Bill Millin, War Piper, Dead.

August 21, 2010

The Scottish bagpipes, because of their inspirational properties in war, were outlawed in their native Highlands centuries ago. Though the ban faltered after, it was resurrected by the English after World War I because of great losses suffered by British soldiers following the pipes into battle.

“Ah, but that’s the English War Office,” Lord Lovat, hereditary chief of the Fraser clan, told bagpiper Bill Millin on the eve of D-Day. “You and I are both Scottish, and that doesn’t apply.”

Bill Millin at Edinburgh Castle, 2001.

Bill Millin was born in Glasgow to a policeman in 1922, and first played the pipes for the 7th Batallion of the Highland Light Infantry. He volunteered for the British commandos in 1941 and met Lovat while training at Achnacarry, north of Fort William. The Scottish Lord took Millin on as his personal piper and, when Lovat’s men disembarked later at Normandy’s Sword Beach, Bill played them ashore. From The Telegraph‘s obituary:

“Millin began his apparently suicidal serenade immediately upon jumping from the ramp of the landing craft into the icy water. As the Cameron tartan of his kilt floated to the surface he struck up with Hieland Laddie. He continued even as the man behind him was hit, dropped into the sea and sank.”

The piper, bearing nothing in the way of arms save a ceremonial dagger stowed in his kilt, kept it up along the beach all that day, fielding requests from Lovat for different tunes. When the brigade moved further inland, Millin piped along the road to Benouville. Lovat’s men took sniper fire along the way and stopped their march long enough to stalk and kill the shooters. Returning from a field with the corpse of one, Lovat told Bill, “Right, piper. Start the pipes again.”

“I shall never forget hearing the skirl of Bill Millin’s pipes,” said Tom Duncan, some years later. Duncan had been wounded contemporaneous to the invasion and heard Millin play later, in a field hospital. “It is hard to describe the impact it had. It gave us a great lift and increased our determination. As well as the pride we felt, it reminded us of home and why we were there fighting for our lives and those of our loved ones.”

German prisoners later told Millin, whose pipes sustained shrapnel damage at one point but who was never himself harmed, that they hadn’t shot at him because he seemed to have “gone off his head.”

Millin took a job on Lord Lovat’s estate after the war, but was soon bored and left to tour and play with a theatre group. He returned to play the lament at Lovat’s funeral in 1995.

Bill Millin died on August 17, 2010. He was 88 years old.