Highland Pipers with Royal Appointment: Donald MacKay junior – the Prince of Wales’s Piper



The stories of Queen Victoria’s pipers are well known and there is no need to repeat them here, but there were several more pipers, perhaps less well known, who were employed by other members of Queen Victoria’s family.

Donald MacKay junior

In December 1873 Donald MacKay was appointed piper to the Prince of Wales. The first report of his playing at an event as piper to the Prince was in January 1874.

•Donald MacKay with JF Farquharson at Balmoral in 1876

Donald who was born in 1845 at Kensington Palace was said to have had his first lessons from his father. After their father’s death the children were sent to their relatives in Skye. John, aged seven, and Donald, aged five, were living at Kyleakin at the time of the 1851 census with their grandmother Margaret, widowed Aunt Catherine Munro and her son Duncan aged 14. Their grandfather John MacKay died around 1850 at the house of his daughter Catherine Munro. Their grandmother Margaret died in 1855. About this time Donald was placed in the Caledonian School in London where he was able to continue with his piping. He enlisted in the 78th Regiment at Westminster District in October 1859 by special authority as a boy soldier age 14. He served at Fort George, then Edinburgh 1860 and 1861 and was discharged at Aldershot in January 1862 on payment of £20. He then seems to have returned to his relatives in Kyleakin.

He was still based there at the time of the Northern Meeting in late September 1863 when he won the Prize Pipe as shown in the reports: “For pibrochs on Thursday – first prize – Donald Mackay, piper, Kyleakin; second, Andrew Gordon, piper to the Earl of Seafield.”

Donald’s elder brother John died at Kyleakin in 1866, aged 22, and Donald registered the death. At the 1866 Northern Meeting Donald won the Strathspeys and Marches and was listed in the reports as Donald MacKay, piper to Sir George MacPherson Grant of Ballindalloch. The prize in this event was a dirk which was inscribed: “Presented by the Northern Meeting to Donald MacKay for best performance of Strathspeys and Marches on the Great Highland Bagpipe. Sept. 1866.”

On April 18, 1867, Donald’s marriage was announced in the Inverness Courier: “At Maryburgh, Dingwall, on the 10th inst., by the Rev. D.  R. Munro, Mr Donald Mackay, Piper to Sir George Macpherson-Grant, Bart., to Elizabeth, youngest daughter of Mr Donald Stewart, late Merchant, Maryburgh.” A daughter Christina Caroline Mackay was born in April, 1868, and a daughter Elizabeth Margaret MacKay in December, 1872, both at Inveravon, Banffshire.

In September 1872, Donald won the Champion’s Gold Medal at the Northern Meeting. The results on Thursday were: “Pipe Music, Pibrochs – Corpl. Peter Macdonald, 72d Highlanders Fort George; 2. J. F. Farquharson, piper to H.R.H. the Duke of Edinburgh, Balmoral Castle; 3. Hugh Macdougall  pipe major, 91st (Princess Louise) Argyllshire Highlanders. Fort George. The results on Friday were: Pibrochs – Champion Gold Medal – Donald Mackay, piper to Sir G. Macpherson-Grant of Ballindalloch, Bart.”

There are numerous newspaper references to Donald MacKay, Piper to the Prince of Wales, playing at various events during the years 1874 to 1893. He played every year at the fund raising dinners of the Caledonian Asylum and was noted in many of the reports as a former pupil of the Asylum.

The death of Donald’s wife, Elizabeth MacKay aged 31, was registered at Wandsworth in the September quarter of 1876.

•Portrait from the Book of True Highlanders

In 1878 a portrait of Donald MacKay was included in an exhibition at the Glasgow Institute of Fine Arts. It was described as follows, “Portrait of Mr D. Mackay, piper to the Prince of Wales, is also by P. Sutcliffe. In full Highland costume, the tartan has been artistically arranged, and the portrait is a notable feature of the room.”

A portrait drawing of Piper Donald MacKay was included in C.N. MacIntyre North’s folio collection Leabhar Comunn nam Fior Ghael or The Book of the Club of True Highlanders. Published in 1880 or 1881.

Donald was married again in June, 1879, at Westminster to Jeanie MacLean and a daughter Catherine Jessie M. MacKay was born in the March quarter of 1880.

Donald and his family can be seen in the 1881 census at 3 Stafford Place South in the Parish of St Margaret, county of London.

