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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 form a weapon of war to their rightful place as a musical instrument.
Until 1996, the bagpipes were classified as a weapon of war. Today we’ll look at a couple of the men behind the pipes, those that played into battle to inspire the men and cause dread in their foes…
Piper Bill Millin
William “Bill” Millin, commonly known as Piper Bill, was the personal piper to Simon Fraser, 15th Lord Lovat, commander of 1st Special Service Brigade. Millin is best remembered for playing the pipes whilst under fire during the D-Day landing in Normandy.
Millin was born in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada on 14 July 1922. His father, who was a native Scot, moved the family back to Glasgow when he was three. He joined the Territorial Army in Fort William and played in the pipe bands of the Highland Light Infantry and the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders before volunteering as a commando and training with Lovat at Achnacarry, near Fort William in Scotland. Lovat had appointed Millin as his personal piper during this commando training.
Pipers have traditionally been used in battle by Scottish and Irish soldiers. However, the use of bagpipes was restricted to rear areas by the time of the Second World War by the British Army. Lovat, nevertheless, ignored these orders when making their landing at Sword Beach on D-day and ordered Millin, then aged 21, to play. When Private Millin demurred, citing the regulations, he recalled later, Lord Lovat replied: “Ah, but that’s the English War Office. You and I are both Scottish, and that doesn’t apply.” He played “Hielan’ Laddie” and “The Road to the Isles” as his comrades fell around him on Sword Beach.
Millin was the only man during the landing who wore a kilt, the same Cameron tartan kilt his father had worn in Flanders during World War I, and he was armed only with his pipes and the sgian-dubh, sheathed inside his kilt-hose on the right side. In keeping with Scottish tradition, he wore no underwear beneath the kilt. He later told author Peter Caddick-Adams that the coldness of the water took his breath away. Millin states that he later talked to captured German snipers who claimed they did not shoot at him because they thought he was crazy.
Lovat and Millin advanced from Sword Beach to Pegasus Bridge, which had been defiantly defended by men of the 2nd Bn the Ox & Bucks Light Infantry (6th Airborne Division) who had landed in the early hours by glider. To the sound of Millin’s bagpipes, the commandos marched across Pegasus Bridge. During the march, twelve men died, most shot through their berets. Later detachments of the commandos rushed across in small groups with helmets on. Millin’s D-Day bagpipes were later donated to the now Pegasus Bridge Museum.
Millin saw further action with the 1st SSB in the Netherlands and Germany before being demobbed (demobilised) in 1946 and going to work on Lord Lovat’s highland estate. In the 1950s he became a registered psychiatric nurse in Glasgow, moving south to a hospital in Devon in the late ’60s until he retired in the Devon town of Dawlish in 1988. He made regular trips back to Normandy for commemoration ceremonies. France awarded him a Croix d’Honneur award for gallantry in June 2009.
Millin, who suffered a stroke in 2003, died in hospital in Torbay on 17 August 2010, aged 88. His wife Margaret, from Edinburgh, died in 2000. He was survived by their son John.
With the help of son John Millin and the Dawlish Royal British Legion, a bronze life-size statue of Piper Bill Millin was unveiled on 8 June 2013 at Colleville-Montgomery, near Sword Beach, in France.
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