My father the bagpiper, part 7

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In the penultimate part of our serialisation of the life of James MacHardy, piper to Queen Victoria from 1878 until 1881, his daughter, Edith Paterson takes us into the 1930s.

Our second spell at Whitehouse was father’s most prolific seas of composition. I would return late from helping with a concert somewhere to find a scrap of paper on the table with a tune scribbled under the heading, “New off the mint.” Tunes followed each other in quick succession in honour of Mr. and Mrs. Farquharson of Whitehouse, Dr. and Mrs. Simpson, Henry Spence, The Laird o’ Hillockhead (Sandy Kellas), Messrs. Anderson of Aberdeen (violin teachers), Mayfield, and many more.

 The Duchess of Gloucester’s Welcome to Aberdeen was composed and played by my father for the occasion in 1937 when the Duchess opened the new St. Katherine’s Club in the city. Later the same day, as he hurried along Union Street, my father was greeted by an unknown man who exclaimed, “I say, MacHardy, you’ll have to be shot!” – a startling recognition of the fact that my father seemed to have been around for a very long time and was unlikely to die naturally.

In 1933, a new link in his connection with the Forbeses of Newe had been forged when he was invited to play at the wedding of Sir John to Miss Wilson-Farquharson of Allargue for which he wrote The Donside Wedding. The link was strengthened further when he played a new tune at the Christening of Sir John’s first child, a great-grand-daughter, I suppose, of Sir John who lent his pipes for my father’s first contest. He was very proud of a snapshot taken that day of himself standing beside the Dowager Lady Forbes at whose home- coming he had played in the 1890s.

My father used to call these highlights and his broadcasting sessions the “last flicker of the candle.” But he was not finished yet. He continued to play for concerts and dancing when needed on both pipes and fiddle.

In the Queen’s Service — James MacHardy, taken in 1881 when he was 18 years old.

An abiding feature of my father’s life style was his complete lack of ostentation. He liked simple ways and simple things to the last. He caused great amusement in the village shop one day by asking for a pipe-lid. On being told that they were a ha’penny each, he said he would take two “to save me aye buyin’.” Another time, he went in search of a birthday present for mother. Jean Davidson in the shop offered him a sumptuous box of chocolates but “Oh, no!” he said, “I dinna like chocolates!” He settled finally on a good sultana cake which, suitably parcelled he surreptitiously secreted in a pair of breeks hanging on the bedroom door. As he said when presenting them later, “It’s weel wrapped up. I couldna think o’ anither place that ye wouldna find it when ye’re aye cleanin’.”

For years he read with much enjoyment every cowboy story he could find. I used to seek them costing six-pence each in Woolworth’s each week when in Aberdeen for fiddle-lessons. For some time after he was no longer with us I used on occasion to find myself at the counter on a needless errand.

Prospect Hill Cottage, Whitehouse in 1925. This is the house where James McHardy, his wife Isabella, son James, and daughters Edith and Mary lived. [Ken McHardy]
Prospect Hill Cottage, Whitehouse in 1925. This is the house where James McHardy, his wife Isabella, son James, and daughters Edith and Mary lived. (Photo: Ken McHardy).

In my early youth, Sunday was still observed as a very special day when week-day pursuits were so far as possible set aside. The roads then were literally black on Sundays with people in their best clothes on their way to Church. My mother, though very fond of her People’s Friend, did not consider it suitable reading on the Lord’s Day and it lay unopened. In the afternoon, we went for walks. Not much happening maybe by present day standards, but I don’t remember ever feeling that Sunday was drab. Having hard work during the week, we welcomed the Day of Rest. We did not play ordinary tunes on Sunday, only hymns occasionally, until a time came when I had a difficult fiddle examination in prospect. Maybe I had been looking wistfully at the music on the stand; without preamble father said, “I think the birdies sing the same song on Sunday that they do on ither days!” From that day onwards, I practised seven days a week.

In 1936, father returned to the Lonach Games after an interval of 27 years. Judging Piping, Dancing and Dress competitions found him in his element, but in 1937 and 1938 he undertook the Piping only having found the three departments rather heavy on the concentration. There was a rumour about that time that he was giving lessons by telephone to budding pipers in the south of Scotland, but that very imaginative story had no foundation in fact.

All his life my father was clever with his hands, carving heads on rustic staffs collected while shepherding, making tables, small chests of drawers and stools, and putting new handles on table-knives. My carving-knife has one of his handles still intact and firm after at least 65 years.

With time on his hands father continued to mend fiddles. I think of a winter night when he had just put the finishing touches to a fiddle belonging to Joseph Mitchell still in contact though miles away. He laid the fiddle across the arms of his chair and went to examine something at the other end of the room. Deep in thought, he backed to his chair and … sat down! I can hear the crunch still. With unusual patience he started all over again to a bigger repair job than the first had been.

A last memory of those happy years. Father and I listened entranced one evening to Alfredo Campoli on the radio playing some “impossible” piece of music. Vociferous in our appreciation when he finished we somewhat irritated my less excitable mother who said, “What are you making such a fuss for? It didn’t sound much to me!” “Well,” father said, “it wasn’t exactly The Last Rose of Summer.” Immediately afterwards, the announcer’s voice came over clearly, “Now, as we have a few minutes in hand, Mr. Campoli will play The Last Rose of Summer.”

Truth is ever stranger than fiction.

(Concludes with part 8)

* First published in the June 1996 Piping Times.

• Part 1
• Part 2
• Part 3
• Part 4
• Part 5
• Part 6