Why Do They Play Bagpipes at Soldiers’ Funerals?

It’s mood music.

A military bagpiper

Bagpipes were playing as President Obama arrived at the memorial service for victims of the Fort Hood shooting Tuesday. The instruments were also heard at Veterans Day celebrations around the country Wednesday. What’s the deal with all these funerary bagpipes?

They sound right for the occasion. Bagpipes seem to have become associated with U.S. military, police, and firefighter memorial services on account of their connection with Scottish martial history. As early as the 14th century, Scottish warriors used musical instruments—mostly horns—to intimidate their English adversaries. (Indeed, contemporary accounts suggest that every Scottish knight carried a horn around his neck.) But it’s not clear why this Scottish tradition in particular might have caught on among the U.S. armed forces while others have not. (You rarely see tartan-clad Army rangers, for example.) Perhaps the popularity of bagpipes at funerals is simply a matter of aesthetics.

In any case, the instrument most commonly used at American funerals—called the great highland bagpipes (or piob mhor)—may not be the one used for hundreds of years by Scottish warriors. According to the standard account, the great highland bagpipes had replaced earlier, quieter instruments by the end of the 1500s and played a central role in the 1746 Battle of Culloden. The Highlanders supposedly prepared for battle by serenading Bonnie Prince Charlie—who himself was reportedly a bagpiper—with a variety of local tunes.

But the whole proud tale may be a fabrication. Recent evidence suggests that the pipes allegedly recovered from the Battle of Culloden and the 1513 Battle of Flodden Fields are frauds and that the great highland bagpipe was actually invented in the late 18th or early 19th century by Scottish expats living in London. The pipes played at Culloden were more likely the same folk pipes that other Europeans had been playing for centuries.

In any case, George Washington’s Continental Army is thought to have consisted of between one-third and one-half ethnic Scots, although there is no record of bagpiping during Revolutionary War battles or funerals.

The pipes did make an appearance during the Civil War, about 50 years after the instrument had been adopted as a symbol of Scottish nationalism. The 79th New York State Militia, whose members dubbed themselves the “Cameron Highlanders” after the British regiment of the same name, flamboyantly celebrated their Scottish heritage. They sported kilts in parades and tartan trousers in battle—and played the screeching bagpipes to frighten the enemy.

There’s little evidence that the bagpipe was a traditional element of military funerals in the United States until the mid-20th century. The use of the instrument at President Kennedy’s burial may have spurred modern interest, but even to this day, bagpipes tend to be reserved for large military memorial services. Few individual soldiers are put to rest to the sound of pipes. Of the approximately 150 families who request assistance from West Point each year for burial ceremonies, only three or four want bagpipers. (They almost always request “Amazing Grace.”) Because the instrument is not part of the official military funeral honors—which include the presentation of a folded flag and the playing of taps, usually by a bugler—families must pay for the bagpipers themselves.

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Explainer thanks Colonel Gian Gentile of the U.S. Military Academy and Benjamin L. Carp of Tufts University. Thanks also to reader Toni Salazar Loftin for asking the question.

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