My father the bagpiper – part 3


Continuing his daughter’s story of James – Jamie – McHardy, second piper to Queen Victoria from 1878 until 1881.

When the Highland Games season was in full swing Jamie went the rounds. He would walk over the Lecht the dozen miles to Tomintoul Games and back again and then, next day, set out over the Glaschoeil a like distance to Ballater and home again all on foot. Certainly, he knew the hills and the short-cuts through them, but it was arduous living with several days and nights without sleep. His father used to say that, “Jamie can go a lang time withoot sleep, but he can tak’ an awfu pooer o’t when he can get it!”

At about that time Jamie became the possessor of a trombone that he practiced assiduously without much success. When he was seen to take it from its case, his father used to “gather his stick” and take himself out of earshot muttering, “That thing!”

The competitive instinct being always strong in Jamie, he one day challenged a friend, “Haughie” to jump the Don at a spot where the young river was widening. With athletic ease Jamie sprang and landed on the other bank. Haughie, not to be outdone, cast his jacket and leapt almost reaching terra firma; but he had to wade back and collect his jacket. Haughie figured in various adventures. One day, they set out by box-cart for Tomintoul sheep-market, Jamie resplendent in a new pair of woollen breeks. All afternoon they visited the buchts, leaning on the barriers and discussing the qualities of the livestock. Later in the day, Jamie became aware that all was not well with his breeks; in fact, the “behind” was worn through in two places. The long journey over the Lecht sitting on the edge of the box cart had been too much for the fine cloth. When Jamie taxed Haughie with not having told him, Haughie said, “I thocht ye kent!!!”

I often wish that I had him with me now to answer my many questions about those years; years when he took part at the Lonach Games not only in the piping competitions but in the dancing, for which he won a cup, and in athletic events including the hill race. He never lost his athletic bearing; even at 60 years of age in spare time from the farm-work at Drumlassie he used to lead us in High Jump in the garden; and at 75 years he still walked with shoulders back and head erect as if keeping time to music.

In his early 30s, Jamie went as piper/valet to Sir Charles Forbes of Newe on Donside. Sometime earlier he had been one of the group of young men who met Sir Charles and his bride returning from their honeymoon, and, having unyoked the horses, hauled the carriage up the long avenue to the castle. My father had composed a tune for the occasion and, doubtless, led the way with the pipes. Sir Charles and Lady Forbes’ Welcome to Castle Newe is one of his best pipe tunes. Among the ‘horses’ that day was Charles Murray (Hamewith). He and father met occasionally in later life and there was eventually a tune called Dr Charles Murray’s Welcome Hamewith.

James at Newe Lodge.
James and Isabella at Newe Lodge.

At Castle Newe, Jamie met and fell in love with a member of the kitchen staff: “At the Royal Hotel, Aberdeen, on the 21st May by the Rev. A.E. Claxton, John Knox Parish Church, James McHardy, piper to Sir Charles Forbes, Bart. of Newe, & cet., to Isabella, fifth daughter of the late James Shearer, farmer, Shapinsay, Orkney.” The Reception afterwards cost the princely sum of around £13. They lived in the beautiful new lodge. Its clean freshness must have been a great joy to the little bride, for my mother was ever very house-proud; cleaning and polishing industriously and putting down newspapers on her newly-scrubbed floors to the exasperation of all who trod there.

Ben Newe was a favourite rendezvous on the morning of May 1 for the youth of the district in pursuit of greater comeliness by washing their faces in May dew. In winter, the Ben provided a practice-slope for the new sport of skiing, and it was part of Jamie’s responsibility to attend the ladies in these exercises and to rescue them when in difficulties!

Some funny stories come to mind from the Castle Newe era. One concerned Andrew Cant, sometime piper at the Newe. The laird sent in search of him one day to present him with a new kilt. The worthy received it gladly saying, “Lo-o-ord, Sir Charles, wont ye bring me a checkit and weskit too for I’m chust in ra-a-ags.” On another occasion, the laird gave his piper a ticket for a concert on a classical scale. On the day following the concert he met Andrew and asked how he had enjoyed the music. Came the reply, “Mewsic, Sir Charles? Mewsic? A hundred pipers and every wan playing his own pibroch — that’s t’ mewsic!”

After several years at Newe, Jamie found a job as conductor on the Aberdeen tramway-cars, still horse-drawn at the turn of the century. When the first electric tram was introduced in Aberdeen, Jamie was engaged to stand at the front of the upper deck and play his pipes as the tram swung along. He used to say that he nearly ended his days there for the man at the controls kept demonstrating how smoothly and quietly the tram could start and stop while Jamie was repeatedly in danger of being precipitated into the street. While in Aberdeen he was the recipient of a letter addressed simply to “James McHardy, Piper, Aberdeen.” Such is fame!

