Remember the (piper at the) Alamo!

What follows in length is the account of one ‘reluctant researcher’  whose efforts to honor Piper John McGregor of the Alamo led her on a journey that consumed the remainder of her life. Sadly Zoe Alexander passed away just months after writing the introduction to her research which appears below. We reverently display her work here, that she might be remembered for her contribution to the cause we value so dear. The effort to remember our warrior pipers whenever and wherever they fought and fell.      – Ian S. Williams

A Reluctant Researcher Goes Searching For the Alamo Piper

by Barbara Zoe Alexander

In 1992, I did the research and wrote the following paper, at the behest of the good folks of the Clan Gregor Society in Scotland.  At the time, I made it clear in that paper that the findings on John McGregor, his birthplace and origins, were mostly speculative, that none of it could be proven but that to the efforts of myself and some good folks helping me, it was as close as we would probably ever get to the truth.

I turned over my findings to Warren Stricker, then Archivist for the Daughters of the Republic of Texas and they added it to their on-site library at the Shrine.

Years went by and I never imagined that anything else had been done with or about it.  Once in awhile someone would call or e-mail me, asking for a copy of it and I would oblige them; but other than that I thought it had pretty much died away.

Imagine my surprise-slash-horror to learn recently from an acquaintance and quickly verified by a search on the Internet, that fifteen years down the road, my heavily-caveated findings are being accepted as the final word on John McGregor and are being widely (wildly?) quoted on the Internet – and in worldwide publications – as the definitive story on who he was and where he came from.

Not only that (and I suppose I should be grateful that it is so), but rarely, if ever, do I find myself being given credit for having committed this research to writing.

Nor am I given credit for being the author of the lines of poetry which often accompany the references to my research, taken from my tribute to John McGregor, The Last Warrior Piper, and which I presented to the Daughters of the Republic of Texas at a memorial ceremony for John McGregor on March 6, 1992, the anniversary of the fall of The Alamo, is also being excerpted without giving credit to its author.

So, that said, for the record and in the spirit of rectification, if for no other reason, I wish, at long last, to make public for the world to know, that I am to bless – and to blame – for the words that follow.   Curse me if you must, credit me if you will, but please give the Devil her due when you speak of these once-speculations, as being the gospel truth.

I did it, with my own little hatchet.  I’m a big girl and can take the heat.  I am also a writer and vanity – and a fundamental sense of ownership and authorship – impels me to set the record straight.

This is my work, and even fifteen years later (and despite my horror upon finding that it has since become the definitive word on John McGregor), I am proud of it.

Zoé Alexander

February 8, 2007


John McGregor, Alamo Piper

June 22, 1992

IN SEARCH OF THE ALAMO PIPER

© Zoé Alexander

TEXAS.  The very name conjures images larger than life.  Project that image back to the early 1800’s, and even more images arise — visions of wide-open skies and prairies; of wild, long-horned cattle — and wilder mustang ponies — and of painted, dark-skinned natives, who with these wild creatures had roamed this open land since time out of mind.  Enter then, a wave of hard-bitten, buckskin-clad frontiersmen, with their stoic, keen-eyed women — de ter mined to tame both land and in hab i tants.  There follows a time of savagery and brutality unpleasant to remember, yet impossible to forget — made more vivid for the fact that it was committed in equal shares by all parties upon each other, in a savage, brutal struggle for a savage, brutal land — a land where the very atmosphere shimmers in a surrealistic glare, distorting life — and death — into colossal proportions.

Or so it seems, looking back upon it from the prospect of more than a century and a half.  The land is mostly tamed now; the dark-skinned natives “civilized”; and the longhorns and mustangs and wide, open prairies long since fenced and domesticated.  Even the vast, starry vault of the sky is dimmed now by the bright glow of civilization, and to chart the constellations, or wish upon the evening star, one must travel far out into the country where the city lights cannot intrude. But every now and again, a coyote’s howl will break the peace of a rural night, or an immense orange moon will ride the rim of the horizon for a moment too long on its way up the night, and one can feel the rise of the heart to the throat, and know the thrill of fear one’s ancestors must have felt when they looked out across the prairie and wondered what danger stalked the shadows cast before the rising moon.

