The history and art of Angus MacKay, part 1


At present 60 issues of the Piping Times are out of print, including almost all of volumes 2, 4, 13 and 16. We receive many requests for important articles which appeared in these issues so we have decided to reprint the most essential ones.

Every piper should know something of Angus MacKay of Raasay; here is Kilberry’s informative dissertation. It appeared starting in July 1950 and is not available anywhere else. The original introduction began:

The name of Archibald Campbell of Kilberry needs no introduction to our older readers. For the benefit of the younger ones, we would mention that he has been for many years one of the most active members of the Piobaireachd Society and is one of the present-day experts in most branches of the art of piping. He is secretary of the Music Committee of the society and is joint producer of the Kilberry Book of Ceol Meodhanach. Last year he produced the monumental work, the Kilberry Book of Ceol Mor, which contains over a hundred pieces, and summarises much of his knowledge of piobaireachd.

The Piping Times is privileged to present this series of articles by such an expert.

By Archibald Campbell

Elsewhere I have ventured the suggestion that the two great names in the history of piping in the 19th and 20th centuries are Angus MacKay and General Thomason. I also said that piobaireachd players had regarded Angus MacKay’s printed book as their Scriptures ever since its publication in 1838.

In the days of my youth I conformed whole-heartedly to the respect paid to Angus MacKay, but was unenterprisingly content to leave him on his pedestal without delving into further details of his career. Since this journal appears to be maintained largely for the enlightenment of young pipers, it occurs to me that I might be interesting to them to be told something about who Angus Mackay was and what he did.

The following is his own account of his origin and family, recorded in one of his two ceòl beag MSS., at present in Brodick Castle, Arran:

“This is a brief account of my father’s family: John MacKay, commonly called Iain MacRuari of Eyre, in Rarsair, Isle of Skye; he was, I believe, left an orphan with one sister; he was reared up by Malcolm Macleod, commonly called ‘Fir Aire;’ being there employed as a herd boy, etc. and in the house.

“Fir Eyre played the pipes and was teaching a young lad; my father used to overhear them and pick up his lesson and play the same on the moors while herding; and that on a flad an Sialeasda he was overheard by Fir Aire, who taught him and afterwards sent him to the College of the Mac Crummens and to the Mackays of Gearloch; and he married Margaret Maclean or Marearad nion Aonghas – issue Katherine Mhor, a child who died in infancy, Donald, Mary, Margaret, Cursty, Katherine Ogg, Roderick, Angus (self) and John. Katherine married Norman MacKenzie, now in P. Edward Island, and has a numerous family. Mary married John MacKenzie in Castle Rasay. She died in Rasay and is buried there. Margaret married Wm. Robertson of Badeno and died there; they both left a family. Cursty married A. Maclean her cousin and she has one daughter in P.E. Island. Kitty Og married John Munro and has one son alive at Kylakin, Isle of Skye. Roderick married Elisa Gillies of Rasay; he died in Edinburgh, 1854, leaving 4 children. I. Angus, married Mary Johnstone Russell and have 4 children alive. John died in London, single. Donald died in London, leaving 3 orphans; the mother Caroline (?) had died previously and is burried at Kensal Green.”

Fir Eyre was Captain Malcolm MacLeod, grandson of John Garve MacLeod of Raasay, the friend and companion in his wanderings of Prince Charles Edward and the composer of Prince Charles’s Lament [see Book 10 of the Piobaireachd Society’s collection – Editor]. A brief description of him is given in the note to that tune on page 13 of the historical notes in Angus Mackay’s book.

The father, John MacKay, who, according to tradition, was “three six months” with the MacCrimmons, was born about 1767 and died about 1848 at Kyleakin. He was the most notable piper of his time, which included the concluding years of the last MacCrimmons. He won the first prize at the Highland Society’s Competition in 1792. In 1815 (as we learn from the unpublished diary of Alexander Campbell, author of Albyn’s Anthology) Donald Ruadh MacCrimmon, then living in Glenelg, was able to impress Campbell with a most masterly rendering of The Prince’s Salute, and at that time was teaching at least one pupil, Sandy Bruce.

The young Angus MacKay.
The young Angus MacKay.

The prestige of Angus MacKay’s recorded works was due to a belief (which he himself declared to be a fact) that what he wrote was derived entirely from his father. The latter’s eminence in the piping world is described in an extant letter from Mr. Wm. MacKenzie, secretary to the Celtic Society, to Mr. MacDonald of Staffa, secretary to the Highland Society of Scotland, dated 10th July, 1821, of which the following is an extract:

… ‘‘I met Mackay, Raasay’s piper. The fame of this man is too well known to require any praise form me. He is not satisfied with the treatment he is receiving, and as his abilities are unnoticed and his allowance so reduced that he cannot exist, he talks as a last resource of going to America. To let this man leave the Highlands will bring deserved obloquy on these institutions who have it in their power to relieve one so capable of preserving in purity the strains of our beloved ancestors, and, in the event of his quitting his native land we lose a treasure, as he will leave none behind him worthy of being his successor. I asked him if he would become a teacher of his instrument if he got a situation by which he could live; his reply was that he would do anything rather than leave his country. He thought from £40 to £50 per annum would be an ample provision, and will the London, the Edinburgh, the Fort William, the Tain, and the Celtic Societies allow this man to emigrate for such a trifle – for the honour of our country, I hope not.”

