Transcribed by Norman Matheson
We conclude the interview the late Dr John MacAskill conducted with Angus MacPherson, Invershin, in 1970.
You were telling me that your father composed a few tunes. How many piobaireachds had he composed?
I can’t tell you that; the only piobaireachd I got a copy of was The Lament for Cluny Macpherson. He composed that in 1886. It was Pipe Major John Connon who took down a lot of his tunes, wrote them out and gave them to him in book form; we loaned the book out and like so many other books it was never returned. I have a few of his marches — one of them was Lochailort Side which is in one of Willie Ross’s books, He also composed 6/8 marches and several jigs.
For how long have you been going the Northern Meeting competitions?
Well, I went there in 1894 and this is 1970 so that makes it 76 years and I haven’t missed any in all that time [NB: this does not mean that Angus attended for 76 years without a break since competitions were not held during either of the two world wars]
That must be an all-time record; I don’t think anyone could ever beat it. You must have heard a lot of good tunes. Is there any particular one you can remember vividly?
There was one particular tune by Pipe Major John MacDonald on one of the occasions when he got the Clasp. He played The Park Piobaireachid No.2 and it will always be with me in his remembrance because he made such a good job of it as he always did. I remember in 1905 he played the Earl of Antrim at games at Bridge of Allan for instance. It was a wonderful experience and I’ll always retain it.
Can you tell me about the Northern Meetings? What were they like back in the early days in comparison with today?
There is no comparison at all. The Northern Meeting was always looked upon as the end of the Highland Season and all the lairds throughout the Highland region assembled at Inverness. They usually came on the Wednesday and stayed until the Saturday. In those days the pipers had to meet promptly at 9 o’clock and the roll was called. Anyone absent wasn’t allowed to play and you wouldn’t be allowed to play unless you were in full Highland dress. Such a thing as a tweed jacket and waistcoat wouldn’t be seen at the Northern Meeting. You had to have a certificate from your employer or some other knowledgeable person to verify that you were a competent person to compete there. The judging was strictly done with the judges in a tent.
The competitions were held outside?
They were always held outside in the Northern Meeting Park. The Northern Meeting in my day was quite a different matter. Today there’s only the piping held inside, which, so far as piping goes couldn’t be better. In the old days I’ve seen it snowing at the Northern Meeting. There was a ball held on the Thursday and the Friday and whoever won the Gold Medal had to play for the reels at the ball. The ball, held in the Northern Meeting Rooms, was a sight one could never forget. Crowds of people came to see the ladies enter the ballroom, their dresses, and they were very beautiful, clan tartan sashes and so on. It was a great show to see them and the beautiful dancing, very different from the dancing of today.
On present day standards how would you rate the Northern Meeting competitions?
Of course, there are more competing today although I’ve seen big competitions of 20 or over 20 in my young day. What is most noticeable today is that every man, or at least most of them, has good going sets of pipes. There are many fine players today, just as good as they were in my younger day but there is something lacking today and that is the Highland spirit. You never hear a word of Gaelic for instance. You used to be always welcomed in the Gaelic language and the competitors spoke it to one another. Not that I despise the man that hasn’t got the language: by no means. But it had a different touch to it as you may understand.
I can recall great pleasure arriving in Inverness the night before the competition. The train from the north would be met with a lot of enthusiasm and the trains from Edinburgh and Glasgow and all southern parts. There would be a lot of pipers and enthusiasts meeting them on the platform at Inverness and giving them a true Highland welcome. Now the difference is this: I go to the Northern Meeting, I travel by myself on the train, whereas in the old days the carriage would be chock-a-block with pipers and playing the pipes as we went along. Nowadays nearly everybody has their own car. It was all train transport in my day and that in itself made for a different kind of comradeship.
Can you tell me now of some of the great piobaireachds that you’ve heard in your day?
Well, I’ve heard the finest tunes ever played by my own father. I can remember that if we thought he was going to play the pipes at night we would go to bed quietly so that we could listen intently to his playing. There we were in bed, my brothers and myself listening to such tunes as The Lament for the Children, The Harp Tree, Patrick Òg MacCrimmon’s Lament and I Got a Kiss of the King’s Hand. He was great on the MacCrimmon tunes. Donald Duaghal MacKay’s Lament was a great favourite of his, too. When I look back on the beautiful evenings when he used to play these delightful tunes I fear I will never hear the like again.
Beside my father I heard other good men such as the MacDonalds of Morar, delightful players, and the two uncles of John MacDonald, Inverness, William and Duncan and his father Sandy. There was a MacBean who was piper to Lord Middleton. There was one other man I’ll always remember, old John MacKenzie, who was in charge of piping instruction at a school near London. He competed in the days when my father competed at the Northern Meeting and won the Gold Medal. He used to ask me to play the tune with which he himself won the medal, Melbank’s Salute. And I could see the old man listening with the tears running down his cheeks bringing memories that only himself and perhaps I, too, could understand. I used to visit the old gentleman and his wife who belonged to Gairloch — John MacKenzie, a very fine piper.
John MacDonald’s uncle, William, used to visit my father. Then there was John MacKay who was piper to Sir John Grant in Speyside. He used to come and stay with us at Cluny. I’ve heard the cream of pipers in my day. There was Pipe Major William MacLean for instance, a pupil of my father’s. I heard him when he won the Clasp with The Unjust Incarceration — as fine a tune as a man can play on the bagpipe. He got the Medal with Donald Duaghal MacKay’s Lament. Then John MacDonald, I’ve heard him play such tunes as The End of the Great Bridge and The Lament for Donald Bàn MacCrimmon. There are two other tunes that John MacDonald played that I always remember with very great pleasure. One was The Lament for the Earl of Antrim and the other was The Park Piobaireachd — beautiful playing.
You know quite a bit about Highland games. Let’s talk about the Portree Games. Do you know when they first started?
Yes, I went to Portree when I was piper to Lady Ann Murray of Lochcarron at the age of 17. In those days it was a real Highland gathering; the bay would be full of yachts and at night it was a picturesque sight to see them all lit up. And a ball was held each night.
What about the Glenfinnan Highland Games?
That is one of the nicest and most friendly gatherings that I go to and at the head of it they are very fortunate in having had Mrs Cameron-Head as convener. Her late husband was a delightful gentleman and he started the gathering to commemorate the connection with the 1745 uprising. Mrs Cameron-Head carried it on and I’ve been going there since its inception over 20 years ago. Following the march to the field a Gaelic song is sung from the platform after which the chieftain, Lochiel for instance, gives an address and recalls bygone days.
What about Aboyne Games, you’ve been going to judge at them haven’t you?
I’ve been going to Aboyne for over 20 years and it’s one of the best organised games that I go to.
The most famous gathering as far as the public is concerned is the Braemar Gathering. You judge there as well don’t you?
Yes, I’ve judged at Braemar for over 40 years. In my early days I not only judged the piping but also judged the dancing along with one or two others and I judged the bands by myself. A good many bands played at Braemar in those days and when I first went there I judged the bands all by myself for years and never had a complaint.
Do you judge at Dornoch?
Yes I do and it’s a nice friendly gathering. I’ve judged at Dornoch for many years and on the following day the Strathpeffer Highland Games. It is a very old gathering and run in a perfect fashion; Strathpeffer is one of the best gatherings I go to.
How old are you now Angus?
I’m 94 years old and I’ve seen and heard a lot in my time.
Your fingers are in remarkable condition for your age but you can’t possibly play as well as you did in your earlier days.
I feel now that my fingers are apt to play tricks on me. And whilst my mind is quite clear and I can remember the tunes I learned in my boyhood by the peat fire as clearly as if I learned them yesterday, I can’t continue them on the pipes as I used to and consequently can’t get the practice. But I can still play not a bad tune yet, as you very kindly said and [I’m only glad I can still do what I can because I hope to keep the old pipe going to the end.
• Thanks to John Don Mackenzie for making these tapes available for transcription. In her highly recommended book, Piping Traditions of the North of Scotland, Bridget MacKenzie writes: “Angus was 72 when fire destroyed his hotel in 1949. Much of the furniture was saved, but the hotel, and the way of life it embodied, had gone. Angus and Alice retired to Acharn House, a few miles up the river Shin. There they lived on the ground floor of the big house, with their daughter-in-law Joey and her two children, George and Diana.
“After Alice died in 1964, and the children had left home, Angus and Joey moved to one of the cottages behind the big house … where they were comfortable until Angus died in 1976, just short of his 99th birthday … He had always enjoyed quite good health and, perhaps optimistically, sent away for a new bag for his pipes when he as 97. By that time he was playing a half-size set, which was easier to blow … but he was still playing.
“At the funeral, the coffin was carried by members of the Ardgay/Bonar Pipe Band, who then played the hearse through the village. He was buried beside his wife in the little Inveran burial ground, overlooking the river and the site of the former hotel. The grave is against the southern wall … At the gate, on the right hand side, is a memorial to Angus. His son, Malcolm, is buried at Laggan, beside Calum Piobair.”
• From the September 2010 Piping Times.