"At Quebec their piobroch
Up the hill went breathing- terror.”—
“To pipe at Highland games
With a host of smiling dames
To cast admiring glances as you play.
Is a different matter quite
From the piping in a fight
Where the Pipers march in front and shew the way.”—
IT is more than likely that the Celts of
Pannonia used the Bagpipe in war, before the Christian Era.
The Greeks used it in the mimic warfare
of the Pythonic games about the same time.
But it was during the gallant struggle in
the cause of freedom, waged for two seasons against the full power of
Imperial Rome, by these simple shepherds in the uplands of Pannonia,
that the Celt’s Bagpipe is first heard of in history.
Prudentius, however (b. a.d. 348)—the
greatest of the Roman Christian poets, is the first writer, so far as I
am aware, to mention the Bagpipe as a recognised instrument of war.
He says:—“Signum Symphonies belli
Aegyptis diderat”—which, when translated, reads:—“The Bagpipe gave the
signal for the battle to begin, to the Egyptians,” i.e. the Bagpipe
sounded the charge.
Thus early do we find the piper in the
forefront of the battle.
The Roman army—with these examples before
it, was not slow in adopting the War Pipe, and one of their writers,
Procopius by name, mentions that in his day it was the recognised
marching instrument of the Roman infantry.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, the
Bagpipe seems to have been forgotten as a military instrument, until its
fame was revived by the Highlanders —at what precise date, we do not
know—who forced the authorities gradually to recognise its stimulating
effect on the soldier, and its consequent usefulness on the field of
And so to-day, the War Pipe of the old
Highlander, covered with glory and honour, is now the War Pipe of the
The Great Highland Bagpipe, indeed, is
without doubt, one of the grandest military musical instruments that the
world has ever seen—firing the hearts of the Highlanders to deeds of
heroism, but breathing only terror to the foe. It has gained for itself
on the battlefield an undying fame.
The reasons for this are not far to seek.
Its shrill notes and clear powerful tones are well suited to the roar
and din of warfare, and its handiness in action— (it is easily carried
and the piper is able to play upon it while at the double) and the
stimulating effect of its music upon the soldier, whether in pressing
home the charge, or in “lulling the retreat,” as an old Irish writer
quaintly puts it, have earned for it a well-deserved popularity. The
Piper’s place has always been in the fighting line. The Regimental Piper
would consider himself disgraced if he were not allowed to go forward
with his regiment, and to strike up when the command “Charge” rings out.
During the late Russo-Japanese War the
soldiers of the Tzar were reported on more than one occasion to have
gone forth to battle with massed bands playing and colours flying. A
magnificent spectacle no doubt, and one which shewed great bravery on
the part of all concerned, but it was not war as we understand it
to-day. What the custom is with a nation like Russia, I do not know, but
in the British army, when the tocsin of war sounds, the military bands
are left at some base town, the bandmaster and the boys who are under
age remain behind, and while the war is proceeding, those boys go on
with their musical training under the eye of the bandmaster as if
nothing particular were happening, while the majority of the men go out
as stretcher-bearers. Only the pipers, drummers, and buglers go forward
with the army. A stranger hearing the Great War Pipe for the first time
on the battlefield, or in the midst of nature’s wilds, instantly
appraises it at its proper value, otherwise its many charms may remain
hidden to him for years.
The effectiveness of Pipe music, heard
among the hills, is much more striking than when the same music is heard
down in the plain.
It was up in the hills that M‘Culloch,
who was for many years bitterly prejudiced against it, got to know it in
reality, and to respect and admire it, and ultimately to love it. In one
of his letters from the north, he said:—“It has a grand and noble sound,
that fills the valley, and is re-echoed from the mountains.” And the old
Highlander, who knew well this “echo from the mountains”— not one
mountain, notice you, but several; up one valley and down another, the
echo travels, tossed like a hand-ball from ben to ben!—has incorporated
the echo in his Pipe music to quite an extraordinary extent. He also
discovered for himself —how long ago, no man knows—that the Pipe was the
one instrument for mountain warfare, and that there was none other to
compare in purposefulness with it.
And so we find reflected in the pages of
Pennant’s book, “A Voyage to the Hebrides,” the views of the Skyemen and
others on the Bagpipe, one hundred and fifty years ago.
Pennant’s opinions are worthy of being
placed on record, as these were formed on the spot, after a close study
of the subject, and they thus may be listened to as “an echo from the
mountains” of 1769.
He had just been dining at the house of
Wm. MacDonald, piper to Kingsburgh—a large, comfortable, well-built
house—and listening to the music of the Pipe—in the very home of the
From what he was able to learn on this
journey, he formed the opinion — to give his own words— that “it had
been a favourite with the Scots from time immemorial,” and “suited well
the war-like genius of the people, roused their courage to battle,
alarmed them when secure, and collected them when scattered; solaced
them in their long and painful marches, and, in times of peace kept up
the memory of the gallant deeds of their ancestors. One of the
tunes—wild and tempestuous—is said to have been played at the bloody
battle of Harlaw in 1410.”
