The War on Bagpipes: Wiping a Single Instrument Off the Urban Map

The bagpipe is possibly the only musical instrument to have been labeled a tool of warfare.

Image
Baud Valérie

The bagpipe is possibly the only musical instrument to have been labeled a tool of warfare.

In 1746, after wiping a field clear of rebellious Jacobites at the Battle of Culloden, the British government collected a handful of supposed POWs and put them on trial in York. Included in the group was James Reid, a Scottish man about whom not much is known except that he played the bagpipes.

Reid's lawyers argued that he was innocent based on the fact that he carried no arms into battle. But the judge disagreed, ruling that “a Highland regiment never marched without a piper, and, therefore, that in the eye of the law, Reid's bagpipes were an instrument of war.”

The court then ordered Reid hung by the neck until dead, a feat joyfully performed by the British authorities.

The judge in this case might have truly believed that the act of playing the bagpipes constituted treason. Or he may just not have cared for the droning sack of tubes and sheepskin. Whether it be because the instrument looks ridiculous – like playing a large offal – or more likely because its design lacks a volume control, the instrument seems to bring out the worst in some cities, which have raced to ban it from hearing distance.

The latest salvo in the War Against Bagpipes landed in Vancouver. A musician caused a media stink because the municipal code included a prohibition against busking with drums or bagpipes. The city's engineering department had pushed for the regulation, because pipers playing loud renditions of tunes like “Fields of Athenry” and “My Mother's Ay Glowering O'er Me” were interfering with its work.

But yesterday, Mayor Gregor Robertson threw out the anti-pipe ordinance. “The clans won’t stand for it!”‬ he said. Vancouver is now a safe haven for buskers to blare music on a Great Highland Bagpipe, Uillean pipes, Northumbrian pipes, Zampogna pipes and any other type of wheezy wind instrument.

Here's a bagpipe joke: Why do pipers walk when they play? To get away from the sound. Below, find a few notable occasions when people tried to do away with the bagpipe's characteristic noise:

1999: A British man named Clive Hibberts living in Edinburgh begins what he calls the Campaign Against Bagpipes. Hibberts and his friends travel up and down the city's famed Royal Mile, picketing pipers who congregate there to busk. Despite a burning passion to remake Scotland's national identity – "Scotland may never have an opportunity quite like this again. We must clutch the thistle.” – the campaign ultimately fails. (His other campaign against kilts dies, too.)

2007: Ciaran Murtagh and Andrew Jones start the second Campaign Against Bagpipes, arguing: “They all sound the same. These tunes that bagpipers profess to play all sound equally bad. Where is the talent in that? Isn't it time to make Scotland a quieter place?” One of the group's long-term goals is the establishment of a sanctuary for pipers on the mountainous Isle of Skye, where they could play to their heart's content without irritating city dwellers. “In this sanctuary bagpipers may play and dress as they please, far from civilization and annoyance. We will ship tourists out to view these curiosities in their natural habitat; similar to the puffin viewing trips currently undertaken to the Isle of Mull.” This campaign seems to have failed, too.

2008: In Oxford, a piper called Heath Richardson is banned from busking and gets so depressed he flies back to his native Australia. He had run afoul of a new regulation limiting the time a person can play a bagpipes in public to one hour. Richardson actually was the reason for this law's existence: After four hundred of the area's shopowners signed a petition calling for his exile, the city council adopted the time limit. The town rejoices in its new pipe-free existence. Richardson had “corrupted sales with his incessant noise and gave the shopkeepers horrible headaches,” said one shopkeeper.

2008: In an amazing turn of events, Edinburgh threatens to arrest any bagpiper who blows on the Royal Mile. City officials complained that they received up to 100 calls a day about deafening bagpipe music and didn't have the resources to deal with it. As part of the Bloody Bagpipe Crackdown, scores of buskers are forced to sign “acceptable behaviour contracts” that ban them from playing in certain neighborhoods. Piper Shaun Cartwright, who was handcuffed and carted away in a police car for causing “distress” to bystanders, said that 'I've been arrested six times and it's always in England.... I know in my heart the public are on buskers' side. But the prejudice from authorities and shops is just getting worse and worse.”

2009: Piper Simon McLean is forbidden to perform for 72 hours in the New Zealand town of Dunedin after he disobeys orders from a noise-control officer to shut up. Several of the locals actually stick up for his right to play outside the Scottish Shop, although one disaffected business owner said, "It's OK for residents. They don't have him standing outside their door."

2011: Edinburgh passes another law forbidding business from playing bagpipe music from their sidewalk speakers. According to the BBC, “Edinburgh City council has also received complaints of shops' tartan goods blocking pavements.”

2011: Back in New Zealand, Rugby World Cup officials declare the bagpipe unwelcome at future games. The instrument joins a list of banned items that includes flares and air horns. Sports broadcaster Miles Davis goes on record to say he's behind the prohibition, because bagpipes sound like “a hyena caught in a gin trap” and are “as bad as the vuvuzela.”

Top image from Marine nationale/Baud Valérie.

About the Author