Falklands: my father was never the same again

Teri Newell was 14 when her father, Pipe Major James Riddell, was sent to the Falklands. His iconic tune, the Crags of Tumbledown Mountain, would become famous around the world, but the man behind it would never be the same.

Born in Aberdeenshire, James Riddell’s childhood dream was to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a soldier and a piper. He joined the Boys Service when he turned 17, and then went into the Scots Guards the following year.
He quickly adapted to military life, completing tours of Malaya and Borneo, as well as several in Northern Ireland. One of the highlights was touring America with the Scots Guards Pipes and Drums. 
James married his school sweetheart Pauline on returning from service in Malaya. Teri, their only daughter was born in Edinburgh, and spent her childhood accompanying her parents to Germany, Cyprus, and London’s Chelsea Barracks. 
She said: “I was a real daddy’s girl, but I was used to him being away. It was just part of life, and most of my friends had dads in the Forces. He missed a lot of birthdays, but my mum always made up for it.”
2 square

Posted to the Falklands

Teri remembers first hearing about the Falklands crisis on the news, before learning her father would be sent there with the Scots Guards.

 

She said: “This time it was different. The Falklands were much in the public eye, and he was going off to war. It was really quite scary. I knew he was going off to fight for the country and I didn’t know if I’d ever see him again.

“Every day I remember coming home from school and seeing if there was anything from Dad. But they were few and far between, and you wouldn’t get them till two weeks later. You would get this little blue folded-up letter.
“There were no details, he just said it was cold and bleak. I imagined him in his trench writing it. Then the rest of the time, we’d be glued to the news to see what was going on. 
“You just try to get on with it. Our local school was just round the corner from Chelsea Barracks, so I had a few school friends whose dads were there as well. But I’m not sure if many other people from school knew.
“I remember one day I’d had a cookery lesson at school and came home with a sausage plait. A friend of my mum’s who lived across the landing had lost her husband. Everyone was in pieces.
6 square

The end of the conflict

On June 13th the Scots Guards attacked Argentinian forces on Mount Tumbledown, which guarded the approach to the Falklands capital, Stanley. Pipe Major Riddell was one of 12 pipers who fought that night.

The Guardsmen engaged in fierce hand-to-hand combat for almost nine hours, in dark, freezing conditions. Although they finally took the stronghold, eight men were killed, as well as a Royal Engineer attached to the battalion.

The Argentinians surrendered the next day. Shortly afterwards, Pipe Major Riddell returned to the summit and played the tune he is now famous for, “The Crags of Tumbledown Mountain”. He told his daughter he had scribbled it on the back of a cigarette packet, although later it was suggested it was on a ration pack.

Teri said: “After the battle, it fell to him as Pipe Major to compose a tune. He told me it just came to him. Things were obviously going through his head at the time, then it all came together.”

Scots Guards returning from the Falklands

Bittersweet news

Back at Chelsea Barracks, the soldiers’ families heard about the ceasefire on the news. But for many, their relief was short-lived. Teri said: “First it was the most fabulous news. Then the next day came the announcement of the fatalities. My mum remembers that, almost in a heartbeat, they went from elation to immense sadness. It was surreal – we wanted to celebrate but then others had lost their husbands and their friends. One of the men killed was our neighbour from across the way. My mum was very close to his wife.”

 

It was several weeks before Teri’s father and his comrades returned home. She joined other families on a convoy of coaches to meet them at RAF Brize Norton. 

“It was wonderful seeing my dad in the flesh again,” she said. “But he hardly ever spoke about what he’d been through. I do remember him talking to my mum one night. He said at first, they thought: ‘If we get hold of those Argentines, we’ll give them what for’. But when it came to it, they were just young lads, not much older than I was. They were mostly conscripts and they were terrified. My dad and the others were giving them barley sugars and rations from their own packs.”
wedding landscape

After the conflict

The Falklands War lasted only ten weeks but returning to normal life would take much longer for many of those involved.

“My dad was a different man afterward,” Teri said. “He had always been quite a shy person outside of work. But he became more insular. He hardly ever talked about his experiences.”

 

Pipe Major Riddell served for 28 years, leaving in 1991 with an exemplary conduct assessment. His comrades remember him as well-respected and protective of the pipers under his command, although he could be a tough task master.

In 1989, when Teri was 21, he attended her wedding, with Danny Fleming, a piper who served under him, playing the pipes. But a few years later, he found himself struggling to adapt to civilian life, and the family became estranged. Then in 1997, she heard he had died of a brain tumour.
Teri said: “He seemed like a stranger, not my dad. I’m almost certain he had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but it wasn’t recognised at the time. There was a lot of support for service families, but very little for the men. There was that attitude that you kept a stiff upper lip and just got on with it. 
“When he left the military, he found it a very hard transition. He had been a soldier for all his adult life and was used to that structure and following orders. I think being on his own and having to find a job was a very scary prospect.
“I only spoke to him a handful of times after that, but he kept my number.  Then one day, I got a phone call saying he had passed away. I didn’t even know he had been ill.  That was the worst day of my life.”
 
The Crags of Tumbledown Mountain at the Berlin Tattoo

The Crags of Tumbledown Mountain 

Teri settled in Slough with her husband Eric, where she works for an IT service provider, and is close to her stepdaughter and step-grandchildren. She is proud that her dad’s memory lives on through his music.
This year, pipers around the world will join together in playing the Crags of Tumbledown Mountain on the morning of June 18th, paying tribute to the sacrifices of all those who served in the Falklands.
Teri said: “When I was a teenager, I found it a bit embarrassing. But looking back, I was awfully proud of him. Whenever I hear it, it brings a tear to my eye, and reminds me of him. He was never interested in recognition, he didn’t want to be in the spotlight. But his tune means a lot to people around the world.” 
 

Falklands 40 Pipers' Tribute

Could you play “The Crags of Mount Tumbledown” at 11am on June 18th?
Find out more

More on Falklands 40

Back to top