01 September 2007

The Skirl of the Pipes

The Bagpipe is much used by the Irish. To its sounds, this unconquered, fierce, and warlike people march their armies, and are encouraged to feats of valor. With it they also carry their dead to the grave, making such a mournful sound, as to force the bystander to weep.”

- Vincenzo Galilei, 1581

As witnessed after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the Great Highland Bagpipe has become the instrument of choice to be played at the funerals of law enforcement personnel. Many police departments around the country – around the world in fact – now have their own pipe and drum bands, including the New Jersey State Police. But how did this tradition come about?

It is safe to say that all pipe bands in the beginning were modeled on the British Army pipe bands. The bands of the Highland regiments were first established around 1854. The Irish Guards, another regiment of the British Army, formed their pipe band in the early 1900s.

In Scotland, the tradition of police pipe bands began with the Strathclyde Police Pipe Band. Established in 1883, this was one of the first bands to be formed outside the ranks of the British Army. Because many of the officers of the various Scottish police departments were ex-military, it was only natural that they would bring the military’s bagpipe tradition with them.

The first police pipe band in the United States would come much later, but the seeds for it were sewn at the dawn of the 20th century.

During the 1880s and into the early 1900s, largely due to the great potato famine, there was a massive Irish immigration to the United States. Unfortunately, the immigrants arrived to equally massive discrimination. It was common in cities such as New York, Boston and Chicago to see “NINA” signs on factories and other businesses informing that “No Irish Need Apply.” During this time, the some of the only jobs available to them were in police and fire departments.

The Irish immigrants naturally wanted to preserve their Celtic heritage and culture. Francis O’Neill, the Chicago Police Chief from 1901 to 1905 established the “Irish Music Club” which, of course, included the bagpipes, usually a solo piper or a small group of pipers. As the famous Irish fraternal organization The Emerald Society became closely tied with police departments around the country so did the bagpipes. The bagpipe used by most bands today is of Scottish origin, and it was adopted by the Emerald Societies because it is both louder and better suited to outdoor use than the Irish version.

The oldest police pipe band in North America is in British Columbia, Canada. The Vancouver Police Pipe Band has been in continual existence since 1914. It was not until 1961 that the first police pipe band in the United States made it’s official debut. On March 17th of that year, the Pipes and Drums of the Emerald Society of the New York City Police Department made its first appearance in the city’s famous St. Patrick’s Day Parade. Since that time, police departments across the United States have formed pipe and drum bands of their own. Many of the bands wear traditional Scottish attire while others wear the simpler Irish uniform. All wear a kilt – some wear the Scottish tartans and others the single color Irish kilt.

The first State Police pipe band formed in the United States is the New Jersey State Police Pipe Band: the Pipes and Drums of the Blue and Gold. Founded in 1986 with the consent and authorization of Colonel Clinton Pagano, its function is to provide ceremonial services of the Division of State Police. In early 1990 the band was incorporated as a not-for-profit organization within the State of New Jersey.

Under the authority of Colonel Carl Williams on November 13, 1995 the ceremonial services of the band were re-authorized. The Superintendent recognized the not-for-profit organization and set procedures for the Division to request the Pipe Band to perform at official State Police functions in an “on duty” capacity when “...the Superintendent determines that the Division will benefit from the appearance/performance.”

As the bagpipes grow in popularity, the Pipes and Drums of the Blue and Gold and its members are called on to perform at over 200 events annually. They join with more than twenty other civilian and police pipe bands in New Jersey and Eastern Pennsylvania in carrying on the proud tradition and music of this ancient instrument into the 21st Century.


Pipe Major (Ret.) William Robertson, Royal Scots (The Royal Regiment)

Strathclyde Police Pipe Band website (http://www.strathpol-pipeband.com/)

Chicago Police Pipe Band website (http://www.pdcpd.org/about.htm)

New York Police Pipe Band website (http://www.nypdpipesanddrums.com/)

New Jersey State Police Pipes and Drums of the Blue and Gold (http://njsppipeband.org/)