The Piper’s House: the portraiture of Angus Mackay and history of Clann Mhic Ruairidh


PART THREE of Taigh a’ Phìobaire • By HUGH CHEAPE and DECKER FORREST • Piping Today 2011

•Hugh Cheape and Decker Forrest

In part two of this article, we looked at the substantial musical legacy of Angus Mackay and his family. As well as books and music, another tangible link with Angus is his image. He is remarkable for being probably the most illustrated Highland piper before the age of photography. Possibly more than half a dozen ‘portraits’ of him survive, ranging in quality from an exquisite portrait in oils of 1840 to a series of engravings both contemporary and posthumous. This latter class of imagery is less significant as portraiture than for its heavy use of symbolism with thistles, a castle or royal palace (usually Windsor Castle), a version of the Royal Arms, and the piper in Highland dress of the latest (early 19th century) fashion.  


In the history of piping in Scotland, we have principally names, and images or portraits of pipers are rare though bagpipes and players appear widely on the broader canvas of European art; but these are generally anonymous figures and tend to represent genre art-styles with artistic elements and moral messages for a contemporary audience. The instruments depicted in these genre portraits were represented in the same spirit of educating and entertaining but mostly serve to frustrate the musicologist or historian of piping. An interesting and important case in point is Richard Waitt’s much re-produced Piper to the Laird of Grant of 1714 in which the viewer gains an impression of William Cumming as a real person and yet the bagpipe is intriguingly strange and the chanter seemingly modelled on a shawm or Baroque oboe. The instrument may have been ‘reconstructed’ when the artist returned to his studio and found himself without sufficient information to represent the Great Highland Bagpipe. A later example is of the ‘portrait’ of MacCrimmon by Robert Ronald McIan published in The Clans of the Scottish Highlands in 1847. Here, the figure is essentially a ‘vehicle’ for depicting a distinctive tartan and historic mode of Highland dress. We presume that he is playing a ‘Great Highland Bagpipe’ but there is no material evidence for this MacCrimmon bagpipe as depicted here. In contrast, the majority of portraits of Angus Mackay, while still heavy with symbolism, reveal much closer attention to technical detail, giving us more convincing representations of the household piper of the early-to-mid 19th century and his instrument.  

This series of portraits of Angus begins, as far as we know, with the very striking portrait in oils by Alexander Johnston (1815-1891). This was painted about 1840 when Angus was piper to Walter Campbell of Shawfield and Islay. The beautifully detailed image shows him playing the Prize Pipe won in the Highland Society Competition in 1835, with an inscribed silver shield clearly shown on the chanter stock. Surviving evidence otherwise tells us that the inscribed prize ‘shield’ was indeed fixed on the chanter stock. The same detail appears in the same position on the earlier engraved portrait of Neil Maclean, having won the Prize Pipe in 1784 and a Prize Pipe by Hugh Robertson of 1802 carries the shield on the chanter stock. The Angus Mackay painting is small and neat, 90.2 cm by 70.5 cm, prompting a comparison with the huge life-size image of William Cumming at 213 cm by 154 cm. This is one of the notable series of portraits painted between 1713 and 1726 of the Laird of Grant, his family, relatives, cadet chiefs and tacksmen – the Luchd-Taighe or traditional retinue of the clan chieftain. What is immediately striking is that the portraits of the ‘Piper’ and the ‘Champion’ are life-size and all the rest – including the Laird and his wife – smaller, head-and-shoulders, portraits. Significantly, perhaps, the portrait of Angus Mackay is very small by comparison and compares more readily with the late 18th and 19th century genre portraits of the ‘servants’ of royal and aristocratic households. Another small portrait of Angus Mackay, of the subject’s head and shoulders only, was commissioned by the Highland Society of London but remains to be further researched.

