My father the bagpiper – part 1

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James McHardy.
James McHardy.

Pipe Major McHardy (1863-1938), a native of Aberdeenshire, was a boy piper to Queen Victoria at Balmoral and at other royal residences. From 1878 to 1881 he was assistant to the Queen’s piper, PM William Ross, 42nd Highlanders (Black Watch) who was in that role from 1854-1891.

McHardy was one of the first pipers to be broadcast on BBC radio. Later, he became piper to Lord Forbes at Castle Newe and worked as farm manager on the Whitehouse Estate and also on a farm at Tornaveen. He was a well-known figure at the Lonach Games of the 1920s and 30s.

In 1983, Edith Paterson (née MacHardy), the younger daughter of MacHardy, published an account of her father’s life and it was serialised in the Piping Times from 1995-1996. We begin here with the first instalment:

Jamie first saw the light of day at Burnside in Corgarff on 14th February, St. Valentine’s Day, 1863. His mother often said that he was the “most troublesome” Valentine she had ever received: for Jamie was brisk of mind and high-spirited. Every year the family made the eight-mile trek down Donside to Heugh-head where John’s Fair was held. Every year, new boots were bought there for the family. One year, a careful inspection of Jamie’s boots brought the verdict that they would “do” another while. The bereft youngster, unseen by his elders, took his boots to the hack-stock and chopped the toes off both. “Now,” he thought, “I’ll have to get new ones.” But, alas for best-laid schemes, he was told that he would have to stay at home since his boots were not now fit to be seen. O me miserum! Surely he would have new ones before the winter storms? History does not say.

The view over the Corgarff district. (Photo: VisitScotland/Damian Shields)

On the occasion of another John’s Fair, his elder brother, Alick, had been trimming Jamie’s hair in preparation when they fell out about something and Alick refused to do any more. Jamie was left with one side still unshorn. Not a pretty sight, but, as Jamie used to say, “I gaed as I was — an’ played the pipes up and down the fairground,” for he already, though untaught, was making a name as a piper. He had early shown evidence of musical ability: came a day at school when the singing-lesson had offended his ear and he thoughtlessly called out, “That’s wrang!” thus earning a clout from the dominie [schoolmaster] for his uncomfortable perspicacity.

Can we picture in these days of over a hundred years ago a wee laddie in a home made “skirt” with a big pocket in front for carrying his oat-cake lunch and his peat for the school-room fire? At that time, the dominie coped in one room with over 60 of a roll spread over all classes from beginners to teenagers, and augmented his meager salary by breaking stones at the roadside after school hours! The older pupils herded sheep and worked on farms in summer and returned to school each winter to pick up the threads once more. Jamie collected several prizes for general excellence and one for his hand-writing which to the end of his days was outstandingly beautiful.

Map of Donside and Deeside showing were many of the places associated with James McHardy's life are located.
Map of Donside and Deeside showing were many of the places associated with James McHardy’s life are located.

Bad behaviour was punished by the miscreant being sent outside to ‘compose himself’ where, if lucky, he would be regaled by a ‘piece-and-jam’ provided by the lady of the schoolhouse. No excuse there for pent-up, bitter feelings. The pupils at playtime disported on rough ground known as The Hillocks. One day, the dominie found a boy hanging around the school when all the others had scattered. Suspecting him of some nefarious activity, the dominie asked, “Why aren’t you playing with the other boys on “The Hillocks?” Came the reply, “Young folks are feelish!”

As a small child, Jamie would sit on winter evenings close by the fire with a short stick in his hand with which to ‘sned’ the ash from the burning rozzity root which helped to lighten the kitchen … A far cry from present-day illumination, but cheap! There were few luxuries in the glen in those days. All the white bread consumed was brought up once a week from Roughpark in a barrow by an old woman who met the Lumsden baker there. Oatcakes were of two qualities: “twa breids an’a brose” i.e. thick cakes not quite cooked in the middle! And “fingering’ breid,” thin, fancy ones, for visitors. Of the latter, unless eating a whole “quarter” it was bad manners to select the point of the farl, perhaps because it would be the best fired bit.

Jamie’s passion for the pipes showed itself very early, but his parents ordained that his elder brother should be a piper while Jamie was to “learn the fiddle.” To get a blow of the chanter Jamie would undertake almost any errand, and he was always lost when tinkers were in the area. At the first wild skirl of their bagpipes, Jamie was off. Many a drink of Tinkers’ Tea he shared, and who will say that he lost at all in stature from his free approach to and fellow-feeling with the wandering folk? Through the years he had occasional callers in search of cast-off reeds, and one of my happiest memories of father is a day when he, then retired, and an elderly wandering piper stood talking under the trees by our cottage. Their gesticulations and the look on their faces showed them to be in perfect accord.

Though kenspeckle [easily recognisable] early in life, Jamie never had the complaisance that comes with self-conceit. He was, nevertheless, ever ready with a word of advice or a helping hand where a need arose. There was the time when he lived in Aberdeen and happened to be in the Castlegate on a Saturday evening. A not-very-expert piper was tramping up and down unsuccessfully trying to catch the interest of the passing crowds. Spotting Jamie in the offing, he rushed across and thrust his pipes into his arms saying, “Play a bittie tae gie me a start!” Without demur, Jamie filled the bag and launched into a spirited March followed by a Strathspey and Reel. The magic worked; the crowds were caught up in the cascade of notes and the pennies rattled on the causie. When the recital ended, the grateful piper took his pipes again saying, “I’ll be a’richt noo when ye’ve got the crood.” One hopes that he was able to keep their interest.

