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Some Reminiscences and the Bagpipe
Chapter XXXVI — A Great War Instrument


"At Quebec their piobroch shrill
Up the hill went breathing- terror.”—

Sheriff Nicolson.

“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.”—

T. Alexander.

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 battle.

And so to-day, the War Pipe of the old Highlander, covered with glory and honour, is now the War Pipe of the British Empire.

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 Bagpipe.

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 Peninsular War.”

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 Pibroch.”

“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”


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