A new book titled: Legacy – a collection of photographs and music has been published by Barry Shears. Barry was born in Glace Bay, Cape Breton in 1956, and is an acknowledged expert on the history of traditional piping in Nova Scotia and its intrinsic connection to the Gaelic language, music and culture. His first lessons in piping were from Angus MacIntyre, whose family came to Cape Breton in 1826, were descended from Duncan MacIntyre, MacDonald of Clanranald’s 1750s family piper.

An accomplished musician, Barry has performed at concerts and festivals throughout North America, as well as in Scotland and Europe, a highlight of which was a live to air broadcast on Radio France where, along with other well known Cape Breton musicians – the late John Morris Rankin of the Rankin family, the late violinist Jerry Holland and multi-instrumentalist David MacIsaac, the unique, uplifting and wonderful sound of Cape Breton music was introduced to a wide European audience in 1990.


•Barry Shears

During my research into traditional piping in Nova Scotia I had an opportunity to photograph and/or buy a few instruments from the immigration period. Half the fun of acquiring these instruments is trying to establish an age, maker, and how it ended up in Nova Scotia. In some cases, and after a lot of research, even the original owner may be deduced or even narrowed down to two or three possibilities.  

One such instrument is a bagpipe I purchased in 2000 from a gentleman who frequented auctions in Nova Scotia. He offered for sale a bagpipe in a rather large pipe case, and also in the box was a fife. I had seen the bagpipe a few years earlier and he tried to sell it at a few of the local Highland games in Nova Scotia but no one was interested at the time. The bagpipe is cracked in places and the chanter had been bound with waxed twine or thread and of an older design so perhaps any interested pipers may have been turned off by the condition and overall appearance. The inclusion of the fife in the box does point to a military provenance. This raises the possibility that in some cases pipers also trained as fifers in a regimental setting. The role of piper as a dual musician was not a new one when the Reays were raised in 1794. A newspaper in London 1746 reports the types of furnishings and entertainment found on Bonnie Prince Charlie’s ship shortly before landing in Scotland. Some of the music on board was supplied by an unnamed piper, described as a veteran of Mar’s regiment who entertained the company “on the pipes and fife”.

This bagpipe is in remarkably good condition for its age and is complete except for a few missing rings and a replacement blowpipe stock (with the original mount transferred). 

The instrument doesn’t bear a maker’s stamp, but it is one of two sets that came to Pictou County in the early 19th century. The set in my possession is more complete than the second set, currently in the United States with descendant of piper Donald Murray (1830-1899). Donald Murray’s two uncles served in the Reays but it is unknown if they were pipers. Some of the mounting on this second set has bone or ivory whereas the “Scotsburn” bagpipe featured here is mostly horn mounted. Both bagpipes are turned in the same style although the second set appears to be of a later manufacture, some fittings of bone and ivory and has had a bass drone pin shortened, not an uncommon feature of old bagpipes I have seen.

But what is the provenance of these instruments?

Veterans of several Scottish regiments settled in Pictou County in the late 18th and early 19th century. These included the 82nd Duke of Hamilton’s Regiment, the 84th Royal Highland Emigrants, and the Reay Fencibles. The 82nd and the 84th were both products of the American Revolution. 

The 82nd Hamilton Regiment was raised in Glasgow and surrounding parishes in 1778, and while there were several Highlanders in its ranks, it is not known if they had pipers.

The 84th were recruited from, among many others, veterans of the Fraser Highlanders who settled on land grants in North America after the end of The Seven Years War. The 84th consisted of two battalions, the second of which saw service in the southern United States. It employed both fifers and pipers in addition to drummers during the American Revolution. 

•The Reay Fencibles

From my research the most likely source of the bagpipes and fife featured in this article is the Reay Fencibles. Some of the information below and the illustration of the regimental uniform has been gleaned from MacKay-Scobie’s book, An Old Highland Fencible Corps.