•Angus Mackay by Alexander Johnston, oil on canvas, dated 1840. By permission of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.
•The Queen’s Piper, Angus Mackay, by William Wyld, about 1852. With grateful thanks to The Royal Collection ©2011 Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

A later portrait of Angus Mackay is in The Royal Collection. The watercolour is by a London-born painter, William Wyld (1806-1889), who worked in France and Italy but occasionally returned to the United Kingdom. On a trip to England in 1852, Queen Victoria invited him to Balmoral to draw and paint the surroundings. A portrait of the ‘Queen’s Piper’ seems to have been a legacy of this Royal commission in 1852. The composition of William Wyld’s portrait bears comparison with engraved images of Angus. A further ‘portrait’ in an extravagant style was published as frontispiece in W L Manson’s The Highland Bagpipe in 1901, ‘from a drawing in the possession of Duncan Munro, Kyleakin, Skye’. It is heavy with symbolism of Angus’s appointment to the Royal Household and his bagpipe – we assume – is a grotesque caricature.

Queen Victoria’s interest in her Highland ‘servants’ is further reflected in the fine watercolour portrait of the next Royal piper, William Ross, appointed in 1854 and painted in 1866. This image of her Scottish retainers is one of the series commissioned by the Queen from Kenneth Macleay (1802-1878) and published in 1870 as ‘The Highlanders of Scotland’.        

Traditions of Clann Mhic Ruairidh

According to island tradition, the Piper’s House in Oighre or ‘Eyre’, at the south end of the Island of Raasay, was where Angus’s father, John, raised his family and taught his four sons. His eldest son, Donald, won the first prize in the Highland Society of London’s pìobaireachd competition in 1822. His next son, Roderick, born in 1811, won the first prize in 1832. In 1835, Angus won the first prize and his younger brother, John, won the fourth. It was said that John Mackay had other oileanaich or ‘students’, such as Archibald Munro, Angus Macpherson who was related to the MacLeods of Suidhisnis, a farm next to Oighre, and John Bàn Mackenzie whose father, William, was married to a Raasay Mackay. 

Raasay tradition still has more to tell us of John’s immediate family than do the conventional sources of piping history; we know that he had a brother Donald – Dòmhnall Ruairidh – and a sister, Catriona, and two or possibly three other sisters. It would not be impossible therefore that William, the father of John Bàn Mackenzie, might have been a brother-in-law of John Mackay. Close relationship or not, John Bàn Mackenzie (1796-1864) must have been about the same age as John Mackay’s son, Donald, and came second to him in the 1822 Highland Society competition and then took the first prize in 1823. John Bàn was born in Achilty, Contin, Strathpeffer, and is said to have been taught by Donald Mòr MacLennan and  John Beag MacRae, as well as by John Mackay of Raasay. It is interesting to speculate as to why John Bàn crossed the country or was sent for teaching in Raasay. Doubtless, as a pupil with ability, he was welcomed into the Piper’s House and probably stayed with the family while in Raasay.    

John Mackay was born about 1767, according to his age as given in a later census record. He is listed aged 75 in the 1841 Census, living together with his wife, Margaret, aged 70, in Kyleakin in the household of his son, Roderick, described as ‘Merchant’. By 1792, John Mackay was piper to MacLeod of Raasay, that is, James MacLeod who had succeeded his father, John MacLeod, 9th of Raasay (and the host of Johnson and Boswell), in 1786. John Mackay was listed as winner of the Highland Society’s pìobaireachd competition in Edinburgh in 1792 when he won the first prize of a Great Highland Bagpipe. In 1823 or possibly 1824, aged 56, John Mackay left the Laird of Raasay’s service. His son Donald, the eldest of his four sons, who had won the prize pipe in 1822, had taken over the role of Raasay’s piper. MacLeod of Raasay had died in 1823 and, with a change of regime, John Mackay was said to be contemplating emigration. Family tradition in Raasay is more explicit, that John Mackay had left Raasay in disgust at the way people were being treated. Instead of leaving the country, he was taken on as Piper to Lord Willoughby D’Eresby at Drummond Castle, Crieff. King George IV’s visit to Scotland in August 1822 had been heralded with the recreation of a Highland army which included an impressively prepared and equipped contingent from Drummond Castle. Clearly Lord Willoughby was keen to consolidate his Highland credentials by adding a reputable Highland piper to his strength. In 1961, Archibald Campbell of Kilberry recalled a tradition that John Mackay, with his wife and children, arrived at Drummond Castle on foot with all their possessions in four creels slung over the backs of two Highland ponies. This had been told to him by Pipe Major Meldrum who was at Drummond Castle in the 1880s and had been given the account by an old man working on the estate. This memory and this image have a strong ring of truth about them. 

John Mackay remained at Drummond Castle until after 1835 although it is not certain when precisely he left Lord Willoughby’s service. By 1840, at the latest, he was living at Kyleakin ‘in retirement’. He died in 1848 and was buried at Kilmoluaig in Raasay where his burial place has now been marked by the Raasay Heritage Trust.  Aged 80 or 81, this is a longevity not all together typical of the 18th or 19th centuries, but reminiscent of the patriarchal ages of piping families such as MacCrimmon and Mackay. It was a fact noted in the 1790 Statistical Account for the Parish of Snizort (in which Raasay was) by the Rev Malcolm MacLeod who wrote that ‘the air, on the whole, is not thought unsalubrious, and some instances of longevity tend to confirm the opinion… many are now living in this district above eighty years of age’. John Mackay’s age, as mentioned, can be established, not by parish registers of birth and baptism, but according to his own version of his age as given to the census register.

By the late 1830s, Donald son of the Piper – Dòmhnall mac a’ Phìobaire – was said to be the only male Mackay remaining in the area. His descendants have been known as Clann Mhic Ruairi, thus identifying them all as the descendents of Roderick Mackay of Raasay, father, of course, also of John. Angus Mackay himself wrote in the early 1850s how his father was ‘commonly called Iain Mac Ruairi’. It isevident that Donald’s brother John Mackay and John’s sons, Donald, Roderick, Angus and John, had all left Raasay and the Piper’s House.  Dòmhnall mac a’ Phìobaire was evicted from Oighre about 1839 when the township was cleared for sheep. A summons of removing, dated 23 March 1839, was served on behalf of the laird, John MacLeod of Raasay, on the six tenants in Oighre, one of whom was Donald Mackay. Donald went to Rona, that is, the island to the north of Raasay, an enforced move typical of the process of clearance. The tenants emigrated, moved to Skye or were unceremoniously dispatched to the north of Raasay to subsist as crofter-fishermen. The choice was a harsh one since there was no living to be had in the rocky northern tip of the island, in Eilean an Taighe or in the even less favourable and hitherto virtually uninhabited Isle of Rona. The comparison with the Piper’s House in the lush shallow valley of Oighre is vivid and cruel. Sliochd nam Pìobairean, ‘the Descendants of the Pipers’, never forgot their inheritance and it was recalled particularly when the oral traditions of Raasay began to be recorded by the School of Scottish Studies in the 1950s. 

•Angus Mackay by an unknown artist. Versions of this image appeared on the title pages of contemporary collections such as The Piper’s Assistant (c.1843) and A Collection of Ancient Piobaireachd (1838). This ‘portrait’ has been taken from an undocumented third edition of The Piper’s Assistant, 1851.

An interesting and no doubt significant stream of information on the Mackays of Raasay was retailed by other Ratharsairich from the township of Osgaig. These were the MacLeans of a generation of seven that achieved particular academic excellence. John MacLean, Rector of Oban High School, and brother of Sorley, the poet, and Calum Iain, the folklorist, was himself a piper and contributed a significant lecture to the Gaelic Society of Inverness in 1952. Entitled ‘Am Piobaire Dall’, his piece added Raasay traditions to the history of the Mackays of Gairloch. John MacLean described how a Rory Mackay, the eponymous Ruairidh, came to Raasay from Sutherland, probably in the early 18th century, a pattern mirroring the family of Am Pìobaire Dall, whose father, also Rory, came south from the Reay country to Gairloch. John MacLean wrote that he derived his information from Pipe Major William Maclean, Kilcreggan, a pupil of Malcolm Macpherson (Calum Pìobaire). Calum Pìobaire is strongly associated in our collective memories with Badenoch, but he was born in Raasay and was related to a MacLeod family who were Tacksmen of Suidhisnis, the farm next to Oighre. Calum’s father, Angus, had been taught by John Mackay.

