Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d, by Alan Bradley

Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew'd: A Flavia de Luce Novel by [Bradley, Alan]

Flavia de Luce fans stand to applaud her return from her interminable trials in the tundra of Toronto. Unfortunately, her family barely recognizes her existence. “Like a pair of sick suns rising, (her sister) Daffy’s eyes came slowly up above the binding of her book. I could tell she hadn’t slept. “Well, well,” she said. “Look what the cat dragged in.”

“As if from some molten furnace, a new Flavia de Luce had been poured into (her) old shoes.” Now the chatelaine or mistress of Buckshaw, Flavia seeks her social level among adults, especially Cynthia, the vicar’s wife. Cynthia sends Flavia on a simple errand that quickly plunges the de Luce heiress into the realm of murder, veneered in witchcraft. With an appropriate malapropism, Mrs. Mullet warns, “there’s no good comes of meddlin’ the “Black Carts.”

To set the scene, the author borrowed his title–Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d–from an incantation first published in Macbeth. He lists a cat among his characters and no cats were injured in the telling of this Flavia mystery. The same can’t be said for chickens.

First, on the scene of an apparent homicide, Flavia attempts to unravel the mystery before Inspector Hewitt finds her out. This more independent Flavia tracks her clues to London where she meets her Canadian chemistry teacher and a member of the top secret “NIDE,” Mrs. Bannerman. From now on they are Mildred and Flavia.

Books, publishers, woodcarvers, child-stars, bones on the beach, winter fest, Horn Dance, and off-key singers muck through the trail of the murderer. Flavia courts danger in the graveyard and risks a running through. Flavia fans will always remember this volume for a particularly shocking revelation.

Like one of Flavia’s character who “left the thought hanging like a corpse from the gallows,” I leave the plot to discuss what matters most to me in an Alan Bradley novel. Although the mysteries weave and knot within a most fascinating skein of clues, it’s the polish that he rubs into his phrases that I most love. For example:

The vicar’s wife hears things that would peel the paint off battleships.

How many murderers have been undone by a blurt?

Since the British Lion was a kitten.

Her face glowed like a Sunday school stove.

Her voice hung shrill in the air like a shot partridge.

The kind of person who makes your pores snap shut and your gullet lower the drawbridge.

In the moonlight, even the kitchen garden glowed, the red brick of the old walls illuminating the dead beds with the cold, faded glory of silver.

Plumb wooden cherubs that simpered and leered at one another as they swarmed to their mischievous task.

The vicarage was especially damp and soggy, with an aura of boiled eggs and old books—a perfect setting for our encounter: dark brooding, and simply reeking of secrets and tales told in an earlier time.

Distant electric lights come on in other people’s homes, mere pinpricks in the gloom—mirages of happiness.

We seethed, like a mass of jellyfish, toward the station’s exit.

His office was like a cave carved into a cliff of books.

Stuck his little finger in his ear and wiggled it about a bit, as if fine-tuning it for truth.

A slapdash scrawl, as if the white heat of composition had overcome penmanship.

A kind of happy gloom.

It’s rayon, nitrocellulose by another name. It makes me feel explosive.

Someday, my prints will come.

Blackened bombsites still remained scattered round the church like rotting teeth in the mouth of some ancient duchess.

Finbar’s eyes swept slowly round her, like a lighthouse in the night.

Sad music began to ooze from the horn.

A book best read behind closed—or even locked doors.

One of London’s last remaining gas lamps flickered bravely and forlorn against the growing darkness.

As slick and soft and insincere as black velvet at a funeral.

Old Hanson was livid, but my father was incandescent.

I had a rather crush on Mother Nature. I did a bit of botanizing.

The wind moaned among the tombstones.

Some sleeps are washed with gold, and some with silver. Mine was molten lead.

This sampling should stoke the reader’s appetite for the hundreds of delights hidden throughout Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d. Alan Bradley leaves Flavia hanging precariously as the last page turns. What will become of her? How long must we wait until volume nine and a half?

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Flavia 006: The Dead in their Vaulted Arches, by Alan Bradley

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Trains, planes and automobiles, along with Winston Churchill and a military escort greeted Hillary de Luce upon her return to her husband, her daughters and her ancestral estate: Buckshaw. Thus began episode 006 of the Flavia de Luce Mystery Series. Alan Bradley had left Flavia, his protagonist, the youngest of those de Luce daughters, dangling at the conclusion of volume 005, only to have her land in volume 006 with one foot in Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games and the other in Kim’s Game as described by Rudyard Kipling.

The Dead in their Vaulted Arches introduced major plot shifts, revelations, reconciliations and retributions. Relics of the past flickered and flew into view, unveiling secrets that stretched back through three hundred years of de Luce history and service to king and country.  Flavia’s new and more durable personal nemesis emerged, Undine: younger, equal and opposite, perhaps brighter and potentially more dangerous than Flavia. Was she a usurper, a snoop or just a lonely child looking for a friend?

Flavia passed through a substantial stage of metamorphosis to an elevated sense of power and confidence and yet at times she was more flustered than she had ever been. Most importantly, she did emerge as a far more formidable Flavia as she began her trek toward volume 007.

Reviews of mysteries, especially a series in which the initiated would have shunned spoilers other than those offered by the publisher, must focus on style rather than substance. Alan Bradley often invited the reader to tea, a break in the action, an apparent distraction, where the author installed words in place as would a jeweler carefully set a variety of brilliant stones within the gold of a magnificent brooch. There was no better way to review Bradley’s skill than to quote the author on various aspects of volume 006, or as he would have had Flavia say, “Let’s take another squint…”

At their current situation:

We were told the when, the where, and the how of everything, but never the why.

Churchill…still had certain secrets which he kept even from God.

Logical beyond question but at the same time mad as a March hare

At her father:

Windows were as essential to my father’s talking as his tongue.

He stood frozen in his own private glacier.

Father, the checkmated king, gracious, but fatally wounded in defeat

(With Churchill) These two seemingly defeated men, brothers in something I could not even begin to imagine.

At her sister Ophelia:

The image of bereaved beauty, she simply glowed with grief.

Feely had the knack of being able to screw one side of her face into a witchlike horror while keeping the other as sweet and demure as a maiden from Tennyson.

She knew me as well as the magic mirror knew the wicked queen.

Her complexion—at least since its volcanic activity settled down

Her voice suddenly as cold and stiff as whipped egg whites

At Flavia on Flavia:

I wanted to curl up like a salted slug and die.

I wiped my mouth with the back of my hand in case of overlooked jam or drool.

One of the marks of a truly great mind…is to be able to feign stupidity on demand.

The comforting reek of nitrocellulose lacquer

It smelled as if a coffee house in the slums of Hell had been hit by lightning.

That bump in her bloomers was me! (A comment on a photo of her pregnant mother)

My emotions were writhing inside me like snakes in a pit.

There is a strange strength in secrets which can never be achieved by spilling one’s guts.

I slept the sleep of the damned, tossing and turning as if I were lying in a bed of smoldering coals.

My mouth tasted as if a farmer had stored turnips in it while I slept.

My brain came instantly up to full throttle.

There are few instances in life where, in spite of everything, one had to swallow one’s heart and go it alone, and this was one of them.

Giving praise at every silent step for the invention of carpets

My knees gave off an alarming crack.

At flying:

And with a roar the propeller disappeared in a blur.

The roar became a tornado and we began to move.

And then a sudden smoothness…we were flying!

Beneath our wings the marvelous toy world slid slowly by…miniature sheep grazed in handkerchief pastures.

At trains:

The gleaming engine panted into the station and squealed to a stop at the edge of the platform.

(The train) sat resting for a few moments in the importance of its own swirling steam.

