Bagpipes in War
Greg D. Allen
"War or peace, war or peace, it’s all the same to me,
In war I might be killed, in peace I might be hanged"
The association of the bagpipes as implements of war is as early,
and most probably earlier, than the first documented mention of
the instrument being played in Scotland. The harpers played and
sung of great victories in battle but the harps or clarsachs had
little chance of being heard over the chants and cries of the clannsmen
as they prepared for, and went into, battle.
The anticipation before the confrontation, the incentive to battle
– Prosnacha-cath, of the Caledonians (the Cath-ghairm of the Gaels),
a nervousness of what is to come, could be aroused by the bards
shouting their verses through the ranks of the clann, but the Mir-cath
or war cry or battle shout- Barritus, which described by Ammianus,
“Begins in a slight humming, and rises higher, like beating of waves”,
would have drowned out both harper and bard. (LOGAN)
The Great Highland Bagpipe, the Piob Mhor, is an instrument with
opposing harsh shrills and graceful tones, meant to be played out
of doors, in the open countryside and it is well suited in inspiring
men (and women) on the field of conflict and in the aftermath, the
mourning of the fallen and celebration of the victor could equally
well be beautifully composed and played in the Piobaireachd – the
Ceol Mor (Great Music). The Piob Mor eventually became the voice
of the bard in the community of the clann. (MANSON 115)
After 1600 the piper has a written place in documentation. Alexander
MacNaughton, in raising two hundred bowmen for war against the French,
in 1627, singled out two pipers for mention, "Allester Caddell"
and "William Steel". (C.A.MALCOLM 24)
Also, "Harrie McGra, harper from Larg", and "Another
piper" MacNaughton, in a letter to the Earl of Morton in the
following year described the conditions on board the ship, forced
to berth at Falmouth by severe weather and to escape a French warship:
"My L – A for newis from our selfis, our bagg pypperis and
Marlit Plaidis (tartan plaids) serwitt us in guid wise in the pursuit
of ane man of war that hetlie followit us." (MANSON 117)
A few years later, another letter, in 1641 by Lord Lothian, written
in Newcastle makes character comparisons between the three musical
disciplines, piping, fiddling and drumming. "I cannot out of
our armie furnish you with a sober fiddler, there is a fellow here
plays exceeding well, but he is intolerable given to drink. Nor
have we many of those people. Our armie has few or none that carie
not armes. We are sadder and graver than ordinarie soldiers, only
we are well provided of pypers. I have one for every company in
my regiment, and I think they are as good as drummers." (MANSON
The drum in battle predated the pipe but both had
an important role on the field of conflict. Whilst the latter
incited a passion in men to fight, the former provided the
all important communication between leaders and their men
in the height of battle. Orders were passed, tactical manoeuvres,
loading and firing of weapons – all at the signal of the drummer.
About the end of the 16th century, the drummers in military
regiments came under control of the Drum Major, who in turn,
was under orders from the Commander-In-Chief. When Cromwell’s
army was occupying Scotland in the 17th century, a Drum-Major
General was appointed to recruit the drummers and oversee
their training. He was paid a rate of 6 shillings per recruit.
The post of Drum-Major General lasted only until the early
18th century but the Drum-Major, as the leader of the pipe
band continues today.
A skilful drummer beating on the deep-shelled wooden drums
using heavy wooden drumsticks on the "batter-head"
of sheepskin could accomplish intricate beats requiring supple
wrists and strong arms. (MURRAY 5)
Ritual and folklore also played a part in the marching army. An
animal met on the way to the fight was usually killed and the blood
sprinkled over the clann or uniform colours. A detachment of Jacobites
under Lord Lewis Gordon, who defeated the King’s troops at Inverurie,
Aberdeenshire in 1745, slaughtered a sow and her piglets at the
Mill of Keith Hall on route to the confrontation.
Prior to 1745, the clanns had distinctive positions in the line
of battle and were fiercely possessive of them. At Culloden the
MacDonalds were placed on the left wing – their usual stance was
traditionally on the right. Not one MacDonald, except for Keppoch,
drew a sword that day. (LOGAN) So to did drummers and pipers defend
their respective positions in the ranks of the military.