Angus Mackay wrote a biographical note on his father and family which is bound in with the manuscript volumes of his music in the National Library of Scotland. This fluent and possibly rapidly-written account is on one side of a single sheet of paper. It is bound together with two sheets, with four sides of writing, with an account by Angus of his being confined to Bethlehem Hospital on 29 November 1854. It reads verbatim as follows (in a version here in which the spelling has been ‘normalised’ for readability from the original text):

‘This is a brief account of my father’s family, John MacKay, commonly called Iain Mac Ruairidh of Eyre in Ratharsair, Isle of Skye. He was, I believe, left an orphan with one sister; he was reared up by Malcolm MacLeoid, commonly called Fir Aoighre. He was there employed as a herd boy &c. and in the house. Fir Aoighre played the Pipes and was teaching a young lad. My father used to overhear them and pick up his lesson, and play the same on the moor while herding, and that on a Feadan Seileastair. He was overheard by Fear Aoighre who taught him and afterwards sent him to the College of the MacCrimmons and to the MacKays of Gairloch. He married Margaret Maclean or Mairearad nighean Aonghais: Issue, Katherine Mhòr, as child who died in infancy, Donald, Mary, Margaret, Cursty, Katherine Og, Roderick, Angus (self) and John. Katherine married Norman MacFhionghain, now in Prince Edward Island & has a numerous family. Mary married John MacKenyie in Castle, Raasay; she died in Raasay and is buried there. Margaret married Wm Robertson of Badenoch and died there; the other left a family. Cursty married A Maclean, her cousin, and she has one daughter in Prince Edward Island. Kathy Og married John Munro and has one son, Duncan, alive at Kyleakin, Isle of Skye. Roderick married Elisa Gillies of Raasay; he died in Edinburgh in 1854, leaving 4 children. I, Angus, married Mary Johnston Russell and have 4 children alive. John died in London, England. Donald died in London leaving three orphans; their mother Caroline [Lucas?] had died previously and is buried at Kensall Green. AMK’

This is a precious piece of biography which is not available elsewhere in print in its entirety. It is of course contradicted in a sense by family tradition in Raasay. The naming in the manner of a sloinneadh is very important, as Iain mac Ruairidh, and a detail which is rarely offered in piping histories. Reaching back effectively one generation only to an eponymous ‘Roderick’ may be significant, for example, for status and for descent – in other words both seemed in short supply – and Angus Mackay seems clear enough about modest family circumstances with the words: ‘…he was, I believe, left an orphan.’ However, another version might suggest that an alignment with the Mackays of Gairloch is implicit, in so far as Iain mac Ruairidh signalled this identification. 

In terms of a Hebridean and Gaelic community, the sequel is entirely credible, that John was taken into the tacksman’s household, effectively fostered by him, and worked as a herd laddie, in a role which at one time or another every child in the Hebrides performed for the family, the family group or the township. The circumstantial detail which adds immeasurably to the account is that John taught himself his music on a home-made chanter. This seems like good family tradition and says much for Angus Mackay’s own style and artistry. 


In the last article, a story was told concerning John Mackay’s sister, Catriona, hearing the sound of the pipes from a boat out in the Sound and recognising the playing of her brother. The initial informants were the two brothers, Calum Ruairi Nèill Dhòmhnaill and Iain Ruairi Nèill Dhòmhnaill – their names telling us that they were the sons of Neil son of Donald, the brother of John Mackay. Calum Ruairi who lived in Fearns on the east side of Raasay died about 1947 and told the story of the Pìobaire on his way by boat to a competition where each piper was to play his own composition – am port aige fhèin. On the journey, another competitor joined the company and was not recognised. The Piobaire sat on a thwart of the boat fingering the notes of his tune on his stick. The rival watched him closely, learnt the tune and, having arranged matters at the competition so that he himself played first, played the Piobaire’s composition as his own and naturally won.

