspected some 17 years later, and this time the inspecting officer commented, very bluntly, that "The drummers black, beat and play well."

Foreign percussionists may have first gained a place in British military music in the Crusades during the Middle Ages; a manuscript in the British Museum dating from the 1300s shows a negro carrying a pair of kettledrums for a drummer marching behind, while playing the cymbals himself.

The 29th Regiment of Foot (much later to become First Battalion, The Worcestershire and Sherwood Foresters Regiment) apparently made a specialty of employing coloured drummers.  At the surrender of Guadaloupe, ten boys were enrolled as drummers in the regiment, and were estimated to be "remarkably good drummers."  In 1824, the Regiment specifically recruited eleven boys from Africa to fill vacancies in the band, and the tradition of maintaining coloured drummers extended over an eighty year period.

Other Regiments did likewise; the 38th Regiment of Foot (later the Staffordshire Regiment) obtained most of its drummer from the West Indies; a natural, as the regiment was stationed there for almost sixty years.  Upon departure in 1765, it took with it three coloured drummers.  Even as late as 1899, every drummer employed by the Royal Fusiliers was of African descent.

The 29th Regiment of Foot (much later to become First Battalion, The Worcestershire and Sherwood Foresters Regiment) apparently made a specialty of employing coloured drummers.  At the surrender of Guadaloupe, ten boys were enrolled as drummers in the regiment, and were estimated to be "remarkably good drummers."  In 1824, the Regiment specifically recruited eleven boys from Africa to fill vacancies in the band, and the tradition of maintaining coloured drummers extended over an eighty year period.

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Bass Drummer Andrew Downey, St. Julien's Day, April 1989.  The leopard skin apron was normally only worn with full ceremonial dress, as shown here.  At this time the drummers of 2137 Cadet Pipes and Drums wore green full dress jackets.  At upper left is future Regimental Pipe Major Chris Penney, then a piper with 2137 Cadet Corps.

Other Regiments did likewise; the 38th Regiment of Foot (later the Staffordshire Regiment) obtained most of its drummer from the West Indies; a natural, as the regiment was stationed there for almost sixty years.  Upon departure in 1765, it took with it three coloured drummers.  Even as late as 1899, every drummer employed by the Royal Fusiliers was of African descent.

Tiger and leopard skin aprons were taken with these black drummers with them into service with the British Army.   As the tradition of using African drummers began to die away (The Coldstream Guards, for example, dispensed with black drummers in 1839), the leopard skin apron remained as a visible reminder.  by the mid 1800s, the use of coloured drummers throughout the British Army (including not just infantry regiments, but cavalry and even the Royal Artillery) had all but ceased.

By the time of Confederation in 1867, the Canadian Militia did not adopt the tradition of using coloured drummers.   The American Civil War, concluded just two years before in 1865, had brought an end to the institution of slavery in the western world.  As Canada developed its own armed forces, it came to accept soldiers of all races equally - unlike the United States who officially segregated coloured soldiers from white soldiers until the later 1940s, after the Second World War had ended.

Current Practice

The Calgary Highlanders have maintained the tradition of using animal skins for their bass drummer since the inception of the band. The head of the animal is worn on the wearer's back, with the forelegs worn over the shoulders and the sides secured by ties.  The bass drummer and tenor drummers wear the skins with full ceremonial dress only, though they are not worn with the summer white full dress uniform.

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St. Julien's Day Parade, Sunday, 26 April 1987.  The leopard skins are shown in use by both the Bass and Tenor sections.  This parade marked the first Regimental function at which the newly revived 2137 Cadet Pipes and Drums participated in.  From left to right, snare drummer Cadet Mark Smith, tenor drummers Private Bill Kelso, Cadet Steve Hakl, Cadet Rob Nederlof, Corporal Karen Linscer, bass drummers Private Glenn Felzien and (partially obscured) Cadet Rob Cater. 

In the late 1980s it was decided that the skin of the Black Bear, native to North America and not an endangered species, would be more appropriate (and easier to obtain) than leopard skins.  Through Alberta Fish and Wildlife, the Regiment was able to obtain enough Black Bear skins to outfit all the bass and tenor drummers.  The hides were taken from animals that had been killed in automobile accidents or had died of other causes.

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The bass drummer of the Regimental Pipes and Drums, photographed in the 1920s wearing a leopard skin. At this point in time all members of the pipe band wore black glengarries, green doublets and Royal Stewart tartan; conformity to the regulations of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders had not yet been enforced in the Pipe Band's dress regulations. Drummers and dancers of the Regimental Pipes and Drums prepare for their performance at the Lethbridge Tattoo in May 1992.  At left, a bass drummer showing the bear skin worn over full dress.  At right, Highland Dancers Lisa Russell and Jennifer Jackson help Tenor Drummer Zsa Zsa Kamel adjust her bearskin.

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