But we are going ahead too fast and must return in thought to Jamie’s childhood. At the age of nine years he went to compete for the first time at the Lonach Gathering. His pipes had probably not been of much quality, and he used to tell how Sir John Forbes, the Chieftain of the Gathering, sent for his own piper’s set for Jamie’s use in the competition. As a preliminary, he stood the big drone up on end beside the young contestant to find out whether he or the drone was taller! The result of the piping competition is not to hand. Jamie probably won.

A panoramic view of the Lonach Gathering of 2014. (Photo: George McKnight)

In passing, I would record that though from an early age he was known on Donside as “Jamie Burnie,” the epithet was never to his liking.

After Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s Consort, bought the lands of Balmoral in 1852 they lived in the old castle, but plans were put in hand for the erection of a larger house able to accommodate a Queen’s retinue and guests. When it was built between 1853 and 1855, my grandfather carted lime for the building. Thus, he was no stranger to the 12 miles of road over the Glaschoeil between Corgarff on Donside and Crathie on Deeside. When news came that the Queen was looking for a junior piper, Jamie’s name and those of his elder brother, Alick, and another boy were put forward.

Came an autumn day in 1877 when they all climbed into a box-cart with grandfather for the journey to Balmoral, the pipes cushioned in the straw among their feet. The day was hot and the pipes mute when Jamie would fain try a tune before the final descent on the castle. “Ach,” said grandfather, “there’ll be pipes there!” and they trundled on again.

The Queen had them play in the rose garden: there was no sign of other pipes but desperation may have brought Jamie extra wind — or, maybe, Providence was helping. By some means, The Back o’ Benachie was soon sounding loud and clear. Alick and the other boy also played, but the Queen’s choice fell on 14-year-old Jamie. One can imagine the excitement in the humble farmhouse of Burnside when the news came.

The Royal Party at Balmoral possibly some time in the 1890s.
The Royal Party at Balmoral possibly some time in the 1880s.

At first Jamie was to be at the Castle till the Queen left in the late autumn after which he would return to school for the winter. Subsequently, he travelled south with the Royal retinue and lived at Windsor or Osborne House on the Isle of Wight.

He also travelled abroad with the Queen in Italy and Paris where she went under an assumed name and sometimes without the redoubtable John Brown. As her attendant, Jamie accompanied her on shopping expeditions and other excursions. One story he liked to tell was of a visit to a small antique shop where the proprietor was obviously not fooled by the alias. His nervous excitement was considerable, and, when the Queen asked to see something high up in a show-case, the man sprang to open up the doors and, poor soul, pulled the whole thing down on his head. The Queen had to run from the shop, but, safely outside she was overcome by a paroxysm of laughter. She being stout, my father said that she “hobbled up and down” silently. She would doubtless make good the shop’s losses, but the wee man would never live down his misfortune.

Jamie found the Italians at first very suspicious of the pipes. They would come closer and closer while he played, but, when he finished and, for a joke, pointed the big drone at them they speedily disappeared. Presumably, Highlanders were rare cattle in Italy then. On the road one day, Jamie with his pipes and an Italian with a wicked-looking scarab met and passed each furtively keeping watch on the other.

When travelling through the Alps one day Jamie’s only companion was a German. Though each possessed a total ignorance of the other’s language, they had made the journey companionable by gestures and signs, their moment of perfect harmony coming when some snow was spotted on the higher peaks: “Snae! Snae!” cried the German. “Sna!” said Jamie.

Jamie’s story almost ended suddenly in Italy one day when he and a colleague were caught in a violent storm while boating on Lake Maggiore. It was a fool-hardy excursion taken against the advise of the boat-hirer and quite out of character, for my father had ever a strong sense of self-preservation — not that he was a faint-heart, but rather that he was possessed of a facility for seeing trouble before it descended.

While in the Queen’s service he was offered the post of Pipe Major in one of the regimental bands, but the army offered no joy to Jamie. I think routine work did not fit in with his temperament. Had he accepted he would have been the youngest Pipe Major in the British Army, a distinction that later came to George S. MacLennan of Aberdeen.

Another of Jamie’s memories of the Queen’s travels was an occasion in Paris when she defied caution and left her embassy to have what we now call a ‘walk-about’ among the crowds. I suppose that John Brown was beside himself with anxiety, but “Her Maijesty” would not be dissuaded. Several attempts on her life did not daunt that matriarchal personality.

Life in the Royal household was not without its pitfalls for a youth from the recesses of Corgarff, but he seems to have kept his head reasonably well. Perhaps the only lasting blemish was an acquired taste for ‘the craitur’ which at times adversely affected his future.

The clock tower at Bamoral.

As a youngster in a mature entourage, he may have been forgiven occasional misdeameanours such as one that happened at Balmoral. His bedroom was in the clock-tower at the castle the way thither being, of course, by spiral staircase. On the occasion in question someone had pursued Jamie from his room. With his sprigged brogues Jamie slipped on the stone steps and, getting on to the narrow end, hurtled round and round till he reached the lower carpeted area where, with perfect timing, an important personage stepped from a door and was promptly upended as Jamie swept under him. As father used to say, “I took the feet fae him!” Jamie supposed that there could be only one result from such a caper — the sack. But, strange to say, no more was ever heard of it.

Another momentous accident, not of Jamie’s making, was when a man-servant was carrying a huge pile of dinner-dishes. Suddenly, the bottom ashet, which must have been cracked, gave way and the resulting crash could be heard in many quarters. The unfortunate man was not excused.

(to be continued)