The John MacKay manuscript, pt. 1

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• From the May 1997 Piping Times.

By Captain John A. MacLellan

Some time ago the late Captain John A. MacLellan made a study of the John MacKay Manuscript and gave his findings in a paper to the Piobaireachd Society Conference. We are pleased to publish this important study.

We place great importance on our early manuscripts because they form the link with our playing to that of our early pipers and composers. Despite the immense credence we have put on traditional teaching, these manuscripts are really the rungs of the ladders that link us with the ceòl mòr experts of the past.

Why then has the John MacKay manuscript not been given the same importance that the other manuscripts have? The answer is quite simply that it has been seriously tampered with.

So with these words of introduction let me look more closely al the manuscript, its origins and the milestones between 1848 and today. For the past two months I have pretty well lived with the MacKays of Raasay, comparing that manuscript with the manuscripts of John MacKay’s brother Angus, and trying to elucidate facts that might be a puzzle to us. We may see some pointers this morning that will lead us to deciding whether in fact the manuscript was written by John MacKay Junior or, as has been said, John MacKay Senior.

The ruins of John MacKay's house at the southern end of Raasay.
The ruins of John MacKay’s house at the southern end of Raasay.

Now the individuals who have been associated with this manuscript are first of all John MacKay Senior of Raasay, who holds such an important position in piping in as much that all the piping before him seems to have channelled down to him and then out through him — in his teaching on the one hand and the manuscripts that his sons produced on the other. His dates are 1767 to 1848. Two of his sons, (he had four altogether) are involved in this manuscript – John, who had a relatively short life in piping, 1815 to 1848, and died the same year as his father, and Angus, 1813 to 1859. Two other people are associated with the manuscript – Angus MacKay’s pupil Michael MacCarfrae, and Dr Charles Bannatyne.

The manuscript has been given detailed study by Archibald Campbell of Kilberry and also by Roderick Cannon and myself.

So let us have some facts about the manuscript itself. The first illustration is the index that Angus MacKay wrote into the manuscript when he got it in his brother’s portmanteau on his brother’s deal!) What Angus has written in is —

“21st May 1849. The following collection of ancient piobaireachd was found in the portmanteau of my late brother John after his decease, October 1848 — Being a collection of my father’s tunes.”

That is signed as we see with the distinctive Angus MacKay signature.

It has always been presumed in the Society that this manuscript was written by John MacKay Junior, but in a series of radio programmes it was claimed that John Senior wrote the manuscript and that his son Angus altered it. Indeed the presenter of these radio programmes went to great lengths to condemn Angus as the perpetrator who made all the alterations to this manuscript. Close study shows, however, that all Angus did was to complete the short preface; index and contents; and in pencil only title the tunes.

From my own point of view I feel that if John Senior had written it, Angus would have written: “Being my father’s collection of tunes’ rather than: “Being a collection of my father’s tunes.”

Roddy Cannon makes the point that as none of the tunes are in Angus MacKay’s published book (which is dated 1838) and all are to be found in Angus’s main manuscript, that this points to the writing of the John MacKay manuscript being after the publication of Angus’s book in 1838 and before John’s death in 1848.

John Senior also died that year and it’s doubtful if he ever wrote music. If he did it is inconceivable that Angus who so assiduously collected music would not have had in his possession examples of his father’s writing. There is just no record of John MacKay of Raasay having written any music — yet he was the leading player of his day. To me, it is obvious that John Senior had it all recorded in his head. Having been taught by canntaireachd he had no need for written scores.

Angus also inscribed in the Seaforth manuscript which he wrote for Donald Cameron in 1854:

“From original manuscripts in his possession as noted down by him from the canntaireachd of John MacKay his father, from the year 1826 to 1840.”

Angus MacKay.
Angus MacKay.

Angus’s manuscript was completed pretty well by 1840 and his book was published in 1838, and this points to John MacKay Junior having written the manuscript in the period 1838 to his death in 1848. John Bàn MacKenzie said of John MacKay Senior of Raasay that he taught always in canntaireachd through the medium of one of his daughters who used to sing the tunes.

But why all the mystery about this, and why did the Society decide that it should not be made available to the public like the other piping manuscripts? Very simply because it’s incomplete in its original form and because it was tampered with by later hands. As Kilberry puts it, whoever altered it “stooped to vandalism,” and he said that of Dr Charles Bannatyne.

• Part 2.