The MacRae pipers of Harris, part 2

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Continuing the story of the MacRae pipers of Harris.

By Jeannie Campbell MBE

Angus MacRae’s brother, Finlay was Piper to John Stewart of Ensay, according to the Notices of Pipers. Ensay is a small island just off the south coast of Harris. John Stewart was born in Harris in 1825 and died in Edinburgh in 1899. His father was Donald Stewart, 8th of Luskentyre and his mother was Isabella MacRae. In 1849 he married Jessy MacRae. It would have been very suitable therefore, for him to have a MacRae piper. His second son, Captain William Stewart, Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, was a founder member of the Piobaireachd Society in 1903 and was elected Secretary in 1904. He was one of the Piobaireachd Society judges at its early competitions.

Unlike his brother Angus, Finlay did not continue in private service nor did he compete. Where competition records mention an “F. MacRae, Portree,” these refer to Farquhar MacRae who was not related. Finlay MacRae moved from Harris to Skye where he worked as a shepherd. He was married on December 26, 1872 at Kilmuir to Flora McKinnon.

By 1881 Finlay (36) and Flora (30) had five children: Isabella (8), Norman (6), Lexy (4), Chirsty (3) and Mary Jane (2), all born at Kilmuir. The family had moved to Portree by 1891 and had more children, Colina (5) and Christopher (3), born Portree. Finlay’s death, aged 73, was registered at Portree in 1929. Two of their sons, Norman and Christopher, were pipers.

Donald Walter Cameron, 25th Cameron of Lochiel.

Norman’s birth was registered for November 21, 1874 at Kilmuir, Skye although later records indicate a birthdate of 1876 or 77. He was a prizewinner at the Northern Meeting and Piper to Cameron of Lochiel for more than 40 years but he seems to have been largely forgotten. He is not included in the Notices of Pipers nor in any of the history books apart from a brief reference by Bridget MacKenzie who when writing about Angus MacRae and Finlay MacRae, says another of the family (not named) was piper to Lochiel.

Christopher appeared regularly in newspaper reports over the years from 1903 onwards.

He first appeared in a report on September 1, 1903 from the Highland Games at Portree where the piping contests were judged by Major Stewart of Ensay and Mr Macdonald of Skeabost and took place despite torrents of rain. In the Open events the prizes were shared among J. MacDougall Gillies, Glasgow, James Center, Edinburgh and P.M. Cameron, 3rd Cameron Highlanders, Inverness. In the amateur light music, the first prize went to Christopher. At the Skye Games in August 1905 Christopher won the Strathspeys and Reels.

Alexander – Sandy – Cameron.

By September 1905, Norman was piper to Cameron of Lochiel. Alexander Cameron, a much better known piper, held this position previously. Alexander had been at Achnacarry since 1898 or possibly earlier where part of his duties was to exercise the estate dogs. One day when out with the dogs he had several leashes wrapped round his right hand. The dogs startled a hare, jerking the leashes and Alexander’s hand was broken so badly that he was no longer able to play. He continued to live on the estate and received a pension from Lochiel for the rest of his life. Alexander died from senile decay aged 75 on November 5, 1923 at Belford Hospital in Fort William. He was unmarried. In a letter of September 1947 commenting on the judges at a recent event, Archie Campbell of Kilberry wrote, “I don’t think Norman MacRae knows much about piobaireachd. He had Sandy Cameron in the same house for 15 years and never took any advantages of the fact.”

The first reference to Norman McRae is from the 1905 report of the Northern Meeting where the result of the Strathspeys and Reels was 1. Norman Macrae, Piper to Lochiel, Castle Leod. Strathpeffer; 2. George S. Allan, 2nd Scottish Horse, Piper to Major Greenhill Gardyne; 3. Pipe Major William Ross, 2nd Scots Guards. At the same meeting, his father Angus, was placed second in the Clasp.

Both Christopher and Norman continued to feature in newspaper reports over the years 1905 to 1909. They were regular prize winners at the Games in Skye and also played for dancing at the evening social events. Both seemed to excel particularly for strathspeys and reels. Norman was described always as Piper to Lochiel and Christopher as either 1st VB Cameron Highlanders, Portree or sometimes just Portree.

Unknown highland games in 1904. Left to Right: P.M. Willie Ross, John MacDonald of Inverness, James Center, John MacColl, George S. MacLennan, George Allan and Angus MacRae.

Tragically, Christopher died young. His death was reported in the North Star and Farmers’ Chronicle on August 11, 1910: “On Tuesday morning the remains of a young man was discovered in the neighbourhood of the Portree Home Farm and were identified as those of Christopher MacRae of the 4th Camerons.” The deceased, it continued was a professional piper and was headed from a noted line of pipers, being a nephew of the world famous piper Angus MacRae, Callander. His death certificate gives more information. He was aged 21 and had been “found dead hanging to a tree in a park on Home Farm, Portree at 9am 7th August 1910. Last seen alive in Wentworth Street, Portree, 6th August between 9.10 and 9.30pm.” The cause of death was recorded as suicide. The death was registered on August 18.

In 1911 at the time of the census, Donald Cameron of Lochiel, his wife Lady Hermione and Norman McRae were in Chelsea, London. Norman (34) was employed by Lochiel as Piper and Butler. In addition, the household included one other male servant and four female servants.

According to a newspaper report from 1936, “Piper MacRae during the Great War served with his chief in the Cameron Highlanders.” There are no pipers named Norman or N. McRae listed for the Cameron Highlanders in the Pipes of War but there are two possibles among army records, an N. McRae 10108 Private 1915 Cameron Highlanders, or Norman MacRae 24984 Private 1914 Cameron Highlanders. Lochiel was listed as Lt Colonel Donald Walter Cameron of Lochiel, 5th Cameron Highlanders.

At the Lochaber Ball in September 1926 Norman played for the reels. In September 1927 at the Lochaber Ball he played for the Highland dances and again at the Ball in 1928. In April 1930 he was in London to play for the wedding of Lochiel’s daughter, Violet to John Stewart of Ardvorlich. Following the wedding there was a garden party at Achnacarry hosted by Lochiel and his wife and attended by the feuars, tenantry and crofters from the estates and a large contingent from Fort William “who had their first opportunity of tendering their felicitations to the young laird of Ardvorlich and his bride.” Music was discoursed by the Imperial Orchestra, Fort William, and by Norman.

Birnam Games, 1899 and a veritable Who’s Who of piping.

The Aberdeen Press and Journal on October 10, 1930 reported that at the opening ceilidh for the winter session of the Nairn branch of An Comunn Gàidhealach, Lochiel presided over an audience about 200. During the evening, his piper – Norman – played several selections. In September 1934 Norman played Ye’ll Tak’ the High Road and clan marches at the opening of the last section of the trunk road from Glasgow to Inverness.

In September 1935 and again in 1936 and 1937 Norman played at the Lochaber Ball. The Dundee Courier in June 1936 reported, “Piper to Highland Chief. Norman MacRae, who has been Lochiel’s piper for more than 30 years, still plays each morning outside Achnacarry, near Fort William. Piper MacRae during the Great War served with his chief in the Cameron Highlanders.”

The monument to the ’45 at the head of Loch Shiel at Glenfinnan.

In April 6, 1938 Norman played at the wedding in the Guards’ Chapel, London, of Marion Cameron, daughter of Lochiel, to Ronald Archibald Orr Ewing, Scots Guards, eldest son of Brigadier-General Sir Norman Orr Ewing. At the reception Norman played Lochiel’s March and Captain Orr Ewing’s March, composed by Pipe Major Ross. In August that year, Norman played at Glenfinnan at the ceremony to commemorate those who fought in the ’45 and to mark the handing over of the monument to the National Trust.

About 5,000 attended the Lochaber Gathering in August 1938: “Cameron of Lochiel and Mr Allan Cameron of Lochiel, were present, and Mr Allan Cameron, who is a very fine piper, acted as piping judge with Pipe-Major John Macdonald; Mr James Campbell, of Kilberry and Mr Norman MacRae, piper to Lochiel.”

In July 1939 Norman played at the London wedding of Lochiel’s son, Donald Hamish to Margaret Gathorne-Hardy daughter of Lieutenant-Colonel the Hon. Nigel and Mrs Gathorne-Hardy, of Grey’s End, Rotherfield Grey’s, Henleyon-Thames. 

Lochaber Gathering, 1891. Lochaber Gathering 1891. 2nd from left Duncan MacLennan, 4th from left Norman MacPherson, then D G MacLennan, Charlie MacEwan, Angus MacRae, William MacLennan, John MacColl, Unknown, Danny Campbell, Lord Abinger? (judge), Corriechoillie? (judge), Unknown (judge), Johnnie MacNeill, W. G. Brown? Lochaber Gathering Medal for most points won by John MacColl.

On June 30, 1945 the Dundee Evening Telegraph reported that Norman had played at the wedding in Edinburgh of Captain Allan Cameron. Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders, second son of Colonel Sir Donald Cameron of Lochiel and Lady Hermione Cameron to Mary Elizabeth Vaughan Lee, eldest daughter of the late Colonel A. V. H. Vaughan Lee. In August there was a ceremony at Glenfinnan to mark the 200th anniversary of the raising of the Standard and the start of the 1745 Rising. Norman attended and played My King Has Landed in Moidart. On September 6 Norman piped at the funeral of Lady Helen Violet Graham, D.C.V.O.

On December 5 1946 the Aberdeen Press and Journal reported: “Mr Norman MacRae (72), 6 Queensgate. Inverness, former piper to Lochiel, is in the Royal Northern Infirmary with head injuries received through being struck by an Army vehicle in Bridge Street when out for a walk.”

In October 1950, Norman piped at the Lochaber Ball held at the Grand Hotel at Fort William.

Donald Walter Cameron of Lochiel died in 1951 and was succeeded by his son, Donald Hamish Cameron, who himself died in 2004 and was succeeded by his son Donald Angus Cameron, 27th of Lochiel.

In August 1961, The Tatler had an article entitled ‘Who’s Who in the Highlands’. It included Norman MacRae. “Shortly after electricity had first been put into Achnacarry,” the report said, “Lochiel asked MacRae one night at dinner why the lights had suddenly gone so low. ‘Och,’ replied MacRae, ‘It will be the cook – she’s poaching an egg.’”

No further references to Norman MacRae have been found.