And feel a sense of something lost, which cannot be regained.  A proud, wild creature brought to ground, and, saddled, bridled, made to carry children on its back.  Yet, still its step is high, its neck unbowed, and from its eye still flashes fire; and always it is watching, waiting for that moment when the guard is down and it may slip the fetters and return to whence it came.

In many ways, the same description can be superimposed over the history of Scotland, and one could scarcely tell the difference.  The dark, painted, aboriginal natives; the migration of the Celts across the savage, unknown land.  The brutal clashes; the larger-than-life image of the Scot; the romance that envelopes the mystery of the Highlands — the same passion for freedom, the same stub­born pride.  Even the epic battles of these two, once-independent nations, reflect a striking similarity. And, as in Scotland, with so many heroes, great and small, it is impossible to single out any one person who may have served as the catalyst which turned the hand of Fate and conquered the wild territory named for the aboriginal inhabitants called, ironically, the Tejas — Friendly — Indians.

But of all the epic struggles in this conquest, the single episode which stands out in the minds of all the world, was the David and Goliath clash at the Mission San Antonio de Valero, better known to the world as The Alamo, where, on March 6, 1836, a handful of settlers and soldiers, took on the combined forces of the Mexican Army.

Yet, where is it remembered that delivered that day, from the broken womb known as The Alamo, was a child more Celtic than most ever knew — the infant Republic of Texas; for with at least half its names of Celtic origin, and the majority of those of Scottish descent, including four native Scots, the roll call of that battle might as easily have been read from any number of Scottish frays. And who has recorded what a Scottish clash this really was — defiance and incomprehensible valor in the face of impossible odds — the movie about which might easily be played out to the swelling strains of Scots Wha Hae, with only a few changes in the words.  Or that Texas’ State Flower, the Bluebonnet Lupine, with all its conflicting legends of origin, might as easily have been chosen to honor those other “blue bonnets” who gave up their lives so that Texas might live.  It is a topic for scholarly dissertation, the role of the Celt, and particularly the Scot, in the birth of the State of Texas, but one need only look at its list of city and county names, to form an idea of Scotland’s contribution.

Out of the microcosm of that battle, and the surrounding events, arose heroes whose names have become legend:  Crockett, Travis, Bowie, Austin, Houston — these men have become synonymous with that episode in Texas’ history.  But unsung among these better-known heroes, rose another man whose name did not become a household word as did the others, yet whose deeds echoed ancestral traditions set into his blood by powers reaching far beyond the womb:  a man who materialized from nowhere, to answer a force of blood he had no power to resist; and who then passed beyond the memories of all but a few chroniclers of that saga, to become a brief footnote in a pivotal chapter of Texas history — before disappearing back into the Celtic mist from whence he came.

And why not, for wasn’t he, after all, one of the Children of the Mist?

John McGregor. A name on one of the many plaques encircling the inner walls of the Mission Chapel.  “Born in Scotland,” say the few entries about him in the history books.  His footnote reads, always, “. . . a jaunty Scot, of thirty-something in age (no two sources can agree upon this point), who carried — and played — his bagpipes during the siege of the Alamo.”  Some comment is always made here, that he and Davy Crockett kept up the men’s spirits  by competing on their in-struments — Crockett on the fiddle, McGregor on the bagpipes — the assumption being that McGregor won by dint of sheer noise volume, alone.

A splash of color upon an already vivid canvas.  An amusing anecdote, adding a bit of zest to a tale which does not lack or fascination, already having all the elements of romance and patriotism upon which even Hollywood could not embellish — its truth standing very well on its own in the hearts of Texans, and in the eyes of the world.

A pity Texas’ historians have never recognized the significance of McGregor’s role on that day; that what appears to them as 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, and recorder of their deeds, victories and tragedies.  The tunes he played had special meaning to his people, and could rally the 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 Scottish pipers, John McGregor upheld the honor of his ancestors, and on March 6, 1836, passed into the ranks of legend.

