The MacRae pipers of Harris, part 1


By Jeannie Campbell

The MacRae family was originally from Kintail but Christopher MacRae, who was born about 1807, moved to the island of Harris some time prior to 1840.

Christopher married Isabella MacKenzie and had a large family. The 1851 census shows them living in Obbe, Harris: Christopher (40) a boat builder, his wife Bell (30), born in Lochalsh and their children Peggy (12), Mary (10), John (8), Lexy (5) and Finlay (3). All the children were born in Harris. Three of the boys – Finlay, Angus and Donald – would become well known pipers.

Angus MacRae. Date unknown.

By the time of the 1881 census Christopher and Isabella had living with them their son John (a fisherman) and his wife Effy along with their three young sons, all Harris born. Obbe was a fishing village that was renamed Leverburgh in 1920 after Lord Leverhulme bought the South Harris estate in 1919. Christopher died in 1882 aged 70 and the death certificate shows his parents were Donald and Mary MacRae. The cause of death was dropsy and he informant was his son John.

Angus MacRae and his brothers, Donald and Finlay were all included in the ‘Notices of Pipers’, the list begun by begun by Lieutenant John MacLellan (G. S.’s father) in the early 20th century. These notices were last revised in 1948 and were published in the Piping Times from August 1967 to September 1975.

Angus is by far the best known. His was born in May 1855 and he was a right-shouldered player. Alexander MacLennan of the Inverness Militia, a pupil of Donald Cameron, taught Angus, and he later went to Calum Piobair MacPherson. Angus was Piper to Duncan MacRae of Kames, Isle of Bute then, by 1879 – when he won the Piobaireachd at the Northern Meeting – he was Piper to E. H. Wood of Raasay. He was a regular competitor over the years and his employment can be documented from the many newspaper reports of competitions, concerts and other events.

Map of Harris. Click to enlarge.

He won the Gold Medal at the Argyllshire Gathering in 1883 when still with E. H. Wood then in 1886, when Mr Wood, died he became piper to Mr J. Stewart MacDonald of Monachyle, Lochearnhead.

At the 1888 Northern Meeting Angus was placed second in the Strathspey and Reel and was listed as Piper to MacDonald of Monachyle. He was still with MacDonald in January 1889 and during these years he played and won prizes at many Gatherings, as well as playing at concerts and social events.

Later in 1889, he became Piper to Colonel David White, a solicitor in Stirling and an enthusiast for Highland Games and piping. As I documented in my article on the Paris Gathering, White was the organiser of the this event which was part of the 1889 Paris Exhibition, held to mark the centenary of the Storming of the Bastille. Angus MacRae was one of the leading pipers and dancers who took part and was a prize winner in both piping and dancing.

The results of the piping and dancing events were:

Piobaireachd – 1. Angus MacRae (Colonel White’s piper); 2. William McLennan, Edinburgh; 3. Jockan Macpherson, Badenoch.
Marches (Confined to pipers of Army, Reserve, and Police Forces of Great Britain) – 1. A. Gillies, Aberdeen; 2. Albert Johnstone, Dundee; 3. John Wilson, Callander.
Marches (Open). – 1. John MacColl, Oban; 2. William McLennan; 3. Angus MacRae.
Highland Fling – 1. William McLennan; 2. John McNeill, Edinburgh; 3. J. Norman McLeod, Kirkcaldy.
Seann Truibhas –  1. J. McNeill Jnr; 2. J. MacKenzie, Edinburgh; 3. William McLennan.
Ghillie Callum –1. Angus MacRae; 2. John MacColl; 3. J. MacKenzie.

Financially, the gathering in Paris was not a success and resulted in bankruptcy proceedings against David White. During the hearing he was asked: “You keep a piper, don’t you?”

White replied, “I do; a man engaged before I went to Paris.”

“How much does he get?”

“He has got nothing.”

“What is he engaged to get?”

“He has made no claim on my estate.”

“He then served you for nothing?”

“Just now, under the circumstances, he does. I was trying to get him into a better place.”

At the Argyllshire Gathering in 1890 Angus won the Strathspey and Reel and in 1891 he won the March. On both occasions he was also placed third in the Sword Dance and second in the Highland Fling. He was listed as “Angus MacRae, Callander.”

During the four years following there are no newspaper reports of his activities so he may have been out of the country. His newspaper obituary states that he spent five years in Canada so this may have been during this time.

The Dundee Courier on June 10, 1895 reported on the Highland Gathering and Games promoted by the Dundee Celtic Club. Angus was the winner of the Open Marches and the Reels and Strathspeys. He was also awarded first prize for the Best Dressed Highlander at his own expense. At Crieff Games in August he was third in the Piobaireachd, second in the marches and first in Reels and Strathspeys. In 1896 he was a prize winner at the Scottish Gathering in London, Crieff Gathering, Birnam Highland Games and Lochaber Highland Games. In 1897 he continued, with prizes at Forfar, Errol and Crieff, being described as “Angus MacRae, Callander” in all the reports. In November 1897 he played at a Grand Concert organised by the Ballachulish and Glencoe Liberal Association and was listed as “Angus MacRae, Champion Piper.”

His successes continued during 1898 and 1899 including at the Northern Meeting where he won the Clasp. The Aberdeen Journal report of the Northern Meeting described him as “Angus MacRae, Tyndrum House, Callander.” In November 1899, at a series of Saturday night ‘Grand Highland concerts’ in Dundee, he was again billed as “Angus MacRae, Champion Piper.” The performers included Scott Skinner – the ‘Strathspey King – and Scott Skinner junior, a Highland dancer. Angus won many prizes at the competitions in Glasgow during the 1890s.

The Alhambra Theatre was built on the site of the Waterloo Rooms in Glasgow’s Wellington Street (near Central Station). The building was demolished in 1971.

A competition for piping and dancing was held in the Waterloo Rooms on a Monday evening in March 1900. The March 10, 1900 Highland News (Inverness) reported on the competition. It stated that a large audience was in attendance and. After a speech from the chairman, Donald Nicolson, the programme commenced. There were so many competitors (there was also a dancing contest) that it was after midnight before the results were known. Before the presentation of the prizes Angus MacRae played The Colquhoun March, as a compliment to Sir James Colquhoun, Bart. of Luss, who had given substantial help to the competition. The prize-list for the piping events was:

– 1. R. Hall, Dalkeith; 2. R. Taylor, Govan; 3. J. McPhail, Govan.
Strathspeys and Reels – 1. R. Taylor; 2 J. McPhail; 3 R. Hall.

Ceòl Mòr – 1 John MacColl, Oban; 2. Angus McRae, Callander; 3 K. MacDonald, Inverness; 4. W. Robb (late 93rd Highlanders), Glasgow.
Marches – 1. John MacColl; 2. Angus MacRae; 3. W. Robb; 4. J. Center, Edinburgh.
Strathspeys and Reels – 1. A. MacRae; 2. J. MacColl; 3 J. Center; 4 W. Robb.

On March 19, 1900 the Dundee Evening Telegraph reported. “Pipes and pipers we all know have connection with the Army, but it is surprising to learn that the music played before Moses is also considered essential in the Navy. Otherwise it is not easy to account for the fact that Mr Angus MacRae, Callander, the well-known piper, has just been appointed piper to Admiral Lord Charles Beresford on board the flagship, Ramillies.”

Two later newspaper reports mention this, too, including the North Star and Farmers’ Chronicle of September 10, 1903 – which stated that, “Macrae, who disputes with John MacColl the championship of the piping world. Macrae told me that his bagpipes were very popular with the officers, and it was the only music they had when they dined … At Malta, he had some experience with thieves. While the flagship was coaling, some ‘tarry-fingered’ Maltese got their hands on his baggage, and stole his silver-mounted chanter, a silver-mounted sporran, a valuable dirk, several gold and silver medals, brooches, and other valuables. Angus missed his medals, although he has enough left to cover the side of his sitting room from ceiling to floor.’”

In 1902 reports of various gatherings showed that Angus continued to be among the prize winners. For example, in June at Stamford Bridge, London, he won both the Piobaireachd and the Marches, Strathspeys, and Reels. At Lochaber in August, the results were:

Open (Piobaireachd) – 1. Pipe Major John MacDonald, Inverness; 2 Angus MacRae; 3 J. Macdougall Gillies, Glasgow; 4 John MacColl, Oban.
Marches – l. Angus MacRae; 2. John MaColl; 3. John MacDonald; 4 James A. Center, Edinburgh.
Strathspeys and Reels – l. Angus MacRae: 2. John MacDonald  3. James A. Center and John MaColl, equal.

During 1902 he continued to compete during the summer and at the autumn competitions. In November he won the Open Piping at a competition held in the Waterloo Rooms, Glasgow.

As we’ve seen, Angus was described invariably as “Angus MacRae, Callander” but in June 1904 the report of the Royal Caledonian Ball is London states: “Headed by the Duke of Atholl’s pipers, Angus MacRae, of the Scottish Horse and Atholl Highlanders, champion piper of Scotland, and Donald MacDougall, of the Atholl Highlanders, both wearing their Atholl tartan and carrying the ancient banners of the Atholl Highlanders, the reel dancers marched in procession round the ball-room.”

Aeneas Rose was piper to the Duke of Atholl and Pipe Major of the Atholl Highlanders. In 1903 he retired and Angus MacRae took over. Aeneas Rose died in 1905 and Angus MacRae led the pipers of the Atholl Highlanders at the funeral.

In June 1905 Pipe Major Angus MacRae and pipers of the Atholl Highlanders played for the Eightsome Reels at the Royal Caledonian Ball in London. The report of the 1906 ball stated that the procession of dancers marched into the ballroom to the music of the pipes, played by Angus MacRae  and one of his comrades. At the 1905 Northern Meeting, Angus was second in the Clasp and was described as “Pipe Major of the Scottish Horse” in some papers and “Angus MacRae, Blair Atholl” in others.   

The 1911 census returns shows Angus as one of the 27 people resident at Blair Castle. Top of the list was the Duke of Atholl (70), followed by his daughter, Lady Helen Stewart Murray and son Lord George Stewart Murray, a Captain in the Black Watch. Next were the 24 servants in order, headed by the secretary, then the butler then Angus Macrae, valet and piper. Angus was stated to be unmarried, aged 49, and able to speak Gaelic and English. Also among the servants was William Reid, (19), footman and piper, born at Logierait.

On October 28, 1911 the Perthshire Advertiser reported, “On Thursday evening a large company assembled in the Atholl Arms Hotel under the chairmanship of Mr D. D. Macdonald, to do honour to Pipe Major Angus MacRae, who is about to leave the district.

The Atholl Arms Hotel, Blair Atholl.

“Mr Macrae has occupied positions in Atholl during the last 8 or 10 years under the Atholl Family, but he has been best known as Pipe Major of the Atholl Highlanders, and his services at local concerts, dances, and other functions of the kind have always been in great request, and the Pipe Major was invariably willing to oblige. His piping is well known, is of a very high order indeed having held the position of champion piper of Scotland for many years previous to his coming to Atholl. Mr Alexander Mackay, private secretary to Lord Tullibardine, presented Pipe-Major Macrae, in name of a very large number of friends with a handsome silver mounted pocket book and purse of sovereigns. Mr MacRae made an appropriate reply and thereafter his health was duly pledged. A pleasant evening was spent.”

On May 18, 1912 the Highland News reported on the funeral of Mrs MacRae, the mother of Stewart MacRae, Major MacRae-Gilstrap and Captain Colin Macrae. She had died at her residence, Barnlongart on the family estate at Ballimore, Otter Ferry and was taken north for burial. The report ran: “Headed by Mr Angus MacRae (Captain Colin MacRae’s piper), playing the Macrae’s March, Flowers of the Forest, Land o’ the Leal and other appropriate tunes, the procession then started on the last stage of the long journey, the coffin being borne by the clansmen of Kintail to its final resting place in the family burial ground at Clachan Duich, surrounded by the majestic hills of Kintail.” Captain Colin MacRae certainly had an interest in piping as he judged many times at the Argyllshire Gathering.

According to newspaper obituaries, Angus MacRae became Piper to Viscount Dudley in London on the death of the Duke of Atholl, which occurred in 1917. The title ‘Viscount Dudley’ had not been used since the third Viscount was given the title Earl of Dudley in 1827 but he died childless in 1833 and the titles became extinct. In 1860 the titles Earl of Dudley and Viscount Ednam were given to a relative of the previous Earl. The Ednam title came from a village in Roxburghshire. He married a daughter of Sir Thomas Moncreiffe, 7th Baronet, and Lady Louisa Hay-Drummond. Their son became the second Earl. His son, the third Earl, was known as Viscount Ednam until he succeeded to the Earldom in 1932. In 1919 he married a daughter of the Duke of Sutherland. The family, therefore, has Scottish connections. No newspaper references to Angus MacRae have been found for these years. Angus died in 1934, aged 79. His death was registered in September in Lambeth, London.

Alexander MacLennan also taught Angus’ brothers, Donald and Finlay. At the Nairn Games in August 1878 Donald was a prize winners.

By 1881 Donald (26) was unmarried and living at Lochdhu House, Nairn, where he was employed as a coachman. The head of the household was Robert Anderson, a farmer.

In June 1881 at the regimental games of the Inverness Militia, Donald was in the prize list being noted as Donald MacRae, B Company and at the Beauly Games he was placed first in the piping.

Amhuinnsuidhe Castle, Harris.

By 1882 Donald had returned to Harris and was piper to Sir Edward Scott then to his widow, Lady Scott. The Scotts owned what is now Amhuinnsuidhe Castle, built in by the 7th Earl of Dunmore in 1867. He went bankrupt before an additional was completed. In 1868 his bankers took over the castle and the entire estate in lieu of debts owed to them.

The 7th Earl of Dunmore was credited, with the Duke of Atholl, for devising the Eightsome Reel in the 1870s. In 1890 he was officer commanding the 1st Volunteer Battalion of the Cameron Highlanders and appointed John MacDonald of Inverness as Pipe Major of the Battalion.

Although he judged regularly at the Northern Meeting from 1883 to 1906 and judged at the Argyllshire Gathering in 1904, 1905 and 1906, Dunmore [pictured] was not thought to be a great piper. Colonel Jock MacDonald said he remembered him and said he didn’t know one end of a chanter from the other. Apparently, he used to blow into the wrong end. Nevertheless, in 1904 Lord Dunmore was elected as President of the Piobaireachd Society …

Sir Edward Scott. He and his heir, Sir Samuel Scott, used the castle during the summer and autumn, to entertain house-guests.

The first reference to Donald MacRae as piper to Sir Edward Scott was in the Northern Chronicle’s October 4, 1882 report of the Portree Gathering. Among those present was Sir Edward Scott who entertained many others on his yacht. The Earl of Dunmore was also present. The results of the Open Piping were:

Ceòl Mòr – 1 Pipe Major Ronald Mackenzie, Seaforth Highlanders, Fort. George; 2. Malcolm MacPherson, Kilmuir; 3. William MacLennan, Edinburgh.
Marches – 1.Pipe Major Ronald Mackenzie; 2. Donald MacRae, Piper to Sir Edward Scott of Harris; 3. John J. Connon, Piper to Mr Darroch of Torridon.
Reel and Strathspey [sic]: 1. Donald MacRae; 2. Malcolm MacPherson; 3. John MacBean, Piper to Lord Middleton, Applecross.

In February 1883 Donald piped, along with William Ross, for the reels when the Queen’s attended the Highland Ball held in London under the auspices of the Gaelic Society of London. 

In March 1885 he played at the third annual ball of the London Inverness-shire Association held in the Freemason’s Tavern, London. Donald was mentioned in competition results in 1886 as Piper to “Lady Scott, Harris.” In 1887 he was again in London to play at the fifth annual ball given by the London Inverness-shire Association at the Freemason’s Tavern, London. In February 1889 piper he is reported to have played at a supper and presentation in Larbert, Stirlingshire.

Donald died in February 1894 at Tarbert in Harris. He was aged 44 and unmarried. His occupation was General Merchant. The cause of death was carcinoma of the liver.