Queen Victoria’s legacy to piping and pipe bands

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From the April 2001 Piping Times

“The pipes must lead.” So stated Queen Victoria to her Army top brass in the 1870s, thus ending an unseemly squabble over whether pipes or drums should form the front or rear ranks in the newly formed musical ensemble known as the pipe band. It is perhaps fitting in this, the 100th anniversary of her death, that we should remind pipers and drummer everywhere of the legacy of that decision: the formation of the pipe band as we know it today. Queen Victoria’s other inspired decision with regard to the great pipe was to appoint a Sovereign’s Piper. In this first excerpt from an article by Neville T. McKay we explore more fully the history of this prestigious office …

Once the threat of a Stuart revival was removed, members of the Royal family were pleased to adopt some of the more colourful symbols of the Highlanders, such as their dress and their music, although they did not fully appreciate the underlying culture and did little to protect it from the impact of social changes which broke up communities and destroyed their pattern of life. Nevertheless, the patronage conferred on the office of piper did provide a focus for efforts to preserve the music, and the early men chosen for the office played a prominent part in publishing and promoting it.

The young Angus MacKay.
The young Angus MacKay.

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert paid their first visit to the Highlands in 1842 and they stayed at Taymouth Castle with the Marquis of Breadalbane. The Queen was so delighted with the ceremonial which he provided that she wrote to her mother the Duchess of Kent: “We have heard nothing but bagpipes since we have been in the beautiful Highlands, and I am become so fond of it [sic], that I mean to have a Piper, who can, if you like it, pipe every night at Frogmore.” She sought the Marquis’s advice on a suitable candidate and he recommended Angus MacKay, then a talented young member of the recognised piping family. MacKay was sworn in and admitted by the Clerk Marshall into the Place of Piper to Her Majesty on July 25, 1843.

There was some family precedent for such an office as both the Queen’s father, the Duke of Kent, and her uncle, the Duke of Sussex, had each employed his own piper at Kensington Palace. It seems unlikely that any of Queen Victoria’s royal predecessors would have employed a Highland piper as court musician.

The early Stuarts had been in constant conflict with the west Highland clans who sought to retain their independence under the Lordship of the Isles until that dynasty ended in 1545. Later, James VI was responsible for the repressive Statutes of Iona (1609) which reduced the status of the clan chiefs and forbade them from maintaining the bards who were chroniclers of clan history. It was around the same period that the clan piper reputedly came to the fore, taking over from the harper-bard as a source of encouragement in time of warfare and composing music to commemorate significant events in history.

Charles II appears to have been the first monarch to appoint a royal piper. A list compiled by the Lord Chamberlain in 1666 shows that a William Tollet was sworn in to the office of ‘Bagpiper-in-Ordinary’ on February 23, 1663. Nothing further is recorded of Tollet, however, and from his name it would seem likely that he was an Englishman, who would probably not have been familiar with the music of the Highland bagpipe.

Highland pipers were closely associated with the clan regiments that rallied to the support of the Stuart cause in 1715 and 1745. Prince Charles Edward (Bonnie Prince Charlie) engaged John MacGregor as his personal piper at the start of the campaign in 1745. MacGregor came from a distinguished family of pipers in Glen Lyon and served as the Prince’s piper and personal attendant throughout the campaign; he was wounded at the Battle of Culloden but escaped and subsequently became piper, to Colonel Campbell, Glenlyon.

There was little likelihood that a Highland piper would have been employed by the early Hanoverian court in London as pipers had been so closely identified with the Jacobite Risings. While there is only one recorded execution of a piper, that of James Reid who was with the garrison that surrendered at Carlisle in 1746, the devastation created by the army under the Duke of Cumberland left the Jacobite clans scattered and demoralised for a generation.

The Proscription Act of 1746, approved by George II, also made it a felony to wear any part of the Highland garb.

