Piping, charity and tragedy in London in the 1900s



Donald MacKay, from Beauly (1880-1910) was a successful amateur piper, as was his brother Archibald, both winning many prizes at the London gatherings. Donald then turned professional and in 1902 he played at the Northern Meeting and was placed second in the Gold Medal. In 1903 he won the Northern Meeting Gold Medal. The report of the meeting stated that there were 24 competitors. Donald MacKay was described as from Highbury, London, and his tune was Glengarry’s Lament. Cpl Piper William Ross, Scots Guards, was second and Pipe Major MacDougall, Aberfeldy third.

Donald MacKay was also piper to the Strathnaver Fairy Circle, a charitable organisation which had been formed some years earlier by Mr James Mead Sutherland, from Strathnaver and had about 800 members. The circle had as its symbol the ‘tartan plaidie’ and the aim of the members was, metaphorically to throw its shelter over as many poor children as possible. The circle’s headquarters were the Elflyn Knowe in Shaftesbury Avenue, London.

The activities described in various newspaper reports included, for example, a substantial meal and concert for 1000 to 1500 of the poorest children in London held at a large hall in Camberwell. There was also a tea and entertainment for 200 of the poorest little ones in Bermondsey, at which during the afternoon Mr Donald MacKay, Scotland’s Gold Medallist, gave the juvenile audience a sample of his skill with the bagpipes. In addition to providing free meals, garments, holidays and entertainments, the members visited hospitals, schools and other institutions with flowers and toys, maintained a cot at the Alexandra Hospital and assisted the crèche at the Harrow School mission.

The catering, served by volunteers, was probably fairly simple and each child was told to bring a mug. One paper described the great variety of drinking vessels brought by the children. The toys handed out when the children went home were described as “a gift from the fairies”. Some papers started their reports with headings such as “There were Fairies in Bermondsey Today.” But, like the Tooth Fairy or Father Christmas, the idea of the Fairy Circle would be intended to bring a little magic into the lives of children who were suffering from extreme poverty.

At one event, an “At Home” held at the Elflyn Knowe for 200 of the best known Scots in London, the entertainment included songs, recitations, violin and other instrumental selections, bagpipe selections and Highland dances by Pipe Major Donald MacKay and pipers W.D. Ross, F. L. Narramore, C. Downs, J. D. Lang, J. MacMillan and J. Stewart, while reels were also contributed by members of the S.F.C. and scholars of the Royal Caledonian Asylum. The Elflyn Knowe was decorated with tartan curtains, red and white heather, red roses and white lilac and many of those present wore Highland costume.

The activities of the circle also extended to Scotland where each year they held gatherings and entertainments for school children and old people in the Highlands. On one trip north the Chief Mr Sutherland was accompanied by other leaders and their honourable piper, Donald MacKay. They attended the Duchess of Sutherland’s bazaar at Dunrobin Castle, held to raise funds for the apprentice lads of the Sutherland Technical School at Golspie. Donald MacKay contributed bagpipe selections and Highland dances. While in the north, the members of the Circle held a substantial tea and entertainment for the school children in various places, including Strathnaver, Farr, Bettyhill, Melvich, Strathy, Tongue, Melness, Durness, Blair Atholl, Dunkeld, Pitlochry and Leith, and for the inmates of orphanages and institutions.

One report of a Christmas gathering for 500 of the poorest children in London described how “brightness and joy ever followed in the wake of these latter day fairies and to the children this was another and brighter Christmas. With the gramophone selections provided, and the songs and tales by members and friends of the Fairy Circle, it was to them fairyland indeed. During the afternoon the echoes were awakened by Piper Donald MacKay; while Mr James Mead Sutherland, in his Gaelic dress, and as chief of the circle, well saw that the poor mites present were sheltered under the tartan plaidie of the clan Sutherland, at least for one happy day.” Another event was a tea and entertainment for 100 old folk from the local workhouse and 32 children from the Cottage Home. The entertainment included bagpipe selections from Pipe Major Donald MacKay and pipers W. D. Ross and J. Watts-Fraser, and Highland, Irish and other dances executed by Pipe Major Donald MacKay and pipers W. D. Ross, J. Watts-Fraser, F. Lawson Narramore, and W. G. Hay, and Miss Ethel B. Hay, and Mrs Donald MacKay.

During October 1910, the Strathnaver Fairy Circle organised about 50 events during their tour in the Highlands, mostly in the schools. The pipers of the Fairy Circle attended almost all of these, with singers and other entertainers. At the end of 1910 the Strathnaver Fairy Circle suffered a tragedy when two of their members were killed in the Hawes railway disaster.