In the 17th century a piper was often listed as an officer. However,
on orders from General Headquarters in 1769, an edict forbade the
appointment of pipers. Although pipers continued to be enlisted,
often at the request of Commanders who wished to have a personal
piper, they appeared on the Role as "Drummers." In the
Lovat Scouts and Scottish Horse, prior to 1914, pipers appeared
in the Muster Role as "Trumpeters". (C.A. MALCOLM)
This discrimination between piper and drummer sometimes led to
none to friendly rivalry, particularly when the important place
in leading clann or regiment was given over to the drummer – the
Drum-Major. Many regiments tell and retell this same story of the
altercation between an officer and his piper, the piper asking;
"Will a fellow that beats a sheepskin with two sticks gang
in front o’ me, a musician?" The officer, in somewhat of a
dilemma, resolved the argument advocating that as the drummer was
recognised on the Muster Role as a "Drummer" and the piper
had no official title, then the drummer would have his place at
The defeat of the Jacobites at Culloden on 16th April 1746 ended
the "Bliadhna Thearlaich" – "Charlie’s Year",
and was a decisive turning point in highland history, literally
stripping the clanns of their dress and identity. The Disarming
Act of 1746 and the Amendment in 1748 as laid down by King George
II, followed on from King George I in 1716, "More effectually
securing the peace of the said highlands", prohibited the use
or bearing of the "Broad Sword or Target (Targe), Poignard,
Whinger, or Durk, Side Pistol, Gun, or other warlike weapon,"
and, as well as laying down the law for the convictions for such
offenders - six months in the tollbooth of the offender’s nearest
town. Transportation to the plantations "beyond the seas"
for seven years was advocated for a second offence.
The same sentences were also to be enforced if, other than "Officers
and Soldiers in His Majesty’s Forces, Shall on any Pretence whatsoever,
wear or put on the Clothes commonly called Highland Clothes (that
is to say) the Plaid, Philebeg, or little kilt, Trowse, Shoulder
Belts, or any part whatsoever of what peculiarly belongs to the
Highland Garb, and that no Tartan, or partly-coloured Plaid or Stuff
shall be used for Great Coats, or for Upper Coats..." (UNITED
KINGDOM, STATUTES, 19 Geo. 2, cap.39, 1746, 587-602)
In an Act so specific it is surprising that those politicians did
not include a ban on the ownership or playing of the bagpipes given
their musical potency in stimulating the blood of the highlander.
The Duke of Cumberland, or the "Bloody Butcher Cumberland"
as he was known by in the north, watched with intriguing interest
the pipers of the regiments supporting the King (among them the
Royals, the Scots Fusiliers and Sempill’s – later the 25th) make
ready with their pipes prior to meeting the Jacobites under Charles
Edward Stuart, on Culloden Moor, to the east of Inverness. Cumberland
stood awhile and then asked an aide what the men were doing with
"Such bundles of sticks? (referring to the three drones, blowpipe
and chanter) "I can get them better implements of war!"
"They are bag-pipes", came the reply, "the Highlander’s
music in peace and war. Without these all other instruments are
of no avail, and the Highland soldiers need not advance another
step, for they will be of no service." (MANSON 114)
In the aftermath of Culloden the spirit of the highlands was bowed
but not broken. There was no ban on the bag-pipes but the frequency
of playing declined, thus making it more difficult for those officers
wishing to enlist pipers into established and new highland regiments.
The recruiting sergeant and his party scouring the land in 1794
for able-bodied men willing to fight Napoleon on his native French
soil were drumming-up a goodly amount of recruits for the "King’s
Shilling". Such was the shortage to meet the demand for pipers
in that same year, Captain Duncan Campbell wrote to a friend; "If
you can meet with one or two pipers, handsome fellows and steady,
you might go as far a thirty guineas for each." (C.A. MALCOLM)
The east and west of Scotland appeared to the officers of the regiments
to have an innumerable supply of young, fit and strong men. Britain’s
overseas conflicts - the war of Austrian Succession (1740-48), the
Seven Years War (1756-63) fought in Europe, North America and India
against France, Austria, Russia, Saxony, Sweden and Spain, the American
War of Independence (1776-1783) and in the early 19th century, the
Peninsular War, demanded the raising of fighting men and regiments
were formed from enlisted men throughout the towns and country.
The regiments were numbered along with their respective names.
For example, the oldest highland regiment, the Black Watch, formed
from four companies raised in 1725 and two in 1729 (later to be
a regiment of ten companies, each of one hundred men), was serving
in Flanders when made the 43rd regiment. In 1751 the regiment number
was changed to the 42nd, also changing its name in 1758 to the Royal
Highland Foot. Renamed again as the 42nd Black Watch regiment. A
second Battalion was raised in 1780 which, in 1786, became a regiment
in its own right as the 73rd.
