Home Media News & Blog Bagpipes - An Instrument of War?
Bagpipes - An Instrument of War?

Bagpipes - An Instrument of War?


There is the long-held belief that Bagpipes were classified as an instrument of war and were banned in the Act of Prosription of 1746. This stems from the aftermath of the Jacobite Rising 1745. It is believed that bagpipes and their playing, were banned. Unfortunately history is always complicated.

The "Boring" History

Like many parts of Scottish Highland History of the pre-Victorian era, the Jacobite Rising of 1745 has been romanticized. For many people it is seen as the last battle for Scottish independence. The Battle of Culloden is often depicted as a valiant campaign of the Highland Clans fighting the British with Bonnie Prince Charlie at their head.

The Jacobite Rising of 1745 was not an attempt at Scottish Independence, it was rather an attempt to restore the Stuart Family to the English Throne along with the goal of returning a Catholic ruler to England.

In 1689 King James II of England and VII of Scotland, a Roman Catholic, had to flee to France during the Glorious Revolution. When William and Mary, James II daughter, took the throne they established Presbyterianism as the state religion of Scotland.

The Jacobite Rising had its roots in another conflict, and continent, the War of Austrian Succession. In 1740, Charles VI died leaving his daughter Maria Theresa in line to succeed him. As a woman, She could not take his place as the Holy Roman Emperor.

The plan was for Maria Theresa to succeed her father in his hereditary claims, these were in Hungary, Croatia, Bohemia, and Austria. Her husband, Francis Stephen would be elected as Holy Roman Emperor. Many of the other rulers of the time saw Maria Theresa as ineligible for the thrones and put forward their own competing hereditary claims.

In truth, the many European powers of the time were looking to extend their influence and reduce that of the Habsburg Monarchy, which controlled a State made up of various territories in Europe. They also saw this as a way to extend their influence in the new colonies.

During the war, the European powers took traditional sides. England, the Dutch Republic, Saxony, and parts of what is now Italy took the side of Austria. Prussia and France opposed them. Spain took the side of Prussia and France to try and re-claim it’s influence over northern Italy. Spain had also been at war with Britain in the colonies, mainly the Caribbean.

Importantly, England and the Dutch Republic were largely Protestant. While Maria Theresa and the Habsburg were Catholic, the territories they controlled were mainly Protestant. Spain and France, both traditional enemies of England, were strongly Catholic.

The War of Austrian Succession actually was comprised of several smaller wars that eventually spread over the globe starting in 1740 and ending in 1748. These included the War of Jenkin’s Ear in the Caribbean, the First Carnatic War in India, the Silesian Wars, King George’s War, the precursor to the French and Indian War in the Americas, and the Jacobite Rising of 1745.

Jacobites were not just Scottish. They were made up of Scottish, Irish, and English people. Due to the way the clan system was established in the highlands of Scotland many of the clans, most of whom were Catholic, sided with the Jacobites. There were many Jacobites from lowland areas of the north-east of Scotland, parts of northern England (Northumberland and Lincashire) and Ireland. Their common cause was to return the Stuarts to the throne.

Charles Edward Stuart, Bonnie Prince Charlie, was born in 1720 in Rome. The grandson of James II and VII, he was a leading force in the Jacobite Rebellion. In 1744, Charles travelled to France to lead a French invasion of England and regain the throne for his father. Unfortunately storms scattered the fleet and the invasion never happened.

In July of 1745, Charles Stuart landed on the isle of Eriskay in the north Scotland. From there he traveled to Glenfinnan, in the Scottish Highlands. While there he gathered a large force. This force included several Highland clans including the MacDonalds, Camerons, MacFies, and MacDonnells.

On August 19, 1745 Charles Stuart raised a banner, flanked by two pipers of the MacFies, and made his claim to the Scottish and English thrones. From there he marched to Edinburgh, which surrendered to him. The first true battle of the Uprising was the Battle of Prestonpans, near Edinburgh.

It was here that Prince Charles army defeated the larger government army led by General John Cope. He then traveled south and captured Carlisle, a town on the English border. He made it as far south as the Swarkstone Bridge, in Derbyshire. Unfortunately Prince Charles found no support from the southern population and was forced to head north.

After turning north, the Jacobite army laid siege to Stirling Castle. It was here that the Battle of Falkirk Mur was fought. This was the last major victory for the Jacobites and Prince Charles. After this victory, they were pursued by the Duke of Cumberland, King George II’s son. The government forces finally caught the Jacobite army near Inverness.

The Battle of Culloden, on April 16, 1746, was the last battle of the Jacobite Uprising. The government force decisively defeated the Jacobites. The army scattered after the battle, although over 500 Jacobites were captured by government forces.

The normal punishment for these prisoners was to execute 1 in 10 of the prisoners and transport the rest to the colonies. It is here, finally, that bagpipes are said to have been classified as an instrument of war.

One of the prisoners was 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.

This is where the idea that bagpipes were an instrument of war began. The judge's ruling mentioned that the bagpipes could be considered an instrument of war. This was because, he said, no Scottish army would go to war without pipers. The final ruling, unfortunately for this myth, is that he was guilty because, piper or no, he was an active participant. This was due to the fact that he was a conscript, not because he was a piper.

James Reid was then hung, drawn and quartered.

There are some interesting bits of trivia that surround this. The first is that there were not just Highland bagpipers in the Jacobite army. It was true that many of the clans brought their pipers but many of the Lowland troops had pipers as well, playing Lowland pipes. Several of the other prisoners captured at the same time as Reid were released by the government and not executed or transported.

The most interesting piece of trivia takes place in 1996. A bagpiper in Hampstead Heath was fined for playing the pipes. This was due to an old law against all instruments. He argued that he was not playing a musical instrument. He claimed he was actually practicing with an instrument of war, citing James Reid’s case. The judge in the case, while very amused by the novel defense, ruled that the execution of Reid was an illegal act. Because of this, bagpipes were not an instrument of war.

All of this brings us back to the question at hand: Were bagpipes banned as an instrument of war? The answer, is no. Bagpipes were not mentioned in the Act of Prosription of 1746. The act included many weapons and specifically included Highland attire such as the wearing of the kilt, but nothing about bagpipes. Bagpipes were soon after to become a standard part of the Highland Regiments and government forces, featuring in documented accounts of campaigns worldwide. The first formalized bagpipe competition, the Falkirk Tryst, was held in 1781, a mere 35 years after Culloden, and building on the many regional competitions that had been taking place up to that point.

Highland bagpipes may not have been banned as an instrument of war, but of course, it still sounds cool to say.

Take Action

All the Blue Bonnets are Over the Border

Bonnie Charlie


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.