It’s in the blood

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May 2017. Andy Tasker playing his own musical tribute to his ancestor, Iain Dall MacKay at the cairn in Gairloch’s Flowerdale Glen that was erected in memory of the Blind Piper.

Andy Tasker is a piper with an impressive piping lineage. The retired banker from Leeds can trace a direct lineal descent to two of our most important piping families, the MacKays of Raasay and the MacKays of Gairloch – and also Captain Malcolm MacLeod of Raasay.

But before we get to the MacKays of Gairloch, let’s look at Andy’s links to the MacKays of Raasay. Granny Annie had long regaled Andy with tales from her formative years on Raasay and at Melvaig near Gairloch. After her death Andy resolved to find out more. It would lead him to the discovery that Annie MacRae and Alec shared the same grandfather.

Annie’s mother was Jane MacLeod, a native of Rona, the small island north of Raasay. Jane was the sister of John MacLeod, one of the Raasay Raiders, the group of crofters who in the spring of 1921 landed on Raasay and attempted to re-occupy their ancestral land years after they had been forcibly removed to Rona in the mid-late 19th century. Annie had been sent as a young child across the narrows to Raasay to live with uncle John. For all of his life John maintained that he and his family had more of a right to be living in the Big House on Raasay than the laird did. John later became the Registrar on Raasay and used this position to help prove his case. However, he did not have the resources to pursue his claim in court. Incidentally, John’s grand-daughter, Anne Oliphant still lives on the family croft on Raasay.

Blair Castle, February 2016. Andy Tasker with his second cousin, once removed, Libby MacRae, daughter of Pipe Major Alex MacRae. Libby lives in the Blair Atholl area.

Says Andy, “Captain Malcolm MacLeod of Raasay is my great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather. Most people are aware that he was a tacksman on Raasay (and cousin of the laird). His tack at Eyre was where he took in the orphaned John MacKay after the 1745-46 Jacobite Rising. Eyre was also where my great-great-great grandmother, also called Jane, later lived when she married Alexander MacLeod.”

As we know, Captain MacLeod taught the young John – Iain MacRuaridh – how to play before sending him to the MacCrimmons and to the MacKays of Gairloch for further instruction. “John is my great grand uncle five times removed,” says Andy, “and it is through one of John’s four sons – Donald – that I am related to John. One of John’s other sons was, of course, the celebrated Angus MacKay, who therefore is my first cousin, six times removed.

“I spoke with Professor Hugh Cheape at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig and a local historian on Raasay called Rebecca MacKay. Both helped me with all this information. I also found lots of information in birth and death certificates and in militia records.”

All that’s left of The Piper’s House at Eyre on Raasay. This is where Angus MacKay (inset) was born before moving to Perthshire as a youngster. Photo: Decker Forrest.

Looking at the MacKays of Gairloch now, Andy’s paternal grandmother was Annie MacRae, who died in 2001. Andy then discovered that, through Annie, he is also a descendant of Roderick MacKay from Sutherland, the father of Iain Dall MacKay.

Says Andy: “Roderick MacKay was the grandfather of Catherine, my great grandmother four times removed. Roderick, therefore, is my grandfather six times removed.

Andy has kindly provided the following diagram which illustrates his incredible family tree (click on image to enlarge):

“Interestingly, my Granny Annie had moved to Leeds a long time ago with her cousin. Following the death of her first husband in the Leeds, she married Alec MacRae, the famous Pipe Major of the Atholl Highlanders.

“When Alec [pictured] died in 1989, I was given his sliver practice chanter and old piping books. Alec MacRae was born in Badachro, Wester Ross. His father was a tailor in that small clachan that lies very close to the village of Gairloch and had a blood link to Iain Dall MacKay, the celebrated Blind Piper of Gairloch.

So, Alec MacRae is also a blood relative of mine – my first cousin twice removed.”

Andy’s research took him nine years during which time he started to learn to play the pipes. Prior to this he hadn’t played at all. He learned initially with the Pontefract & District Pipe Band. However, due to illness he stopped playing.

This, together with work commitments, meant he did not have the time to pursue piping. Then, in December 2014 he answered an advert in his local newspaper.

July 2016. Andy plays a tune at the grave of Alec MacRae in Blair Atholl.

The advert had been placed by the City of Leeds Pipe Band which was seeking new members. Says Andy: “I went along and have been in the band ever since. We’re a non-competing band and play mostly at local civic and corporate functions. We appeared in Guy Ritchie’s film, King Arthur, the Legend of the Sword.

“With all the links to these illustrious pipers I wonder why it took me so long to get the piping bug … and I wish that I had just a smattering of the diluted talent!”

From the July 2017 Piping Times.