The John MacKay manuscript, pt. 2

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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.

• From the June 1997 Piping Times.

By Captain John A. MacLellan

My second illustration is a typical page of the manuscript in what is thought would be the original form for the whole manuscript. As you can see it is really a framework with the notes written in crotchet beats all the way through. This is the way many of the tunes in the manuscript have been left, just the notes with, in most cases in the grounds, some of the gracenotes added, but the later variations were left to be filled in. This would appear to be the extent of John MacKay Junior’s work. There are 62 tunes in the manuscript, none of which was titled.

Angus MacKay made an index in ink naming the tunes — 38 in Gaelic, the remainder in English. Angus also titled each tune — but only in pencil.

Having compared the basic music ofthis manuscript with Angus’s manuscript I find that the settings of the main melodies are 95% similar. There are some tunes where John MacKay has different variations from Angus’s manuscript, but on the whole as one would expect of two sons taught by an illustrious and expert piper (their father) most of the tunes are in fact basically the same. I think however that John MacKay Junior in fact copied a lot of this manuscript from his brother Angus’s main books, although it’s not possible to be quite certain about John Junior’s source.

A charge was levelled at Angus, that he added time binds and pointing to the tunes. But why should he? All the tunes were already in his own main manuscript, which is a model of manuscript writing, and completed as he said by 1840.

After Angus died in 1859 his widow disposed of all his music to Michael MacCarfrae, a favourite pupil and the piper to the Duke of Hamilton. MacCarfrae in turn bequeathed most of the music to the Duke.

In 1904 Dr Charles Bannatyne bought the MacArthur manuscript and the John MacKay manuscript from MacCarfrae’s daughter and there is no doubt that from that point onwards until the Society acquired both these manuscripts in 1926 (for the sum of £20) that Bannatyne felt free to add to John’s work.

Now Kilberry had a loan of the manuscript in 1910 and he made a copy of it for the Piobaireachd Society files, each tune going into its own particular file. I have compared a selection of Kilberry’s copies with the original manuscript and I found that Kilberry had copied the tunes as they appear in the manuscript but added comprehensive notes such as, “Gracenotes, tie lines and bar lines by ‘X’.” Sometimes he referred to ‘Y,’ because a number of hands had been involved, but nowhere in these 1910 notes does he refer to anyone by name. He keeps that for his main note kept along with the manuscript written in 1920 when he comments on a letter to J. P. Grant from Charles Bannatyne. Then he lays it on quite thick. He says of Frasers’ Lament,

“Name, binds, tails, double bar strokes and several bar strokes by Bannatyne. The timing of the ground shows that it is the work of an ignoramus.”

Now to Charles Bannatyne’s alleged vandalism. Roddy Cannon who has meticulously researched the manuscript over the past two years and made a comprehensive report on it found that eleven different hands have had a go at this work. However he feels that undoubtedly most of the music alterations have been made by Bannatyne whose writing is easily recognisable, and the ink he used quite distinctive. As he had titled each tune in ink — writing over Angus MacKay’s pencilled headings – the tie lines, dots and gracenotes stand out clearly even today.

Now who was Charles Bannatyne? Little is said of him in the ‘Notices of Pipers’. A pity. Kilberry, obviously from his writing, had a very low opinion of him, but Bannatyne was most active in the 1900 to 1925 period, writing at great length to the Oban Times – particularly before the First World War —on all facets of piping. Ceòl mòr, canntaireachd, the pipe scale, settings of tunes, manuscripts in his possession, the state of piobaireachd — you name it, he wrote about it, and I must say in a most authoritative and enlightened manner. He also composed successfully, for instance leaving to posterity the reel The Blackbird.

He was obviously a well practised and interested piper. He was certainly no dud and he impressed the Piobaireachd Society in its formative days. He was able to persuade the Secretary to use some of his settings for the first series of five books that the Society published.

One of his settings in that book was My King has Landed in Moidart, and he persuaded the Secretary that his was the setting that should be played.

And on it went like that. He obviously had a lot of influence with pipers. However, Kilberry obviously had his measure and when the John MacKay manuscript came into the Society’s hands it was kept under lock and key so that it would not mislead piobaireachd devotees.

'Duncan MacRae of Kintail's Lament', the first variation and its doubling, from John MacKay's manuscript,
‘Duncan MacRae of Kintail’s Lament’, the first variation and its doubling, from John MacKay’s manuscript,

Let me give you an example of a Bannatyne music setting. This is Duncan MacRae of Kintail’s Lament, and here’s the doubling of the first variation, the interesting part. The timing of the notes in here is much different from anything most of us has ever heard.

I don’t know if anybody has heard that particular way of playing the doubling of the first variation at all. I certainly have never heard anything like that.

Another peculiar timing occurs in his taorluath of Donald of Laggan, whigh is a distinct example of Bannatyne’s work. You can see Charles Bannatyne’s writing of the title in ink. All the tie binds and dots are in the same colour of ink as this title and it seems 100% certain that it was Charles Bannatyne who timed this particular part. We were talking yesterday about breabachs up or down, and one of the examples noted was the fact that Donald of Laggan had a peculiarity in that the breabach was played down to low A. Bannatyne has played it up by the addition of timing indication.

Another typical example of Bannatyne’s timing is in Weighing from Land, the thumb variation. Again the title is quite definitely in Bannatyne’ handwriting. The tie binds are again in the same colour of ink as are the headings to variation 1, variation 2, etc. It is another peculiarity in timing that I haven’t come across before, but it’s not so startling as was the change in Donald of Laggan.

So that is another example of timing that has no authoritative source. One could go on and on about the obvious additions and alterations to the original manuscript, which in itself would have been really of little value with its continuous use of crotchets. Again, as Roddy Cannon says of its status, “A skilled editor could use it as he would a canntaireachd score which has no timing indication.”

Now just to show you the difference between Angus MacKay’s own work and John MacKay’s work the next illustration is part of The Blue Ribbon from Angus MacKay’s manuscript. One can see his distinctive use of many little tricks to get the music down on paper. For instance he invariably uses crosses all over the place and abbreviations for the throw on D all the way through. And his distinctive hiharin for instance, the long E with the two short A’s.

You can note too that these D gracenotes have only two tails, and also the gracenotes between the A’s of the birl have only two tails, yet the other gracenotes are printed in the normal way. That’s Angus MacKay’s. Brother John’s is a much cruder work altogether, not such a practised hand I would have said.

To summarise I would say that:

  1. All the evidence points to this being a John MacKay Junior work and not that of his father John MacKay Senior, who probably did not write music.
  2. John Junior had access to Angus’s very extensive manuscripts written between 1826 and 1840, and carefully avoided recording any tunes already in Angus’s published book which came out in 1838. This points to the manuscript being prepared between 1838 and John Junior’s death in 1848. Roddy Cannon is the man who pointed out that particular fact.

After Dr Bannatyne acquired the manuscript in August 1904 he ‘completed’ John MacKay’s unfinished work in most cases.

The Piobaireachd Society’s policy was correct to put the manuscript into purdah, lest Bannatyne’s alterations become part of our traditional heritage, because it just lacked authority.

Finally because of the manuscript’s very fragile condition it has been placed in specialist care in the National Library for its conservation, with a prominent warning prepared to show these conclusions by those who have made a detailed study of it.