The motif of learning covertly and surreptitiously by close observation occurs elsewhere. Curiously, the unnamed Pìobaire of the story could have been Donald son of John who twice went away to the Highland Society competitions in Edinburgh, in 1820 and 1821, and was ‘cheated’ of the first prize. In terms of piping, this mode of picking up music is entirely comprehensible and a pointer as to how bagpipe music was transmitted before the written or printed musical score. The readiness and ability to learn a tune from observing the player’s fingers has already been discussed in Piping Today (2005); a pupil is advised to get the tunes from his teacher, not in written form but ‘off his fingers’ where the technique clearly involves a combination of listening and watching. Angus Mackay later wrote that he had written down pipe music ‘from the Canntaireachd of John Mackay, his father from the year 1826 to 1840’, telling us that the teacher sung the music or ‘chanted’ it in a way then specific to piping. Learning the bagpipe then involved listening to the teacher singing the music either in vocables, which would have the implicit advantage of conveying grace-noting, or in song, in which the port-à-beul  or ‘mouth-music’ matched the rhythm and signalled the notation by assonance.

While we have no description of the teaching that went on in the Piper’s House, the reminiscences of two pipers, Angus Macpherson and Pipe Major William Maclean, gave an illuminating account of their experiences as boys learning from Calum Pìobaire whose Raasay-born father, Angus, had lived ‘a stone’s throw away from the great John Mackay’ and would have undoubtedly learned in the Piper’s House in much the same way as the two boys. Having just arrived at the home of Calum Pìobaire (known also as Taigh a’ Phìobaire) some 16 miles from Dalwhinnie, Pipe Major Maclean recalled:

‘It was November… it was beginning to darken and I was taken into the highland house, thatched and a typically highland house. I was warming myself at the fire… it was very cold and I got a good heat up from the peat fire and then Malcolm [Calum Pìobaire]… picked up his bagpipe and he always played with his bonnet on in the house… and started to play and I was just fairly carried away with the beautiful crisp strong notes that were coming from his fingers; and he was looking over quietly to me and he turned round and seeing me swallowing it all in with my ears and enjoying it. So we started then the following day; and he was very strict in his teaching… we got up at a little after eight in the morning; we had our breakfast at nine, and then we started the practice chanter at ten o’clock; and I had to keep going with the chanter, himself on one side of the fire and I on the other; and that went on until dinner time. Then he took me out in the afternoon, from two o’clock to three, or half past three, for a walk, and then we started the chanters again, until just about six o’clock. And the chanters were set aside then we had to wash up and prepare for their supper old highland style substantial plain good food and then everything that I had learned on the chanter through the day; we had to play it all on the bagpipe from seven o’clock until near bedtime. He would not give you any time to play much; no; but he never taught us on a Saturday; he gave us the Saturday off; he and his son Angus, who is now my friend up in Sutherlandshire; he is a good piper also; and he and I used to go away out and hunt for hares and rabbits in the snow with a stick; to keep the pot boiling with rabbits and hares and things like that; and enjoying ourselves climbing the hills; and the same procedure started again on the Mondays.’

Angus Macpherson corroborated Pipe Major Maclean’s account adding that ‘at night we memorised all those tunes together; humming them over together; William Maclean and myself; and we slept together… and hummed those tunes until we fell asleep…’ This was in the wintertime of course, and Angus Mackay’s account of his father practising on a home-made chanter on the moor whilst herding is indicative of how the seasonal cycle of piping shifted in the summertime when less time was spent indoors. 

•John Mackay first learned his piping on a home-made practice chanter, or feadain. This example, with a barley straw reed, is made of an elder branch which tradition describes as once being typical in Skye.

Making home-made practice chanters was once common to a number of piping traditions in Europe and was widespread across the Highlands and Islands until recently. Different materials were used depending on what was locally available; ragwort stalks in Perthshire, branches of elder in Skye, water-reeds in Mull and Uist, and so on. Strangely, Angus Mackay gives the only account of the stalk of the yellow iris or seileasdair being used, and experiments suggest that it could not have been manipulated by the usual method of burning a central bore and finger holes with a heated wire and fitting a reed of barley or oat straw at one end. Perhaps the young John Mackay simply ‘fingered’ the iris stalk much as one uses a pencil or biro today in certain situations. More likely, a fully playable practice chanter, fitted with a reed of straw, and made from an elder branch or length of water-reed was played by John; both of these plants would have been readily available in Raasay and are known to produce excellent practice chanters.

The motif of learning covertly arises again in Angus Mackay’s account of his father overhearing the lessons being given to another boy and then practising unaided on his home-made practice chanter. That John Mackay achieved some level of competency in this manner before attracting the attention of Fear Oighre tells us something of his musical aptitude from an early age but is also an indication of the accessibility that home-made practice chanters and aural/oral learning afforded children in the days before more formal teaching methods.