Remembering The Alamo

So it was, that with a profound sense of obligation, a small detach ment of Texas MacGregors arrived at The Alamo on March 6th, 1992, to honor, at long last, their fallen kinsman.  It was fitting that in front of that group, marched another MacGregor Piper, quite possibly the first true MacGregor to play the pipes at the Alamo since 1836.  This gathering was long overdue — 156 years to be precise, and the day was one of conflicting emotions — pride, mourning, but most of all, a sense of having come full circle, and of tying up a loose end left dangling far too long.

But was it really finished?  Not by a far cry.  Not enough to simply honor our dead and go back to things as they had been before this “jaunty Scotsman” piped his way into our lives.  No.  There were still too many questions left unanswered, too many inconsistencies in his story.  Who, exactly, was this man, John McGregor?  Where did he come from in Scotland?  What brought him to Texas in the first place?  Why do the slim leads we have discovered in var iably come to a dead-end? Somebody out there surely has the answer, yet for every question that has been answered, more questions have arisen.

What follows is the story of John McGregor, as we have it so far.  It is actually three stories, and considering what happened the last time a MacGregor got involved with The Alamo, I shall try to be brief. But this isn’t a brief story, and even the abbreviated version takes a little time in the telling.  I have sketched for you the middle part of the story first — the early times in Texas, and the battle of The Alamo.  It is a tale well documented and the subject of many volumes of learned work, as is the first part of this story, the history of Clan Gregor — the MacGregors.  Still, I skim their story here for the benefit of those who might not have heard it — and for the sheer pleasure of its retelling; for it, among all the legends and sagas of the Highlands, encapsulates the struggle of the Celt against his age-old enemy, Civilization, and Man’s inhumanity against his brother in the name of that oppressive foe.

The Children of the Mist

Beyond his piping skills, and his role among the heroes of The Alamo, what is so special about John McGregor?  For one thing, given the bloody history of the MacGregors, it is a miracle he even existed at all.

We all know the tale:  we are the only Clan the Scottish Parliament ever attempted to exterminate.  Happily, despite their best efforts, they failed.  I will not go into the reasons here, but suffice to say, beneath it all, as so often is true, was the Land — and with the land, Power.  Simply put, we held the land, other people wanted it, we weren’t about to give it up, and that’s where the trouble began.  And our enemies always managed to get us bad press over it, and lost no time getting that word to the King, putting us naturally in the worst possible light.  Finally, in 1603, King James VI of Scotland, on his way down to England to claim the throne left to him by Elizabeth I, had had enough of the constant bickering and feuding, and struck a blow where he knew it would count — he had the Scots Privy Council pass an Act by which the whole MacGregor Clan was proscribed — outlawed.  It was the swift, unthinking act of white-hot fury, of an exasperated stepparent banishing a headstrong, unwanted child to bed without supper, then going out himself for the evening, never to return to countermand the order.

The proscription was absolute.  All MacGregors had to change their surname:  the penalty for defiance was death.  No member of the Clan could carry weapons.  Only a blunt knife could be used at meals.  Not more than four Clan members could gather together in one place.  Contracts made with MacGregors were considered illegal and unenforceable.  By very virtue of this Act, the Clan became outlaws.  Unable to own land, livestock or personal property, everything they grew, acquired or consumed was perforce an act of theft; each effort at subsistence, a crime.

To ensure their eradication, commissions were issued to hunt down all MacGregors with whatever means at hand.  They were hunted with guns — and dogs, and bounty placed upon them. Their severed heads became coin of the realm, purchasing land, pardons — legal for trade in any number of nefarious dealings.  Even their dead bodies were not safe from these predators, who would dig up the corpses for the value of their skulls.  Their women were branded, their orphans relegated on the social scale to somewhere beneath the lowest beasts.  It was attempted genocide, a macabre, pitiless illustration of what one man can do to another in the name of greed and malice disguised as the Law.  And it sickened most right-thinking men, which fact was to play an important part in the survival of the Clan.

In order to escape this persecution, many MacGregors emigrated to safer territories; others donned the outward camouflage of a new identity, though their hearts remained MacGregor.  Still others kept their names and took their chances.  And many an otherwise law-abiding Highlander took pity on and sheltered — at great personal risk — those MacGregors they could; others winked and turned a blind eye away from pockets of the outlawed Clan hiding out, eking a living in one remote, secluded glen or another.  In time, hunting down and killing MacGregors for the bounty became a sport pursued by only those with something desperate to gain, and even these tired of it eventually.

