By Burgess Hay

Today is the 275th anniversary of the Battle of Culloden. As I stand here beside, but not on, the windy moor, I find it impossible not to reflect on the winds of change that swept through highland society and through piping, in particular, in the months and decades following that brutal day. It’s personal for me. An ancestor of mine, William Hay, born in Glenbucket, Aberdeenshire in 1714, fought here on the Jacobite side. He was in the second line of Glenbucket’s Regiment. My son, Scott cut the ribbon here on April 16, 2008 at the opening of the National Trust for Scotland’s new Visitor Centre.

Piping is a tradition that blossomed in the wider Gaelic culture in the Highlands of Scotland during the 15th and 16th centuries with its ‘golden’ period being in the 17th. The pivotal point and subsequent decline of that tradition came in the mid-18th century. The exact day was April 16, 1746 here at Culloden, or, to give it its proper name, Drumossie Moor.

As I gaze around the moor on what is a chilly but lovely spring morning, my mind ponders on the place and status Highland pipers once had in Gaelic culture. They enjoyed a high status within the clan system. Directly employed by the clan chief, he – it was always a he – played a central role in the life of the clan and its people. The piper’s role was akin to a minstrel i.e., playing for entertainment, dancing life events, weddings, funerals and ceremonies. As the instrument and the music developed, it became clear that the power of the pipes was ideal for marching and inspiring clansmen in the heat of battle.

Watt’s full size depiction of William Cummings. © National Museums of Scotland.

The culture within the clan system was quite sophisticated, with well established, codes, customs and rituals. Chiefs were far from the penniless barbarians they were portrayed as by those who simply did not understand and had no interest in the language or culture. The dress and piping terminology in use today derives entirely from this culture. It is sometimes stated that the Victorians invented tartan and Highland culture but this, as most readers of this blog with surely agree, is simply wrong. The proof of that lies in one painting, that of William Cummings, the piper to the chief of the Clan Grant. The painting dates to 1714. For context, that is the year before the second major Jacobite rising and just seven years after the political union between Scotland and England. This picture is important as it is full of Highland symbolism and does three things: it demonstrates the sophistication of Highland culture, the wealth of the clan chiefs and pins it all to an exact date.

The picture – in oil – is housed in the bagpipe collections inside the National Museums of Scotland in Edinburgh. It was painted in 1714 by a leading portrait painter of the time, Richard Watt. At 2m x 1.5 in size, the painting is huge; Cummings stands life size on the canvas. All the elements of the piper – dress, pipes and symbolism developed in the Highlands – have Gaelic names. I am well aware that most readers will appreciate this but I think it needs to be reinforced. Cummings’ pipes are a three-drone set known in Gaelic as ‘a’ phìob mhòr’ (big or great pipe). This fixes the date of development of the instrument to around the date of the painting. The only recognised music played on the pipes at this time was or ‘ceòl mòr’ (big music). The three drones (each in their own stocks) and chanter set up is likely to have been arrived at in the period just prior or during this one.

Cumming’s highland dress is the ’Feileadh-mhor’ (belted plaid) and the pattern is clearly identifiable as the Ancient Grant tartan seen today. The banner – ‘bratach’ – hanging from his bass drone has the clan Grant moto, ”Standfast”. He is carrying a basket hilt sword on a belt over his shoulder and under his left arm, tucked into his waistband is a Doune pistol. These were also called simply Highland pistols. Visible over Cummings’ left shoulder is a ‘targe’, a circular, leather clad, wooden studded shield. He is wearing a dirk on the front of his kilt. The fashion of wearing a sporran came later, as did wearing a sgian dubh – a ‘black knife’. This would have been tucked away within his tunic for easy reach. In the background we can see the magnificent Castle Grant, one of the great houses in the Highlands, with the Cairngorm mountain range in the distance.

To train as a clan chief’s piper was a major commitment on the part of the player, tutor and patron. The piping world then as now, was a tight knit community where most knew each other personally or by reputation. In 1743 an indenture or contract between Simon Fraser, Lord Lovat and his musician, David Fraser was drawn up. This contract would probably have been typical of the conditions that piping students who were sent to the ‘school’ of piping run by the MacCrimmons at Boreraig on Skye. The indenture is bound only three years before the 1745 Jacobite Rising.

Photographic reproduction of page one of the 1743 piping indenture.
Photographic reproduction of page one of the 1743 piping indenture. Click the image to read the text and more about the document.

It is likely then, that David Fraser was a pupil at Boreraig when the 1745 Jacobite uprising started. It’s then that pupils and tutors – and two sets of brothers – were thrust into opposing sides of the conflict, regardless of their own beliefs and politics. The pipers would rally to their respective clans and serve their chiefs. David and his brother William are listed in Livingstone, Aikman and Hart’s book, No Quarter Given (1984), which lists the individuals that were on the muster roll of Princes Charles Edward Stuart’s army, as being in the Fraser’s of Lovat regiment on the Jacobite side. The MacCrimmon’s brothers would march with MacLeod’s, which was supporting the British government.

By December 23, 1745 the famous tutor mentioned in the indenture, Malcolm MacCrimmon was amongst those captured when a large force, under the command of Norman MacLeod, was defeated by the Jacobite army at Inverurie. Malcolm was taken to Stirling and imprisoned. His brother, Donald Bàn, was with Captain J. McLeod who was recruiting new regiments in the southwest. At this time, the Fraser brothers were in England.