Return to the Piper’s House

For most Highland pipers, the early stages of learning were within the house and round the fire during the long winter nights. Typical of the environment of teaching and learning was the Piper’s House. The true ambience of the longhouse or ‘byre-dwelling’ combining shelter and living space for people and animals under the one roof is largely irretrievable. A parish minister writing an account of the parish of Kilmuir in the adjacent Trotternish peninsula in Skye about 1840 has left us a detailed insight into a house interior which would have been much the same as the Piper’s House 20 years or so earlier:

‘The houses generally consist of three apartments, which are separated either by stone walls or partitions made of wattled-work, straw or reeds. The middle apartment is the one principally occupied by the family, who have the fire in the centre of the floor, over which the crook is suspended from the rafters above. On the one side of the fire, a wooden bench or rude sofa is placed, of sufficient size to contain five or six people, while on the other side is found the good-wife’s sunnag or rustic arm-chair, of plaited straw, near which are the cradle, spinning-wheel, amraidh or cupboard, a large covered pot containing the kelt for family dress, undergoing the slow process of indigo dye, and the other paraphernalia which are indispensable for immediate family use. The inmost apartment serves the purpose of barn or bed-room, sometimes both, while that next the door is occupied by the cattle.’

This arrangement of two or three separate internal spaces matches the shell of the Piper’s House – Tobht’ Taigh a’ Phìobaire – in Raasay. The hearth clearly had symbolic as well as practical roles. It was the focus of the hospitality for which the Highlands and Hebrides had a longstanding reputation. Passing stranger, visiting neighbour or piping pupil would be invited: Thig a-staigh! or Thig suas! This conveyed the invitation to come in at the door, pass through the byre and come up the house to the fireside. Typically, this was the dynamic element of hospitality, the customary friendly visit or meeting – the ‘coming together’ – enshrined in the Gaelic term cèilidh which itself was associated with the fireplace or hearth as the social focus of any household. Hector MacLean of Ballygrant in Islay, writing to the Gaelic folklore collector John Francis Campbell of Islay in 1860, described the ‘institution’ of the cèilidh as it still prevailed in Barra: ‘The people gather in crowds to the houses of those whom they consider good reciters to listen to their stories’. One of Campbell’s collectors was the Lismore-born exciseman, Alexander Carmichael (1832-1912), whose own collection, Carmina Gadelica, was first published in 1900. In its Introduction, he recalled with sentimental glow his own experiences in the ‘ceilidh-houses’ of the Highlands and Islands:

‘In a crofting community the people work in unison in the field during the day, and discuss together in the house at night. This meeting is called ‘cèilidh’ …  The ‘cèilidh’ is a literary entertainment where stories and tales, poems and ballads, are rehearsed and recited, and songs are sung, conundrums are put, proverbs are quoted, and many other literary matters are related and discussed … The house is roomy and clean, if homely, with its bright peat fire in the middle of the floor. There are many present – men and women, boys and girls. All the women are seated, and most of the men … The conversation is general: the local news, the weather, the price of cattle, these leading up to higher themes – the clearing of the glens (a sore subject), the war, the parliament, the effect of the sun upon the earth and the moon upon the tides.’

With the bright peat fire in the middle of the floor, the cèilidh in the Piper’s House must have passed from news and current affairs to snatches of songs and puirt-à-beul. Cailleach Liath Ratharsair, a local tune as we described in the last issue, must have been a favourite and prompted the pipers amongst them to put it on the pipes. Other favourite melodies would surely have followed, such as Calum crùbach anns a’ ghleann, Tha Biodag Dhòmhnaill mhic Alasdair, Gun do dh’ith na còin na ceannaichean and Tulloch Gorm; and all these tunes are to be found in Angus Mackay’s Piper’s Assistant or in Eliza Ross’s manuscript.


