Are bagpipes a weapon of war?

To Scots, bagpipes aren’t just a musical instrument. They also have political symbolism. So political, in fact, they’ve been considered a war weapon.

Treating bagpipes as weaponry stems back to the last and most famous of the Jacobite Risings, which sought to restore the House of Stuart to the throne of England. In 1745, Charles Edward Stuart (known to history as “Bonnie Prince Charlie) launched a rebellion in the Scottish Highlands to regain the British throne for his father, James Francis Edward Stuart. Despite initial successes, the English crushed Charles’ forces at the Battle of Culloden on April 16, 1746, although Charles managed to escape.

Bagpiper James Reid belonged to the Highland forces. Most sources say he was among the Jacobites taken prisoner at Culloden Marsh. Others say he was captured in December 1745, when English troops recaptured Carlisle, England, from the Jacobites. In either event, Reid went on trial for treason. Reid claimed he wasn’t a combatant because he didn’t have a gun or sword. Instead, he only played the bagpipes on the battlefield.

On October 7, 1746, a jury found him guilty but recommended mercy because it appeared Reid never carried arms. However, a commission appointed to hear the treason cases rejected the recommendation. The commission, headed by the chief baron of the Court of Exchequer, reasoned that Highland regiments “never marched without a piper; and therefor his bagpipe, in the eye of the law, was an instrument of war. Reid died by hanging on November 15, 1746, in York, England.

Many sources erroneously say Britain’s 1746 Act of Proscription classified bagpipes as war weapons. However, the law, passed in response to the 1745 uprising, doesn’t mention bagpipes. Rather, the commission’s decision is considered the first recorded ruling declaring a musical instrument a weapon of war. Some report that the precedent led to counting bagpipes captured in combat with weapons, such as sabers, guns, and munitions. Even in World War I, the British Army had some 2,500 bagpipers who went “over the top” with only their pipes.

Reid’s conviction returned to court 250 years later. In June 1996, authorities arrested David Brooks after residents complained of him playing bagpipes on Hampstead Heath. They charged him with violating an 1890 London bylaw prohibiting playing musical instruments without permission. He pleaded not guilty, saying his pipes were an instrument of war, not a musical instrument.

At Brooks’ October 1996 trial, his barrister argued the decision in Reid’s case was binding legal precedent as it was never overturned, according to Glasgow’s The Herald. Magistrate Michael Johnstone questioned the wisdom of the defense. If correct, he said, Brooks could have been charged with carrying a dangerous weapon and faced a prison sentence.

Johnstone called Reid’s case a miscarriage of justice but said that in times of war, bagpipes are instruments of war, and in peacetime, they’re musical instruments. Because Brooks used his as a musical instrument, Johnstone fined him 15 pounds (about $24.45) on each count of playing without permission and ordered him to pay 50 pounds in court costs, The Herald reported.

Some sources claim the Brooks case means Reid’s execution was illegal and, thus, abrogated treating bagpipes as weapons of war. However, Johnstone’s analysis belies that. So, the question remains: are bagpipes instruments of war? And, if so, how many bagpipers are needed to render the instrument a weapon of mass destruction?

Bagpipes are the missing link between music and noise.

E.K. Kruger, quoted in Wit

(This post originally appeared at Exploring History.)

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