Legend has it that despite being on opposing sides, many of the Jacobite pipers were angry at the imprisonment of Malcolm and they effectively went on strike until he was released. Despite being just a legend, it is surely fair to assume that there would at least have been anger felt, as many them would have studied under the MacCrimmons. However, regardless of how the pipers felt, they were in action, playing again on January 17, 1746 at the Battle of Falkirk. Malcolm MacCrimmon was released from Stirling in March 1746 but by then his brother Donald Bàn was dead. Donald Bàn was said to have been a reluctant participant on the government side, but dutifully followed his kinsman, Captain MacLeod who had joined Lord Loudon’s new Highland regiments. On February 16, 1746, Prince Charles Edward Stuart was at Moy Hall, near where I am standing today, enjoying dinner at the house of Lady MacIntosh. Most of you will be familiar with the story, of course, for those unfamiliar, Loudon, with, 1,500 men, went to capture the Prince but a serving girl got word to Moy and the Prince, with only around 30 men, escaped to safety. A dozen or so MacIntosh men spread out along the road and surprised Loudon’s force, shouting and firing their guns in the darkness. The Government men, thinking it was a much larger force, fled. Donald Bàn, however, was killed by a stray shot. He was the only casualty for what became known as the Rout of Moy.

The Fraser brothers ended up at Culloden Moor on April 16, 1746. Like the rest of the Jacobite army, they would have been tired, cold, wet and hungry. When it was time to form the lines and strike up their pipes, their fingers would have been chilled to the bone. But they would have played with all their might to rally the clan and Jacobite army. The Government cannon fired grape shot which ripped through the Jacobite army. Bravery and the famous Highland charge were not enough that day. The battle was over in half an hour. The Jacobite army was crushed and the “No Quarter” order from the Duke of Cumberland sent the clansmen fleeing for their lives. The redcoats went in hot pursuit and things would never be the same again for Highland music and culture.

Many tales, legends and tunes have been written about the pipers involved in the Rising and in the Battle of Culloden. Bravery is a common theme. For example, Donald Campbell, piper to Glenalladale, saved his chief from certain death by leaving his pipes behind in order to carry his wounded chief off the field and then over 100 miles to home. Many pipers were captured or wounded while playing during the whole campaign. The Prince’s piper, John MacGregor, was wounded at Culloden but managed to escape. His sons went on to become famous pipers.

Burgess’ son, Scott plays at the Memorial Cairn in 2019.

Many pipers were taken prisoner during the campaign. All but one were either released or escaped. Captured at Carlisle in December 1745, John Ballantine, Nicholas Carr (Glenbucket’s Regiment) and Robert Jamieson were all set free. However, James Reid, a piper in Ogilvy’s regiment, was put on trial for high treason. Despite recommendations for clemency, Reid was found guilty and was hung drawn and quartered in York on December 15, 1746. Another piper also sentenced to death was James MacGregor, known as Campbell, who served in Glengyle’s Regiment. Luckily for him, clemency was granted and his sentence was commuted to being transported. The night before he was due to be shipped, he escaped from his cell. He went on the run but was recaptured and finally, in November 1748, was transported to the colonies.

As is well known, after the battle, the British government set out to systematically destroy the clan system and the Gaelic culture of the region. Houses were burnt, livestock taken or killed, men, women and children murdered. The political union between Scotland and England was still less than 40 years old. The Westminster parliament in London, with 558 MPs of which only 45 were Scottish seats, passed the Act of Proscription. This ban included the use of the Gaelic language, carrying arms and the wearing of tartans. By the time the Act was repealed, in 1782, the clan system had all but been destroyed. Gaelic culture was severely damaged and the conditions that allowed the Highland Clearances to take place had been created. Along with the thousands of men transported after Culloden and their families that followed them, generations of Highlanders cleared from their land, left the country forever. Sensing that something of value had been lost, the upper classes then created societies and associations to try to preserve what culture remained.

Many Highlanders had no choice but to join the British Army. They had no homes, no land, no money and little hope. In 1854, the British Army decided that the Highland regiments would have a minimum of 12 pipers. Thus, an early incarnation of the concept of the pipe band was created.

Stuart Letford plays the Tain pipes at Leannach Cottage on the battlefield at Culloden. April 2019. These pipes, kindly donated to the Museum of Piping at the National Piping Centre, are thought to have been played at the Battle of Culloden and have survived in a good condition. The pipes were donated to the NPC in 2018 by Roddy MacKenzie, Paris, France. The full story can be read in the June 2019 edition of the Piping Times.

The music became standardised during this period. Only one version of a tune had to be chosen so that each of the tunes would be played the same by each player and every regiment. The collective knowledge of the ancient culture was scattered to the four corners of the world.

As I walk along the edge of the moor, I now see the Memorial Cairn, erected in 1881 by Duncan Forbes of Culloden, whose ancestor of the same name was on the British government side during the campaign but who protested against the cruelties of the Duke of Cumberland, who dismissed Forbes as, ”that old woman who talked to me about humanity.” As I stand here with my thoughts, I suddenly hear a piper tuning up at the Visitor Centre a few hundred yards away. He is a bit early, I think to myself. In any case, the annual memorial service by the Gaelic Society of Inverness is due to take place in an hour or so but online. I head to the car park, passing the piper on the way. I smile and give him a ‘thumbs up’.

• The National Trust for Scotland is holding a free commemorative event online tomorrow. Chaired by Professor Murray Pittock, the mini-conference begins at 13:00.

* Burgess Hay is the man behind Burgess Bagpipes. His father-in-law was legendary piper, John McDougall and his piping son, Scott is a graduate in Traditional Music from the University of the Highlands and Islands.