Because of this proscription, Clan Gregor carries one of the longest lists of connected surnames among the Scottish Clans.  To this day, legends persist in some families that while their official surname is Johnson, or McGehee, or some such — it is really MacGregor.  The MacGregors became known as “The Nameless Clan,” but they called themselves “The Children of the Mist.”

Finally, after 152 years of proscription, the bans were lifted from Clan Gregor in 1775, and the Nameless Clan — the Children of the Mist — were restored their rightful name and station in Clan Society.  John McGregor’s father might have stood among the 826 men who rose up with John Murray of Lanrick as he declared as rightful Chief of the Clan (the true line), reclaiming their rightful name — MacGregor.

~~~*~~~

We now come into the present time, wherein pressure is brought to bear upon a reluctant researcher — and amateur genealogist, to prize out the secrets of a battle whose victims and worldly goods were stacked in indiscriminate piles and burnt without ceremony, taking whatever secrets they carried, up with the rising smoke, to a place where we are not allowed to pry.

A Reluctant Researcher

Goes Looking To Pay The Piper

There is no question that the State of Texas owes a great debt to its Celtic pioneers.  Over the past eighteen months, Clan Gregor have gone a good distance in repaying their portion of that bill, by filling up the archives of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas with a growing body of information on what has become the enigma of John McGregor — or, as he has come to be fondly known –Alamo John, to distinguish him from the legion of other John McGregors.

The journey to this year’s memorial service began innocently enough:  in March, 1991, I remarked in a letter to Malcolm C. White, Member of Council, Clan Gregor Society, Scotland, that there had been a MacGregor among the heroes at The Alamo, in San Antonio, Texas.

Starting by return mail, I began getting letters from Malcolm, wanting to know more about John McGregor — who he was, where he came from, etc.  Before long, Dr. A. MacGregor Hutcheson, Chairman of Clan Gregor Society, Scotland, had hopped on the bandwagon, and I was surrounded.  I humored them at first, feeding them published data from history books about The Alamo.  My bad luck, McGregor’s background was not as well-documented as some of the other Alamo heroes, and the history books held little more information except that he was a Scotsman, could play the bagpipes, and had surfaced at Nacogdoches, Texas, sometime before the Battle of Bexar, the battle in which the Texans took possession of the Alamo Mission in 1835 (Mexico reclaimed the mission at the battle which became known as “The Alamo” the following March).  At The Alamo, on March 6, 1836, all published history on the man ceased.  Dead-end.

I balked.  “He doesn’t exist before Nacogdoches,” I whined.  Onto deaf ears.  “No more research,” I begged — I was very busy at the time and gave him hundreds of very good excuses not to drop everything I was doing to go hunting for a man who’d been dead for a century and a half. “That’s nice,” he mused, preoccupied — “Now, why don’t you try the . . . and the . . . or even the . . .” and that was the extent of the notice he paid my sniveling.  I argued with him — “John McGregor is not exactly an unusual name,” I reasoned.  “He might as well have been called John Smith.”  Not a twitch from Malcolm (what is logic to a man with a fixed purpose in his mind?).  As for reasons for McGregor’s sketchy background, I wasn’t all that certain we wanted to know — I quote from one of my early protest letters:  “. . . the Sodom and Gomorrah of the Gulf Coast appears at that time to have been Nacogdoches, where many of the major players at The Alamo seem to have gravitated for whatever reason, and quite possibly a good number were recruited from the local brothels and gambling dens, etc.” I went on to tell him that “. . . we might want to be careful about looking into our man’s past — that there might be a good reason so little is known about him — that Texas in those days was like any frontier — a place to attain anonymity, to escape one’s past . . .” That “. . . Texas is known for its nasty, prickly, poisonous critters, and one doesn’t go turning over rocks or anythingthat’s been lying around any length of time at all without extreme caution — and a very long stick! — that we might not be too thrilled with what we turned up once we started this hunt.” He had that faraway look again.  I pressed on.  “. . . Nobody ever said war was pretty, and it wouldn’t be the first time the apparent dregs of humanity were scoured from the bottom of the barrel, only to be served up at history’s table as cream.” He still pretended not to notice.  “. . . It’s well known that all the reasons men go to war are not necessarily for the good of mankind.” (I knew I was losing, but had to keep trying –) “. . . but rather, on an individual level, to serve some private agenda — whatever that may be — and it often takes a man desperate enough to prefer death over his own personal demons, to make heroic deeds happen.” That “. . . it’s been customary all through the ages that legions of life’s scoundrels have bought redemption in heroic deaths; it could be further pointed out that this was not so much altruism on their part, as the fact they’d little left to lose.”

