The history and art of Angus MacKay, part 2


By Archibald Campbell of Kilberry

There can be no one alive now who ever heard Angus MacKay play, and few who have heard his playing described at first hand. Sandy Cameron remembered him playing piobaireachd at Maryburgh in his father’s house but he must have been quite a young child at the time, for 1848 was his birth year. But reputedly, Angus MacKay’s technical skill was very great, and I have never heard it described otherwise.

No more need be added about his influence on present day ceòl mòr than that, without him, the publications of General Thomason and of David Glen would have been very different things, those of William Ross, MacPhee and Bett, in all probability would never have been printed, and manuscripts like that of Duncan Campbell would never have been written.

There remains a ceòl beag side of the picture. The fashion for ‘competition’ ceòl beag marches to which the soldier does not march, and dance tunes to which the dancer does not dance, started in Angus MacKay’s time. He is spoken of sometimes as the originator of it. If he was not, he, like other pipers about Deeside in royal or other exalted employ, was an early devotee. So far as competition marches go, his Glengarry Gathering and Balmoral Highlanders may be comparable in originality with the great tunes of his gifted contemporary, Hugh MacKay: The Stirlingshire Militia, The Crags of Stirling, Angus Campbell’s Farewell to Stirling, Charles Edward Hope Vere. But Abercairney Highlanders, The Duke of Roxburgh’s Farewell to the Black Mount, and Highland Wedding are among those others of his which pronounce him to have been an adapter rather than a composer. The first-named is a thinly disguised variant of the north of England air, Where does bonny Annie lie? from which are also derived Bonny Ann and the song John Peel.

Angus MacKay’s wife and son, John.

The second is palpably the same as Miss Forbes’s Farewell to Banff, a tune well known to Burns, who died before Angus MacKay was born. Highland Wedding, of which the correct name was declared by Sandy Cameron to be The Breadalbane Fencibles, is Stumpie pure and simple. Some give credit to Angus MacKay for some of the six parts, but there lies before me, as I write, The Repository of Scots and Irish Airs’ published before 1795 by J. McFadyen, Glasgow, which contains Stumpie’s Strathspey arranged in the key of A for the piano in precisely the same six parts as those of Highland Wedding now played on the pipes, except for two high B’s in the first part, and one each in the third and fifth. But let it be observed that, in each of these three cases, Angus MacKay’s adaptation suits the great highland bagpipe admirably, so nothing of what has been said is derogatory from his musical genius.

Many of Angus MacKay’s other ceòl beag tunes were named in commemoration of Queen Victoria’s welcome to, or departure from, this place or that, or after various members of the Royal family. So vivid was the Queen’s highland sentiment, that Angus MacKay’s position in the Balmoral household may have been regarded by himself, or by others, as analogous with that of a poet laureate. Posterity has not bestowed upon these the stamp of great popularity, and most survive, perhaps, as illustrations of the truism that compositions made to order (certainly bagpipe compositions) are seldom much of a success.

The critical eccentric, with fingers more skilled to the pen than to the chanter, does not obtrude himself upon our notice at present in the way in which he did some years ago. There was then a school of doctrine that the early records of ceòl mòr were untrustworthy and required revision by the enlightened intellects of the 20th century, because their writers were ignorant, uneducated persons. Some of these worthies made Angus MacKay a special target. The accusation that he was uneducated or ill educated was based on no better foundation than the fact that he was what would have been called in Victorian times ‘of humble parentage,’ a curious argument of Scotsmen to use in regard to a Scotsman.

I can only say that I have made an exact copy by hand of the whole of his voluminous piobaireachd manuscript, Vols. I and II, and claim that anyone who does that sort of thing must know something about the author when he has finished. Wherever Angus MacKay got his education, I declare without hesitation that he was a well-educated man. His spelling may not always be above reproach, but the same could be said about many a university graduate in honours. His calligraphy was marvellously good, and his capacity for expressing himself in English very remarkable.

Angus’s official appointment as Sovereign’s Piper: “These are to authorize and require you Angus MacKay into the place of Piper to Her Majesty. To commence on the 17th day of April 1843, and for so doing this shall be your warrant. Given under my signature and seal_this _th day of July 1843 Year of Her Majesty’s Reign … of her Majesty’s Stables. I hereby Certify that I have this day sworn and admitted Angus MacKay into the place of Piper to her Majesty, London July 25, 1843.

In both his published and unpublished works he used copiously and freely such Italian terms as Allegro, Andante, Con animo, De capo, Volti subito, etc., and this has been pointed to as proof that his book must have been written partially or wholly by someone else. Such an argument falls to the ground once he is accepted as a well-educated man. Furthermore, to drag in my own experience once more, I am convinced from my knowledge of pipers, that the published book could not have received the immediate and unreserved reverence which it did, if Angus MacKay were known to have had an assistant or assistants.

The reliability of Angus MacKay’s work has also been attacked, albeit hesitatingly it is satisfactory to add, on the ground of his latter-day malady. To this the reply is that the closest examination of his ceòl mòr writings, the material for which he tells us in his own hand was collected by 1840, reveals no trace whatsoever of abnormality. Secondly, the implicit reliance on those writings by all high-class pipers since the publication of 1838 was, and is, unanimous. Thirdly, it is impossible to imagine that anyone under the slightest suspicion of mental disorder in 1843 would have been appointed then a personal attendant in the Royal household.

To pronounce a verdict upon the career of this remarkable man requires more information about it than I have been able to collect. Probably, as so often happens, any would be biographer has missed the bus, for Angus MacKay has been dead over 90 years. Yet it might be possible, even now, to fill in some of the gaps. Such evidence as has come my way suggests that his destiny was that of many another genius – a bright beginning, a prosperous interim and a sad ending. Yet he was, surely, a great man and a notable piper in highland history. We pipers owe him much gratitude for many happy hours spent in playing or in listening to what he has preserved for us, and in poring over what he has written and inspired others to write.

• From the April 1985 Piping Times.

• Part 1.