Thirty years later, John Stoddart, who
also visited the Highlands, wrote of this war instrument: —“The powerful
tones of the Bagpipe, together with its sudden and rough transitions,
render it peculiarly consonant with the turbulent feelings of warfare.”
In more recent times the valuable
qualities of the Bagpipe on the field of battle have forced recognition
from Lowland or English officers attached to Highland regiments,
although such were at first sometimes out of sympathy with the men in
their passionate love for it, and heartily disliked the instrument
itself, as the following story well shews :— General Sir Eyre Coote
first heard the Highland Bagpipe sounded in war at the battle of Port
Novo, in 1781.
Previous to that day, when a handful of
Highlanders, with their pipers, won for him a great and glorious
victory, he had expressed his opinion that “it was a useless relic of
the barbarous ages,” and “not fitted for the discipline of the field.”
But when he saw the pipers go forward
bravely with the men into the thick of the fight, and learned, from
personal observation, of the stimulating effect which the music had upon
the Highlanders, he could no longer restrain his admiration for the
hitherto despised instrument, and riding up to the pipers, who were
playing in the thick of the fight as if on parade, he shouted through
the roar of battle—“Well done, my brave fellows! you shall have a set of
silver Pipes for this.”
And he was as good as his word, for he
presented the pipers next day with £50 to buy the Pipes. Nor did he ever
again refer to the Pipes as “a useless relic of the barbarous ages.”
The enthusiasm called forth by the sight
of the gallant pipers piping in the midst of battle; by their military
bearing, and by their conspicuous bravery, has been well described in
eloquent words by the historian, Napier, in his “History of the
General Sir Eyre Coote’s experience in
days long since gone by, has been the experience of many an officer
since. Once let a soldier hear the Pipe in actual combat, and he is
immediately won over to its side, as was Sir Eyre Coote, and he becomes
attached to it, and loves it ever after for its worth’s sake.
I am glad to know that the officers of
our Highland regiments to-day uphold and cherish the old war instrument
as keenly and whole-heartedly as ever their forefathers did.
The army is, in fact, a great school for
pipers —one of the best—and a great help in perpetuating the Bagpipe.
There are between two and three hundred army pipers; and among them are
several champion players, and more than one youthful coming champion.
But not only do the officers encourage
the playing of the Bagpipe among the men; in many cases they shoulder
the drone themselves during spare hours; and I could name at least three
gallant officers whose play is far above the average, and to whom I have
often listened with pleasure; but as there are, no doubt, many more
equally skilful players in the Highland regiments, although unknown to
me, this might seem an invidious distinction on my part to make.
“There is no sound,” said a distinguished
general once (speaking at a meeting of Highlanders in Edinburgh, shortly
after Waterloo), “which the immortal Wellington hears with more delight,
or the marshals of France with more dismay, than the notes of a Highland
“The Bagpipe is, properly speaking,”
writes Dr. MacCuIIoch, “a military weapon. It is a handsome weapon also,
with all its pennons flying, and the piper when he is well inflated is a
noble-looking, disdainful fellow.”
In that most interesting of books, “With
Kitchener to Khartoum,” Mr Stevens hits off the Bagpipe on the
battlefield in two words; he is describing the battle of Atbara, just
before the charge of the Highlanders, and says “the trumpets sounded the
advance, and the Pipes screamed battle.”
All who have heard the “Pipes,” know that
it can scream and make a noise pleasant enough out of doors, but
unavoidably disagreeable in the house —to over-sensitive ears at least.
But this instrument of rude, wild nature, while it expresses the fire
and fury and lust of battle, is not unmindful of the slain.
In the “call to battle” you can hear the
din and roar of warfare, the tramp of armed hosts, and clash of swords.
You have of a surety in the upper notes
the call to action, whether on the ballroom floor or field of battle ;
but it is in the lower notes that a great deal of the charm and pathos
of Bagpipe music lies.
Here you have the sadness, and the sorrow
; the sadness that looks out at you from quiet grey eyes in the
Highlands to-day as then; the sadness that broods over the lonely
Highland glen—now tenant-less, but once filled with a brave and happy
people; the sorrow that dwells beside the grey moss-covered stone,
marking the old burial-place at the head of the glen ; the sadness that
lurks in the shadows of the mountain ere the storm breaks; the sorrow
that clutches with icy fingers at the breaking heart when death has
taken some loved one hence.
“There is indeed,” as Dr. Norman M‘Leod
so beautifully expressed it, “in all Pipe music, a monotony of sorrow.
It pervades even the Welcome, as if the young chief who arrives, recalls
also the memory of the old chief who has departed. In the Lament we
naturally expect this sadness; but even in the summons to battle, with
all its fire and energy, it cannot conceal what it seems already to
anticipate— sorrow for the slain”