Transcribed by Norman Matheson
Angus MacPherson (1877-1976), a father figure in the piping world of his day, was one of the five sons of the renowned Malcolm MacPherson (Calum Piobair) who was piper to the MacPherson clan chief at Cluny Castle near Laggan. In 1898 Angus MacPherson, aged 21, became piper to philanthropist Andrew Carnegie at Skibo Castle, Sutherland. In 1914, seven years after leaving Skibo, he became the tenant of the hotel at Inveran on the banks of the River Shin. During his tenancy the Inveran Hotel became a piping mecca of the north, until it was burnt down in 1949.
Angus MacPherson, from an early age, was steeped in piobaireachd and in the MacCrimmon tradition. Because of his long life and clear mind, he was well placed to recall memories of piping personalities of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. During 1970 Dr John MacAskill, the well-known Gold Medallist and composer, was in general practice in Lairg, Sutherland.
Dr John recorded a series of interviews with Angus, then aged 94 and living at Achany, midway between Lairg and Invershin. The following edited extracts from these recordings give an insight into the piping world and its personalities of a bygone age. We are grateful to John Don Mackenzie for providing copies of Dr MacAskill’s recordings.
Who taught you Angus?
I was taught all I know by my father.
Who taught your father to play the pipes?
In the first instance, he was taught by his own father, Angus Cam MacPherson. I’ve got a shoulder brooch, a dirk and a sporran that my grandfather won in 1852, 1854 and 1857 at the Northern Meeting in Inverness. I can remember my grandfather very well and can remember him teaching my older brother John. I especially remember him teaching him The Rout of Glenfruin.
Your grandfather was quite an eminent piper wasn’t he?
Of course, when he was in Skye as a young man it wasn’t easy getting about in those days and he couldn’t get far afield but when he came to the mainland he proved that in 1852.
Who taught, him?
He was taught by his own father, of course, Peter.
Where was Peter born?
He was born at Uig in Skye and married into the Bruce family from Glenelg who were of course MacCrimmon pupils.
Did your grandfather have other teachers?
He had lessons from the last of the MacCrimmons, John MacCrimmon, and as a young man he got lessons from John MacKay, Angus MacKay’s father in Raasay.
What did your grandfather do? Did he leave Skye to be piper to anyone?
He didn’t leave Skye until he became piper to the chief of the clan at Cluny. He came there about the same time as John Bàn MacKenzie went to Taymouth Castle and John MacKay went to Drummond Castle. When John MacKay retired) from Drummond Castle to Kyleakin my grandfather was at Cluny and he used to go across the Corrieyairick and stay for weeks with old John, Angus MacKay’s father, from whom he got a lot of his piobaireachd.
So your grandfather spent the rest of his days at Cluny?
Did you tell me that he went abroad to America?
Yes, he went to see his brother, Donald at the age of 84 with the intention of staying there. But when he got to 87 he took the notion that he would like to come back to the old country and die there, which he did only a week after arriving off the sea. He was married four times and one of his wives was a sister of the great Archibald Munro who was a pupil of the MacCrimmons. She is buried at Cluny Castle in the private burial ground — Catherine Munro.
Of course, Archibald Munro composed the piobaireachd Glengarry’s Lament.
He did; he composed the lament and played it the same week at the funeral of his master, MacDonnell of Glengarry.
Your father was taught by your grandfather?
Yes and then by Archibald Munro.
Who taught Archibald Munro?
He was taught by the MacCrimmons and by John MacKay. He used to come to Cluny to see his sister, who was married to my grandfather. And when Archibald Munro left for Islay, he took my father with him as a young man.
Apart from Islay did your father go anywhere else?
Oh yes, he married very early in life, an Islay woman and their first home was in Greenock. Then, after an advert appeared from the captain of an Inland Revenue ship for someone who could play the pipes, my father went to see the captain and took the job of piper. He went to sea for seven years and later on succeeded his father at Cluny.
What age would he have been then?
Probably about 40, I should say.
Was your father a fit man?
My father was a very fit man until he had the unfortunate accident that cost him his life. He was a great fisherman and on this occasion there was a gentleman staying at the hotel at Laggan who was anxious to get my father to go with him to a particular loch. They got a good fish on; it was a cobble boat with no keel and when my father was trying to net the fish the boat overturned and he went right into the loch. He was a strong swimmer and swam ashore but that was really the cause of his death. He was well up in years and didn’t get over the submersion. He had to be taken over two miles from the loch and when the doctor got to him he was beyond anything that could be done.
How old was he when he died?
He was 65.
Was he a good walker?
He was a great walker. On going to the Skye games in Portree he always walked actoss the Corrieyairick right on to Glenelg and crossed the ferry there to Skye. And when he came in sight of Skye he always got out the old pipe and played a salute to the Skye hills.
Did your father actually walk all the way to the Skye Games from Cluny to compete?
Of course he did. He was a great walker and thought nothing of 10 or 20 miles in a day. I can remember well when he used to go to see his friend Duncan MacDougall, the pipe-maker at Aberfeldy. They were great friends and MacDougall was one of the best pipers of the day. He would leave in the morning, walk to Dalwhinnie station, take the train to the junction for Aberfeldy, spend the day with Duncan MacDougall and walk home from Dalwhinnie, seven miles again. He thought nothing of that, it was just an outing.
Was he a regular competitor?
Oh yes. I came across a picture the other day of him playing at Birnam. They used to be good games at Birnam and he got the medal there. There weren’t so many games in those days but he went to Tomintoul and to the Badenoch and Rothiemurchus games. There used to be very good games at Struan and Skye of course, also at Fort William. He used to walk to Fort William from Laggan, a distance of 40 miles.
They say that he was the best piper of his day.
One of his best pupils, P.M. John MacDonald, Inverness, said that in his view he was certainly the best piper ever he heard and I think he proved that in 1888 when he piped at the Great Exhibition and won the two gold medals and a sum of money besides.
What tunes did your father win with?
There were 47 entries, amongst them, John MacDougall Gillies, John MacColl, Angus MacRae and Danny Campbell from Skye and he won the first competition with The Prince’s Salute. In the second competition he played The Battle of Waternish. The judges, after some discussion, gave a tie between himself and John MacDougall Gillies. They were both taken up to the judges, told the position and asked to choose any tune they cared to; it was left to themselves to decide who would play first. My father played first with Lament for Donald Duaghal MacKay and I was told by people who were there that you could almost have heard a pin drop. MacDougall Gillies played The MacKays’ Banner. Anyhow my father won with Donald Duaghal MacKay in 1888. And for many years after that pipers came from far and near to get these tunes, especially his style of Donald Duaghal MacKay.
Was MacDougall Gillies a good friend of your father’s?
Yes, they were always very friendly.
Of course, MacDougall Gillies himself was an eminent player wasn’t he?
He certainly was; he was of the Cameron school and a very fine man, a perfect gentleman. I knew MacDougall Gillies very well and when I went as a young man to the Northern Meeting we used to go out, he and some others of us for a walk in the evening in Inverness. He was always well dressed and well mannered and a good player, too.
What kind of man was your father? Was he a hard man, a straight man, a religious man? Tell me something about him.
Well that’s a difficult one to ask. He was certainly looked on as a very kindly man always ready to do a good turn to his neighbour. As far as religion went he always had his Gaelic bible and Pilgrim’s Progress by his bedside. From that I think you may realise that he was a good Christian.
What about your mother, was she fond of the pipes?
She certainly was a beautiful Gaelic singer and she was very fond of the pipes.
How often did your father play piobaireachd?
Not every day but he always kept the pipe in good trim.
What kind of instrument did he play?
The pipe he played was made by Donald MacDonald from Skye, a pipe-maker in Edinburgh who wrote one of the first piobaireachd books. That was the set my grandfather had. I’ve got the chanter he played; it was made by Thow of Dundee; he didn’t play anything else.
Where did he get his reeds from?
He made his own reeds, splendid reeds. In those days you could get good cane and when he got the cane he put it away in a dry place where it could be well matured before he made a reed. He always got a skin from a farmer, a three year old wether skin as tough as leather. He took the wool off it after putting it in lime, cured it, cut it up and got the shoemaker to sew it.
Was there any particular tune you liked to hear your father playing?
There were many. Of course, Donald Duaghal MacKay and Lament for the Harp Tree — he was very fond of that and Lament for Donald Bàn MacCrimmon and Lament for the Children — he was very fond of those, too. Another favourite was My King has Landed in Moidart and also Cille Chriosd. As boys, when we were doing well, he used to say to us, ‘that is how the Bruces used to play’. But even the lighter music, he would sit in a chair, close his eyes and play for an hour on end, mostly jigs.
Sitting in a chair?
Yes, he had a bellows pipe which, of course, never got damp and to hear him playing jigs on that pipe — some of these beautiful old tunes, The Herring Wife for instance or The Stable Boy’s Jig, these sort of tunes.
• To be continued.
* From the June 2010 Piping Times.