By Thomas Pearston

• From the February 1995 Piping Times.

When one looks at the number of tunes produced by pipers from the island of Coll we are surprised how many we can total from such a tiny island. The Laird of Coll’s Galley, Lament for Great John MacLean, MacLean of Coll’s Broadsword and MacLean of Coll’s Triumph are all in the books and records.

Thomas Pearston.
Thomas Pearston.

Some years ago I decided to go out to the island. From Oban it is a three and a half hour sail. The pier at Arinagour lands one into the centre of the island, which is about 12 miles long and three miles broad roughly, with a single-track road with passing places. At one time there were over 1,000 people on the island but now there could be one-tenth that number.

I had with me a lightweight one-man tent, all nylon. I took the road south from the pier and cut off at Loch Ronsard to the coast where I pitched my tent on the water’s edge. Unlike a well-known mountaineer in Scotland who always encounters brilliant sun and fairy skies, I experienced pouring rain all night.

In the morning I went into my rucksack for milk for my tea only to find that my sealed plastic bottle was gone without trace. I thought it could have been a fox. Then I remembered there were no foxes on Coll and very few rabbits, but best of all, fewer midges.

That morning, I walked south to the castle of Breachachaidh and the wonderful beaches of Feall Bay and Crossapol. All that day, and eventually back to the pier at Arinagour, I met not a single person and certainly no pipers.

From that castle the MacLeans, allied to the MacLeods, controlled all the west coast. One can see how these two clans had great power.

The most famous piping family from Coll was the Rankins, hereditary pipers to the MacLeans of Coll. Angus MacKay mentions the best known, “Conn Dauly.” It is not ascertained if he was MacCrimmon-taught, but his two grandsons were. The famous Dr Johnson, the English gentleman, was very fond of the pipes (he loved to stick his ear against the big drone) and he mentions the Rankin pipers at the lonely isolated keep of Carnburg, a rocky fortress set in the middle of the Firth of Lorne. In 1504, King James IV tried to take the castle by using “Gun Stanes” or stone cannon shells.

The Pattersons were another famous piping family from Coll. They were usually asked to play at the funerals on the island. They were removed from the job when they played strathspeys and reels instead of Lochaber No More on one occasion. One wonders if there was a family connection to A. Patterson, Sergeant piper of the 2nd HLI whom General Thomason states, “he carefully checked all my work up to 1896.”

Another Coll piper was Neil MacDonald who was well versed in old Coll tunes and was an expert in making heather ropes. He had a little creel of heather rope to carry his pipes on his back.

The traditional way to carry the bagpipe is in a special wooden box with a stout handle. The two boxes I have from the old days are 2′ x 6″ x 8″ and 2′ x 8″ x 8″. This type of box could be used to carry practice chanters, reeds and picnic items, as well as being useful to sit on. The present cases costing up to £80 are not so sturdy but with inlay of spongy material are probably more airtight. I had a special case made at one time but it turned out too heavy for practical use.

There are numerous carrier bags and rucksacks, now available cheaply, that serve the purpose. At one time there was a group of learners at the College [of Piping] who used 2′ cut sections of plastic piping with a handle in the middle, about 8″ in diameter.

Dismantling the various sections of the bagpipe can reduce the size for more convenient handling. I had a saddlebag on my cycle that was useful to get to Lochgoilhead Youth Hostel with bagpipe and supplies. It was one New Year and it was great fun marching the members, cyclists and hikers, down to the shore to celebrate New Year.

Seton Gordon.
Seton Gordon.

Recently published is a book called, Seton Gordon, Life and Times of a Highland Gentleman by R. Eagle. It contains many references to famous pipers round about the first war. Mr Gordon was a renowned naturalist and travelled throughout the Highlands and Islands. His interest in piping was almost as important. Each time he ‘visited Glasgow he would visit Pipe Major Robert Reid. In Eagle’s book, he states that in North Uist there is a family of MacDonalds who had Patrick Òg MacCrimmon’s bagpipe. I have tried without success to trace this bagpipe.

Seton Gordon was an avid listener and supporter of Pipe Major John MacDonald of Inverness. Of his playing he says, “The flood of melody which literally carried the listener away was produced by perfectly tunes pipes, exceptionally clear and accurate fingering and a man who was able to bring out the soul and beauty and inner meaning of the tune he was playing. This set a standard which was an inspiration to all his pupils, so much so that he is continually referred to in present day piping.”

The island of Rhum is worth mentioning for the fact that we have no piping tunes or tradition associated with it, despite being a large island and situated in a central position. It is clear from the lack of good landing areas that it could not have been popular to settle compared with other Hebridean islands.

Kinloch Castle.
Kinloch Castle.

A few miles to the north is Skye, and to the south is Coll, both of particular interest to pipers. Kinloch Castle in Loch Scresort is the main landing point in Rhum, coming from the mainland. This is a modern building built by a millionaire, Sir George Bullough, a wealthy Lancashire industrialist, who used the island as a sporting estate. No expense was spared to furnish the building all in the Edwardian style.

It was sold to the nation in 1957 and is now owned by Scottish Natural Heritage. The only interest for piping is that a platform was built in the drawing room for the player who would be engaged for the social gatherings prevalent at all the big houses at that period. Because of the reputation of the midges in Rhum, the activities may have had to be carried out inside and not in the open. It is recorded that the workmen while building the house had to have extra money because of the midges. Hotel and hostel accommodation are available at the castle.

The island of Skye has to be our top island for piping. I first visited Skye in 1937. I reached it from Glenelg after staying the night at Ratagan Youth Hostel on Loch Duich. This was where I first met an Italian gentleman dressed in a kilt who was the warden in charge. His name was Dom Capaldi. He was such a character and for many years looked after Ratagan that his name became inseparable from it.

About 1940 I had a camping holiday in Skye with my bagpipe. We first camped in Sleat with very favourable weather. I meta Sgiathanach farmer who showed me for the first time the use of a corn stalk instead of a cane reed for the practice chanter. The sun was so hot that my two tenor drones cracked and had to be replaced later. It only proved to

One of my outstanding memories of that trip was visiting the far end of Loch Coruisk and taking the chanter out and playing right up the scale hearing every note from the echo off the rocks. Another memory was buying fresh eggs for breakfast, which at that time were unobtainable in the city. Later on dried egg became available and proved to be a camper’s friend.