One can scarcely suppose that this offspring of the glens enjoyed being cooped up in a city. After a year or two there, Jamie was ready for wider horizons and we find him next as a game-keeper at Haddo House.

His sojourn in the Haddo House area opened up new vistas for Jamie. Hitherto, he had been used to being hailed as a piper who could also play the fiddle when required. In Buchan, there were many very capable fiddlers and Jamie was not asked to join them. His life’s motto being that “what other folk can do well can do something at,” he embarked on a regular stint of practice each evening when the day’s work was over. “He that does what he can whiles dae mair!” It was generally accepted that mother and we three children developed shrill voices from having to screech all the time above the sound of the fiddle!

Haddo House in Tarves, approximately 20 miles north of Aberdeen.

Hard work sometimes brings reward. Presently, Jamie was being asked to join others purveying the music for balls and concerts. His very special friend was Joseph Mitchell, a farmer. Joseph was a bachelor, a kindly man with gentle ways. When the pace of their social activities grew to several engagements in a week, Joseph, calling past for Jamie, used, I am told, to open the living-room door a little way and thrust in the end of his fiddle-box in whimsical anticipation of missiles from the hand of the lady of the house.

There is a comical tale of one particular night when the function had been more than usually convivial. The two fiddlers, trudging the long miles homeward in the pitch darkness of the wee sma’ ‘oors, decided to make a shortcut through a field. Joseph, less well seasoned to “the craitur” than Jamie had been making heavy going for some time and Jamie was carrying both fiddles. He had scrambled over the dyke and gone some way through the 40-acre field when he became aware that he had lost his companion. Calling to him and getting no response, he set down the fiddles and went back to look for Joseph. After some searching, he found him still on the wrong side of the dyke it being beyond his powers to surmount it. On the move once more, the next question was ‘how to find the fiddles in the thick darkness?” Astonishing to relate, they did. My father used to round off the tale by claiming triumphantly, “We couldna have been that bad!”

Other names that come to mind from Haddo House days include those of Bill Duguid, a very sparkling exponent on the fiddle; Peter McAndrew, a great friend, piper to Lord Aberdeen and father of Hector now well-known as a Scottish violinist; Sandy Smith, the gentle fiddler whose tunes came over so quietly and hauntingly. Bill Duguid suffered from an everlasting, unquenchable drooth that at last brought him to an untimely end. There was an evening when Joseph and Jamie had tramped some distance to hear him play but had to “stand in” on borrowed fiddles when the man himself did not appear. Another time, one of them had misguidedly bought a half- pint of whisky for his delectation thinking no doubt to share in the treat; but Duguid “put the bottle to his head” and quaffed it off while his astonished — and deprived — friends could only look on. The bottle was empty at last and Duguid threw it away saying, “I suppose ye didna want any o’t!!!” So much genius has been wasted by a liking for a dram. When Duguid died suddenly and was found in a ditch, his friends combined their resources to put up a suitable stone to his memory — a stone with a fiddle cut out on it and bearing the following inscription:

In memory of William Duguid, violinist, South Crichnalade.

Born 19th March, 1866. Died 1st October, 1905.
Erected by musical and other friends.

“Sleep, child of genius, music’s own;
Sweet dreams were thine untimely flown.
None e’er can know their depth save He
Who times life’s varied minstrelsy.”

At some stage in his career, father was friendly with piper Patrick Milne from Insch who, with piper Findlater, V.C. and three other pipers, made history on Dargai Heights. Father was presented with Milne’s sporran minus its regimental crest and it is still in the possession of the McHardy family.

Money was never plentiful in our house. Fortunately, we were not greatly interested in getting and spending. My father’s occasional drinking sprees doubtless meant less of a bank balance and my mother sought to augment the house-hold purse by little bits of dress-making, but, even by bygone standards, her charges were ludicrously low; fourpence for making a blouse and tenpence (4p) for making a dress would scarcely boost the standard of living! I think I never possessed a bought frock till I was 16 years of age, and in that time had had only one made from new material. My mother’s needle was ever busy, and my garments were fashioned from my sister’s out-growns. Summer frocks were sometimes made from a laird’s cast-off beautiful shirts. I learnt from my earliest years to make-do-and-mend and, to this day, have never anything to throw away. My husband says wryly, “Nothing goes out of this house but the ashes of the coal!”

While my father’s fiddle-making lasted, our small house had an almost permanent film of fine dust over and in everything. How it must have grieved my mother’s housewifely soul. A creditable product of his labours is a fiddle made in 1907 which was my constant companion for some years until my father gave me the Ruddiman which has taken the strain ever since.

(to be continued)

* From the February 1996 Piping Times.

• Part 1
• Part 2
• Part 4
• Part 5