The Great Highland War Pipes
“The bagpipe is the only musical instrument deemed a weapon of war because it inspired its troops to battle and instilled terror into the enemy. The skirl of the pipes stirs men’s and women’s souls and its power and influence in battle as in life, is measurable”.
The effects of the pipes on friend or foe are legendary crossing all cultural, geographic, economic and historical barriers. An examination of the origins and development of the pipes, their use among the ancient Celts and in modern warfare and life reveal their true and enduring significance.
The origins and history of the pipes is interesting as the world has known the pipes in one form or another for more than 5000 years. Bagpipes were invented when people found they could make music by blowing into a hollow reed and eventually the idea of harnessing a bag for a reservoir of air evolved. References to pipes are made in the Pharonic literature of Ancient Egypt, the Ancient Holy Land Scriptures. During the days of the Roman Empire there are numerous references to the pipes being played and in fact it is widely believed that Nero himself played the pipes and that Rome fell to the sound of the pipes, not the fiddle as previously thought. It is quite probable that the Romans brought the pipes to Scotland during their invasions.
The Ancient Celts called it the Great War Pipe of the North. The use of the bagpipe among the Ancient Celtic people was common. In fact, men and women were initially called to war by the harp or a bard, (Brosnachadh-Incitement to Battle) but only the first few rows of troops could hear the stirring sound so eventually it became tradition to send a piper into battle first. The Celts are recorded as being in the area of the Alps during the early centuries of the last millennium before the birth of Christ. Some of the common factors in Celtic society included a shared language, social structure and the telling of history through bards or poets, music and song. This music included the use of the pipes.
At its height, in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C.E. the Celtic Empire reached from the steppes of Russia to the north of Ireland. Pushed back by Roman invasion and eventually doomed at the hand of Julius Caesar, the Celtic Empire survived into medieval times only in Britain and then only in Ireland. Because the empire had been so far reaching the connection so many people feel to the Celts and their heritage is widespread. But in the northern areas of both Scotland and Ireland the Celtic ways evolved into a clan system with each chief overseeing his peoples and lands. Chiefs and Clans fought against each other piping themselves into battle by the sound of the great Highland War Pipes, eventually silenced in 1746 when the English passed a decree making the playing of the pipes punishable by death. Despite this edict, the playing of pipes continued until today.
The great Highland War pipes survived and became a symbol of Scottish Highland way of life simply because the Highlanders continued to use them when other countries did not. “Over the last two hundred years and more the Highland regiments of the British Army have played a vital part in keeping alive clan feeling and the Highland tradition, reflecting a sense of special spirit.” The Highlanders’ use of the great bagpipe seems to have developed in its current form in the 16th century. The clans were growing and required more sound than a harp could make. The MacCrimmon’s, the hereditary pipers of the Isle of Skye are credited with evolving “big Music” or Piobaireachd music, the classical music of the bagpipes. The MacCrimmons are the hereditary pipers of the Macleods for 13 generations.
There is a museum on the Isle of Skye created by Irene and Hugh MacCrimmon who currently live in Guelph, Ontario. The museum also reflects Highland life. Dunvegan, Skye remains today the place of renowned piping all over the world. Legend claims that the fairy Queen assured the first MacCrimmon that he would play the finest music in the world. And he did! The playing of the air is followed by a number of variations according to strict rules of composition and the music is very elaborate and stylized. The themes mainly consist of Laments, Gatherings and Salutes. This was the form of piping played to the 19th century. Although for relaxation, pipers might play a lighter composition and it was considered derogatory to play for dancing. Every chief and royal house had its pipers. The music of the pipes underwent great change in the 19th century with competitions and reels, strathspeys, tunes, slow marches and drum sections of battalions being replaced by pipes.
In the early 1700’s the English and Scottish were fighting over control of land and people. It was an age-old battle with many complications. In the Highlands of Scotland there were many separate clans each with a chief each thinking they had a right to the crown. They fought among themselves and for nearly 1000 years against the English. In 1746 all the fighting came to an end. In the Battle of Culloden the Highland clans met the gunfire of the English and were wiped out on Drummoisse Moore. The Highland way of life was destroyed and the Act of Proscription was put in place. This act forbade the wearing of Tartan, the speaking of Gaelic, and the playing of the bagpipes. It was at this time the pipes were declared a weapon of war and pipers were actually drawn, quartered and hung for playing the pipes. The English swept through the Highlands like ants at a picnic destroying pipes and burning the piper’s huts. Many people were thrown in jails and many were sold as slaves. If a person were caught playing the pipes or breaking any aspect of the Act of Proscription, it meant lashes with the cat of nine tails and then imprisonment or worse, death.
It wasn’t until the English began to raise regiments and put them in kilts and encouraged the playing of the pipes that this changed. Proscription was in place for 50 years. Thus it can be said that playing the pipes is about survival, tenacity and rising up against injustice. A music that reaches the soul and lingers in the mind long after the drones are put to rest. By the 1800’s numerous Highland regiments had been raised in the British Isles and in North America and pipes were playing an important part of both American and Canadian history. The pipes were there at the capture of Quebec, Ticonderoga and the siege of the Alamo. There are actually references to Davie Crockett being heartened by the piping of John MacGregor. The pipes were in Nepal, the Boer War, both World Wars with the Germans referring to the pipers as “Ladies from Hell”.
In W.W.I. the pipers went up over the top of the trenches piping their men into war across no-man’s land, land mines, barbed wire and enemy fire. Pipers couldn’t play and carry a weapon so they were sitting ducks in modern warfare and many died in both world wars. Over 1000 pipers died in W.W.I. The last surviving piper from W.W.I is Harry Lunan. He describes his piping experiences in the war as an honour. ” You were scared, but you just had to do it, they were depending on you.” Despite poisonous gas, guns, barbed wire, land mines and the general horror of war, pipers piped their men into battle as they had done three thousand years earlier. The effect was the same. It encouraged the men and left the enemy in shock that someone would be brave enough to play the pipes in the middle of trench warfare. The same thing happened in W.W. II . More recently, pipers also played a role in the Gulf War and Desert Storm operations. The effect was the same. It takes a great deal of know how and concentration to pipe under such circumstances and the piper had to be well seasoned.
The bagpipe is deemed a weapon of war because it inspired its troops to battle and instilled terror into the enemy. The skirl of the pipes stirs souls. The effects of the pipes are legendary crossing all cultural, geographic, economic and historical barriers. From the origins and development of the pipes, their use among the ancient Celts and in modern warfare and life reveal their true and enduring significance which continues to be passed down from generation to generation in current times.
Santa Cruz Pipes & Drums
William “Bill” Millin (14 July 1922 – 17 August 2010), commonly known as Piper Bill, was personal piper to Simon Fraser, 15th Lord Lovat, commander of 1 Special Service Brigade at D-Day.
Millin is best remembered for playing the pipes whilst under fire during the D-Day landing in Normandy.] Pipers had traditionally been used in battle by Scottish and Irish soldiers.However, the use of bagpipes was restricted to rear areas by the time of the Second World War by the British Army. Lovat, nevertheless, ignored these orders and ordered Millin, then aged 21, to play. When Private Millin demurred, citing the regulations, he recalled later, Lord Lovat replied: “Ah, but that’s the English War Office. You and I are both Scottish, and that doesn’t apply.” He played “Hielan’ Laddie” and “The Road to the Isles” as his comrades fell around him on Sword Beach. Millin states that he later talked to captured German snipers who claimed they did not shoot at him because they thought he was crazy.
Millin, whom Lovat had appointed his personal piper during commando training at Achnacarry, near Fort William in Scotland, was the only man during the landing who wore a kilt – it was the same Cameron tartan kilt his father had worn in Flanders during World War I – and he was armed only with his pipes and the sgian-dubh, or “black knife”, sheathed inside his kilt-hose on the right side. In keeping with Scottish tradition, he wore no underwear beneath the kilt. He later told author Peter Caddick-Adams that the coldness of the water took his breath away.
Lovat and Millin advanced from Sword Beach to Pegasus Bridge, which had been defiantly defended by men of the 2nd Bn the Ox & Bucks Light Infantry (6th Airborne Division) who had landed in the early hours by glider. Lovat’s commandos arrived at a little past one p.m. at Pegasus Bridge although the rendezvous time in the plan was noon. To the sound of Millin’s bagpipes, the commandos marched across Pegasus Bridge as a result of which twelve men died, most shot through their berets.Later detachments of the commandos rushed across in small groups with helmets on. Millin’s D-Day bagpipes were later donated to the now Pegasus Bridge Museum.