From croft to castle. Top, all that’s left of the MacKay house on Raasay, and, above, the splendour of Drummond Castle in Perthshire.

What action, if any, was taken on this appeal is not known, but, after the death, in 1823, of James MacLeod of Raasay, John MacKay was engaged by Lord Gwydir, afterwards Lord Willoughby d’Eresby, at Drummond Castle. The late Pipe-Major Robert Meldrum, employed at Drummond Castle 50 years later, heard an old man describe the arrival of John Mackay and his family, all on foot and with all their belongings carried in peat creels on two Highland ponies.

Between 1835 and 1840 John MacKay left Drummond Castle, and tradition has it that Lord MacDonald, impressed by protests that it was a shame that such a piper should leave the country, gave him a house in Kyleakin, where he died as stated above.

All four sons of John MacKay were pipers of great repute. Donald (1794-1850), piper first to MacLeod of Raasay, then to Clanranald, and then to H.R.H. the Duke of Sussex, took first prize at the Highland Society’s Competition in 1822. His winning tune is not on record, but he played The Stewarts’ Gathering at the preliminary ‘rehearsal,’ at which a short leet was selected for the competition proper. Roderick (1810-1854) competed unsuccessfully in 1826 and 1829, and was placed first in 1832, playing The Bells of Perth. He was piper to Moray of Abercairney from before 1829, and latterly was a merchant in Kyleakin, where a local and possibly not unbiassed tradition describes him as the best player of the four brothers. John (1815-1848), also a skilled dancer, won 4th prize for piping in 1835, with MacKenzie of Gairloch’s Lament, as piper to Sir Robert Gordon of Balmoral. His rehearsal tune was The MacLean’s March. He was afterwards piper to Mr. Leslie, Invergarry, and competed again in 1844, being eligible under the rules only for a prize higher than 4th. He played Queen Anne’s Lament and was narrowly defeated for 3rd place. Donald Cameron was 1st with Seaforths’ Salute.

Angus competed in 1825, when he was awarded 5/ – for producing music written in staff notation, and in 1826, when he was placed 4th over the heads of his brother Roderick and several others, playing MacKintosh’s Lament. In both years he was described as a boy of 13, so his year of birth may be put down as 1812. He survived all his brothers, but like them, died at a comparatively early age in 1859. In 1835 he competed again, and was 1st with The Lament for the Union, having played at the rehearsal The Lament for the Viscount of Dundee.

Thereafter he became piper, first to Campbell of Islay and then to Queen Victoria. The Queen records in her “Leaves from the Journal of our Life in the Highlands” that he entered her service in 1843, on the recommendation of Lord Breadalbane, and that he was about the best piper in Scotland. The only piobaireachd which he is known to have composed (apart from the variations to Colin Roy MacKenzie’s Lament) is called Farewell to the Laird of Islay, and is dated 1840.

He remained in the Queen’s service until 1854, when he developed mental trouble and became an inmate, first of Bethlem Hospital, London, and later of the Crichton Institute, Dumfries. The official account of his death on 21st March, 1859, is that he escaped from the Crichton Institute and was drowned when crossing the Nith to elude pursuit. A tradition has it that he was playing the pipes on the river bank during a supposed lucid interval, and that he suddenly leapt a high hedge and disappeared into the water, An unlikely addition to this story is that an itinerant piper who frequented those parts afterwards was really Angus MacKay. As if John MacDonald, for instance, or William Ross, at the age of 47, could have hidden his identity under the disguise of a street performer.

The portrait of Michael MacCarfrae that hangs at Brodick Castle.

After his death, Angus MacKay’s widow disposed of all his music to Michael MacCarfrae, piper to the Duke of Hamilton. MacCarfrae, at his own death, left the more valuable portions to the Duke, and they still remain in the hands of his daughter, the Duchess of Montrose. Where Angus Mackay’s pipes went is not known. They were made by his brother, Donald, on the order of Queen Victoria.

The four children were – the Rev. Angus, some time incumbent of the Episcopal Church of Holy Trinity, Edinburgh; John, who was in the excise in China; and two daughters, one of whom was once a teacher of the piano in London, and gave a portrait of her father to the Scots Corporation. They and their mother appear to have dissociated themselves from everything connected with piping.

To one, only, of John MacKay’s descendants did the family art come down in the third generation. This was Donald, son of Donald, who was educated at the Caledonian School, was afterwards taught by Donald Cameron, was married from Donald Cameron’s house, won the Northern Meeting Gold Medal in 1872, as piper to Sir George MacPherson Grant of Ballindalloch, was a valued assistant to General Thomason in the compilation of Ceol Mor, and finished up in the service of the Prince of Wales, afterwards King Edward VII. His only son died in infancy.