The reign of George II saw a gradual change in official attitudes towards the Gaels as the colonial wars in North America led to an increased demand for soldiers, and the newly raised Highland regiments proved their worth. The act against Highland dress was repealed in 1782 largely through the efforts of the Duke of Montrose and General Fraser of Lovat, leading members of a group of influential Gaels who formed the Highland Society of London in 1778.

Several royal princes became members of the society, and during his famous visit to Edinburgh in 1822 King George IV wore an elaborate form of Highland dress for the occasion.

It is in this period that we see the transformation of Highland dress and music from its natural place in the clan system into a symbol of romantic national feeling. The trappings of the Highland chief became stylised as part of a colourful display of tartans and music which clearly delighted the young Queen Victoria on her Highland visit in 1842. There seems no doubt from the various entries in the Queen’s journals that she enjoyed the sound of the Highland bagpipe although she makes no reference to particular tunes or classes of music apart from “merry reels”. Her appointment of Angus MacKay, however, had great significance for the promotion and development of this form of Scottish music.

There is no documentation to describe the precise nature of his appointment to the Queen in 1843, and there is no record of his duties or his status in the royal household. The arrangements for Queen Victoria’s visit to Blair Castle in September 1844 list servants from the royal household who were to accompany her, with 25 categorised as “upper servants”, 21 as lower servants, and 14 as “stable department”. The piper is included with the lower servants, along with eleven footmen and two messengers. The upper servants included a cellarman, six cooks and two huntsmen. The first indication of MacKay’s role comes from a lithograph by Joseph Nash of a scene from the state banquet given in St George’s Hall, Windsor Castle, on October 9, 1844, for King Louis Philippe of France. Mackay is shown in full Highland dress amidst the candle-lit splendour, performing around the table while footmen line the walls. No doubt the Queen and her consort were emulating the practice which they had admired at Taymouth Castle, where the piper would perform a piobaireachd after the evening meal for the entertainment of the company. Unfortunately, there is no record of the piece played by Angus MacKay on this occasion.

From Queen Victoria’s published journals we learn of MacKay’s regular performance after breakfast when it “sounds so well”. He also accompanied the royal couple on their visits to Balmoral and played on such occasions as the erection of the cairn in 1852 on the top of Craig Gowan, overlooking the castle, to commemorate royal possession of the estate. The cairn took an hour to build, during which time MacKay played and “some merry reels were danced on a stone opposite”. Dancing to the pipes figures in a number of the Queen’s journal entries, such as her description of a ball held in the open by torchlight at Corriemulzie, on the Earl of Fife’s estate adjoining Balmoral:

“A space of about one hundred feet in length and sixty feet in width was boarded, and entirely surrounded by Highlanders bearing torches, which were placed in sockets, and constantly replenished. There were seven pipers playing together, Mackay leading … after which came a most animated reel. There were about sixty people, exclusive of the Highlanders, of whom there were also sixty; all the Highland gentlemen, and any who were at all Scotch, were in kilts, the ladies in evening dresses. The company and the Highlanders danced pretty nearly alternately. There were two or three sword dances … I must not omit to mention a reel danced by eight Highlanders holding torches in their hands”.

A memorial to Angus MacKay was erected in 2010 by readers of the Piping Times. It is located on the banks of the River Nith between Kelton and Glencaple.
A memorial to Angus MacKay was erected in 2010 by readers of the Piping Times. It is located on the banks of the River Nith between Kelton and Glencaple.

Angus MacKay’s service came to an end in 1854 owing to mental illness. He was granted a royal pension and, after a sojourn in Bethlehem Hospital, was admitted to the Crichton Hospital, Dumfries, an advanced institution of its kind, where the expenses were met from his royal pension.

He accidentally drowned in the River Nith in 1859 at the age of 46.

• This article first appeared in full in the York Music Journal, to whom we are grateful. Next issue we look at William Ross, MacKay’s successor.

• Read Part 2 HERE.

Note: Angus MacKay’s birth, marriage and death certificates are on display in the Museum of Piping inside The National Piping Centre.