PART TWO of Taigh a’ Phìobaire By HUGH CHEAPE and DECKER FORRESTPiping Today 2010

•Westward view of the Piper’s House showing the longhouse byre-dwelling layout. Photo: Decker Forrest

The Piper’s House and Raasay tradition was the starting point for our exploration of the piping heritage of the Mackays of Raasay. It is immediately evident that the picture can be richly filled out by what you can see and hear both in the island and in the music. 

The house itself was the cradle in which John Mackay raised a large family although there is a dearth of written records to substantiate the connection.  Island tradition is certain and unanimous however that this is Taigh a’ Phìobaire and furthermore fills out the record of John Mackay’s family, for example, that he had a brother, Donald, Dòmhnall Ruairidh or Dòmhnall mac a’ Phìobaire, and three or four sisters, one of whom was Catriona. In Raasay tradition, John Mackay is Iain Ruairidh, ‘John son of Roderick’, aligning him with a similar Mackay naming pattern of the Blind Piper, Iain Dall Mackay (i.e. Am Pìobaire Dall, c.1656-c.1754), whose son, also Angus, or grandson, John Roy, taught piping (according to Raasay tradition) to the young John Mackay. The Raasay Mackays were said to be related to the Gairloch Mackays, John’s father Roderick, also a piper, having come from Sutherland, as did Iain Dall’s father.

We do not seem to have any direct written evidence of John Mackay’s tenure of house and land in Oighre at the southern end of Raasay. It appears that many Raasay manuscripts have been wantonly destroyed and lost, possibly to cover up evidence of the later Clearances. One set of papers, the Militia Records, which survived in the public domain, offers some identification for the evidence on the ground. This was the system something like the American ‘draft’ whereby persons between the ages of 16 and 45 had to be registered in Scotland for service in a militia raised from regions and districts for home defence. From 1794 onwards, home defence was a response to the Napoleonic Wars which had included serious invasion threats from the Continent.  

Raasay tradition records John Mackay as serving in the armed forces for home defence from 1798 until 1802. He was recruited into the Fencible Regiment raised by MacLeod of Raasay and commanded by John MacLeod of Colbeck, the same family (closely related to the Laird of Raasay) commemorated of course in John Mackay’s Lament for MacLeod of Colbeck.  This force was stood down after the Peace of Amiens in 1802 when the home defence imperative collapsed. But the war with France broke out again the following year and John Mackay joined a new military formation, the Isle of Skye Regiment of Volunteers, in 1803 and sailed away on war service. 

•Professor Hugh Cheape.

In the Militia Records for the years about 1811 and 1812, four farming tenants are listed for Oighre, including ‘John Mackay, tenant, above 30 [years of age], 6 children under 14, in Local Militia’. Since Angus Mackay was born in 1812, and John Mackay’s first child, Catriona, died in infancy, this must describe the family in the Piper’s House in the year or so before Angus’s birth and further strengthen Raasay tradition of his military service. The late Calum Mackay of Raasay, another descendant of the family, recounted how John Mackay’s sister, Catriona, was working close to the shore in Oighre when she heard the sound of the pipes coming from a boat far out in the Sound. ‘Had she not known,’ she said, ‘that her brother John was away fighting Napoleon, she would have said that he was the piper!’ But she was right, since this was John Mackay on his way back to Raasay from his military service.

Ceòl Mòr

In the annals of piping, John Mackay’s most celebrated pupil must be his son Angus. Angus Mackay (1812-1859) is known by pipers today mainly for his contribution to ceòl mòr. His settings, both in manuscript and those he published in 1838 in A Collection of Ancient Piobaireachd influenced later ceòl mòr publications and many became the basis for standardised settings in the 20th century. There is little doubt that Angus’s success has been down to the perpetuation of his written works which we may assume had resonance with the playing of a succession of 19th-century master pipers beginning with Angus’s father, John, and his pupils who included Angus and his brothers, John Bàn Mackenzie and Angus Macpherson, and their pupils in turn who included Malcolm Macpherson (Calum Pìobaire) and Donald Cameron. 