The Hawes Junction rail crash occurred at 5.49 am on Christmas Eve, Saturday, 24th  December 1910, between Hawes Junction and Aisgill on the Midland Railway’s Settle and Carlisle main line in Westmorland. It was caused when a busy signalman, Alfred Sutton, forgot about a pair of light engines waiting at his starting signal to return to their shed at Carlisle. They were still waiting there when the signalman set the road for the Scottish express. When the signal cleared, the light engines set off in front of the express into the same block section. Since the light engines were travelling at low speed from a stand at Hawes Junction, and the following express was travelling at high speed, a collision was inevitable. The express caught the light engines just after Moorcock Tunnel near Aisgill summit in Mallerstang and was almost wholly derailed. Casualties were made worse by the telescoping of the timber-bodied coaches, and by fire which broke out in the coaches, fed by the gas for the coaches’ lights leaking from ruptured pipes. Twelve people lost their lives as a result of this accident, some of whom were trapped in the wreckage and were burned to death. Many more were injured. The scene of the catastrophe was a lonely and exposed moorland on the highest section of railway line in England.

At the inquest it was stated that on the Friday evening Donald MacKay and his brother Archibald had been playing at a Christmas dinner for 2000 old sandwichmen, organised by the Strathnaver Fairy circle. Afterwards the honorary secretary of the circle had accompanied Donald and Hugh MacKay, another promising young member of the circle, to St Pancras station to see them off on the midnight train north. The two were not related. Archibald MacKay was not with them as he was spending Christmas in London. Hugh was travelling to Dumfries to visit his sweetheart before going on to his parents’ home in Strathnaver. Donald, who worked as an accountant in London, was travelling to Cumnock in Ayrshire to join his wife and their four year old daughter at her parents’ home. Mrs MacKay had been at Cumnock station several times during the morning to meet train connections when the news of the disaster came through. Accompanied by her brother, George Muir, she travelled to Hawes. The bodies were difficult to identify and Donald’s body was identified by his wife from burnt scraps of his clothing and other possessions, while his brother Archibald identified a scrap of paper with their mother’s handwriting on it. Hugh was identified by his brother from the burnt remains of his possessions, including a sgian dubh.

Following the disaster all the Strathnaver Fairy Circle fixtures were cancelled. In 1911 a 78rpm 10 inch record by Donald MacKay was released. It contained the tunes Lochaber No More, The Strathnaver Fairy Circle’s March, and The Broken Chanter Jig. The Strathnaver Fairy Circle’s March, composed by Donald MacKay was published in Logan’s Collection Book 6.

In March 1911, papers reported that after the suspension of activities the Circle had held a quiet ceilidh at the Elflyn Knowe and had continued with their philanthropic work.

In October 1911, the Fairy Circle members were at the Royal Caledonian Asylum to mark the opening of a new sitting, reading and needlework room for the girls, which had been decorated and furnished by the Circle in memory of its two pipers Donald MacKay and Hugh MacKay. The circle also made a number of presentations to the asylum. These included a large portrait of their chief Mr James Mead Sutherland, which was to be hung in the great hall, a case containing the sword and uniform of the chief’s grandfather James Sutherland, a case containing the original bagpipes played by Piper John Smith of the 93rd Sutherland Highlanders in the Thin Red Line at Balaclava on 25th October 1854, a hand plough made on the Isle of Skye, an ancient spinning wheel from Sutherland, several swords and targes used at Prestonpans, Culloden and Waterloo, a sword which belonged to a relative of Bonnie Dundee used in the covenanting times, a sword used at Sheriffmuir, a lantern used by Burns, and other pistols, armour, natural history and other specimens. During the afternoon the London Scottish Choir rendered some fine music and the boy pipers of the Asylum gave bagpipe selections.

Donald MacKay’s brother Archibald had continued as a piper to the Fairy Circle in London but in May 1915 newspapers announced: “The Strathnaver Fairy Circle Pipe Major, Archibald MacKay, has just been appointed chauffeur and piper to Colonel MacRae-Gilstrap1, of Ballimore, Argyllshire, and he went north on Sunday last, 23rd May, to commence his duties; accompanied by the good wishes of his many S.F.C. and other friends among London Scots. By way of a send-off, he spent Saturday with the S.F.C. Chief, Mr James Mead Sutherland, whose S.F.C. work is well known in Surrey, and a party of S.F.C. leaders, members and friends.”

  1. Lt Colonel John MacRae of Ballimore 1861-1937 married Isabella Gilstrap niece and co-heiress of Sir William Gilstrap, so he took the additional surname of Gilstrap although this was dropped in the next generation. In 1912 he purchased and restored the Macrae stronghold of Eilean Donan Castle on Loch Duich.