“Donald MacKay Age: 35, Head Male, Married born Kensington, Middlesex, England. Occupation, Piper To H R H Prince Of Wales (Musician). Jeannie MacKay, 33, Wife, born Scotland, Christina Caroline MacKay age 12, daughter, born Scotland, Scholar, Catherine Jessie MacKay age 1, daughter, born Wandsworth, England, Elizabeth Margaret MacKay age 8, daughter, born Scotland, Scholar, Sarah Anderson, 18, unmarried, born Ireland, Servant, Mary Ann Day, 68, widow, born Tower Hamlets London, Servant.”

In the 1891 Census returns the family was listed at Palace Street, Parish of St Andrew, Westminster, London. They were: “Donald MacKay, 45, born London, Occupation: Musician. Jeannie MacKay, Wife, 43, born Scotland. Elizabeth M Mackay, Daughter, 18, born Scotland. Katherine J M Mackay, Daughter, 11, born London, and three Boarders. Henry Golding, 26, born London. Michel Argalais, 36, born Greece and Robert H Lindgett, 39, born London.”

Donald died in 1893 and this was reported in many papers covering Inverness, Aberdeen, Edinburgh and many of the English papers.

The reports in the Scottish papers were much the same: “Funeral of the Prince of Wales’s Piper. On Tuesday the remains of Donald Mackay, for twenty years piper to the Prince of Wales, who died on the 23rd December, were interred at Kensal Green Cemetery. At the gates of the cemetery the pipers of the Scots Guards, conducted by Pipe Major Fraser and Pipe Major Laing, played, at the wish of the deceased, expressed some time before his illness took a fatal turn – the funeral procession the chapel to the tune of The Land o’ the Leal. The Prince of Wales was represented by Mr Gerr, of his Royal Highness’s household, who brought a magnificent wreath to lay the grave. The deceased was 48 years of age. There were many Highland friends of the deceased present.”

The obituary in the London paper Lloyd’s Weekly on January 7 was more detailed: “Death of the Prince of Wales’s Piper. The Prince of Wales has sustained a great loss in Donald Mackay, his piper. Donald Mackay was considered the best piper in Great Britain, and frequently played before the Queen. Donald was born at Kensington palace on June 26, 1845. Upon the death of his father, who was for 25 years piper to the Duke of Sussex, Donald Mackay, being then only five years of age, was sent to Scotland to his grandparents. Four years afterwards he returned to London, where he was educated at the Royal Caledonian Asylum, at Holloway. At 18 years of age he won the champion gold medal of the Highland Society of London, being then piper to Ballindalloch, Inverness. For eight years be held the appointment of piper to the late Sir George MacPherson Grant, and in 1873 succeeded the Prince of Wales’s previous piper, Duncan MacDougall. This post he held uninterruptedly to the time of his death. Donald Mackay had acted as piper to the Highland Society of London, and as honorary piper to the Gaelic Society. He was a Highlander to the backbone, and stood six feet high. At the funeral at Kensal Green cemetery on Tuesday there was a large attendance of friends and others. The procession was met the gates of the cemetery by eight pipers of the First Battalion Scots Fusiliers, under Pipe Major Fraser, who escorted the procession to the grave playing the air, The Flowers of the Forest. The Rev. Dr. MacLeod (chaplain to the Highland Society of London) attended at the house previous to the departure of the remains, the service at the grave being conducted by the Rev. H.R. Davis. Beautiful wreaths were sent by the Prince and Princess of Wales, by whom Mackay’s loss is much regretted. The majority of the household attended from Marlborough house, and both the Prince and Princess of Wales were represented. Mackay was altogether 20 years in the Prince of Wales’s service, the cause of his death being blood poisoning.”

Another London paper The People also had a detailed obituary on the same date and giving some different information: “Prince of Wales’s Piper. Donald Mackay for 20 years piper to the Prince of Wales died on December 23. His remains were interred in Kensal Green Cemetery on Tuesday. Before the remains left the room in Palace Street. Buckingham Gate, where Mr. Mackay died Dr. Donald MacLeod officiated at a short service. At the cemetery the pipers of the Scots Guards played at the wish of the doomed, expressed during his last illness, the funeral procession to the chapel to the tune of The land o’ the Leal, the favourite tune of one who from childhood had been an accomplished performer on the pipes. The remaining portion of the service was conducted at the chapel and the graveside in the usual manner, the representative of the Prince of Wales, Mr Gerr placing a magnificent wreath, sent by his royal highness, on the coffin as it was lowered into the grave. Of Donald Mackay it could be said, but a few short weeks back, that a lease of his life could be taken. Born at Kensington Palace, on June 26, 1845, he was a splendid specimen of the stalwart Scot. Five years after his birth his father, who had long been piper to the Duke of Sussex, died. At the age of 11, Donald was sent to the the Caledonian School, Holloway. Even at this early period he was an adept with the pipes, and at every opportunity was found in all parts of the house manipulating those his father had played so long. After he left school the passion developed, and in 1866 he accepted the position of piper to Sir George McPherson Grant of Ballindalloch. In that gentleman’s service he remained for eight years and then occurred the opportunity of coming into the household of the Prince of Wales. He came to town on the invitation of his royal highness, and the result of the interview was that he entered the prince’s service as piper. He held that proud position till his death, coupling with it many little confidential duties of which he was extremely proud. It was his boast – and right fully was he entitled to it – that he was the best piper in Great Britain, and to instance the terms of affection upon which he was with all the members of the prince’s family, it is only necessary to quote one incident. It occurred when the Duke of York was on the point of recovery from his last serious illness. ‘Ah,’ said he, ‘if they would only let me give him a tune with the pipes I’m sure it would rouse him.’ Ability to play the pipes was always a characteristic of the Mackay family for five of Donald Mackay’s uncles were pipers as well as his father and grandfather. On one occasion the Queen, meeting him at Balmoral, told him that her earliest recollection of the bagpipes was hearing his father play them at Kensington Palace when she was quite a child. During the progress of a ball at Balmoral, whither he had gone with the prince her Majesty noticed a very fine horn which formed part of Mackay’s full Highland dress. The prince, upon the command of the Queen, called Mackay up, and he explained to her Majesty that it was a present by herself to his father, whose ability she had some years before recognised at a ball at Buckingham Palace. As we have said, Mackay manifested his musical skill at a very early age. Indeed he won his first bagpipe competition when he was only 11 years of age. Subsequently he gained a Gold Medal, which bears the following inscription: ‘The champion medal of the Highland Society of London. Awarded to Donald Mackay, piper to Ballindalloch, Inverness. The best of pibroch players, 1872.’ Mackay at the time of his death had completed within a day or two 20 years in the service of the Prince of Wales. It seems that while at the seaside he injured his foot, and blood poisoning occurred, it was at first thought that he would recover but he was seized with influenza, which so weakened him that he could not withstand its ravages. The ruling passion was strong even till the verge of death, for just before he died, and while only partly conscious, he acted as though he had the pipes under his arm and was tuning them.”

It seemed that the Prince did not appoint another piper. Perhaps he was able to call on another of the Royal pipers if he required one. This report was in the South Wales Daily News, Cardiff, on January 1, 1895: “Prince’s Piper. Although the Prince of Wales’s piper, Sandy Mackay, has now been dead a year, no successor has been appointed. Mackay was a gallant piper and died through blood poisoning set up by a wound on his foot. He has been much regretted by the Prince and his family, and the piper’s widow is now a pensioner and well taken care of on the Sandringham estate.”

From this one might imagine that his widow was given a cottage on the estate with a pension to live on in retirement. In reality, as the 1901 and 1911 census records show she was living at York Cottage on the estate and was employed as the housekeeper, domestic servant. York Cottage was in fact a large house used by George Duke of York, later George V, son of the Prince of Wales.

There are no further reports of a Piper to the Prince of Wales until much later. Queen Victoria died in January 1901 and the Prince became King Edward VII. James and William Campbell continued as the King’s pipers until 1910 when the King died and both retired. His son George had become Prince of Wales in 1901 and became George V in 1910. Several Scottish papers had this news on June 9, 1903: “Pipe Major Mackillop, late of the Cameron Highlanders, left Nairn on Monday to act as piper to the Prince of Wales.”

Angus Paul MacKillop was born in 1863. He was PM of the Cameron Highlanders from 1889 until 1899 or later. He died in 1942. He was piper to the Prince of Wales in 1903 and 1904.

•Henry Forsyth

He was followed by Henry Forsyth who was Piper to the Prince of Wales from 1904 and continued in that capacity when the Prince became King George V. He continued as piper to Edward VIII and then George VI until 1941.