In one form or another, the piping heritage of the Mackays of Raasay is with us still and must merit careful consideration and re-examination, not least because its origins lie on the threshold of the ‘modern period’ and stretch back to a less easily perceived past. That past is highly valued in the appreciation of the Highland bagpipe. The sources are to hand, in music, language, literature, oral tradition and material culture, and allow us to explore that past. Some of these sources have been used in order to propose a number of points: that much of the history of the Mackays has been preserved in the collective memory of generations of Rathairsaich; and that oral tradition has emphasised a probable genealogical link between the Mackay piping families of Raasay and Gairloch. Oral tradition also led us to the site of the Piper’s House, allowing us a precious opportunity to go some way in reconstructing the environment of John Mackay’s home where piping flourished and was passed on to his sons and other pupils. Close examination of the music, as recorded by Eliza Ross and Angus Mackay, highlighted unique stylistic approaches in both ceòl mòr and ceòl beag performance and has suggested that at least some of Angus’s ceòl beag repertoire may be traced back to his musical roots in Raasay. It would be unrealistic and unfair to credit these musical traditions and characteristics of the Mackays solely with the teaching of the MacCrimmons of Borreraig; by placing the Mackays on the MacCrimmon pedestal, we tend both to over- and to under-rate them. Finally, examination of the portraiture of Angus Mackay has given us insight into more than just his physical appearance; it has given us, in effect, a broader understanding of the changing cultural status of pipers from the 18th to 19th centuries. 

In the first article of this series, it was pointed out that, apart from the importance of his music, pipers today are often aware only of the final, tragic episode of Angus Mackay’s life. It is hoped that the series will have helped to reconnect the present generation of pipers with an earlier, more important and interesting time and place in Angus’s life. This is surely what Angus was trying to do in 1854, when he reasserted his roots so poignantly in his hospital log with the heartfelt opening words: ‘…mise Aonghas Mac Iain Mhic Ruari a rugadh ann an Eire, Rarsair…’ (‘I, Angus son of John son of Roderick who was born in Eyre, Raasay…’). Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, Am Màrt 2011


We are indebted to Dr Nicola Kalinsky, Shona Corner and Philip Hunt, National Galleries of Scotland, and to Katie Holyoak, The Royal Collection, for providing images for this essay and for their guidance and support in identifying surviving portraits of Angus Mackay.  Reproduction of the two portraits is by permission of The Royal Collection and the National Galleries of Scotland. We are also indebted to John A. Forrest, San Diego, for drawing a reconstruction of the Piper’s House for this issue. Again, we are most grateful to Rebecca Mackay, Osgaig, Island of Raasay, for sharing with us what she has learnt about the Mackays from Calum Beag Chaluim Ruairidh, ‘an outstanding historian and genealogist’. 

Further Reading

  • Campbell, Archibald (of Kilberry), Pìobaireachd Society Book  3, 80 and Book 10, iii-iv.
  • Cheape, Hugh, Bagpipes. A National Collection of a National Instrument. National Museums Scotland 2008.
  • Cheape, Hugh, ‘“Get them off his fingers”: idioms of piping in Scotland’, in Piping Today Number 15 (2005), 12-15.
  • Forrest, J Decker, ‘The Making of Bagpipe Reeds and Practice Chanters in South Uist’ in Joshua Dickson, Editor, The Highland Bagpipe – Music, History, Tradition. Ashgate 2009, 71-94.
  • Gillies, William and Ann Matheson, Somhairle Mac Gilleain. Sorley Maclean, Edinburgh: National Library of Scotland 1981.
  • MacLean, John, ‘Am Piobaire Dall’, in Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness Volume 41 (1951-1952), 283-306.
  • MacLean, Sam, ‘Some Raasay Traditions’, in Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness Volume 49 (1974-1976), 377-397.
  • MacLeod, Norma, Raasay. The Island and its People. Edinburgh: Birlinn 2002. 
  • National Library of Scotland [NLS], MS 3756; this biographical note has been transcribed and is included by courtesy of the Trustees of the National Library of Scotland; see also Roderick D Cannon, Bagpipe Manuscripts in the National Library of Scotland, Piping Times Volume 38 (1986).
  • ‘The Piper’s Tale’ (from a BBC interview with Calum Iain MacLean), in Creag Dhubh (The Annual of the Clan Macpherson Society)  Number 45 (1993), 50-51.