How Scottish piper stole the show
at the Alamo


How Scottish piper stole the show at the Alamo
KURT BAYER

TO TEXANS it is a proud symbol of their struggle for independence from Mexico. Ozzy Osbourne was less reverential, using its walls as a public toilet. Now Scots have a reason to remember the Alamo.

A real-life bagpiping Scot who played a musical duel with American frontiersman Davy Crockett during the siege of the Alamo has emerged as a star of the latest Hollywood epic to celebrate the heroic defeat that helped shape the modern United States.

The Alamo, the 1960 John Wayne classic ridiculed for its inaccuracies by siege experts, has become a cult classic and inspired many with its gung-ho portrayal of the Alamo defenders. It was also noticeably Scot-free.

But all that changes this weekend with the release of The Alamo, a Disney corporation blockbuster that aims to present a more historically accurate picture, including the Mexican perspective.

And, for the first time on the big screen, the movie highlights the Scottish contribution to the battle by featuring bagpiper John McGregor who originally came from Aberfeldy in Perthshire.

While four Scots died during the battle of the Alamo, it is McGregor, a piper and second sergeant of Captain William R Carey’s artillery company that has romantically captured the imagination of Alamo historians and enthusiasts.

In a bid to raise the morale of the besieged defenders, McGregor performed musical ‘duels’ with American folklore legend and second generation Scot, Davy Crockett, who played the fiddle. McGregor was said to have won the duels because he played the longest and loudest.

The pair’s musical endeavours led to the enduring Alamo myth, now an urban legend, that the Mexican troops coined the word ‘gringo’ after hearing the defenders, many of them Scottish-Americans, singing rousing choruses of ‘Green Grow The Rashes Oh!’ as they faced certain death.

The Alamo was directed by John Lee Hancock. Unknown American actor Timothy Riley was cast as McGregor. The biggest name in the movie is Dennis Quaid, who plays General Sam Houston, who led a force of Texans in a failed bid to relieve the Alamo.

Speaking exclusively to Scotland on Sunday, Hancock said he felt it was "incredibly important" to highlight the Scottish influences in Texas at the time.

He said: "John McGregor was very important at the Alamo and in my research I found many stories written about him. He was a colourful character and I wanted him in the movie.

"I wanted to make sure that the real Scottish roots and influences were highlighted in The Alamo. The bagpipes are a very sad, epic and depressing sound, which matches perfectly with the gloomy atmosphere at the Alamo.

"While we see McGregor playing the pipes throughout the movie, I unfortunately couldn’t include the scene with him and Davy Crockett playing together, which is a shame. It would have been fantastic, but it was important for the film that Crockett was playing the fiddle on his own."

He added: "I spoke at length with [composer] Carter Burwell on the original score and we both agreed that it was paramount to have a real Scottish feel to it, because Scots were playing a major role in the building of America, and indeed Texas."

The skirl of the pipes that sounded around the fortified former mission steeled the nerves of the 200 men who knew their fate lay in the hands of the tyrant ruler of Mexico, General Antonio López de Santa Anna, who had them surrounded with his 5,000-strong army for 13 days.

McGregor’s bagpiping skills and relationship with Crockett have made him a lone Scottish star in Texas and his memory is still revered.

Editor of the Alamo Journal, William Chemerka, said McGregor is viewed as a "kind of king here in Texas".

Chemerka, who has met with direct descendents of McGregor at the 150th anniversary of the Alamo in March, 1986, said: "John McGregor has been portrayed in stories, in art and his bagpipe playing has been re-enacted many times. He is the best-known Scotsman of the Texas revolution, and justly so.

"He is remembered as a brave Alamo defender who died fighting the tyranny of Santa Anna and who joined up with Crockett’s fiddle for a wonderful burst of song in a bid to raise the spirits of the besieged men. I could think of nothing better to soothe the soul in a situation like the Alamo than the sounds of the bagpipes."

Dr Gregor Hutcheson, a spokesman for the Clan Gregor Society, last night said a long-running feud between Clan Gregor members on both sides of the Atlantic over the background of John McGregor had now been resolved.

He said: "Members of the Clan Gregor Society in both Scotland and the US have done research and found that John McGregor was probably born in Aberfeldy at Dull Parish and went to America some time after the Napoleonic Wars, around 1815.

"There was some debate over his background but we are now settled on that. At the Alamo site, we have presented a plaque in his honour and he has been called ‘the last warrior piper’.

"He holds a special place in the history of the Alamo, especially through his musical duels with Davy Crockett. They had a competition over who could play the longest and the loudest and of course, in something of a mismatch, John McGregor won, no contest.

"John McGregor did not feature in the John Wayne Alamo film, but hopefully through the new research and new film, his place in history will be properly documented and brought to the fore. It is such a wonderfully romantic story, I think it deserves to be told."

Three other first generation Scots were among the men who lost their lives in March 1836.

Richard W Ballentine, was born in Scotland in 1814, and travelled to Texas from Alabama in 1835. He and the other passengers signed a statement declaring: "We have left every endearment at our respective places of abode in the United States of America, to maintain and defend our brethren, at the peril of our lives, liberties and fortunes."

Isaac Robinson was born in Scotland in 1808 and came to Texas from Louisiana. He took part in the siege of Bexar and later served in the Alamo garrison as a fourth sergeant in Captain William R Carey’s artillery company.

David L Wilson, son of James and Susanna (Wesley) Wilson, was born in Scotland in 1807. In Texas, he lived in Nacogdoches with his wife, Ophelia. Wilson was one of the volunteers who accompanied Captain Philip Dimmitt to Bexar and the Alamo in the early months of 1836. He remained at the Alamo after Dimmitt left on the first day of the siege.

The Alamo, which is due out in the UK this year, has been billed by Disney as the most accurate portrayal to date, but long before its completion, internet chat rooms were abuzz with fierce exchanges on everything from the authenticity of the uniforms to the placement of the Alamo chapel





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