It’s interesting to learn that until 1996 the bagpipes were classified as a weapon of war. This does not simply mean an instrument played in battle, or a tool used to direct troops, it actually means a physical weapon, like a sword or a musket. The origins of this take us all the way back to the Battle of Culloden and a piper named James Reid.
James Reid was one of several pipers who played at the Battle of Culloden. He was captured along with 558 men by Cumberland’s troops and taken to England. There James was put on trial and accused of high treason against the English Crown. Piper Reid claimed that he was innocent because he did not have a gun or a sword. He said that the only thing he did that day on the battlefield was play the bagpipe.
After some deliberation the judges had a different opinion on the matter. They said that a highland regiment never marched to war without a piper at its head. Therefore, in the eyes of the law, the bagpipe was an instrument of war. James Reid was condemned and subsequently hanged then drawn and quartered.
The decision of those judges has echoed down through the generations. It was the first recorded occasion that a musical instrument was officially declared a weapon of war. For hundreds of years and many conflicts to come the bagpipes, when listed among the items captured in combat, was counted among rifles, sabers, and munitions. It is interesting to note that bugles and drums were recorded as musical instruments, where the bagpipe ranked among the lists of weapons. This continued through the Great War. Perhaps a fitting place for the pipes, but a tragic legacy for the piper James Reid who played at the last bloody battle of the Jacobites on Culloden Moor.
In 1996, after some disputes with authorities, a man known as Mr Brooks was taken to court for playing the pipes on Hamstead Heath, an act forbidden under a Victorian by-law stating the playing of any musical instrument is banned. Mr Brooks plead not guilty by claiming the pipes are not a musical instrument, but instead a weapon of war, citing the case of James Reid as a precedent. The unanimous verdict was that the pipes are first and foremost musical instruments returning them from a weapon of war to their rightful place as a musical instrument.