Search just our sites by using our customised search engine

Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

The Pipes of War
A History of the Pipes

Note.—The author takes this opportunity of acknowledging his indebtedness for much of the early history of the instrument to Macson's The Highland Bagpipe and Dr. Grattan Flood's The Story of the Bagpipe, both monuments of research.

AT what stages of his development primitive man discovered he could obtain musical sounds by blowing on a hollow reed we cannot now ascertain; if we could do so we could at once determine when the pipe came into existence. It is unprofitable to speculate on this point.

What we do know, however, is that men playing the pipe are portrayed in sculptures the date of which is fixed by the best authorities as about 4000 B.C., and we conclude that in Chaldaea, Egypt, Assyria and Persia at least, the pipe—but not necessarily the bagpipe—had become a recognised musical instrument.

Actual specimens of the Egyptian pipe dating back to at least 1500 B.C. are in existence, and we know that they had a reed giving a scale almost identical with the chromatic scale; they also had a drone. Such a pipe had, clearly, advanced some way on the upward development to "piob mhor."

Every stage in its evolution still persists in some country in the world, and by comparing these it is possible to trace the actual process. Thus, besides the single pipe, which is world-wide in its distribution, we have the Egyptian "arghool," which consists of a pipe "chanter" and drone lying side by side; and the later development, the "zummarah," has a bag. In India the twentieth century snake charmer has an instrument in which chanter and single drone lie side by side fixed into a small gourd with a lump of wax. The chanter has a small reed very similar to our own chanter reeds, and, although the scale differs, the sound produced is remarkably similar. This instrument is essentially a single drone bagpipe, and is to be found all over India, in Yunnan and other parts of China.

It would have been more than surprising if the pipe, in some form or other, had not been used in ancient Greece and Rome. There are, in fact, very many references to it in classical literature, and by 100 Al). we know that the " askaulos " had evolved into the bagpipe proper, and Chrysostomos speaks of a man who could " play the pipe with his mouth on the bag placed under his armpit."

Martial, Suetonius, Seneca, and other Latin writers refer to the "tibia utricularis," and there is practically no doubt that it was used as a marching instrument in the armies of Julius Caesar. A bronze showing a Roman soldier in marching order playing the utriculus has been discovered in England, and the writer Procopius refers to Roman pipe bands in this country.

But when we come to the question of the introduction of the bagpipe into the British Isles, and especially into Scotland, we are at once on highly controversial ground.

It is obvious enough that the instrument is not peculiar to the Celtic races ; that it has maintained its hold on them long after its disappearance in other European nations is equally so. But who introduced it into these favoured isles, whether the Cruithne or Prydani or Picts or the later "C" Gaidheal branch of the Celtic stem—who shall say?

Some authorities—students of the subject would be a safer term—are prepared to assert that the bagpipe was introduced first into England, thence to Lowland Scotland, and only long afterwards into the Highlands; and one recent writer in the Celtic Magazine says the evidence of its association with the Scottish Gaels does not go back beyond the middle of the sixteenth century.

The matter is one of academic interest, no doubt, but there is no likelihood of its ever being settled.

Records did not exist in the ancient Highlands, and we have to turn to early Irish literature for reference to the bagpipe. In the Brehon Laws of the fifth century it is spoken of as the "cuisle"; and, although Tara's halls are usually associated with the harp, it is recorded that at the assemblies which took place there in pre-Christian days it was the custom for the pipes to play at the banquets.

It is possible the bagpipe was brought over from the north of Ireland, "Scotia " as it then was, on the invasion of the Highlands by Cairbre Riada, who founded the kingdom of Dairiada in Argyle in A.D. 12o; or in the later great colonisation, about A.D. 506, under Lorne and Angus, the sons of Erc.

It certainly does not appear likely that the bagpipe came over from "Scotia" in the first place, unless we are to accept the view that the Scottish Celt came over by the same route; unfortunately we have very little accurate knowledge of the early history of the Highlands, and there are no local written records extant to prove—as they do in the case of Ireland —that the instrument existed in those early days. We do know that the harper and the bard were national institutions of immense antiquity in the Highlands, and that, as the bagpipe became an increasingly important feature of everyday life, they were bitterly opposed to it.

Even Latin authors, who were familiar with the bagpipe as a marching instrument in their own army, omit to refer to the existence of piob mhor in the highlands. The Greek writer Procopius, in 530 AD., dismisses the Highlands with the statement that "in the west the air is infectious and mortal, the ground covered with serpents, and this dreary solitude is the region of departed spirits." And so we are thrown back on tradition.

In the absence of records of the employment of the bagpipe in war in the Highlands it is to Ireland, the so-called Lowlands of Scotland and to England that we have to turn for information ; at the same time we must bear in mind that evolution of the instrument itself had begun to operate, and the English and Lowland pipes were different from the variety now known as the "Highland," which has supplanted all others.

As regards Ireland it is known that the Irish troops who fought in Gascony in 1286 had pipers with them, and a drawing of their instrument appears in a manuscript of 1300 A.D. in the British Museum. There were also Irish pipers at the battle of Falkirk in 1298, and they are again referred to in contemporary accounts of the battle of Crecy.

