My father the bagpiper – part 2

Corgarff Castle.

Continuing the story of James MacHardy, second piper to Queen Victoria from 1878 until 1881.

James McHardy.

It was the duty of the pipers to play on the terrace each morning and at dinner each evening. On the occasion of, I think, the Duke of Connaught’s wedding for some reason [Pipe Major William] Ross was unable to be present for the reception and Jamie had to face the ordeal of marching alone round the festive board. Royalties were there from many lands, the chandeliers glistened, the table shone with dishes of gold, and the boy from remote Corgarff blew up his pipes and played some stirring tunes — he was not sure afterwards what he had played, but Queen Victoria told Ross later that Jamie “marched round the table as if it had been his own!” She was proud of her young piper and was wont to call him “My Little Jamie.”

The Balmoral Ghillies’ Ball was then, as it still is, a highlight of the Season. The Royal ladies were not “sought” as partners but made every dance a Lady’s Choice by sending John Brown or other messenger to their honoured partner who then presented himself before them.  I once asked my father whether he had ever danced with the Queen. He admitted that he had never been her partner but had “turned her” in a dance though “terrified to touch her.” He had, however, partnered Princess Beatrice who was near his own age. The dance was a Highland Reel and the Princess watched for a minute Jamie doing his steps and then “intil’t” herself, as my father said, while they both laughed with abandon.

Willie Blair, the Queen’s fiddler, played for some of the dances. He was troubled with a drooth and, after a function, was sometimes found by the wayside somewhat the worse for wear. On one occasion, the minister came upon him fallen in the ditch and not sure of his whereabouts. “Oh, Willie, man,” said the reverend, “I pity your case!” Came the muzzy reply, “I dinna care a damn for the case if the fiddle’s a’ richt!”

A contemporary sketch of the 1859 Ghillies’ Ball.
A contemporary sketch of the 1859 Ghillies’ Ball.

Willie and his son were wending wearily home on a winter night. The road was long and Willie’s drooth demanding. He wanted to call by the Inn at Coilecreich. “Are we near Coilecreich yet?” he kept asking. “No’ yet,” the son repeated. After a time, “Are we near Coilecreich yet?” “Ye passed it lang syne. Ye’ll sune be hame,” was the reply. All hope gone, Willie sank to the ground. “I canna go on. If I dinna hae a drink I’ll die!” he wailed. “Eat sna’, father. Eat sna’,” his son urged. “Eat sna’ yersel’, ye deevil,” retorted disheartened Willie.

When Jamie entered Royal Service he was told that ‘if he wanted to stay there he must keep his eyes open and his mouth shut.’ Good advice, not inapplicable to many lesser situations. In his five years with Queen Victoria, Jamie must have seen and heard many things new and strange to a country boy but he seems to have remembered the early injunction then, and, indeed, kept it still in mind in after life down the years.

John Brown.

As something of a protégé of the Queen, Jamie could scarcely hope to be looked on with favour by a jealous John Brown, but, in 1882 when that irascible man became very ill with erysipelas in his head, the great Doctor Jenner went so far as to say that Jamie’s careful attention hastened John Brown’s recovery, and, indeed, probably saved his life. He was quite ill over a period of weeks requiring night-nursing for a time. My father used to tell how at midnight a small scraping noise would be heard on the door of the room. Opening it he would find the Queen herself standing there. “How is he?” she would whisper, and, having got a bulletin on Brown’s progress, would creep away again to her own apartments.

The picture often drawn of Queen Victoria as an autocratic, self-willed, formidable lady does not accord well with my father’s feelings for her either at the time of his service with her or later. Could he read the squalid insinuations still being written about her association with John Brown he would be furious indeed.

He used to say with utter sincerity that, “she was the finest woman I’ve ever known!” It is unlikely that my mother felt in any way downgraded, for she herself was very fond of Royalty and could provide instant background notes on the history of many of them.