The 92nd Gordon Highlanders was raised by the Duke of Gordon, largely
with men from his Inverness-shire estate. A bonus for new recruits,
over and above their Guinea Bounty, was a kiss from the Duchess
of Gordon, a woman with a reputation of high spirits and unconventional
behaviour. The Disarming Act of 1746 exempted "Officers and
Soldiers in His Majesty’s Forces" from not wearing "Highland
Clothes". Those kilted regiments, among them the 92nd and 42nd,
the 71st, 72nd, 74th, 75th, 78th, 79th, 91st, 92nd, and 93rd, had
Englishmen in their ranks and it is a false belief that these regiments
were descendants of the warring clann system although many of those
enlisted indeed came from localised clanns to serve in their home
In 1809 a decision was taken to abolish the wearing of kilts in
a selection of regiments - the 72nd, 73rd, 74th, 75th and the 91st.
A war of words was barraged until 1881 when the kilt was restored.
The highland companies which formed the regiment, although in the
King’s service, were proud tradition bearers of a rich heritage.
Naturally, if the Commanding Officer and other officers desired
it, all that could be done was done to secure a piper in the ranks.
As the clann chief had his piper, so to did the captain of the Battalion.
In battle the pipers proved their worth, not only as soldiers,
but in boosting morale amongst the rank and file. Apocryphal stories
of incidents abound through regimental lore and the columns of the
press. Fraser’s, one of the regiments in the command of James Wolfe
in 1760, reacted badly to the pipers being disallowed from playing
in the mornings on their retreat from Quebec. The officer-in-charge,
contrary to the General’s decision, challenged his superior in his
decision. "Then", said the General, "let them blow
like the devil if that will bring back the men." This was not
the first, nor will it be the last time that the pipes have been
associated with the antics of "Auld Nick".
General Sir Eyre Coote commanding the 73rd (MacLeod’s Highlanders)
in India in 1778 described the bag-pipes as sounding like, "A
useless relic of a barbarous age!" He was to change his opinion
some three years later at the battle of Port Novo when the 73rd
lead all the attacks to the strain of the pipes and won the day
despite being vastly outnumbered. Sir Eyre Coote shouted to the
ranks and pipers of the 73rd, "Well done my brave fellows,
you shall have a set of silver pipes for that." As good as
his word each piper was given £50 and each set of pipes was inscribed
with the General’s thanks. (MANSON 119-120)
The heroic bravery of individual pipers playing in the heat of
battle has been documented by the regiments from as far back as
the 17th century. At the battle of the Haughs of Cromdale on 30th
April 1689, ending the Scottish Civil War, one Piper Hamish, a Jacobite,
was badly wounded but managed to scramble onto the top of a large
boulder and continued to play tune after tune, spurring on his men
in their battle on Cromdale Hill against the Royalist forces until
he collapsed and died. In memory, the stone was christened Clach
A Phiobair – "The Piper’s Stone".
At Waterloo in 1815, a Pipe-Major of the Gordon Highlanders, in
the face of a rain of continual musket fire, stood on a hillock
and played as the Gordon’s charged at their enemy. Through history,
pipers are remembered for being mortally or seriously wounded the
latter whilst continuing to play in the face of adversity. These
exploits and deeds have often stirred poets into verse as memorials
to their bravery. A poem celebrating George Clark, a Piper with
the 71st at Vimiera, who was wounded in the leg by a musket ball
was written by Charles MacKay, an extract of which begins:
"A Highland piper shot through both his feet,
Lay on the ground in agonising pain,
The cry was raised, The Highlanders retreat,
They run, they fly, they rally not again!
The piper heard, and, rising on his arm,
Clutched to his heart the pipes he loved so well,
And blew a blast – a dirge-like shrill alarm,
That quickly changed to the all-jubilant swell
Again, at Waterloo, Piper Kenneth MacKay of the 79th Cameron Highlanders
from Tongue in Sutherland stepped forward of his Battalion to the
front of the bayonets at Quatre Bras and played "Cogadh Na
Sith" (War or Peace), a commonly used tune by all the regiments.
MacKay stood in the face of the charging French cavalry of Bonaparte.
Alice C. MacDonnell of Keppoch wrote in 1895:
"At Quatre Bras they bounded o’er,
Graceful, poised, with scarce an effort,
Wild on high the pipes resounded
From MacKay, who stepped without
‘Cogadh na Sith!’ the soldiers answered,
With a loud, triumphant shout.
Wild notes playing, streamers flying,
Defiance to the foe was thrown."
