Bagpipes provide haunting backdrop for local Memorial Day ceremonies

Posted Monday, May. 27, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

Watch video

More coverage Teez to Memorial Day closings and Memorial Day events here and here and here

Have more to add? News tip? Tell us

The solemn sounds come first, often followed by tears.

Bagpipes will be played at Memorial Day services across North Texas Monday, producing mournful and moving music in memory of lost comrades.

The unique instruments exemplify the sense of ultimate freedom that people attach to death, said Jenny Barnett, general manager of Laurel Land Memorial Park, where one of many Memorial Day services will be held.

“As they play a certain song they walk off into the distance, symbolizing the departure of the person’s soul,” Barnett said. “It reflects the crossing from this life to whatever comes afterward.”

The music is moving in a way that can’t be matched by other instruments, Barnett said.

“In some ways it’s similar to the playing of taps ,” she said. “It touches a part of your heart that only certain things can.”

Bagpipe players feel that touch, too, said Eric Magnus, director of Fort Worth Scottish Pipes and Drums.

“The feeling when you blow the big pipes up and they’re sitting there vibrating under your arm and in your hands, they’re like a living thing,” Magnus said. “When everything’s working right with this primitive instrument, the feeling of playing them is like nothing else.”

A long history

Magnus said the bagpipe is intrinsically linked with battle and with memorializing men and women who have fallen in battle. He traces the historical link between bagpipes and memorials to the Battle of Culloden in 1745, when 7,000 warriors from the highland clans of Scotland went against 8,000 English soldiers.

Since then, military bagpipe bands have marched during the Victorian age, World War I, World War II and on into modern conflicts, Magnus said.

“They played anywhere that men were fighting and dying,” he said.

The pipes became associated with fire and police departments along the East Coast around the turn of the last century because Irish immigrants who arrived by the millions in the 19th century took those jobs in overwhelming numbers after the Civil War, Magnus said.

“The Irish adopted the pipes and kilts as their own, and many of them were firefighters and police,” he said. “Since then that tradition spread around the U.S.

“Now, I believe just about every town’s fire department in the Dallas-Fort Worth area has its own bagpipe band. For police and firefighters, the bagpipes have become an important way to commemorate the loss of a comrade.”

‘It just brings tears to your eyes’

During the funeral for legendary Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, who was shot to death Feb. 2 on a local gun range, about 50 pipers from various fire departments played, Magnus said.

Even more were called to memorial services for the 12 first responders who died April 17 in the explosion of the West Fertilizer plant.

“Down in West, they got together about 75 bagpipers from fire departments all over the state,” he said.

It affects players profoundly “to think that there’s that connection between the music of the pipes and great loss. It doesn’t matter whether the person died in the line of duty or from natural causes.

“People are very affected, whatever the reason.”

A piper is a poignant facet of the Memorial Day ceremony at Grand Prairie Veterans Memorial, spokeswoman Amy Sprinkle said.

“It just brings tears to your eyes,” she said.

The power to do that may have been engineered into the instrument. Magnus believes that whoever developed bagpipes discovered that a melody played on top of a continuous two-octave tone will reach into a person’s soul.

“Bagpipes have three drone pipes and a chanter pipe,” he said. “The drone pipes play the same note one octave apart, and from the instant the piper starts playing the droning is constant.

“It’s that droning sound plus the melody played on top of it and melding together that affects people on a very deep, primal level. It certainly worked that way 400 years ago and still works that way today.”

Terry Evans, 817-390-7620 Twitter: @fwstevans

Looking for comments?

We welcome your comments on this story, but please be civil. Do not use profanity, hate speech, threats, personal abuse or any device to draw undue attention. Our policy requires those wishing to post here to use their real identity.

Our commenting policy | Facebook commenting FAQ | Why Facebook?