On November 6, 1745, Scotsman James Reid, who had been found guilty of treason and inciting a riot, was hanged in York. Reid had been a participant in the Jacobite Uprising that sought to restore the Stuart dynasty (and Catholicism) to the British throne, an uprising that finally failed at the Battle of Culloden in the Highlands of Scotland.
Nearly six hundred men were captured and taken back to England to face prosecution. But Reid’s case stands out because his defense was that he carried neither gun nor sword on the battle field. He was guilty of nothing more, he claimed, than playing the bagpipes. The court debated, but in the end, it ruled that since Highlanders never marched without a piper to lead the charge, the bagpipe was a weapon of war.
It may not seem that strange to view the instrument that way, as the reaction to bagpipes can often seem similar to the debate over the control of firearms.
Over the years there have been a number of attempts to restrict the playing of bagpipes, from Englishman Clive Hibberts’ ultimately unsuccessful 1999 “Campaign Against Bagpipes” to the city of Edinburgh’s 2008 threat to arrest anyone playing the pipes on the Royal Mile, a move that eventually led to street musicians being forced to sign acceptable behavior contracts with the city. In parts of Edinburgh, officials have gone so far as to prohibit the playing of even recorded bagpipe music through outdoor speakers of businesses.
And in New Zealand in 2011, bagpipes were added to the list of banned items (a list that includes flares and air horns) at the Rugby World Cup. Because even though bagpipes are part of a long noble tradition, beloved by perhaps dozens of people, a lot of us might agree with sportscaster Miles Davis who compared the sound of the bagpipes to “a hyena caught in a gin trap.”
While I don’t mind the occasional bagpipes in an outdoor ceremonial setting (that I can pretty quickly excuse myself from), I tend to fall into the hyena camp. So imagine my excitement when my eight-year-old informed me he would very much like to learn to play this most delightful of Scottish instruments.
It didn’t come as a total surprise. His iPod is filled with bagpipe music and it’s not uncommon to find him rocking out to “Scotland the Brave.” He’s even suggested before that he might want to learn. He’s just never sounded this serious. So I did what any loving, supportive parent would do.
I told him he would have to wear a skirt.
He wasn’t dissuaded.
I told him the skirt would have to be a purple plaid because according to his grandfather that is the family tartan.
He was still pretty adamant.
I told him he couldn’t wear underwear under his purple plaid skirt.
I don’t dare tell him that his favorite instrument has been declared in a court of law to be a weapon of war, because this is a battle I fear I will lose. It turns out, he’s got a lot of people on his side. I’ve had offers to borrow a chanter so he can begin to learn before we invest in the full instrument. I’ve had friends send me links to college scholarship opportunities for bagpipe players. He’s even received multiple invitations from family and friends to practice at their homes, invitations he will be accepting. Often.
Because I’m a loving, supportive mom and I truly believe, or at least I sincerely hope, that if he tries it out he will lose interest. If he doesn’t, I guess I’ll get him a purple kilt, make him sign an acceptable behavior contract, and learn to love the sound of a hyena caught in a gin trap.