Some months ago I found a rather lovely article at the World Military Bands website. Written by Ian Turnbull, it concerned “by tuck of drum” or the “Scottish alarm clock” as he called it. The WMB website has since been revamped and sadly it seems the article has been removed. I searched elsewhere, but could not find it. Nonetheless, my searches turned up a couple of other interesting items.
If you go to Google Books at this link, you will discover the beautiful reprint of the 1947 volume “A Highland Chapbook”. For copyright reasons, copying of passages is not allowed, but if you put “by tuck of drum” into the search box, you will discover an evocative description of what that phrase meant and why the tuck-tuck of the drum would have caused anxiety in any Highland community that heard it. You will be regaled with anecdotes of the towns of Thurso and Elgin in northernmost Scotland, and how the tucking of the drum could well have led to the “poinding of their tongs”. Read how bold Sandy Murray defied the drummer and drove his staff right through the drum itself!
The other odd bit I found concerning this intriguing phrase is this 1922 Letter to the Editor of the New York Times, from “Dr. Syntax”. I notice that the good Dr. S. quotes a “Dr. Murray” who gives a history of the idiom. It is fun to think that Dr. Murray might have been a descendant of the defiant Sandy Murray – hence his (possibly genetic) interest in tracing the phrase! I would dearly love to know the rest of the story behind Lady Astor’s Chicago remark: