Great pipers Angus knew – and the day G. S. completed ‘Mrs MacPherson’

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Transcribed by Norman Matheson

We continue with our interview with Angus MacPherson, Invershin, conducted by Dr. John MacAskill in 1970.

So he [Calum Piobair] played light music too, not only ceòl mòr?
Yes, of course. He went to Paris on one occasion for a competition and got first for strathspeys and_ reels. There was a Dr. White who got up a Highland gathering in Paris and he collected as many pipers as he could from the old country and took them across to Paris. The strathspey and reel he played was Lady Macbeth and The Rejected Suitor. Angus MacRae got the piobaireachd.

Did your father start a school of piping at Cluny?
I don’t know that you’d call it a school exactly but after he retired from Cluny and was staying at Cat Lodge they came from far and near to get teaching.

Angus MacPherson and his son, Malcolm.

Did he speak Gaelic all the time?
Most of it.

What was his hobby apart from piping?

Fishing: he was great on fishing. He’d walk miles to a loch on the hill to fish. I remember the day that a piper came to get lessons, Angus MacRae, a Harris man who came to Skye and settled down there. Angus came to Cat Lodge — my father was away fishing on the loch where he met the accident that caused his death. I was asked if I thought I could find the loch. It was about three miles at least from the house so we set off. Angus was dressed in the kilt and very smart and when my father saw us coming in the distance he thought it could be one of those landlords who took exception to his fishing on the loch. When Angus came within sight I can remember still what he said in Gaelic and, of course, there was no more fishing. We came home and started the piobaireachd. Angus went straight from Cat Lodge to London and won the piobaireachd with Donald Duaghal MacKay’s Lament

Can you tell me about any other pupils?
Well, Pipe Major William MacLean got more music from him than any man and of course there was Pipe Major John MacDonald, Inverness, and Pipe Major Meldrum of the 93rd Highlanders, also Pipe Major Ferguson, Donald Ewan MacPherson from Skye and Danny Campbell from Skye. There was a Pipe Major Connon, a first class player who composed The Ross-shire Volunteers. He was at one time at Cluny as a servant and got a lot of music from my father. There were others that I can’t recall now and of course he taught all five of his own sons.

A pre-WW1 photo of Willie MacLean.
Willie MacLean.

Who was his favourite pupil, or is that an unfair question?
Well, I should say it was between John MacDonald and William MacLean.

Would he tolerate young pipers, efficient or not?
He was never happier than when he got a man who could take the music and I’ve never known him to ask anything for his tuition. He would do anything possible for a man who wanted to learn. I remember one occasion when Pipe Major Meldrum’s son came to get lessons and he had a lot of books with tunes marked out that his father wanted my father to teach him. And when he produced these books my father said to him, ‘well now boy, if you can’t learn piobaireachd without a book you’d better go back to your father’ and the books were put aside.

Did your father remember piobaireachd from canntaireachd for example?
He had a marvellous memory. He got his piobaireachd from the canntaireachd in the old fashioned way. He always maintained of course that a book was only useful for memorising. He used Angus MacKay’s book but he showed me many mistakes in it. But a piobaireachd man can easily recognize them. They were, he maintained, printer’s errors and not Angus MacKay’s fault at all.

What was his favourite part of the world?
Skye, of course.

What about the rest of the family?
I never saw my oldest brother. He was born in Stornoway and went to Canada where he passed away. The next was John who was born in Greenock. He was a first class player and anyone who heard him would back me up. Of course, he got the Oban and Inverness Gold Medals.

What tunes did he win with?
The Oban medal he won with The Battle of Waternish. At Inverness it was My King has Landed in Moidart. I played the same tune before him and, when he was going up after me, he said, ‘well you made a very good job and the man who beats that should get the medal today’.

The Inveran Hotel, Angus’ home for 35 years.

What about your other brothers?
Norman was a first class piobaireachd player. He went to Canada and won all the prizes worth winning. Then Ewan: he used to play but he wasn’t a competitor. My brother Malcolm had an accident as a young boy and the doctor maintained that he had injured his lungs. On account of that my father wouldn’t hear of him playing the pipes. But come what may he was determined to have the piping and he ran away and enlisted as a young lad in the Cameron Highlanders. He wasn’t six weeks enlisted when he was sent to Egypt in Kitchener’s army.

From there he went to the African war and then to Australia. He came back to this country and fought in the Great War. He a good player. And I had a sister Sarah who could play as well as any of us. Then there was my own son of course, Malcolm. Perhaps I’d better be brief here but I think it’s well known that he was a great player.

What about yourself? Were you a competing piper?
I competed in the local competitions as far back as I can hardly remember now. My first big competition was at Inverness at the Northern Meeting. I always had a great desire to play at Inverness and was only 17 when I went along with my brother, John. I can always remember the tune I played, My King Has Landed in Moidart, the same tune my father got the medal with and my brother John. It was a very cold day and my fingers were really cold. When the pipers all got together discussing matters, Alex Cameron came over and congratulated me on my tune. I said that my fingers were cold and I couldn’t get on as well as I’d have liked. He said, ‘your fingers cold! You should have heard your father the day he got the medal and it was snowing, but och, och it made no difference to Calum’.

