Boreraig – the first pipers at the cairn

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• From the August 1994 Piping Times.

A letter from William A. Cromarty of South Orange, NJ, reminded us of the inauguration of the cairn at Boreraig in 1933. He enclosed a cutting from an Ontario newspaper of the time, which contained a report of that famous day. The story had been taken from the London Times and had obviously been written by Seton Gordon.

The story is as follows:

The MacCrimmons

Famous Piping Family of Skye Honoured by
Chief of Macleod Clan

This morning Macleod of Macleod, 27th chief of his clan, unveiled a memorial cairn to the great piping family of MacCrimmon on the shore of Loch Dunvegan, in Skye, says a recent Dunvegan dispatch in the London Times. The MacCrimmons for at least three centuries were the renowned hereditary pipers to the successive chiefs of the Macleods, and so pre-eminent were they in their musical art that Highland chiefs from far and near sent their pipers to the MacCrimmon College of Music.

John MacDonald (Inverness) and Robert Reid playing together 'MacCrimmon's Sweetheart' at the unveiling of the memorial cairn in 1933.
John MacDonald (Inverness) and Robert Reid playing together ‘MacCrimmon’s Sweetheart’ at the unveiling of the memorial cairn in 1933.

The ceremony was a picturesque and inspiring reminder of old times. It was a grey, misty morning when Macleod left his castle at Dunvegan and sailed across the loch to Boreraig, where the memorial cairn stands. The greatest pipers of the day had come to take part in the ceremony, and during the sail across the dark loch the strains of the pipes carried far across the sea and land. The chief and the pipers landed at Boreraig, and climbed the hill where the cairn stands in view of the blue Cuillin and the bens of Harris.

After an address in Gaelic by the Rev. Dr. Neil Ross, Macleod of Macleod called upon Pipe-Major John Macdonald to play a historic MacCrimmon composition, nearly 300 years old. The name of the pibroch is I Got a Kiss of the King’s Hand, and, as Macleod reminded his hearers, it commemorates an episode of the year 1651, when Charles II was encamped outside Stirling.

One morning, when the king went out to review his troops, he saw all the pipers, to the number of 80, standing together uncovered before an old piper. The king was told that this was MacCrimmon, the king of the pipers, and calling up MacCrimmon, he gave him his hand to kiss. MacCrimmon then and there composed the classical pibroch, I Got a Kiss of the King’s Hand, and to hear it played by John Macdonald today beside the ruins of MacCrimmon’s College was a memorable experience.

From near and far people had journeyed to be present at this unique ceremony, and when Macleod unveiled the memorial many hundreds of spectators stood around. The chief in an eloquent address paid a tribute to the great piping family of MacCrimmon. An interesting episode occurred when he asked his audience whether any of the old name were present that day. Immediately, a number of descendants of the MacCrimmons approached him, and received a special welcome.

After John Macdonald had finished playing, and Macleod had been thanked by Frederick Macleod for his services, there still remained a musical treat for lovers of the old pipe music. With a mist driving in from the Atlantic and the scent of flowers on the south wind, Pipe-Major John Macdonald and Pipe-Major Robert Reid played together a very ancient MacCrimmon composition known as MacCrimmon’s Sweetheart. It is probably safe to say that never before has this classical piece, full of melody and difficult to express except by the highest exponents of piping, been played in unison by two pipers, but so perfectly did Macdonald and Reid play that it seemed as though only one pipe was heard sounding over the hill and over the sea.

In the afternoon a second ceremonial took place, when a memorial plate was unveiled in the old ruined church beside Dunvegan, where the MacCrimmons are buried. There was, first, a memorial service conducted by two pillars of the Scottish Church, the Very Rev. Norman Maclean and the Rev. Neil Ross. Then Pipe-Major Robert Reid played the very beautiful pibroch known as The Lament for the Children, as composed three centuries ago by Patrick Mòr MacCrimmon on the death of his seven sons.

The Piobaireachd Society was represented by Lord Cassillis and Seton Gordon; the Scottish Pipers’ Society by John Methuen and Rev. Neil Ross; the Royal Celtic Society by Frederick Macleod; while Macleod of Macleod himself represented the Highland Society of London.