At music:

Each note hung for an instant like a cold, crystalline drop of water melting from the end of an icicle.

Humming mindlessly to herself like a hive of distant bees

The music faded and died among the beams and king posts of the ancient roof.

The organ fell silent as if suddenly embarrassed at what it had done.

At children:

They had lost more than one baby in the making and I could only pray that the next one would be a howling success.

“You’re a child.” “Of course I am, but that’s hardly a reason to treat me like one.”

As we await volume 007, we might expect a twelve-year-old Flavia who would have behaved not so much as her teen-aged sisters but as her mother Harriet. The relevance of the photo of Churchill’s statue in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada will become apparent to the readers of volume 006.

Bradley, Alan. The Dead in their Vaulted Arches. New York: Delacorte Press, 2014.

(© 2014 Donald J. Mulcare)

A Field Guide to the Flavia de Luce Mystery Series

A Field Guide to the Flavia de Luce Mystery Series

Alan Bradley, born in Ontario had two older sisters. His father left the family during Alan’s early years. Alan withdrew into the world of books, often reading in a cemetery. His award-winning Flavia de Luce Mysteries, set not in Canada, but in rural England described an eleven year old girl who shared a family situation similar to that of the author. Her mother, Harriet de Luce, heir to Buckshaw, died in a mountain climbing accident before Flavia got to know her. Flavia had two sisters, the bane of her existence. Her father, so disabled by grief seemed more interested in collecting stamps than in his family or in rescuing their home from impending bankruptcy. At times Flavia escaped her woes by lying among the gravestones, imagining her own funeral and burial.

Despite this apparent sadness Bradley’s novels have delighted readers around the world. His work, translated into most European languages, Mandarin Chinese and Japanese will soon take the form of a CBC television series. His current plans proposed to extend the Flavia de Luce Mysteries to ten books. This Field Guide relied on the first three books in the series, but may assist the uninitiated.

The Time: The first three mysteries played out during the summer of 1950.

The Household: Within Buckshaw, the disintegrating ancestral home of the de Luce family, dwelled Colonel Haviland de Luce, who married his cousin Harriet; their three daughters, Ophelia (Feely) 17, Daphne (Daffy) 13, and Flavia; Dodger, a former British POW who tends the cucumbers, keeps the hinges and locks well-oiled, and protects the Colonel and the free-spirited Flavia; Mrs. Mullet, the less than award winning cook, and Aunt Felicity, sure to be played by someone like Maggie Smith in the TV series. The Buckshaw dynamic fit somewhere between that of Downton Abbey and The Addams Family, with a touch of Arsenic and Old Lace added for flavor. One of Feely’s admirers likened the three de Luce girls to the Bronte sisters, but Flavia insists, “Compared with my life Cinderella was a spoiled brat.”

The Setting: “Bishop’s Lacey, a notable hotbed of crime,” where murder and larceny abound. Maps of the area come with book two: The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag and book three: Red Herring without Mustard. In them, Alan Bradley painted a detailed panorama of the English countryside with the quaint and dilapidated, common and aristocratic, festive and melancholy, pressed together cheek by jowl.

The Protagonist: Flavia, drummed out of the Girl Guides for “behavior unbecoming,” described herself as, “a master of the forked tongue” whose “particular passion was poison.” She actually “poisoned” Feely, but found that revenge cut both ways. Since Flavia sat front-and-center at the death of one victim, “discovered” the bodies of two others and dug-up the details of three different suspicious deaths, you have to ask yourself, was she a master criminal, a psychopath or perhaps the younger version of Miss Marple or Father Brown?

She quotes Shakespeare, Dickens and the Greek classics on almost every page; translates Latin, comments on the masterpieces of classical music and art, but shines most brightly in her delight for chemistry and chemists. Yet, for all her vast knowledge, quick wit and deductive powers, there’s no mention of schooling. Flavia de Luce avails herself of libraries. She cleverly extracts information from human and inanimate sources.

