Angus MacKay on trousers, life and God

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GREY’S NOTES
by Michael Grey
Piping Today #68, 2014.

Angus MacKay. He’ll be known, at least by name, to many of you. Born on September 10, 1813 — under the astrological sign of Virgo — on Raasay, an island off the north-west coast of Scotland, he was to become one of history’s most important pipers.

Guided in large part by his father, John MacKay, an important piper of his time, Angus was to become a player of prodigious capability. His performance talent aside, he was one of the first to present pipe music on the cold page with any sense of trueness to its origins. Aside from the scores of examples of light music he transcribed and made public, his masterwork, Collection of Ancient Piobaireachd, laid the foundation for generations of aficionados of ceò mòr. Angus published the book in 1838, very early in his life, and yet, his genius would prevail and Ancient Piobaireachd stands as the backbone for the early numbers of the Piobaireachd Society’ collection – and bedrock for generations of pipers seeking to learn the big music.

Angus MacKay [pictured] packed a lot into a short life. He married, had four children, and for 11 years was piper to Queen Victoria, that great lover of all things of Sir Walter Scott’s Scotland. Around 1854 things started to turn for MacKay. He experienced mental illness that saw him committed to institutional care. He died in Dumfries on March 21, 1859, while trying to escape by swimming the River Nith. His body was never found.

This past January’s full moon saw me with the unbelievably rare opportunity to sit down with a dram and a particularly tremulous ouija board to make a connection with the late legendary piper. Angus was good to talk but only if we didn’t dwell on his piping life. What follows is a lightly-edited record of our trans-dimensional psychic chinwag:

MG: Angus – it’s you! Are you there?

AM: What do you want?

MG: A few questions if you don’t mind.

AM: A few only. I do not have all day.

MG: But you’re dead.

AM: That is what you think. People still play my scores and tunes, do they not? You’ve found my address, too.

MG: Right you are. So what happened to you? Your life on earth didn’t seem to end well.

AM: And whose life ends well? I saw things others didn’t. For that I was locked away. There are many things worse than death and I was in a living hell in Dumfries. All things considered I thought a late-night swim in the river was worth the risk of my mortal ending. As it turned out, I was right. Again.

MG: Understood, What personal accomplishment are you most proud of

AM: My children. There is no doubt and no question.

MG: Do you consider the publication of your piobaireachd collection while only 25 an accomplishment?

AM: Of course. Are you a ninny? And people go on about how young I was. I’d been piping all my life and playing at a very high level since before the age of 13. I had the best teacher in the country at arm’s length my whole life – my dear father. And 25! The average life span at the time was about 39 years. At 25 I was well past middle age. I should have had more books published by then.

MG: What’s your earliest memory?

All that remains of the MacKay dwelling at Eyre, Raasay.

AM: While very young I can clearly recall arriving with my mother and father and brothers at Drummond Castle [John MacKay took up a piping appointment here in 1823]. We’d travelled almost 200 miles by foot from Raasay with only a couple of poor ponies to carry our possessions. When we arrived we were starving. More than any part of the journey what I remember most is the delicious taste of the warm broth we were given by one of the castle boots near the entrance to the grounds. Hunger truly is the best sauce.

MG: Have you ever worn trousers?

AM: Are you joking?

MG: Not this time.

AM: No. I have not – or not that I recall. Her Majesty loved a man in a kilt. I aimed to oblige in every way whenever I was able.

MG: Do you have a sense of humour?

AM: Well, I am talking to you.

MG: Thanks.

AM: Any piper who has walked the boards and played his blessed heart out for prizes has a sense of humour. If he didn’t when he started, he’d have one when he was done.

MG: Do you know any good jokes?

AM: I overheard Her Majesty at one dinner gathering honouring the Duke and Duchess of Argyll and one where I had the privilege of playing; she regaled the party with this shiny gem: “What is the difference between a tube and a foolish Dutchman? One is a hollow cylinder and the other a silly Hollander.”

MG: Good fun. What’s your favourite food?

AM: I’m partial to a nice single haggis when one can be found.

MG: Do you have any regrets?

AM: None in my lifetime but I surely am sorry to see that 20th century piece of writing published, the one dismissing the life works of me and my family [referring to Alistair Campsie’s 1980 book The MacCrimmon Legend: The Madness of Angus MacKay].

MG: On a different note, are you a religious person? Do you believe in God, a Higher Power?

AM: I remember my father’s funeral. He died in 1848 and was buried back home on Raasay. It was a late summer’s day, the air was cool, the sun was setting and it was my good brother, John, who was charged with playing him away. The setting was serene, the large gathering of congregants were still, solemn. John’s pipes were perfect. He played, [Angus sings] “here ende ee de, here ende he”, Patrick Mòr MacCrimmon’s Cumha na Cloinne never sounded better. It was other-worldy. God-like. The scene glowed. Such divine beauty, the indescribable greatness of the music is undeniably immortal. It comes from somewhere beyond. Great art, great music and what happened that day on our old Raasay hillside makes me believe – in God, too.

MG: On that I will thank you for your time.

AM: You are welcome. You may call again.