The subject of Angus’s style of ceòl mòr has been discussed and illustrated at length elsewhere but, to summarise, his settings, as well as those of his brother John, are less decorated and employ a smaller, more standardised corpus of ornaments than, for example, the settings of Donald MacDonald and Angus MacArthur. The timing of some of these ornaments has long intrigued students of piping due to the notoriously prescriptive nature of ceòl mòr notation. It is therefore instructive to look at the manuscript of Eliza Ross when considering the interpretation of such movements as notated by Angus. The ‘Lady D’Oyly Manuscript’ in Edinburgh University’s School of Scottish Studies Archives takes its name from Eliza Ross’s married name and carries the legend on the front cover: ‘Original Highland Airs Collected Rasay in 1812 by Elizabeth Jane Ross’. The personal and musical circumstances of Eliza Ross (1789-1875) are explained in Angus Mackay’s ‘Historical and Traditional Notes’ in his Collection of Ancient Piobaireachd:

Her father and mother having died when she was in infancy… she was left under the guardianship of her uncle (James MacLeod of Raasay) who brought her up in his own family at Raasay. She became a great favourite with all who knew her, being imbued with the finest feelings of the Highlander. Her musical taste was remarkably good, and she was so fond of Piobaireachd that she acquired many of the longest pieces from the performance of the family piper, and was accustomed to play them on the piano with much effect.   

Angus Mackay’s ‘Historical and Traditional Notes’ in his Collection of Ancient Piobaireachd

We see that Eliza Ross used Angus’s father, John Mackay, as source for the ceòl mòr examples in her manuscript of Highland music arranged for fortepiano or piano. Eliza Ross’s settings represent a non-piper’s impression of the melodies of several ceòl mòr airs and give an unusual and extremely valuable overall melodic impression of the music deriving from an ear-learnt player in a ‘pre-literate age’ of piping. It is therefore of particular interest that Eliza Ross incorporated certain ornamental motifs, especially ‘echoing beats’, directly into the melodies of her arrangements. Had these been played differently by John Mackay – more quickly for example – then we might assume that Eliza would have notated them differently, replaced them with a more typical keyboard embellishment or even omitted them entirely.

The following examples of ‘MacLeod’s Salute’ from Eliza Ross (transcribed here one tone lower) and Angus Mackay allow for some interesting comparisons:

Eliza Ross’s interpretation of what we may assume was an echoing beat on low A (i.e. hiharin) at the start of bars 1 and 5 is slightly puzzling in that the first emphasised note of the motif is D followed by passing notes B and low G before resolving to low A. As a piper, one would have expected Eliza to use notes E and D in place of D and B to more closely represent the motif as notated by Angus:

•Example 3.

However, the overall effect is still the same; the introductory note of this movement is still held at considerable length before resolving to A and this is how the movement is timed by pipers today. As well, Eliza Ross’s treatment of the echoing beats on E and D (i.e. cherede and hihara, respectively) in bars 6, 8 and 10 are timed very similarly to how pipers play them today.

The ‘run-down’ gracenote sequence from E to low G in the odd numbered bars of both examples also makes for an interesting comparison. This particular note sequence features in many Donald Mòr MacCrimmon compositions and is generally played in one of two ways:

•Example 4. 
•Example 5.

The second approach is sometimes referred to as a ‘Donald Mòr run-down’ by some pipers. Angus Mackay’s notation seems to suggest an interpretation similar to Example 5 while Eliza Ross’s notation, although not always consistent, seems to align with Example 4. Perhaps John and his son Angus played the movement differently from one another ­— disparities such as these did exist in other piping families after all.

Ceòl Beag

Angus Mackay was also an important figure in the development of ceòl beag by the mid-19th century although this is often overshadowed by his contribution to ceòl mòr. Following the publication of A Collection of Ancient Piobaireachd in 1838, he became involved in the extensive reworking of a collection of ceòl beag by William Mackay (1840), which was in due course published around 1843. Shortly thereafter, Angus reworked the collection further and expanded it to create his own collection entitled The Piper’s Assistant: A Collection of Marches, Quicksteps, Strathspeys, Reels and Jigs. With his work for these two publications, Angus also continued to collect music which he notated in manuscript and which has survived in a vast collection of around 500 tunes, now in the National Library of Scotland. This manuscript collection of ceòl beag comprised many tunes lifted from already published sources such as Donald MacDonald’s Collection of 1828 and William Gunn’s Caledonian Repository of 1848. His most notable compositions appeared after his death in the publications of Alexander Glen (1860), William Ross (1869) and Donald MacPhee (1878), and most are still played by pipers today. 