You might say that Flavia was the product of home-schooling. Feely, an accomplished pianist, when not gazing at herself in the looking-glass, exposed her sisters to concertos and symphonies on a daily basis. At each meal, Daffy read aloud the best of world literature. Flavia seemed to have absorbed every note and word, although her reading tended toward chemistry, diaries, confidential reports and library archives.

While her more proper, older sisters stayed at home wailing, during family emergencies, Flavia, wearing her well-worn dress, sensible shoes and white socks rode Gladys, her BSA bicycle, “with three speeds and a forgiving disposition” to the rescue. The bike, which once belonged to Harriet, proved to Flavia a truly “adventurous female with Dunlop tires.” It faithfully served as an appropriate steed for this eleven-year old with mousy-brown pigtails as she courageously delved for solutions.

Flavia shared her mother’s free-spirit. She feared neither dark of night, nor rising waters, nor filth, nor graveyards, nor the dead, nor intrusions into forbidden buildings. Consequently, she often took her lumps and in the words of Jacques Cousteau, she barely escaped with her life. She sought recognition, denied by her family by solving crimes before the police had a chance. Unfortunately, the constabulary often failed to appreciate her efforts.

Alan Bradley wrapped Flavia de Luce in rich language and carefully worded detail. Her mysteries entertain, educate and encourage. It surprised me that the author confessed in an interview that he didn’t know much about chemistry before he invented Flavia. Although there was one diagnostic reaction that I would take with a milligram of sodium chloride, I’m sure that Bradley and Flavia will spawn a wild enthusiasm for chemistry and in particular toxicology. I look forward to reading the rest of the series.

Bradley, Alan. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. New York: Delacorte Press, 2009.

Bradley, Alan. The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag. New York: Delacorte Press, 2010.

Bradley, Alan. A Red Herring without Mustard. New York: Delacorte Press, 2011.

(© 2013 Donald J. Mulcare)

Quebec City, May, 2013

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The expanse of water in the foreground represents the width of the north-eastern segment of Saint Lawrence River between Quebec City and the Atlantic. The Saint Lawrence River narrows as shown in the mid-left section of the photo. The narrowing or “kebec” in the language of Native American inhabitants of the area became Quebec in the language of the French settlers. To the right of the narrowing rises the modern Quebec City.  The city of Levis stands to the left. This narrow point in the Saint Lawrence Valley with its steep, high walls, gave Quebec a strategic advantage, one worth fighting for.

The following photos scan Quebec City from the decks of the Holland-America Cruise Ship Veendam when it docked on the north side of the Saint Lawrence River in early May, 2013. The point of view moves from right (north-east) to left (south-west) beginning with the massive, sprawling seminary building, bedecked with spires and a white flag marked with three red crosses. Its construction began in 1663 under the guidance of Bishop de Laval. It served as a residence and training facility for Roman Catholic priests. Later, the seminary gave rise to Laval University.

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Between the seminary and the parking lot you see the Museum of Civilization located on Rue Dalhousie. It’s modern, angular architecture both blends and contrasts with the seminary on the heights above it.

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The yellow, three story building (Panache) resembles similar waterfront structures in New Bedford, Massachusetts, once used for storage. The shops along this section of Rue Dalhousie offer a variety of architectural styles.

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A replica of a portion of the French colonial shore defenses stands further to the south-west along Rue Dalhousie. Behind it, you see a diverse array of buildings, a band of trees and then, higher up, a portion of the city wall. On top of that barrier stood the main defensive batteries. The massive Chateau Frontenac currently sits on the site of the original French fort. The Chateau will appear in later views.

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The modern stairs like these were not available when the British army attacked Quebec. The sheer cliffs blocked the infantry until they found a way around the seemingly impregnable defenses.