In 1838, at the age of 26, Angus MacKay published his famous book of piobaireachd music. It was prefaced by an apology for its delayed appearance, and so must have been compiled some time previously. It contains the music of 61 piobaireachds, abundant letterpress, lengthy prefaces, historical notes, dissertations on musical theory, instructions for playing, etc., and no evidence is known of his having been helped by anyone. The reduction of piobaireachd music into staff notation was then in its infancy. Donald MacDonald had been a pioneer, but there was room for improvement of his methods, and these improvements Angus MacKay effected. ‘The book was accepted immediately by all pipers as their Scriptures, and their sedulous fidelity to it, in my youthful days, was sometimes grotesque. Things are a little more elastic now. Mistakes, such as are almost inevitable in collections of pipe music, are now recognised as mistakes and are not asserted heatedly to be gospel truths. Yet, speaking generally, the prestige of Angus MacKay’s book still stands higher than that of any other book of pipe music, and probably, among those who are able to estimate its worth, as high as any other book on any branch of Celtic art.

Not a bad effort on the part of a youth in his early 20s, who as a boy of 11 had travelled from Raasay to Crieff on foot, and probably bare-footed.

His other published work was of a less notable character. He appears to have been one of those responsible for the comparatively modern development of the quick-step march as a serious branch of the Highland piper’s art, and in 1843 he edited for Alexander Glen, Edinburgh, a collection of 155 marches and dance tunes called The Pipers’ Assistant, and long out of print.

Most of his unpublished work was included in the music sold by his widow to Michael MacCarfrae. That music consisted of:

(1) Piobaireachd Manuscript, Vol. I.
(2) Piobaireachd Manuscript, Vol. II.
(3) Manuscript Music, Vol. III. (Marches, Strathspeys and Reels).
(4) Manuscript Music, Vol. IV. (Reels, Jigs and other Dance Music).
(5) Angus MacArthur’s Highland Society of London’s Piobaireachd Manuscript.
(6) Piobaireachd Manuscript found by Angus Mackay among the effects of his dead brother John,

Nos. (1), (2), (3) and (4) were bequeathed by Michael MacCarfrae to the Duke of Hamilton, who had them bound richly in green leather and stamped in gold – fortunately for us. They were taken to London in the eighties or nineties of the last century, where a copy of Nos. (1) and (2) (now in the National Library) was made for a barrister, Mr. P. E. Dove. This copy was acquired afterwards by General Thomason, and was one of the principal authorities for his work, Ceol Mor.

After the Duke’s death the four volumes were lost sight of and were believed by everyone concerned, including General Thomason, to have been taken to South Africa by D. S. MacDonald, the Duke’s piper, and lost there. Actually they were at the Duke’s House, Easton Park, Suffolk, and remained unnoticed there for many years, until the house was sold in 1919, when, saved by their handsome binding from the fate of much other music, the flames, they were brought to Brodick, where they still are.

What D. S. MacDonald did was to obtain the Duke’s permission to copy a number of the piobaireachds with a view to publication, about 1882, and to take his own copy to South Africa, whence, after his death, it returned to this country and is now deposited in the National Library.

Nos. (1) and (2) contain 183 piobaireachds, all most beautifully written, with the strokes on the left of the notes, as in printing. They are evidently a fair copy from other material, for every tune ends on the last line of a page.

Nos. (5) and (6) were acquired by the late Dr. Charles Bannatyne from Michael MacCarfrae’s daughter, and were bought from his estate by the Piobaireachd Society. No. (5) has been deposited in the National Library. No. (6), John MacKay’s MS., has been greatly mutilated by extensive and variegated interpolations made by Dr. Bannatyne who also was unable to keep his hands off No. (5). This vandalism is quite inexplicable, for Dr. Bannatyne had every appearance of being a genuine piobaireachd enthusiast, though of limited practical knowledge or practical ability.

Finally, we have the so-called ‘Seaforth MS.’ written in 1854 in Bethlem Hospital, London, by Angus MacKay, and inscribed on the title page:

“The following Highland airs for the private use of Keith W. Stewart MacKenzie, Esq., of Seaforth, are copied by Angus Mackay, piper to Her Majesty, from the original MSS. in his possession, as noted down by him from the Canntireachd of John Mackay his father from the year 1826 to 1840.—A. M‘K. confecit. Apud. Bethlehemicum, Idibus Martiis.”’

The contents are 21 tunes, ten of them piobaireachds, all beautifully and accurately written, both headings and scores. It there is a tinge of eccentricity about the title page, there is nothing of the mental patient about the music, We have got a certain amount of information about the nature of Angus MacKay’’s disease, and this indicates that there were ‘‘periods of remission.” Though inscribed to Seaforth, the copy evidently was intended for the use of his piper, Donald Cameron, Angus MacKay’s friend and pupil, in whose family it remained until recently, when it was placed by the Piobaireachd Society in the National Library.

• From the March 1985 Piping Times.

• Part 2