The military piper therefore goes far back into history. But it was as a social instrument that one finds most frequent reference to bagpipes of some pattern or other in the Middle Ages. There was a pipe band at the English Court in 1327, and an old inventory of 1419 shows that at the Palace of St. James' were "foure baggpypes with pypes of ivorie . . . the bagge covered with purple vellat."

But, whereas the English pipes went the same way as the Continental varieties, it was otherwise in Scotland. Two institutions existed there which fostered the tradition and saved piob inizor from the fate of disappearance—the Burgh piper and the Clan piper; and by 1450 A.D. these had certainly become part of the national life.

In Edinburgh in 107 A.D. there were three town pipers, who were paid three pence daily; one of their duties was "to accompany the toun's drummer throw toun morning and evening." In 1505 A.D. the town records of Dumbarton, Biggar, Wigton, Dumfries and Linlithgow refer to burgh pipers.

In Aberdeen in 1630 A.D. exception appears to have been taken to the custom of playing through the streets, as it is placed on record that this was to be stopped, "it being an uncivill forine to be usit uithin sic a famous burghe, and being oftene found fault uith als weill be sundrie riiehbouris as by strangeris." That the citizens of this "famous burghe" are peculiarly susceptible to the criticisms of" strangeris "might never have been suspected by superficial observers, and it is well that there is official testimony to the fact.

The effect of their daily music on the inhabitants of Perth was different,— or perhaps Perth was less amenable to the criticisms of "strangeris." In any case it is recorded of a burgh piper, who used to rouse the citizens at 5 am., that his music was "inexpressibly soothing and delightful."

At Dundee the piper played through the town "every day in the morning at four hours and every nicht at aucht horns," and was paid twelve pennies yearly by each householder.

The pipes, at least in the pre-Reformation days—were sometimes played in church ; in course of time, however, piping on Sunday scandalised the authorities, religious and civil, and, in the burgh records, we find repeated instances of pipers being punished for this misdemeanour.

The burgh piper was a man of peace ; the clan piper was a man of war. For many centuries he had to compete with the "clarsair," or harper, and the bard, and aroused feelings of acute hostility from the latter. In 1411 A.D. one bard, MacMhurich of Clan Ranald, wrote a poem of a most uncomplimentary nature about the bagpipes.

The recitation of the hard before battle was probably last heard at Harlaw in 1411, and the clan bards disappeared finally in 1726; the last clan harper died in 1739, and the "croistara"—the fiery cross—was sent round the clans for the last time in the '45. The last Scottish piper will pass when the Scottish race itself passes—which will certainly be the last of all.

The clan pipers were highly esteemed as musicians—from the musical point of view they, no doubt, left us far behind. The courses of training, lasting over years, at the old piping schools such as existed at Boreraig, turned a man into a piper. As Neil Munro has it: "To the make of a piper go seven years of his own learning and seven generations before ; at the end of his seven years one born to it will stand at the start of knowledge, and, leaning a fond ear to the drone, he may have parley with old folks of old affairs."

One of the results of the Heritable Jurisdiction Act of 1747, which so completely altered the conditions of life in the Highlands, was the disappearance of the office of hereditary clan piper.

The tunes these men played were the old tunes we know so well; and so it has happened that in this war we find companies marching into and through machine-gun and artillery barrage and into broken French villages and through German trenches while the company piper plays the same melodies that inspired their forebears to fight their neighbours lang syne melodies which have been heard, too, in the same part of the world in the days when Scottish troops fought for the Lilies of France against all corners.

The association of the bagpipe with military operations is probably very ancient in Scotland. Perhaps the tradition that the Menzies pipers played at Bannockburn rests on an insecure foundation, but if the Bruce had no pipers, his son David most certainly had, as witness the Exchequer Rolls. In 1549 a French writer states that "the wild Scots encouraged themselves to arms by the sound of their bagpipes"; and in 1598 Alexander Hume of Logic wrote:

"Caus michtilie the warlic nottes brake
On Heiland pipes, Scottes and Hyberniche."

Incidentally, this reference to three different kinds of pipes is interesting.

The first authentic reference to pipers in the Forces of the Crown appears to have been in 1627, when Alex. Macnaughton of Loch Fyneside was commissioned by King Charles I. to "levie and transport twa hundredthe bowmen" for service in the French war. Writing in January 1628 to the Earl of Morton, Macnaughton says:

"As for newis from our selfis, our baggpyperis and marlit plaidis serwitt us in guid wise in the pursuit of ane man of war that hetlie followed us."

The records show that this company had a harper, "Harrie M'Gra frae Larg," and a piper, "Allester Caddell," who, in accordance with the custom of the time, had his gillie to carry his pipes for him.