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The extreme, upper right side of this picture shows the edge of the Chateau Frontenac, once the site of the main French fort. A flag pole and a park mark the upper left edge of the picture. That site was known as the Plains of Abraham, the battlefield where British General Wolfe defeated French General Montcalm. Both men died in that battle. As a consequence, Quebec became part of British Canada.

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The opportunity to snap the following series of land-based photos came with a bus tour of Quebec City in May of 2013. Here is a small portion of the Plains of Abraham, now called The Battlefields Park. It serves as an extensive, year-round recreational area and war memorial.

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A similar statue of Saint Joan of Arc, here located on the Plains of Abraham may be found in Central Park, New York. Pierre, the excellent tour guide commissioned by Holland-America explained that the same anonymous donor had installed these statues here and elsewhere.

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 Not far from the statue of Saint Joan of Arc, this plaque commemorates the exact spot of another historic event in Canadian history.

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The next series, a mixture of ship and land based photos follows from left (south-west) to right (north-east) along the top of the ridge over the Saint Laurence River. The Plains of Abraham rests just to the left, outside the scope of the photo.  Observe the huge hotel, the Chateau Frontenac (center), the Ministry of Finance building (to the right) and the Postal Building (on the right edge of the picture). Look for each building in later views.

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The Chateau Frontenac as seen from the deck of the Veendam, appears with a popular means of reaching it, the Funicularie du vieux-Quebec, a glass-enclosed, elevator-railroad-lift that climbs the slope to the Chateau. The Funicularie runs behind the church steeple in the lower right portion of the photo.

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The Chateau’s courtyard contains archeological excavations that show tourist portions of the original French fortifications.

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Just down the street, to the north-east of the Chateau you’ll find the Ministry of Finance building.

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The next two photos show details of the Ministry of Finance building.

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Further to the north-east the Canadian flag waves above the domed Postal Building.

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Slightly north of the Chateau’s courtyard stands this tourist information-center-war-museum building flying the blue and white, Quebec Provincial flag. Note the tour bus that brought us.

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Perhaps the building just left of the tourist information center is the inspiration for the “Red Roof Inn?” The Auberge Du Tresor, seen behind the monument, bears the inscription “1640 Restaurant.”

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As we sailed out of Quebec, into the wider portion of the Saint Lawrence River, we enjoyed the stretch of mountains to north-east.

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Only a few miles out of Quebec City, along the north shore of the Saint Lawrence, look for the Montmorency waterfall. Taller than Niagara Falls, it marks the spot where General Montcalm defeated General Wolfe in an early encounter.

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Additional information for this blog came from the Google satellite photos of Quebec City. Google names streets and allows the observer to get close enough to buildings to read plaques and titles. Google shares millions of Quebec City’s wonderful details. It’s worth a look.

The Monument

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In the distance ahead, a statue loomed amid the park benches and the ubiquitous, tame, mendicant, municipal pigeons.

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From the looks of it I judged: “This bronze must honor a politician. Who else would have the supreme confidence to strut his stuff like this?” As a visitor, ignorant of local celebrities, I ventured, he’s probably a former Mayor of Halifax, perhaps a Premier. Soon enough, I could see his familiar face, grand, determined; untroubled by the rain. He had weathered many a storm in his day. We remember him still.

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The Rockets’ Red Glare

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A gentleman, perhaps a trustee of The Old Burying Grounds in Halifax, Nova Scotia pointed out the tomb of this cemetery’s most distinguished resident: Major General Robert Ross. The gentleman added that Ross’ troops had burned the Whitehouse and the Capitol in Washington, DC and inspired part of the U. S. National Anthem. He said “assassins” shot Ross near Baltimore. His body preserved in a keg of Jamaican rum, was transported to Halifax where it rests in peace beneath this rained soaked stone. See the entire tomb below, as it looked in May, 2013.

Ross personally led his forces into battle and employed the latest innovations in weaponry against the forces of the newly formed United States of America. Rockets routed the American Militiamen during the Battle of Bladensburg, opening the path for the capture of Washington, DC during the War of 1812.

