Of all the animals of prey, man is the only sociable one.
Every one of us preys upon his neighbour, and yet we herd together.
The Beggar's Opera: John Gay

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

The Reel of the 51st Division

As a coda to the commemoration of Dunkirk, a letter in yesterday's Telegraph pays tribute to the men of the 51st Highland Division who held the defensive perimeter during the evacuation.

Following their capture and incarceration in Laufen POW camp, officers of the regiments kept up morale with a weekly dancing class and from this emerged the Reel of the 51st Division, now one of the most popular of the Highland reels.

Flushed with pride at their impressive creation, the officers decided to send details of the dance to their fellows back home. Tradition has it that the German camp censors believed the complicated instructions to be some kind of fiendish code and, to the delight of the Scots, spent many futile hours trying to decipher them.

Purists say it should be danced by men only, in honour of its creators, and would doubtless shudder at the way mixed sets would fill the dancefloor at parties in my youth (often as not incongruously sandwiched between 'Oliver's Army' and 'Tainted Love'), but there is much to be said in favour of a tradition being kept alive by the young -I hope it's still going on.

This amateur rendition of the more complicated double version should give some idea of what the German codebreakers were up against!


  1. My father was one of the original composers of the 51st reel music before it was 'lost', rewritten and claimed by others. He taught the pipes in POW camp (Eichenstatt in particular)raising morale by leading his pipe-band of which the Scotsman ran many pictures and stories during his and his fellow POW four year incarceration following their enforced surrender at St Valery en Caux. Their pipes were obtained through the Red Cross and exceptional donations by the piping world at home in Scotland. Google image 'Oflag pipe band' for a photo of my father's pipe band - he is far left front row. I am currently collating his story for inclusion in the Fort George Museum to accompany some of his POW artifacts already there.

  2. Pressed 'submit' too soon - should read Eichstatt POW camp.

  3. Thanks, Clarinda; there's a link here to the photo and associated web page.

  4. I would love to be in touch with you Clarinda as I am helping someone who was (when captured at St Valery) the youngest officer POW in captivity to write his memoirs. We have quite a bit of information on the creation of the Reel of the 51st both coming from original sources in the prisons and on the home front. My email is kate.oldfield@btinternet.com
    thank you