Through history the regimental piper has distinguished himself
both as a soldier and as a musician. Regiments take pride in highlighting
their own individuality by chosen pipe tunes, and every Regimental
Museum has encased sets of bagpipes which once belonged to honoured
pipers. In every conflict from clann rivalry to international warfare
the music of the pipes is very much to the fore. During and in remembrance
of great and small conflicts, in memoriam of men and women, mourning
or in celebration, the piper can compose a tune.
Before a Piper can become a Pipe-Major or Sergeant-Piper, as is
the rank, his capabilities must not only be of a distinguished player
but also of composer of Piobaireachd and the Ceol Beag (Little Music),
the marches, strathspeys and reels. (C.A. MALCOLM)
Titles of tunes can be set to a specific geographical area. For
example, "The Battle Of Alma" composed from its namesake
in the Crimean War by Pipe-Major William Ross of the Black Watch
(42nd), the anonymous "Heights Of the Alma", and "Sir
Colin Campbell’s Farewell To The Highland Brigade". Likewise,
"The Siege Of Delhi" and "Jessie Brown Of Lucknow"
from the Indian Mutiny of 1857/58. The Ashanti War of 1873 inspired
another Black Watch composition by Pipe-Major John MacDonald, "The
Black Watch March To Coomassie." The Egyptian campaigns of
the late 19th century produced "The Highland Brigade At Tel-El-Kebir"
by Piper John Cameron.
It is not unusual for tunes to keep their format but be renamed,
and thus depending on the date and/or version of the music, could
be presented as the same tune under a different title. Prior to
the outbreak of the Great War in 1914 Piper John MacLellan had composed
a march entitled "The Bens Of Jura". During the South
African War he changed the name to "The Highland Brigade’s
March To Heilbronn", (MacLellan had by this time enlisted in
the Brigade). Thereafter, on being posted to Egypt it was again
renamed, this time, "The Burning Sands Of Egypt". Soon
after the outbreak of the Great War words were added by a Scots
minister, and, in its newly adopted poetic form, appeared as, "The
Road To The Isles", which although criticised as being steeped
in sentimentality, became a favourite in the music halls. (MURRAY
In barracks the piper still has an important role in communicating
information. The "Duty Tunes" vary from regiment to regiment
but all have an occasion to serve. Reveille - "Johnny Cope"
or "Brose And Butter", or "Bannocks O’ Barley".
The Gordon Highlanders play, "The Greenwoodside" – a difficult
and lively air on a frosty morning for the piper’s fingers. First
Breakfast Pipes, Sick Parade, Second Breakfast, Call Quarter, Call
Commanding Officer’s Orders (The Burn’s song, "A Man’s A Man
For A’ That" is played by the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders
and the Scots Guards, to name but two regiments.) Tea Call - "Jenny’s
Bawbee", to the tune of the nursery rhyme, "Polly Put
The Kettle On" is the adopted tune of some regiments, including,
the King’s Own Scottish Borderers and the Royal Scots. Last Post
- the pipers of the Royal Scots and the King’s Own Scottish Borderers
play "Lochaber No More", as do the Highland Fusiliers.
A fitting note to finish is the final pipe tune of the soldier’s
day, Lights Out, for which the piper usually plays the Gaelic lullaby,
"Cadail, Mo Ghaoil" – "Sleep, Darling, Sleep".
Put to words the soldiers know it as
"Sodger, lie doon on yer wee pickle straw,
It’s no’ very broad, and it’s no’ very braw
But, sodger, it’s better than naething at a’,
Sae sleep, sodger, sleep.”
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Vol. II 1876
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Literature, and Music". EP Publishing. Reprint 1977. First
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Reprint 1993. First published 1927.
Murray. David. "Music Of The Scottish Regiments".
Published by The Pentland Press. 1994.
Cannon. Roderick FSA (Scot). "The Highland Bagpipe And
Its Music". 1988.
Purser. John. "Scotland’s Music". Published by
Mainstream, Edinburgh. 1992.
Donaldson. William. "The Highland Pipe And Scottish
Society 1750-1950". Published by the Tuckwell Press. 2000.
Smith. Robert. "Buchan, Land Of Plenty". 1996.
MacDonald. Joseph. "A Compleat Theory Of The Scots Highland
Bagpipe". Compiled 1760/1763. First published 1803.
A Collection Of Piobaireachd Or Pipe Tunes As Verbally Taught By
The McCrummen Pipers In The Isle Of Skye To Their Apprentices. Taken
From John McCrummen, Piper To The Old Laird Of MacLeod And His Grandson,The
Late MacLeod Of MacLeod. Published Edinburgh 1828.
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