The following year I competed in London and was tied for first in the piobaireachd with Pipe Major Colin Thomson who was then at his best. He was Pipe Major of the 93rd. I played Lament for Donald Duaghal MacKay and it was decided to divide the first and second prizes. After that I went as piper to Lady Ann Murray of Lochcarron for two or three years. Later on, at the age of 21, I joined Mr Andrew Carnegie and after that I ceased as a competitor. Mr Carnegie didn’t like me competing at the games but said that I could go to the Northern Meeting, the only place I was allowed to compete at. So for years I was out of the competing ring but I nursed my piobaireachd all the same and they are as fresh in my mind today as the day I got them from my father.

You got your ultimate aim; you won the Gold Medal didn’t you?
Well, I did and on account of being debarred, so to speak, from going to the games, perhaps it took longer than it might have done. I was second for it twice. I was second in 1899 when David Mather won it and he was a first class player and a good dancer. Eventually, I won the Gold Medal at Inverness in 1923.

L-R: Pipe Majors Willie Ross, George S. MacLennan and John MacDonald (Inverness).

Of course, you were a good dancer too, were you not? Did others in your family dance?
My brother John danced. Of course, in those days when the piping was over, most of the pipers danced; the pipes were put in the box and the slippers put on. In those days there were no women dancers. I remember one occasion when I got all the firsts at the Northern Meeting for dancing.

Did your father know Angus MacKay?
My father knew him perfectly well.

What did your father say about him?
He couldn’t say anything else but that he was a great man and a great player. He went to Balmoral and was the first piper Queen Victoria had.

Do you remember telling me about finding a grave unexpectedly? Was it at Cluny, a Macpherson grave?
That was very interesting. It was the grave of James Macpherson of the 1745 period. After the defeat at Culloden, this James Macpherson, along with Cluny and others, followed Prince Charles to Arisaig and James Macpherson, who was piper to Cluny at the time, played the pipes when the Prince left for France. Strangely enough, 200 years after that I had the honour of playing where the memorial was built at the same place from where the Prince sailed to France.

Talking about the grave, my sister-in-law and I were visiting the private burial ground at Cluny and came across the grave that was marked with a flagstone covered in moss. After scraping off the moss we found the name, James Macpherson, Piper to Cluny, 1745, and I had it on Cluny’s word that my family were related to this same James Macpherson.

Tell me about other pipers now — William MacLean, was he a good friend of yours?
He was a great player and a very fine man too. When he was getting taught by my father, he and I slept together and after we went to bed we used to be humming away at piobaireachd until we fell asleep.

What about John MacDonald, Inverness, you knew him well didn’t you?
Very well. In later years, when I had the hotel at Inveran, John MacDonald, who was born in my own parish of Glentruim, used to come and see me often. We used to sit by the fireside after the others had gone to bed discussing things and with the chanters of course going over old tunes and old times. He was a good man; there’s no doubt about that. His father before him was a good player and his uncles too, great players.

That was a famous hotel. I’ve heard so much about it. Do you recall any of the other famous pipers who stayed with you there?
I think it safe to say that the foremost pipers of the day stayed with me and we had some delightful playing on the banks of the Shin. There was for instance George MacLennan, William MacLean, Pipe Major Robertson, Pipe Major William Ross of course, Mr Campbell of Kilberry and the Rev. Dr. Neil Ross, he was the man who could have told you all about the MacCrimmons. Before the Northern Meeting I’ve seen half a dozen at least staying in the hotel.

Now, John MacColl, another famous player, do you know anything about him?
A great man. He was piper to MacDonald of Dunach, a place not far from Oban.

Was he a piobaireachd player?
He certainly was. He had great taste and was a great performer with the light music. He could play the violin, too, and he could dance. He also had a racing boat he was very keen on.

What other players of that generation can you recall?
Many of them. Of course, I knew the Aberfeldy men, the MacDougalls, good players they were. Of course, John MacDougall Gillies was playing in my early days and Danny Campbell from Skye, a first class man.

There were so many good players Angus that we can’t possibly talk about all of them but there’s one player we must talk about, that’s Willie Ross. Where did he come from?
He came from the Beauly district.

Did he have any Gaelic?
Of course he had, he was a Gaelic speaking man.

Did he ever come and visit your father?
No, he was never at my father but he often came to see me and we went over piobaireachds together. I gave him some of the tunes that I got from my father, one tune in particular I gave him The Finger Lock. He could play that very well.

Of course we can’t forget George S. MacLennan, he was a very good friend of yours wasn’t he?
He was a genius, no doubt about that. He was a wonderful man in every sense of the word and as a competitor.  I question whether he had his equal. I don’t think he did, especially in the light music. His name will be imprinted on the sands of time so long as pipes are played.

He was a good player but a great composer.
Oh yes, he was a great composer. I remember the night he composed Dancing Feet. He did it on the spur of the moment. At the Northern Meeting ceilidh in the hotel we got up to dance a reel in which I took part. He started playing and composed the tune there and then as he played to us for the dance. That’s how he called it Dancing Feet.

What about Mrs Macpherson of Inveran?
He composed that was when he was staying with us at Inveran. He used to go up to the Falls of Shin with the dogs and the chanter. When he came back he said to my wife on one occasion, “I’ve got your reel finished now, I just finished the last part today”. He dedicated that reel to her and he dedicated the march, which he called Inveran, to me and I’ve got a copy, which he wrote out for me.

Is there anything else you can tell me about G. S. MacLennan?
I can remember well when he and my son used to play together when he wasn’t well enough to blow the pipe. They would sit on two chairs and my son would do the blowing and George would do the playing on the chanter. It was a great treat to hear the two of them. He was very fond of my son and my son was equally fond of him.

• To be continued.

* From the July 2010 Piping Times.

• Part 1 – When Dr John met Angus – a highlander looked back