During the Napoleonic Wars, Britain needed increased manpower to wage a war in Europe. To free up and recruit full-time soldiers a militia was raised throughout Great Britain ostensibly for “Home Defence”. Out of the thirty-seven Fencible regiments raised in Scotland between 1793 and 1802, twenty-six were considered as exclusively Highland (that is made up mostly of Highlanders) and some regiments had more than one battalion. The Breadalbane Regiment for instance, which was raised mostly in Campbell lands, had three battalions and the Rothesay and Caithness Highlanders had two Battalions. The Glengarry Fencibles had one battalion and many of these men with their families settled in Glengarry, Ontario in the early 1800s. Although these battalions were originally recruited for local service some regiments were eventually sent to Ireland in 1798 to help put down the Irish Rebellion. 

The Reays were involved in several battles there such as Tara Hill and were, for a time, stationed in Galway and Belfast. One veteran soldier of the Reay Fencibles, Hugh Nicol, served in that regiment with his older brother, William. The Reay Fencibles were comprised mostly of Gaelic-speaking Highlanders and they were able to converse without much difficulty with the native Irish. While in Ireland both Hugh and William learned to speak English, but spoke it with an Irish accent, something that remained with them all their lives. William eventually settled at Cariboo, Pictou County in 1815. 

According to MacKay-Scobie, many of the regiment’s pipers played regularly for weddings, dances and funerals during their stay in Ireland and I suspect some of these pipers, or their descendants, also made Pictou County their new home, but research is still ongoing. MacKay-Scobie also states that each Fencible regiment was allowed two fifes.

The Reays were disbanded in 1802 and some of the soldiers re-mustered to other front-line Highland regiments, while others chose immigration to Pictou County as an alternative to remaining in Scotland.

Most of the immigrants to Rogers Hill (renamed Scotsburn), New Lairg and Earltown (Nova Scotia) came from Dornoch, Lairg, Rogart, Clyne and Durness (Scotland) between 1800 and 1820.  In 1803 over 500 immigrants sailing from Ullapool, came to Pictou County on the ship Favourite, of Kirkcaldy. Several of these immigrants listed previous service with the Reay Fencibles, which had been disbanded the year before. 

Still, others were removed (or cleared) and their land given over to sheep-holders. One such group was consisted of more than 120 people who sailed on the Prince William from Cromarty/Thurso to Pictou in 1815.  Many of the heads of families in this group served in the local militia of Scotland, most likely the Reay Fencibles. Among the list of passengers is a woman identified only as Widow Mackay. She arrived in Nova Scotia with her five children stating that her, “husband had died of wounds while serving in Ireland”. 

These instruments featured here are an important piece of Highland history. They are not only the product of an unknown bagpipe maker, but they are also a tangible link to Highland immigration to Nova Scotia from Scotland.

The Bagpipe (Scotsburn)

This is a three-droned bagpipe with two tenors and a bass. The wood is tropical, most likely cocus and quite heavy, and the mounts are horn. 

The stocks are unique in that one of the tenor drone stocks is quite short, while the second is almost as long as the bass drone stock. My own theory is that the longer tenor stock is placed on the outer side allowing for the bass drone and outside tenor to be interchanged. This enables the pipes to be held and played on either shoulder depending on the piper’s preference and with a minimum of fuss. 

The pipes appear to have had black stain applied, possibly in the 19th century. This may have been an attempt to give the pipes a more “modern” look.

The drone tops do not have bushings, but rather have painted rings to simulate ivory or bone bushings. The painted rings have significant flaking. 

The bagpipe came with ribbons of red and red and black/blue. These are made of silk and heavily stained in places. I sent Peter MacDonald, a tartan specialist in Scotland, photos of the ribbon but he was unable to connect them to any early tartan patterns.

The Fife

The fife appears to be made of rosewood and consists of two sections. It doesn’t have a maker’s mark and it is missing both end ferrules. It Is fitted with a single key and has a crack in the top section.