Throughout most of the 19th century, emphasis was placed on creating standard collections of bagpipe music that outmoded earlier works by incorporating ‘new and improved’ settings of pre-published tunes rather than the production of original compositions. In the earliest collections of ceòl beag (i.e. between Donald MacDonald’s Collection of 1828 and about 1860), we can see the influence of earlier fiddle music collections such as the successful Caledonian Repository collections by Niel Gow and his sons and then increasingly of existing bagpipe music publications. That this was so, indicates the pace at which bagpipe music was developing until the Pìobaireachd Society books and Pipe Major William Ross’s collections became established in the early-to-mid 20th century. 

In keeping with the trend for subsuming earlier works into new collections, Angus’s revised edition of William Mackay’s collection accounts for over half the tunes in the Piper’s Assistant. Other tunes used by Angus appear to have been lifted from collections including those of Donald MacDonald (1828), Thomas MacBean Glen (1840-1843) and one or two publications of fiddle music. Table 1 (below) gives an approximate breakdown of the sources for the 155 tunes in Angus Mackay’s collection and implies that less than 20% were original:

We might speculate that of the 27 or so original airs in The Piper’s Assistant, some were tunes known to Angus from early in his piping career and may perhaps have a connection with Rasaay and the Piper’s House. One of these, Cailleach Liath Rarsair ‘The old grey woman of Raasay’ is said to have been composed by Iain Dall Mackay and reminds us of the claim, mentioned previously, that the Raasay and Gairloch Mackays were related. This tune along with several others in The Piper’s Assistant are also found in Eliza Ross’s manuscript and suggest that vestiges of a Raasay musical tradition can indeed be found in Angus’s collection. 

Other tunes in The Piper’s Assistant that are potentially connected to Raasay include those with titles derived from the first lines of Gaelic vocal melodies (as opposed to simply Gaelic translations of English or Scots titles which are in fact common throughout the text). Of note are a couple of bawdy titles, unknown to other sources, that remind us of the rich diversity of Gaelic song that ranged from the polite to the obscene – or humorous. These are Cò tha sin air do chìochan geala; The fair bosom (page 67). More accurately, Angus’s Gaelic title might be translated as: ‘Who is that on your white breasts?’; and B__Dhòmhnaill ‘ic Cugain; Donald’s Rant (page 75). The clear and strong implication of the ‘B_’ is ‘Bod’, which would render the Gaelic title as ‘The Penis of Donald son of Cugain’!

Reflecting on Angus Mackay’s ceòl beag sheds light onto his distinctive approach to arrangement and gives us a glimpse into some of the trends and development of ceòl beag during the middle years of the 19th century. One feature of Angus’s ceòl beag ornamentation is that (unlike his ornamentation in ceòl mòr) he used a fairly wide range of ornaments as was typical of most early compilers. Angus did however have one or two interesting distinctive characteristics in his ornamentation. 

From the mid-19th century, high G grace notes were increasingly used to begin a sequence of single grace notes on melody notes, or as the first grace note of a doubling. They are used especially on melody notes that align with the down-beats in a tune. The following example illustrates this:

In contrast to this and other possible approaches, Angus often left melody notes un-graced or used E or D grace notes instead of G grace notes: 

In another tune, we can see Angus’s preference for E grace notes prefixed to C and B doublings where later pipers would automatically use high G grace notes:

Mackay’s setting may seem slightly awkward to the modern piper. The question, however, of one approach being more or less difficult than another is not down so much to the mechanical implications of either, but to an individual piper’s habits and training. Overall, Angus’s use of E or D grace notes gives his settings a subtler, slightly ‘looser’, feel than more modern settings which feature high G grace notes throughout.

The tune in Example 8 is an interesting example of an early quickstep probably adapted from a vocal air and is typical in this respect of a number of tunes found throughout The Piper’s Assistant. It previously appeared in William Mackay’s collection as The Sutherland Fencible’s Quickstep or Glengarry’s March and in Thomas MacBean Glen’s collection as Glengarry’s March. When Angus revised William Mackay’s collection, he expanded the title, as we have seen, to: A Shean Bhean Bhochd or Glengarry’s March. A likely source for this tune is an old lullaby where Mackay’s Gaelic title can be identified in the first line:

A sheana bhean bhochd, Poor old woman,
Chan fhalbh thu nochd; (x3) You will not leave tonight;
Nach tig thu steach san oidhch’ ann? Won’t you come in from the night?

