Pipers at the Battle of the Somme in World War I
International Bagpipes Day
Other Scottish Country Dances for this Day
Today's Musings, History & Folklore
"Through howl of wind and showers of rain, We play for the living, the dead and the slain, Our notes they are the wound of an angels swoon For our enemies the sound of their coming doom Be you married or buried our pipes sound true Whenever we're needed we'll play there for you." ~ Piper's Creed
The history of the bagpipes is a fascinating one, both as a musical instrument and for their association with conflict and battle. Interestingly, until 1996, bagpipes were classified not as an instrument (as were bugles and drums) but as a weapon of war! This stems from an incident which took place following the battle of Culloden. A captured highland piper, James Reid, claimed that he was not a combatant because he had neither gun nor sword and opted for a trial. The English judges disagreed based on their assessment that a highland regiments never marched to war without a piper at its head. Therefore, in the eyes of the law, the bagpipe was an instrument of war. Piper Reid was subsequently executed. This status was held until 1996 when a piper playing at Hampstead Heath in defiance of a statute prohibiting instruments, used the "weapon of war" defense. The judge in the case, while amused by the novel defense, ruled that the previous execution of Reid was an illegal act, removing the classification of the bagpipes as an instrument of war.
Follow the Piper
March 10th is International Bagpipes Day!
The history of the bagpipes is a fascinating one, both as a musical instrument and for their association with conflict and battle.
The bloodcurdling sound and swirl of the Great Highland bagpipes boosted morale amongst the troops and intimidated the enemy. However, unarmed and drawing attention to themselves with their playing, pipers were always an easy target for the enemy. During the first World War, the death rate amongst pipers was extremely high: it is estimated that around 1000 pipers died in the conflict.
Until 1996, the bagpipes have been classified not as a musical instrument, but as a weapon of war, stemming from an incident at the Battle of Culloden!
Apart from the many lost, the defeat at the Battle of Culloden, on April 16, 1746, the last of the Jacobite Uprisings, resulted in the capture of 558 Jacobites by government forces. The normal punishment was to execute 1 in 10 of the prisoners and transport the rest to the colonies. One of the prisoners was piper James Reid. Rather than facing this punishment, he decided to take his case to trial.
His novel defense was that he not a combatant in the battle. He claimed that he was a bagpiper and not a combatant because he did not have a gun or sword and that the only thing he did that day on the battlefield was play the bagpipe.
After some deliberation the judges opined that highland regiments never marched to war without a piper at its head. Therefore, in the eyes of the law, the bagpipe was an instrument of war. James Reid was condemned and subsequently hanged and quartered.
For hundreds of years and many conflicts to come, the bagpipes, when listed among the items captured in combat, was counted among rifles, sabers, and munitions (unlike bugles and drums which were recorded as musical instruments). This continued through the Great War.
In 1996 this status was lost when a bagpiper in Hampstead Heath was fined for playing the pipes due to an old law against playing all instruments in the area. He argued that he was not playing a musical instrument, but practicing with an instrument of war, citing James Reid’s case. The judge in the case, while amused by the novel defense, ruled that the execution of Reid was an illegal act, removing the classification of the bagpipes as an instrument of war.
Regardless, on this day we salute all the dedicated and brave pipers of the present and of the past.
For more about gallant pipers in battle, click the illustration by Mark Churms.