Regimental pipers undoubtedly existed in the numerous bodies of Scottish troops which served at various times on the Continent. Thus, in 1586, in the "State of War" of Captain Balfour's company in the Scots Brigade in Holland, there were two drummers and a piper; and in "the worthy Scots regiment called Mackeyes" raised by Sir Donald Mackay in 1626 there was an establishment of thirty-six pipers.
Pipers are also found on the rolls of the "regiment d'Hebron"—now the Royal Scots—and to that very distinguished regiment we may safely accord the further distinction of being the first "Regular" regiment of the British Army to have pipes. The "North British Fusiliers," now one of the battalions of the Royal Scots Fusiliers, also had pipes as far back as 1678, and probably as early as 1642.

Writing in 1641, Lord Lothian said:

"I cannot out of our armie furnish you with a sober fiddler.... We are sadder and graver than ordinarie soldiers, only we are well provided with pypers. I have one for every company in my regiment, and I think they are as good as drummers."

The great Montrose had pipers in his armies, and tradition has it that, in the action of Philiphaugh in 1645, a piper stood on a small eminence and played the old Cavalier tune, "Whurry, Whigs, awa' man," until he was shot by one of Leslie's men, and fell into the "Piper's Pule" in Ettrick river.

An exactly similar incident occurred in the case of one of the pipers of Bonnie Dundee at Bothwell Brig in 1679.

At the Haughs o' Cromdale in 1690 a wounded piper climbed on to a big rock and went on playing till he died, thus setting an example which has been followed by his successors in many actions in this war. The stone on which this unknown hero stood is known to this day locally as "Clach a phiobair."

There are many such in France and elsewhere to-day.

In Wodrow's letters in 1716 there is a reference to the company pipers of the "Argyle's Highlanders": "They entered in three companies, and every company had their distinct pipers, playing three distinct springs. The first played "The Campbells are coming" ... and when they entered Dundee the people thought they had been some of Mar's men, till some of the prisoners in the Tolbooth, understanding the first spring, swung the words of it out of the windows, which mortified the Jacobites."

Again, in 1715, when Argyle's troops marched to Leith, it was stated by Cockburn (Historical MSS. Commission): "While our generals were asleep the rebels marched to Seton House, leaving the piper in the citadel to amuse."

The piper, by this time, had clearly become a recognised military institution.

In the '45 the unfortunate Sir John Cope was undoubtedly aroused by the music of Piob mhor at Prestonpans, though it is doubtful whether "Hey Johnnie Cope" was composed for the occasion.

Prince Charlie had thirty-two pipers of his own, besides those belonging to the clans with him. One of these men, James Reid, was taken prisoner in the operations of 1746. He pleaded that he had not carried arms, but the Court decided that "no Highland regiment ever marched without a piper therefore his bag pipe, in the eye of the law, was an instrument of war"—and they dealt with him accordingly.

This view was confirmed by the Disarming Act of 1747, which nearly succeeded in attaining its object of abolishing the bagpipe, the kilt, the tartan and national sentiment generally—only Regular regiments being exempted from its operation.

Penal legislation against the bagpipe was no new thing. Cromwell had tried it in Ireland, and, under William II., 600 Irish pipers and harpers were persecuted with relentless rigour. And in Ireland it succeeded.

Saxon governments have always done the piper the honour of regarding him as an exponent and supporter of national sentiment.

Even in Scotland the years between 1747 and 1782, when the iniquitous Disarming Act was repealed, were very nearly fatal to the continued existence of the bagpipe as a national institution and it was the Regular Army which saved it—though no one could ever accuse the military authorities of unduly favouring the instrument. Even General Officers have publicly sneered at them—as when Wolfe at Quebec contemptuously refused to allow the pipes of the Fraser Highlanders to play, or when Sir Eyre Coote in 1778 described them as a "useless relic of the barbarous ages."

Both generals had to withdraw what they had said.

The opinion of the Court Martial which tried poor James Reid, that his bagpipe "was, in the eye of the law, an instrument of war," was after all as shrewd an expression of the truth as their sentence was harsh.

In later times the pipes in the army have received little official recognition. In 1858, when the King's Own Scottish Borderers applied for their pipers to be placed on the establishment, the Commander in Chief grudgingly consented "as the permission for these men is lost in time," but on condition that they were not to cost the public anything as regards their clothing.

Nor has the modern War Office shown more sympathy to an institution whose value, even on theoretical grounds, should have been recognised. The ancient and honourable title of Pipe Major has been abolished and that of "sergeant piper" has been substituted. Pipers themselves, on mobilisation, are returned to the ranks with the exception of six men. In Lowland regiments, indeed, the piper, though tolerated, is not officially recognised at all.

A bandsman may in due course become a first-class warrant officer— in one or two units, indeed, he has attained commissioned rank but the "sergeant piper" remains a sergeant, and can hope for nothing more. This, surely, is an injustice which is remediable at small cost to the nation.

The apathy of the War Office in regard to the training of pipers as pipers is another matter which is in urgent need of reform. Commanding officers and pipe presidents are sometimes pipers themselves—though not always; it is absurd to leave to them the responsibility of training men in the art. The time has come for a thorough reform of the whole system and method of training of military pipe bands.

Return to Book Index Page


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus