The ‘penny-and-a-piobaireachd’ was the famous feu payment made by the College of Piping each summer for land at Boreraig on Skye, the ancestral home of the famous MacCrimmon piping dynasty.

The background to what was for many years an annual event was given in the Piping Times of July 2016. Briefly, in 1957, Major General Martin of Husabost – who owned the land – wished to give the land to the College. The condition he attached to the sale was that each year he should receive as feu duty a penny and a piobaireachd – the penny being what the lawyers required him to ask as financial return, and the piobaireachd for his own satisfaction.

Over the years, the payment was made by many well known pipers on behalf of the College, such as Colin MacLellan, Iain MacFadyen, Donald Lindsay, John MacFadyen, Alex Haddow, MacGregor Kennedy, Dugald MacNeill and many more including, naturally, Seumas MacNeill who one year arrived at the site via helicopter from Glasgow.

There has been mention over the years that Alex MacDonald (who was the Sovereign’s Piper at the time) paid the feu duty on one early occasion but this is incorrect. While Alex did play once a the cairn during Skye Week some time in the 1960s, he did not play on behalf of the College. The ‘penny and a piobaireachd’ was undertaken only by someone with a strong connection to the College.

Dugald Murdoch, an early pupil of the College, was among those present at that very first ‘penny-and-a-piobaireachd’ ceremony. He describes it here:

By Dugald Murdoch

Seumas MacNeill, on behalf of the College of Piping, receives the land at the site of the MacCrimmon ‘college’ from Major-General I.S.S. Martin.

I was one of the eight young pupils of the College of Piping whom Seumas MacNeill and John MacFadyen had invited to take part in the first Penny-and-a-Piobaireachd ceremony on May 28, 1958.  The others were: Scott Bennett, Vic Black, John MacAskill, Lawrence MacIver, and Evan MacKay, and (from Edinburgh) Charlie Nicol, and Pauline Mellor (now Nash) of the Rose Fletcher Pipe Band (from Manchester, England).

We were divided into two groups, one of which was put up for a few days at Husabost, the home of General and Mrs Martin of Husabost, and the other at the home of Dr. Murdo and Mrs MacLean, in Dunvegan. I belonged to the latter group, as did John MacAskill, Lawrence MacIver, and Pauline Mellor. Dr. Murdo was himself a piper, and elder brother of the famous ‘Big’ Donald MacLean, composer of that great march, Major Manson at Clachantrushal. Dr MacLean and his wife were kindness itself. At their home we met another renowned Skye physician, Dr Allan MacDonald, of Uig.  Dr Allan was a formidable figure, a very good piper, and an authority on Gaelic song. He asked John MacAskill and me to play for him, which we duly did on the front lawn, to the bemusement of the odd passing tourist; I can still see him in my mind’s eye, smoking his (tobacco) pipe, listening intently, and nodding occasionally in encouragement.

The May 1958 edition of The Bulletin carried a report on the first ceremony. The photograph shows Robin Bennett playing MacCrimmon’s Sweetheart. Inset: Dame Flora MacLeod is welcomed on the shore by Murdo MacLeod.

On the day of the ceremony, the Dunvegan party travelled from Dunvegan Castle to Boreraig in Dame Flora MacLeod of MacLeod’s motor-launch. In addition to us youngsters there was Seton Gordon, Col. Jock MacDonald of Viewfield, Seumas and his wife, Netta, and John MacFadyen. John and Seumas took turns at standing at the prow playing pibrochs, among which was, of course, MacLeod’s Rowing Tune. It was a sea-journey which the MacCrimmons must have made countless times over the centuries. The Gods looked favourably on us on this occasion, for it was a beautiful morning, of glorious sunshine, though the breeze, coming in from the Minch, made white crests on the waves. 

The forenoon was taken up with the traditional Boreraig Day competition for juveniles. Seton Gordon and Col. Jock judged the pibroch, which was won by Scott Bennett. I won the March, and John MacAskill won the Strathspey and Reel.

In the afternoon, Dame Flora and her party arrived by the same launch from Dunvegan. We all went down to the shore to greet her, and when the launch came into sight we could see John MacFadyen piping at the prow, and as the boat came nearer, the strains of MacLeod’s Rowing Tune came wafting over the surface of the water, with magical effect (John had returned to Dunvegan earlier for this purpose). We youngsters then piped Dame Flora and her party up the hill, where they were greeted by General Martin, who stood on a partially excavated wall of the MacCrimmon College; there he addressed the assembly, in a ringing voice, with the words, “Dame Flora MacLeod of MacLeod, Ladies and Gentlemen, I bid you welcome to my lands of Boreraig” (note “my” and not “the” as in some accounts), and after a brief speech, he called upon Seumas to step forward and pay the penny, and upon Scott Bennett to pay the piobaireachd, which he duly did in great style, playing his winning tune from the morning, MacCrimmon’s Sweetheart.

John MacFadyen playing at the MacCrimmon Cairn at that very first ‘penny and a piobaireachd’ ceremony. Lying on the ground, next to the cairn, is the author, John MacAskill and Charlie Nicol. Pauline Mellor’s head is next to the tall lady, and above Pauline’s head is the head of Seumas MacNeill’s wife, Netta.

After that, the thing that really stands out in my memory was John MacFadyen’s playing the traditional Boreraig Day piobaireachd at the cairn in commemoration of the MacCrimmons. No one who is still alive and was present at that occasion will forget his performance of Patrick Mòr MacCrimmon’s, I Got a Kiss of the King’s Hand – he played it as if he were Patrick Mòr himself. I can still see him in my mind’s eye, the breeze from the Minch swirling round his kilt, and the customary handkerchief peeping discreetly from his left cuff. I vividly remember lying on the grass by the cairn, next to my old pal John MacAskill (the late Dr John), looking out over the waters of Loch Dunvegan, as the music of this great pibroch swept over us, in mesmerising fashion. For this young piper, whose brain was already stuffed with tales of the MacCrimmons and Boreraig, it is difficult to describe how moving the experience of this was.

Seton Gordon.
Seton Gordon.

The only mishap for me occurred in the morning, as we arrived at Boreraig, for as were walking up from the shore, Seumas and John were talking quietly about Seton Gordon, whom I knew nothing about, and I asked them, “Why do you call that man, ‘Satan’?”, and they laughed their heads off – to my utter mortification.

Alas, that unique institution, the College of Piping, is no more, but it will live on, I have no doubt, in the memories of the thousands of pupils who over the years had the good fortune to put their foot across its doorstep.  

• Dugald Murdoch is an old alumnus of the College of Piping, a pupil of John MacFadyen who was with him until he died. Dugald was an instructor at the College’s evening classes and at the summer schools. He is the only person to have attended all the College’s summer schools in the Highlands from 1956 until the last one in 1967, first as a pupil and latterly as an instructor. He remained active in the College up until he emigrated in 1970.