But Malcolm kept after me, and finally, after several months, I squeezed the truth from him — that he was curious to know if there was any chance John McGregor might have been related to the family of pipers belonging to the Clann an Sgeulaiche — the Children of the Storyteller — a family which, besides being the hereditary storytellers, the oral historians of the Clan, had once had a famous piping school at Drumcharry in the Scottish Highlands of Perthshire.  That generation after generation, one of the sons had been named John, that it was usually that son John who, for whatever reason of coincidence, carried forward the family’s reputation in piping, and was it possible that our John McGregor might have been connected to that family?

Well, why didn’t you say so in the first place?! Here were romance, mystery, heroism, tragedy — all rolled up into one convenient package!  I got on the phone, made a few calls to some strategic contacts, and in no time at all, information began to trickle in.

Before we go another word farther into this tale, may I hasten to clarify one thing:  my role in the search for John McGregor has been that of traffic director and central collection point — very little of the solid, valuable information has come from my own work, but from the outstanding research efforts of other people — a list too long to name here.  Still, special recognition must be given to Mr. J. Douglass Moore, of Houston, Texas (and husband to a MacGregor!); to Mr. Warren Stricker, San Antonio, Archivist for the Daughters of the Republic of Texas Library; to Mr. Malcolm C. White, previously mentioned; and Mr. Gordon A. Comrie MacGregor, also of Scotland, without whose assistance we would know nothing more about John McGregor than can be gleaned from published history.

The discoveries have been conflicting, controversial, and confusing.  It has been established that he was awarded a donation cer ti fi cate for 640 acres of land in Henderson County — land granted to him posthumously for his service in the Battle of Bexar.  It has also been discovered that he had been given title to a piece of land in Cherokee County — part of Burnett’s Colony — on which he had been farming for a few years before going off to San Antonio as a soldier.  It was from these land deeds, and their accompanying character certificates, that we learned he was, indeed, a Scotsman, as well as a single man.

Quite possibly the most exciting lead in the search so far, came from listings of Mac/McGregor emigrants from books on Scottish emigration records, copies of which I turned over to Malcolm White after we’d reached a dead-end on this side.  Almost at first glance, it was plain that virtually every MacGregor emigrant documented in the available books, came from that part of the Highlands which had once been MacGregor country — and most of those had come from Perthshire, so it seemed reasonable if Malcolm took one end of the trail, and those of us in Texas took the other, we might have some hope of eventually meeting in the center.

Malcolm enlisted the help of Mr. Gordon A. Comrie MacGregor, who between them sifted through mountains of Perthshire’s birth/death/marriage records, and before long, Gordon narrowed the selection down to one John McGregor of Dull, Perthshire, aged twelve years, who emigrated with his father, Thomas, sailing from Oban, Argyll on 8 June 1808, arriving Charlottetown, Price Edward Island on 6 August 1808.  Dull is located less than one mile from the piping school at Drumcharry.

It should be noted here that records on Alamo John cannot seem to agree — ranging him in age from 33 to 36 when The Alamo fell.  This John McGregor from Dull, was born December 1, 1797, making him just turned 38 in 1836 — a little older, but certainly within the range.  It was Warren Stricker who noticed that Bill Groneman, in his book, The Alamo Defenders, shows Alamo Johnborn in 1808!  Could this have been a confusion between his birth date, and the date he arrived in North America?

And, as in most cases where history either cannot agree, or has insufficient evidence upon which to base a conclusion — or there is the possibility of a dissenting opinion –once the word got out that this search was underway, other oars were suddenly dipped into the already muddy waters; other leads have come to light which take the researcher down yet other paths — some disputatious in nature — but, in the end, all looking for the same answer: “Who was Alamo John?”

