Stuart Letford reviews ‘I Piped That She Might Dance’

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I’ve long thought that Angus MacKay’s life would make for a great film. It has it all: sex, drugs (well, alcohol), rock n’ roll and a young death. Angus went from a childhood of poverty to an adolescence spent frequenting palaces and hobnobbing with the great and good of his day.

Perhaps hobnobbing is too strong a word. Angus may have been the first Piper to the Sovereign – a grand title – but he was nevertheless a mere servant.

Indeed, while we in the piping world continue to revere Angus and his father, John, it is not certain how highly they were both thought of at the time. Yes, the gentry of Scotland managed to prevent John from emigrating and one of them, Lord Gwydir, gave him a job at Drummond Castle. However, for such an illustrious family, there is very little known about them locally. I have tried repeatedly over the years to find out, at Innerpeffray Library, from local historians, Drummond Castle itself etc. They just don’t seem to have made much of an impact.

But I digress.

In this book, Iain MacDonald has used artistic licence to try and fill in gaps in Angus’ life. And why not? This is a well-trodden path, one taken by many authors over the years, the best known being Nigel Tranter. The author clearly has a passion for his subject and is very knowledgeable. As Hugh Cheape writes in the Foreword, MacDonald deserves the heartfelt thanks of the piping community for rescuing Angus MacKay by means of an ‘autobiography’, one that proves beyond doubt the value of historical fiction.

Let’s look at some facts. Angus MacKay was born in 1813, six years before his future employer, Queen Victoria. He lived during a time of immense change, when the Napoleonic Wars were raging in Europe. In 1813 Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 was premiered in Vienna under the composer’s baton. Angus was one year old when Walter Scott published Waverley, the same year the forced Sutherland clearances commenced. He was four when The Scotsman newspaper first published (its demise is expected any day now) and not quite three when Charles Ewart of the Scots Greys captured the French Ensign during the Battle of Waterloo. He was seven when Scottish radicals at Bonnybridge and Strathaven rose and 15 when Burke and Hare were tried for killing people to provide dissection subjects for Edinburgh’s medical students.

The ruins of Taigh a’ Phiobaire, The Piper’s House, on Raasay where Angus MacKay was born. The gentleman on the left is Professor Hugh Cheape.

This was an age of improvement, in agriculture and in industry, a thought process that pervaded all society’s leaders at the time: ‘Can we improve it … how do we improve it … let’s improve it!’ This thinking spread inevitably to music and to ceòl mòr. It’s a shame no one thought to ask: “Does this music really need ‘improving’? And who are we to ‘improve’ it?”

The author imagines Angus’ thoughts on the way he was treated by the Highland Society of London (HSL), a sorry episode that sums up how our music and the culture behind it were treated by the gentry and how it was taken out of control of the performer and into the hands of people who had no idea of what they now had in their possession.

Angus MacKay.
Angus MacKay.

MacDonald also imagines Angus’ thoughts on James Logan, to whom the HSL had asked to pen what remains a preposterous Preface. That the HSL did not correct the errors Angus asked for in a reprint is regrettable and MacDonald imagines Angus’ thoughts: “I turned and walked back to my cottage, spending the following days and weeks getting to grips with what was undeniably a failed first collection, regardless of what the Highland Society or that imbecile Logan believed. It may have been outwith my control, but the fact remained I had not preserved the music I had set out to preserve, at least not with the accuracy it merited.

“… And I have not mentioned the hardest part of it all. Undoubtedly, this was having to pretend to be pleased with the book during all of my subsequent dealings with the Society. This was the only way I would ever be able to raise the subscriptions for another, and that was something I fully intended to do … if people knew that the collection was flawed then it would be much more difficult to get funding for a second edition, and it was blatantly obvious that the Highland Society would not commission an amended edition of this book. To them the whole thing seemed a resounding success.” 

Angus may have provided the settings for the tunes in his Collection of Ancient Piobaireachd but it cannot be said to be his book. It is very much the Highland Society of London’s book.

Reading Iain MacDonald’s book, we sene an indication that Angus did not present his settings as the way to play the tunes. That came from the gentry. Angus merely wished to preserve his father’s way of playing the music. The settings in the book suggest a very clever piper; he laid it all down for subsequent generations. The collection of David Glen, who became the most prolific publisher of pipe music and whose first book appeared in 1876, remains a superb collection full of attractive settings. The settings of Glen and MacKay are essentially similar. Only small pieces of notation are different and even then only slightly different. Notation, after all, can only be an aide memoire. Glen’s collection is arguably of more value to us.

Angus MacKay was very talented but some attach the word genius to him far too glibly. After all, it is doubtful if Angus would’ve made such an impact if not for Sara Drummond (Lady Gwydir) who taught him music theory and how to put music onto the stave.

Drummond Castle near Crieff.

We know Angus was friendly with contemporaries such as Donald Cameron. Much is made of his friendship with John Bàn MacKenzie – and MacDonald imagines this in his book – but, given his moral and religious convictions, would John Bàn really associate himself with someone who drank excessively and chased women? Yes, he knew Angus from a young age but to maintain a close friendship in those circumstances I’m just not so sure. MacDonald brings Angus’ wider family into the story as well and MacDonald’s writing here is particularly good.

The author.

Other than a couple of minor irritations – there’s no way Angus would’ve had the North Americanism “gotten” in his vocabulary, for example – this is a very enjoyable read. Iain MacDonald’s book is well researched and he has imaginatively given a voice to Angus MacKay whose incredible story is one of many in the rich history of piping that would make for a good period drama. Angus MacKay’s story deserves to be told to a wider audience and it is surely only a matter of time before the film rights to MacDonald’s book are bought.

• I Piped, That She Might Dance is available from Blackwater Press.