“Texan by birth, Scot by ancestry.” Early on in my quest to discover my Scottish heritage, and now in my dream to make Scotland my home, that phrase has become my mantra. It says very simply who I am. I’ve always been immensely proud of my Texas birthright and this week, (March 2-6) more than any other each year, always brings that pride home. Recent research however have served to further reinforce my growing pride in my Scot heritage, leaving me amazed yet again at how intertwined my birthright and ancestry are.
March 2nd is recognized as Texas Independence Day. On that day in 1836, 59 “Texians” as they styled themselves, gave birth to a dream. They declared Texas, then a province of Mexico, to be a sovereign nation – the Republic of Texas. They did so even as a battle was raging in San Antonio de Bexar at a mission called the Alamo. Four days later, on March 6, some 179 years ago today, the Alamo fell with the loss of the entire garrison, some 180-odd men. (The exact number of Alamo defenders has never been established). Four of those men were Scots.
As a child growing up in Texas you learn quickly of the legends of Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie and William Barrett Travis, but I’ll wager few Texans know the names of the four Scots, Richard W. Ballantine, Isaac Robinson, David L. Wilson, and “Alamo John” McGregor who also died that day. Like so many of the Alamo’s defenders, known and unknown, they are revered almost anonymously, their names having slipped slowly and surely into the mists of time.
Yet time has a way of changing history, or at least our perception and understanding of it. Still far from being a household name like Travis, Bowie, and Crockett, McGregor is becoming the best known of the Scots, as he was the “piper at the Alamo.” He is said to have entertained the troops by engaging in musical duets/duels with Davy Crocket – he on the pipes and Crockett on the fiddle. Presumably McGregor won those melodic skirmishes by the very nature of the volume of the pipes.
It’s been assumed that these musical interludes were meant to lift the spirits of the embattled garrison, and no doubt there is truth in that assumption. However, to position McGregor’s piping in this context alone, as that of an early “morale officer”, is believed by a growing number to disregard the more traditional role of the piper in battle.
Genealogy researcher Barbara Zoe Alexander best explains this in a 1992 paper she authored at the behest of the Clan Gregor Society in Scotland, wherein she writes:
A pity Texas’ historians have never recognized the significance of McGregor’s role on that day; that what appears to them as a quaint whimsy on his part, was really dead serious duty, and he saw that duty through – “to the deid.” What a different story it would have made, if they had realized that the custom of playing the pipes in battle is forever meshed with Scottish tradition, for the piper was to Celtic warfare what the drummer and bugler were in later wars – and more. He was the heartbeat of the Clan, the keeper of their collective spirit, the recorder of their deeds, victories and tragedies. The tunes he played had special meaning to his people, and could rally men and stir their emotions like nothing else. Further, he went into battle expecting to die – and knowing his value to the battle tactics and spirits of his Clansmen, the enemy were generally eager to oblige. Even the soldiers of Mexico, who’d never heard the squall of the bagpipe, instinctively knew this man, McGregor, could not be allowed to live.
In that proud tradition of the Scottish pipers, John McGregor upheld the honor of his ancestors and on March 6, 1836, passed into the ranks of legend.”
In 1992, Alexander and a small group of Texas MacGregors performed a small ceremony honoring their clansman at the Alamo, but still his story remained largely unknown. Having faded into history once, he would do so again…
It was not until over a decade later, in 2004, when the modern Alamo movie was released, that the public (including this Texan) first caught a fleeting glimpse of McGregor perched on the mission wall with his pipes. This was possibly the first public acknowledgement that music other than “El Deguello” may have sounded during the battle. (Even today historians disagree whether Santa Anna’s band actually played “El Deguello” to signal that no quarter would be given.)
Then, visiting Texas in 2009, Scot journalist Kevin McKenna learned the story of McGregor and his fellow Scots. McKenna questioned why the Scots’ contribution was ignored in a short film shown at the Texas shrine and then wrote an article about their role in the historic battle for “The Observer.” This renewed public attention began a process that culminated a year later in a ceremony at the Alamo on April 8, 2010, to honor the memory and the contribution of McGregor and his fellow Scotsmen.
While the Saltire had long been displayed at the Alamo, as had the flags of all the nations represented by its defenders, never before had there been a memorial to the dead of a single nation. Scotland would be the first to be so honored.
Placed at the Alamo on that day was a plaque hewn out of Caithness stone. It reads, “From the people of Scotland in memory of the four native Scots and the many other defenders of Scots ancestry, who gave their lives at the Alamo on March 6, 1836.”
I’ve written here before of the many similarities I find shared between Texas and Scotland. The two lands share a history of birth on the battlefield and from those battles emerged heroic characters whose names remain larger than life. John McGregor’s name has not yet reached such lofty heights, but on this day, 6 March 2015, the anniversary of the fall of the Alamo 179 years ago, I will pause to remember John McGregor, Richard W. Ballantine, Isaac Robinson and David L. Wilson. In so doing I am reminded again of the pride I hold in my birthright and my ancestry, and that Texas is, again as Alexander wrote, “more Celtic than most ever knew.”
While Texas’ Independence was declared as the battle at the Alamo was raging (13 Days of Glory), independence was not won until more than a month later, when the Texian army defeated Santa Anna at a place near present day Houston, Texas, called San Jacinto. That battle lasted a mere 18 minutes.”Remember the Alamo” was one of the battle cries of the day.
*You can read Alexander’s entire paper on McGregor here, http://thepipesofwar.com/production-blog/?p=183