Ross’ rockets also inspired Francis Scott Key as he wrote the words to “The Star Spangled Banner.” Key negotiated with Ross for the release of an American prisoner, aboard a British ship of war. Ross extended an invitation to dinner, the scene of these amicable negotiations. Key was then given a ring-side seat for the storming of Fort McHenry during a night attack on Baltimore, in which Key observed the ferocious rockets’ red glare.

Unfortunately for Ross, as he led his forces into Baltimore, American snipers mortally wounded him in battle. Which sharpshooter deserves credit or blame we’ll never know since they both fired at the same time and both stuck Ross who subsequently died.

The tomb cover shown above mentions “Rosstrevor,” the site of Ross’ memorial obelisk in County Down, Northern Ireland. Another grand memorial to Ross stands in Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London. Even the U. S. Capitol’s rotunda memorializes Ross with a portrait.

May he rest in peace.

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The 78th Pipers and Drummers at the Citadel in Halifax, Nova Scotia

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The 78th Highland Regiment Pipers and Drummers joyfully sustain the traditions of the Celtic people. Accomplished musicians all, they have spent years in training and generations in the celebration of their unique gifts. By way of introduction, the piper to the left with his back turned to you and his handy dirk sheathed on his right, leads this quintet. He began his formal training in his junior high school and then his high school’s pipe and drum band. As a college student, he continues to learn from a master at the Citadel’s School of Piping and Drumming. By the way, if you are inclined to take up the bagpipes as your life’s ambition, you may receive instruction from the Citadel’s pipe master anywhere in the world through the medium of Skype. The quintet’s lead piper himself has one student. You could become his second.

Each of the two pipers facing you in the photo has a brother drumming in this quintet. Can you tell from the picture, who is related to whom? The piper standing before the window has three stripes on his right cuff. In the original 78th Highlanders, they would indicate three years of good behavior. Today, they indicate three years of prior service as a re-enactor. So you see the quintet exhibits family traditions, years of training and sustained service.

After a performance for the Citadel’s visitors, this same piper revealed some of the secrets of the modern bagpipe. The tartan cover hides a leather bag. The modern version of the bag features a zipper and a small cardboard box containing the equivalent of moisture-absorbing, “kitty-litter.” The pipers explained that these “pipes” were made of wood, rather than ivory or plastic. The three upright “drone” pipes accompany the smaller “chanter.” The piper’s fingers play this nine note source of melody. The longer, French version of the bagpipe “chanter” extends its range of notes and chords.

The quintet members explained that the original Highland Drummers were recruited as regular soldiers. A drummer wears the red doublet with the white leather belt across his chest. The pipers were recruited by and paid by the officers, who had much more money to spend. Pipers wear the green doublet, a polished, black leather belt and have far more brass buttons than the Redcoats. Notice that a long plaid wraps about the piper’s chest, under the right arm. A brooch joins the plaid on the left shoulder. The ends of the plaid hang down well beyond the hem of the kilt. The drummers have a smaller tartan suspended from their left shoulder. The 78th wears the Mackenzie tartan in honor of its original sponsor.

Pipes and drums function not merely for parades, morale and time keeping at the Citadel. They were used to coordinate the regimental maneuvers during battle. The 78th designates one bagpipe melody as its signal to charge. The drummers also convey battlefield orders. They have a back-up system should the drum malfunction. Notice that a bugle hangs on a green lanyard slung across the drummer’s left shoulder. Each drummer carries a sword on his right side.

Attention to detail, constant practice, a profound devotion to Celtic music and traditions make the full corps of the 78th Pipers and Drummers contenders in the world championships for pipe and drum bands held in Scotland. The leader of the quintet reported that every small town in Scotland has several pipe and drum corps. Nevertheless, the Citadel’s contingent has confidently traveled to the world competition. They have my enthusiastic encouragement.