One such theory rises from the great gar-hole of MacGregor gen e al ogy into which folks desperately wishing to make a connection to the great Rob Roy attempt to trace their lineage — that of James Mhor MacGregor, Rob’s son who escaped to France where, if the number of aspiring descendants of that line is any indication, he lived out his days in such procreative decadence as to have rivalled the most prolific of middle-eastern sultans.  If proven true, this development could mean that two of Rob Roy’s descendants died that day, for in his book Rendezvous at the Alamo, Virgil Baugh asserts that Clan Donald’s strong claims  notwithstanding, James Bowie is said to have also descended from Rob Roy.  Stretching this point a bit, it can be noted here that this number could easily swell to six MacGregors who died that day, because amongst the death rolls there were two Walkers, Asa and Jacob; and two Whites, Isaac and Robert — both surnames often associated with Clan Gregor.

None of this has been proven yet, but at this writing, folks are at work in Scotland, Canada, as well as in Texas, determined to exhaust all leads in the search for Alamo John.  It is the kind of project, that once one has put in even the smallest of hands into the effort, it has the power to take over completely.  It has become an addiction faster and stronger than the most powerful narcotics — one brush with Alamo John has been enough for many of the current researchers to become hopelessly caught up in the hunt.  The eternal dead-ends, the endless false leads — even the successes tend to serve only to open up newer and more puzzling questions, luring one on ’round the next bend in search of answers.  Even the usually sedate Glasgow Herald has recently put its dignified finger into the pot, giving the two leading theories a rather brisk stir — adding some fresh spice to the project, and no doubt increasing its own circulation in the process, as readers move in closer to see what’s cooking.  It can only be hoped that out of this bubbling stew of enigma, the real story will come to light.

The search continues.  Much remains to be done, to sift through the legions of John McGregors, to discover the man who died at The Alamo.  Yet, despite the cloud of mystery surrounding his origins, one thing is certain — John McGregor was a Scotsman, and a hero of Texas’ Independence; a martyr of one of the world’s most universally sympathetic battles, and is worthy of our respect, and of the honors bestowed upon him at this year’s anniversary ceremonies.  If it had been Culloden or Glen Coe, the man could not have died more honorably, nor the memory of what he died for lived any longer in men’s minds. Throughout the world, even the most benighted of cultures, which have possibly never heard of those two other places, nor know what happened there, have virtually to the last soul heard of The Alamo, and will nod their heads in understanding, knowing how important it was to recognize the part John McGregor played — whoever he might be.  And if we never discover his true identity or precise origins, it will have been enough that he died a hero — and a MacGregor, which descriptions history has shown time and again, are not only compatible, but most often, synonymous.


About The Author

Ian is an acclaimed writer, producer, and director of documentary films and multimedia events. He is also a competitive bagpiper and has produced large scale multimedia concerts and pipe band recordings. It is his combined passion for film and piping that endow him with a unique and personal perspective for the Pipes of War project.

Comments

4 Responses to “Remember the (piper at the) Alamo!”

  1. Randy Krzan says:

    Really informative blog article.

  2. hi there I really like the blog you have establised here.

  3. Gerald says:

    Despite the morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims, the fact remains that Countries exist because of wars fought against their neighbours or rivals. Independence is largely secured through the employment of armed forces and the willingness to fight if threatened, this alone prepares us all for such an eventuality.

    I commend you on your site it contains a lot of quality information and is well done.

  4. Jim R. Barbour says:

    Hi Ian, well done! My wife and I recently travelled to San Antonio for an Air Force bootcamp grad. We went to the Alamo (a bucket list item). I knew there was a Scottish piper who was at the Alamo (I too play the pipes). I found myself choking back tears as I rounded the room reading all the names, including Piper John McGregor. As I stood there enveloped in the history before me, it became very real and very current to me. What brave people, I left there with a lasting real memory of Piper John McGregor and the other Fallen Hero’s of the Alamo! Jim

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