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Piper Kenneth MacKay and the Battle of Waterloo
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Piper Kenneth MacKay and the Battle of Waterloo

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The Battle of Waterloo was the decisive engagement of the Napoleonic Wars. The Battle saw many brave men distinguish themselves. One of them was Kenneth MacKay, Pipe Major of the Grenadiers of the 79th Regiment of Foot.

The Napoleonic Wars were part of a larger series of conflicts known as the Coalition Wars. These were wars fought between Revolutionary France and various coalitions of European powers. They started in 1792 and ended with the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.

There were seven separate Coalition Wars, named after each of the different groups of European powers involved. The Napoleonic Wars is the collective name for the Third to Seventh Coalition Wars.

The overall goal of the Coalition Wars was to contain France and to stop the spread of chaos caused by the French Revolution. The revolution began after the Seven Years War (the French and Indian War in America) and the American Revolution, where France lended the emergent U.S.A large sums of money.

By 1789, France was largely bankrupt. They tried to raise revenue by heavily taxing it’s citizens. Combined with years of bad harvests, and other factors, the people of France turned against the monarchy and established a Republic.

The major European powers grew nervous of the spreading anti-monarchy sentiment and the expansionist tendencies of the new republic. They also saw the opportunity to gain control over parts of France.

The First Coalition War started in 1792 and ended in 1797. This war saw the rise of Napoleon as a General. By the end of the Second Coalition War, 1789-1802, Napoleon had seized power and established military control of France.

The Napoleonic Wars started in 1803, although the first major battle did not take place until 1805. The final battle of the Seventh Coalition War, and the Napoleonic Wars, took place on June 18th, 1815.

The French armies under Napoleon fought the combined British, Dutch and Hanoverian armies under Arthur Wellesley. The battle took place a little over 9 miles from Brussels, just outside the town of Waterloo.

One of the British units was the 79th Regiment of Foot, the Cameron Highlanders. In the regiment was Piper Kenneth MacKay.

Kenneth MacKay was born in the village of Real on the North coast of Caithness. He joined the 79th from the Caithness Fencible Highlanders, a Scottish militia, in November of 1802. He became the chief Piper of the 79th Regiment and he played the regiment out of Fort William when the headed to war.

Kenneth MacKay’s claim to fame came during the afternoon of 18th. The 79th Regiment was located in the center of the line behind a hedge row. During the battle the 79th came under fire for over nine hours. After successfully fighting off a French attack the were ordered to advance through the hedge to capture a chateau and some outbuildings.

While holding this line, the 79th came under successive assaults by French cavalry. The standard infantry formation to repel a cavalry charge is called the square. The regiment would form into a square from the normal straight line of battle. The men would face outwards, usually in several rows. In this formation the cavalry had no weak point to attack as the soldiers were able to fire from all sides.

At the hight of the battle, after the 79th formed another square the men started to waver. At this point Piper MacKay took up his pipes, stepped out of the safety of the square and started playing. As the French Cavalry attacked he marched around the square, in full view of the enemy and played the piobaireach "Cogadh no Sith,” also known as “War or Peace.” A few first-hand, written diaries of the battle make mention of this moment, making it one of the earliest accounts of a specific piobaireachd being played on the field of battle.


Image from the 79th Highlanders Museum

A poem written by Alice C. McDonnell commemorates this battle. The poem is called “Lochaber’s Sons.”

Wild on high the pipes resounded
From MacKay, who stepped without;
“Cogadh no Sith” the soldiers answered
With a loud Triumphant shout.

Wild notes playing, streamers flying,
Defiance to the foe was thrown;
Exposed, undaunted, marched the hero,
Playing round the square alone.

The 79th held the line and the Coalition forces defeated the French and captured Napoleon. After the battle, the Coalition forces marched to Paris.

As a footnote, on the 17th of August the Emperor of Russia asked to review the troops who fought in the battle. A group of men from every regiment, including Piper Kenneth MacKay of the 79th were put on review.

The Emperor took great interest in the Highlanders. Sergeant Thomas Campbell of the 79th Grenadiers wrote an account of the event. The Emperor spent time examining the Highlanders, looking at the dress and equipment. Sergeant Campbell says the Emperor “examined my hose, gaiters, legs, and pinched my skin, thinking I wore something under my kilt, and had the curiosity to lift my kilt to my navel, so that he might not be deceived.”

The Emperor then asked the pipers to play and Kenneth MacKay again played “Cogadh no Sith,” while the importance of the tune was explained to the Emperor.

While in Paris King George III presented Piper Kenneth MacKay with a set of silver pipes. The bagpipes are still in the possession of the 79th Regiement, now the Queen’s Own Highlanders.

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David Lairson David has been playing the bagpipes for over 20 years. He is an instructor and soloist with the Palm Beach Pipes & Drums and a member of the U.S. Coast Guard Pipe Band. David is active in the Florida competition circuit, and when he is not practicing or playing he works as a computer technician. He currently lives in sunny South Florida.

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