Playing waist deep in a river – all part of royal duty for pipers

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Fording the River Tarf as John MacPherson and Aeneas Rose play.
Fording the River Tarf as John Macpherson and Aeneas Rose play.

• From the May 2001 Piping Times.

Neville T. McKay continues his history of the office of Sovereign’s Piper

Angus MacKay’s successor at the royal household was William Ross who came from the Royal Highland Regiment, The Black Watch, where he had served 17 years. A memorandum from the Department of the Master of Horse dated May 10, 1854 records that Ross entered the royal service as ‘Piper’ and was placed at the head of the new establishment of footmen on a salary of £80 ($136US) per year. Although Ross’s salary remained at £80 until he was semi-retired in 1883, he received various allowances, including an additional £50 ($80US) when he was appointed Groom of the State Chamber. As he was also free to develop a profitable bagpipe-making business and to accept private engagements, the post seems to have been reasonably well rewarded, even if some of the duties may have been irksome in comparison with the traditional role of piper to a clan chief.

The extra musical duties of the royal piper are clearly spelled out in a memorandum of May 18, 1854, and include taking his turn of duty with the footmen in the garden in the morning, waiting at dinner if required, receiving visitors invited to dinner and generally taking orders from the Sergeant Footman.

Aeneas Rose.
Aeneas Rose.

In 1861, not long before her husband Prince Albert’s death, the Queen and the Prince paid a visit to the Duke of Atholl at Blair Castle. The return journey to Balmoral was made partly by horseback up Glen Tilt, and the description in the Queen’s journal shows the delight she took in the bagpipe and her romantic view of the Highlands. The cavalcade was preceded by the Duke’s pipers, John MacPherson and Aeneas Rose who were “playing alternately the whole time, which had a most cheerful effect, the wild strains sounding so softly amid those noble hills”.

They had to ford the River Tarf, which was nearly waist high below the falls, and the two pipers went first, playing all the time. This remarkable scene is commemorated in a painting by Carl Haag that was specially commissioned by the Queen. The party reached their rendezvous at Bynack Lodge when it was nearly dark after riding their ponies over ten miles:

“As we approached the shiel the pipers struck up and played. The ponies went so well with the pipes, and altogether it was pleasant to ride and walk with them. They played ‘The Athole Highlanders’ when we started and again in coming in.”

Fording the River Tarf as John MacPherson and Aeneas Rose play.
Fording the River Tarf as John MacPherson and Aeneas Rose play.

It can be seen from these events that the pipers required stamina as well as musical ability! The entry is remarkable in that it is the only instance where a record exists of the actual tune played in the Queen’s presence.

William Ross captured in a watercolour by Kenneth MacLeay now in The Royal Collection.
William Ross captured in a watercolour by Kenneth MacLeay now in The Royal Collection.

In 1871, when Ross was approaching 50, a man named William Leys was chosen to be his assistant. Very little is known of Leys or his duties and his services were terminated in 1876. Two years later James McHardy, a local youth of 14 was appointed as Ross’s assistant, and his duties were set out in a memorandum of 1880: “When not doing duty as Second Piper he will assist in the Steward’s Room. If not engaged in any of the above duties … he will be ready … to take charge of the Queen’s dogs and to make himself otherwise generally useful!’

McHardy resigned in 1881 possibly because of dissatisfaction with his more menial duties and also the domineering attitude of John Brown, the Queen’s personal attendant. Brown came from a Lowland family who had moved to Deeside from Angus, following the clearance of indigenous Gaels in the period before Queen Victoria. He was highly regarded by the Queen, who equipped him in the same dress uniform as her pipers, and he can be seen with them in attendance on her carriage in numerous pictures. We know that the pipers resented Brown, who was, of course, ignorant of their native language and did not share the same culture.

After Prince Albert’s death in 1861 the Queen spent increasingly long periods at Balmoral and she notes several piping performances. There was a celebration of Halloween in 1867, for example, when the estate workers and their families followed Ross in torchlight procession to a bonfire and then “they danced reels whilst Ross played the pipes.”

On her visit to Balmoral the next year the Queen spent several nights in the keeper’s cottage at Glassalt Shiel, on the shore of Loch Muick. The building had been adapted for her use as a private retreat, and the first night took the form of a house warming at which Ross played. The Queen was accompanied by Prince Arthur, Princess Louise and Lady Jane Churchill and their servants, and the policeman on duty outside was invited to join in the celebrations: “We made nineteen altogether. Five animated reels were danced, in which all (but myself) joined.” It seems that the whole company mixed together freely in a manner reminiscent of earlier Highland society.

William Ross in later years.
William Ross in later years.

When William Ross attained the age of 60 in April 1883, he was paid a retiring allowance and retained as Head Piper with new instructions ‘to attend at all times to play the pipes when sent for, such as State Balls or Dinners. By this time he had become a successful businessman, engaging a wood turner to assist him in the making of pipes. He was piper to the Highland Society of London and to the Gaelic Society of London. Like Angus MacKay, William Ross produced a popular volume of music which first appeared in 1869, entitled Ross’s Collection of Pipe Music. It was, “Dedicated by Special Permission to Her Most Gracious Majesty Queen Victoria”. The book ran to five editions and contained 41 piobaireachd, and 437 marches, strathspeys reels and jigs.

William Ross died in 1891 and his funeral took place at Windsor, led by the pipes and muffled drums of the Scots Guards.

• Next issue: the death of Queen Victoria and new century of Sovereign’s Pipers.

• Read Part 1 HERE.
• Read Part 3 HERE.