Whether Jamie would have continued in Royal service and would have become eventually the Queen’s head piper is debatable. All his life he enjoyed going on to pastures new, and, perhaps, his somewhat circumscribed routine became irksome as did his occasional brush with John Brown. At any rate, a day came when he “streeve wi’ John Brown” and begged to be relieved of his assignment. Having asked for a testimonial, he was given the following: “James McHardy left. Gave no offence. Signed: John Brown.” Would it be the shortest testimonial ever penned? My father, with youthful impatience, tore it up. A wonderful relic lost!

Was Ross sorry to lose his brilliant pupil? Did Queen Victoria miss her “Little Jamie?” There are no answers to these questions.

Among gifts from the Queen that Jamie carried home in 1882 was the wooden box she had caused to be made to hold his fiddle that hitherto he had carried in a green baize bag. I have the box still. It holds one of the fiddles my father made in later years. I also have the big book of pipe music, Ross’s pipe book, autographed by the Queen.

On 27th March, 1883, John Brown died.

Time rolls on, and it is a 106 years since the day when Jamie travelled by box-cart to Balmoral to play to the Queen. Yet, I like to think that there still comes faintly from the rose-garden on quiet autumn days a wisp of the tune, The Back o’ Benachie.

Corgarff Castle.

So Jamie came home to the hills and the heather, to the land of Corgarff granted in the 14th century to his forebears by David II, but long since lost by them. The story has been told elsewhere of the reputed origin of the McHardys: David II of Scotland and King John of France were imprisoned in the Tower of London. Edward III, visiting them one day, told his cup-bearer to give a cup of wine to the more worthy of the two men. He gave it to David of Scotland whereat the French King’s henchman attacked him. “Tout hardi” (very bold) was the French King’s laconic reproof, but Edward of England, well- pleased, returned, “il sera deshormais Hardi;” whereupon he got that name and came to Scotland with King David II and was given the lands of Corgarff. That King David had the lands of Corgarff to dispose of may have been due to the fact that his father married a daughter of Donald, Earl of Mar. The Poll Book of 1696 shows that at that time the McHardys owned considerable tracts of land in and formed a large proportion of the district between Corgarff and Towie on the Don and Balmoral and Tulloch on the Dee. The “Valiant Hardi” had become Hardy and his descendants Mac (son of) Hardy. The Coat of Arms bears the motto “Tout Hardi” and the Badge is the red whortleberry (blaeberry).

Having been transported to other spheres before he had time to think of a job in life and now with his formative years behind him it is surprising that Jamie settled down to an ordinary life-pattern. In his childhood he had herded his father’s sheep on the hill above Burnside, and shepherding seemed now to be his obvious choice. There could scarcely have been a greater change of scene; the silence of the hills, the bleating of his charges and the wimple of the young river set against the memory of the grandeur of the Court and the bustle of the Royal household. As he sometimes stood astride the Don near its source, did he remember other waters in warmer climes? Did he sometimes long for the variety of scenes that had been his former lot?

Like St. Paul, Jamie knew “both how to abound and how to suffer need.” He once spent a snowy winter on Coillebhar Hill near Alford with a flock of sheep, and many a night slept on the hillside with one dog for a pillow and the other across his feet for warmth.

When Jamie was at home, there would be many calls for a tune on the pipes — perhaps out of season as well as in season. It was said that on a certain occasion the sound of the church bells could scarcely be heard for the ‘skirl of the Great Highland Bagpipe.” Be that as it may, on one instance at least his “joyful noise” seems to have done good. In his later years there reached him one day a letter from America that roused his considerable interest. The writer gave the astonishing news that my father’s piping had saved his life when a boy in Strathdon. Peter McGregor had been very ill for weeks, his life being despaired of. He was actually in something of a coma when, suddenly, the sound of the pipes reached him through the open window. He rallied from that moment and recovered and lived to hold an important post with Ford Motor Company in Detroit.

(to be continued).

* From the January 1996 Piping Times.

• Part 1
• Part 3
• Part 4
• Part 5