As pipers, we tend not to appreciate the influence that pipe music can have on other traditions and, with this in mind, it is interesting to note that the quickstep setting of A Sheana Bhean Bhochd appears to have been reabsorbed into the Gaelic vocal tradition and arranged with a more rhythmic set of lyrics for the first part along with a newly composed set of lyrics set to the second part. The following words, as sung by the Skye-born Gaelic singer, Kenna Campbell, fit comfortably with the bagpipe setting above and no doubt offer insights into an earlier tradition: 

A sheana bhean bhochd, Poor old woman,

Bidh tu anmoch a-nochd;(x3) You will be late tonight;

San t-uisge san t-anmoch san ceò ann. It’s raining, it’s late, it’s misty.

A sheana bhean bhochd, Poor old woman,

Nach fuirich thusa nochd; (x3) Will you not stay tonight;

San t-uisge san t-anmoch san ceò ann. It’s raining, it’s late, it’s misty.

During Angus’s piping career, quickstep marches quickly evolved from sparsely ornamented two-parted tunes like A Sheana Bhean Bhochd to longer, more elaborate arrangements and compositions, recognised later as ‘competition marches’. Angus was one of the first to compose tunes of this genre and The Glengarry Gathering, Balmoral Royal Highlander’s March and The Duke of Roxburgh’s Farewell to the Black Mount Forest (said to be an adaptation of the quickstep, Miss Forbes’ Farewell to Banff) are still played by pipers today. All three tunes first appeared in Alexander Glen’s collection from 1860. This was the first bagpipe music collection to feature many new compositions and modern arrangements by leading pipers like Angus Mackay, Duncan Campbell, Hugh Mackay, and Alexander, John and Donald Cameron. Angus was less successful with other genres of ceòl beag and apart from the excellent strathspey, Balmoral Castle, attempts such as the two-part strathspey, His Royal Highness Prince Albert’s Birthday appear derivative or otherwise uninspired. One notable exception is to be found in Angus’s manuscript of ceòl beag. This is a three-part jig which was inspired by the pibroch, An Ceapadh Eucorach – The Unjust Incarceration. It, along with a number of other tunes in the manuscript, was published in William Ross’s collection of 1869. It is a striking piece of music which demonstrates Angus’s creative and progressive abilities as a composer/arranger:

•Example 10. An Ceapadh Eucorach; The Unjust Incarceration (Jig), William Ross (1869) page 251. 


We are extremely grateful to Dr Peter Cooke who has generously provided us with a pre-publication copy of The Elizabeth Ross Manuscript – Original Highland Airs Collected in Rasaay in 1812 by Elizabeth Jane Ross (edited by Peter Cooke, Mòrag MacLeod and Colm Ò Baoill). This highly valuable work is now available through the University of Edinburgh School of Scottish Studies on-line publications at We are also indebted to Kenna Campbell who has shared her extensive knowledge of Gaelic song with Decker Forrest whilst he was studying for his PhD. 

Further Reading

  • Campbell, Archibald, ‘Some Aspects of Highland Pipe Music (Part 2)’, in Piping Times 21 Number 5 (1969).
  • Cannon, Roderick D, Bibliography of Bagpipe Music. Edinburgh: John Donald 1980.  (This work is highly recommended to those interested in further publication details of the bagpipe music collections referred to in this article.)
  • Donaldson, William, The Highland Pipe and Scottish Society 1750-1950. East Linton: Tuckwell Press 2000.  (William Donaldson’s Chapter 8, in particular, discusses the stylistic differences between Angus Mackay and Donald MacDonald. Dr Donaldson’s online ‘Set Tunes’ series hosted by also provides the best resource available for comparing concordant sources of nearly 130 tunes.)
  • Forrest, J Decker, Ceòl Beag: The Development and Performance Practice of the ‘Small Music’ of the Highland Bagpipe (c.1820-1966). PhD Thesis, University of St. Andrews, 2009. (Some audio recordings of Angus’s settings of ceòl beag may be heard on the CD that accompanies this PhD thesis.)
  • Mackay, Angus. Manuscripts (MSS 3753-6) National Library of Scotland.
  • Mackay, Rebecca S, ‘Legends and history of some place names of Raasay, Rona and Eilean Taighe’, in Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness Volume 64 (2004-2006), 353-369.
  • Mackenzie, John, editor, Sar-Obair Nam Bard Gaelach: The Beauties of Gaelic Poetry and the Lives of the Highland Bards. Edinburgh: John Grant 1907.
  • Murray, David, ‘Macadam’s Roads and the History of the March’, in Piping Times 52 Number 5 (2000), 19-23.