The lament and the Great Highland Bagpipe

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2K1KX7T Pipe Major Paul Burns of the Royal Regiment of Scotland helps to close the State Funeral of Queen Elizabeth II, held at Westminster Abbey, London. Picture date: Monday September 19, 2022.

By TABBY ANGIER, September 19, 2022.

The recent death of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II has reminded the entire world of the importance and significance of the lament, played on the Great Highland Bagpipe, at funerals, memorial services and commemorative events.

•Pipe Major Paul Burns of the Royal Regiment of Scotland helps to close the State Funeral of Queen Elizabeth II, held at Westminster Abbey, London, September 19, 2022. PA Images / Gareth Cattermole

Nothing else provides quite the same dignity, poignancy and reverence for the occasion. A chance for those present, or those listening from afar, to have a moment of reflection and quiet remembrance of the dead or the fallen.

The Flowers of the Forest is so often the lament that is played, but Lochaber No More is a simple but quite magnificent tune. John D. Burgess told me, many years ago, it was his choice for military occasions in particular. I once heard it played at The Church of the Holy Rude, Stirling, at a Commemorative Service of Remembrance, in the presence of many Korean War Veterans. The Pipe Major came up from the deep crypt below playing, and processed, so slowly, through the great church, and left still playing, out through the main door… it was simply unforgettable.

Every single occasion where a lament is played is so entirely different from others. Sometimes the piper is free to choose what is appropriate, their personal choice, but if a request is made, even if the piper feels it is not quite ‘right’, the playing of it will comfort those assembled at the sad occasion.

The ground of a piobaireachd can be very powerful and dramatic, and I have heard The Battle’s O’er played as a slow air, at the dedication of a new War Memorial to The Black Watch. It was, so simply, perfect.       

Pipe Major Paul Burns, the current Sovereign’s Piper, the latest in a long line going back to the great Angus MacKay, the first Sovereign’s Piper to Queen Victoria, did an immaculate performance today. Sleep, dearie, sleep (Lights Out) was a particularly wonderful choice to be played in the Abbey. Surely, the playing of a lament is the most important task that any piper can be asked to do… a unique privilege.