The literature of the Highland Bagpipe
The works of Angus MacKay (Raasay). Part 3 – his manuscripts

By Captain John A. MacLellan

When Angus MacKay died in 1859 his widow either sold or bequeathed his collection of manuscripts to Michael MacCarfrae who was piper to the Duke of Hamilton at Brodick Castle, Isle of Arran. These consisted of the manuscripts listed in Vol. 2 number 9, with the exception of the Seaforth Manuscript of 21 tunes which remained in the family of Donald Cameron who was piper to Keith W. Stewart MacKenzie, and which was eventually acquired by the Piobaireachd Society.

Michael MacCarfrae bequeathed all the Angus MacKay manuscripts which had been in his possession to The Duke of Hamilton, who had them bound richly in green leather and decorated with gold leaf.

The portrait of Michael MacCarfrae (1820-1876) that hangs in Brodick Castle. Born in Ballantrae, Ayrshire, MacCarfrae started his piping in Edinburgh before becoming the personal piper to the 11th Duke ofHamilton at Hamilton Palace and Brodick Castle. He travelled throughout Europe with the Duke and was with him when he died in Paris. He retained his position with the 12th Duke. MacCarfrae won many medals and trophies for piping and Highland dancing around Scotland. He was given a gold watch by the Queen of the Netherlands for his services as a guide though the Highlands of Scotland in 1857. MacCarfrae died as a result of a grouse bone injury to the throat. After the injury he was told not to play the pipes for a year but the temptation to play was too great. He died at the age of 56. The painting is on loan to the National Trust for Scotland from Dr Mary Edmond of York, a great-great-granddaughter.

After the Duke of Hamilton died, the manuscripts were lost sight of, although fortunately Mr. P. E. Dove made copies of Angus MacKay’s Piobaireachd Volumes 1 and 2. It was not until 1919 when the Duke’s London home was sold that the collection came to light and it was their handsome bindings which saved them

from a bonfire of unwanted books etc. They were then brought back to Brodick Castle and later the Trustees of the Daughter of the Duke of Hamilton, The Duchess of Montrose, deposited them on permanent loan to the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh.

D.S. MacDonald, who succeeded MacCarfrae as the Duke of Hamilton’s piper, like Mr. P. E. Dove also made a copy of MacKay’s Piobaireachd Mss. that he took with him to South Africa. This copy was eventually acquired by General Thomason and was one of the principal authorities for Thomason’s book, Ceol Mor. Both Dove’s and MacDonald’s copies now, like the original are in the National Library.

From Angus’ manuscript. The ground of the Battle of Auldearn.

The late Dr. Charles Bannatyne a most enthusiastic piper acquired from Michael MacCarfrae’s daughter, The Angus MacArthur’s Highland Society of London Piobaireachd Ms., which had come into Angus MacKay’s possession and as well John MacKay’s Ms, which is generally thought to be a manuscript written by Angus’ brother, John, there being a note in the fly leaf: “The following collection of Ancient Piobaireachd was found in the portmanteau of my late lamented brother, John, after his decease, October, 1848, being a collection of my father’s tunes”. This manuscript contained 62 tunes. It has been thought that the previous owners of this latter manuscript were responsible for considerable alteration to the original work. Consequently the Piobaireachd Society have kept this volume in, their archives. The Angus MacArthur manuscript has been deposited like the others in the National library.

Much has been written in the intervening years since they were compiled about Angus MacKay’s piobaireachd works, his book and manuscripts, and rightly so, piobaireachd being the classical music of the Highland Bagpipe. These ceòl mòr manuscripts have overshadowed volumes 3 and 4, the manuscripts of ceòl beag, which contain some 550 pieces of music ranging over all types of music for marching and dancing. There are, of course, few examples of competition-type music as we know it today, only because when these manuscripts were being compiled the competition march was but an infant and pipers had not begun to compose strathspeys or reels of competition calibre.

The penmanship throughout these manuscripts is excellent. Written in a clear, bold flowing script, properly grace-noted and set under the appropriate time signature. The tune titles are often in Gaelic as well as English and written in Angus MacKay’s characteristic neat hand- writing. The manuscript contains three tunes only which can be categorised as competition marches. Two are Angus’ own compositions Balmoral Highlanders and Glengarry Gathering the other is The 71st Highlanders. Tunes like The Atholl Cummers and John Roy Stewart are but two parts each, although Blair Drummond has four parts and is included in the reel section.

Another important aspect of Volume 4 of Angus MacKay‘s manuscript is the diary that it contains. This diary gives a full description of his family. He details the names of his father and mother and his brothers and sister. As well he tells of his own marriage and family, consequently through these notes we know how this family forged the links with the Past and with future generations of pipers.

While the settings of many of the piobaireachds contained in the MacKay manuscripts are different from those of Donald MacDonald and the MacArthurs, it is probably the style in which the music is set out which reflects the difference in playing methods, Angus MacKay makes sparse use of what is nowadays termed — Cadential E’s. Where these note: are used as introductory notes in MacDonald, MacKay very often uses them as a part of the melody and writes them as text notes rather than as Themal gracenotes. This gives rise to the long E’s so often heard in Glengarry’s March, The Bells of Perth, The Vaunting and The End of the High Bridge etc., each one beginning with E followed by Low G, MacKay either emphasises the E, or has it the same value as the following low G: examples 1 and 2.

When MacKay writes a cadential E in a cadence it is written as follows:

which makes his E one dimension longer than the same group as written by MacDonald. However, MacKay does show that E’s that are introductory can be long, medium or short.

Another major difference is the way in which the Crunluath Breabach is written. Once again Angus MacKay shows his flexibility in notating ceòl mòr. While Donald MacDonald usually writes the final two linking notes as of even value, the exception being the Lament for MacSwan of Roaig where the final notes are the longer, Angus MacKay on the other hand gives a variety of timings. In modern style these would be as under

One must admire the diligence of Angus MacKay’s work which was packed into a relatively short life, as he died some six months before his 46th birthday.

An old postcard of the Crichton Hospital. The Crichton was sold for £50,000 in 2019 to the owners of the Fonab Castle Hotel in Pitlochry to turn into a five-star hotel.

In 1854 when he was aged 41 and had been 11 years in the service of Queen Victoria, Angus MacKay developed mental trouble which necessitated that the remainder of his life be spent in mental hospitals, first in Bethlem in London and finally in 1846 he was transferred to the Crichton Hospital, Dumfries, Scotland. The main symptoms of his illness was that he was affected by mania with delusions and there were periods when he could be most violent and dangerous, being destructive, noisy and incoherent. There is speculation as to the cause of his illness, but it might be said that close association with Royalty could have turned his head, many of his delusions being that Queen Victoria was his wife and Prince Albert had defrauded him of his rights. On the other hand it is not known whether or not this had a serious aspect. He was certainly healthy enough bodily when he died for the concluding note on his case history reads, “21 March 1859. This gentleman attempted to escape and had got down as far as Glencaple, then in attempting to cross the River Nith he was drowned. There was no improvement in his mental condition”.

Thus was the sad end of Angus MacKay. Who would believe that the gentle-looking individual of so obvious artistic qualities would end his days deranged and violent. Thankfully, his great works had been completed before the onset of his troubles and through him we are the lucky recipients of a traditional line of piping which thoroughly links us with the great developers and composers of bagpipe music centuries ago.

* From the March 1980 International Piper.

Angus’ death recorded.

• Part 1
• Part 2
• Part 4