Iain a’ Ghobha: the Ardvasar Blacksmith

•John playing the set of ‘mini pipes’ he made from local laburnum fitted to the stocks, blowpipe and bag of his usual full set. The photo was taken in the early 1980s at the door of the Smithy. Courtesy of Sabhal Mòr Ostaig.

by Dr Decker Forrest

In 2010 and 2011 Piping Today published a series of articles on Clann ‘Ic Ruairidh — the famed Mackay pipers from Raasay.1  Those articles have been republished on bagpipe.news and the first can be found here.

Through our research, Hugh Cheape and I sought to offer fresh perspectives on the music, teaching and other contributions of the Mackays by drawing from sources such as archaeology, portraiture and the rich oral tradition in Raasay itself which had been overlooked or marginalised in the conventional history of this important piping family. The research brought into focus a number of important considerations for the investigation of similar piping-related subjects, particularly those in the Hebrides, where oral tradition, family connections and the unique rhythms and cycles of community and working life are vitally important. It was with great excitement that we were able to once again apply some of these guiding principles and themes to a subject only two miles or so from where we work at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, Scotland’s Gaelic college in Sleat on the Isle of Skye. 

Many readers will have already identified the title of this article with the tune of the same name. The Ardvasar Blacksmith2 is a four-part reel composed by the late Pipe Major Evan MacRae and published in The Caber Feidh Collection (1984). Like so many pipe tunes, it serves as a focal point from which many fascinating links to pipers, music and social history can be expanded. This article is about the man for whom the tune was written, John MacDonald, known locally as Iain a’ Ghobha, The Ardvasar Blacksmith. 

The setting for this article is the Sleat peninsula at the southern end of the Isle of Skye. The settlement pattern is typical of the region; individual crofting townships roughly follow the coastline and branch off the main road.  Seemingly vacant tracts of land, typically above the townships, include grazing areas for sheep and cattle held in common by various crofting communities, as well as forestry, large conservation areas and tenanted farms. Much of the land is owned by the Clan Donald Lands Trust, the current inheritors of Clan Donald, Sleat, who can trace their ownership and occupation of large swathes of south and north Skye and North Uist back over 600 years.  Armadale Castle has been the seat of the MacDonalds of Sleat in recent generations and it was in the neighbouring village of Ardvasar that John MacDonald was born on August 9, 1902. 

Iain Ceit — the MacInnes Connection

It seems that it was through John’s mother Ceit, ‘Kate’, that his connection with piping was established. She was a MacInnes from Drumfearn, a township about 12 miles to the north of Ardvasar. Her family3 were recognised for their physical strength, keen intellect and musical ability, which included piping. Among her seven brothers and three sisters was John, grandfather of the eminent scholar, Dr John MacInnes of the School of Scottish Studies, and a brother, Malcolm, known locally as Calum Mòr (1871-1951). Calum embodied all of the attributes of the family and was a noted athlete, piper and, showing great intellect and energy from a young age, embarked on a path of educational distinction which led to him receiving a MA and LLB (1898) from Edinburgh University before entering the civil service in South Africa where he became secretary of the Johannesburg School Board from 1907 to 1926.4 He later published a very fine collection of pipe music entitled 120 Bagpipe Tunes, Gleanings and Styles in 1939 as well as a number of works which included dramatised accounts of Highland history, musical plays and songs.

According to Dr John MacInnes, John the Blacksmith was much influenced by Calum Mòr’s piping and would have been well acquainted with the repertoire ­— both ceòl beag and ceòl mòr — and distinctive style of his mother’s family. His main teacher however appears to have been Alexander Ross (1845-1930), family piper and valet to Lord MacDonald at Armadale Castle. Alexander was born in Altnabreac in Easter Ross and both he and his brother, Duncan, were career pipers to various Highland aristocratic families in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He was in the employment of Lord MacDonald for much of his career until, towards the end of his life, he became piper to MacKenzie of Allangrange.  While at Armadale, Alexander Ross is said to have taught three pipers: Davey Anderson, John MacColl, who became the farm manager at Armadale, and John the Blacksmith. 

One would expect that Alexander Ross was John’s first major influence, as Calum Mòr was working in South Africa during most of John’s youth. When Calum Mòr retired to Sleat and later tenanted the farm at Ostaig (now the site of the Gaelic College) from 1929, we can well imagine him and his nephew John, now in his late twenties and living within a couple miles of one another, meeting regularly for a yarn and a tune. When Calum Mòr passed away in 1951, John inherited many of his piping books, some medals for athletics and a pipe chanter.5 Throughout much of his life, John took many clippings from newspapers of articles and obituaries concerning Calum Mòr and other MacInnes relations and pasted them in his various piping books. 

Iain Dhòmhnaill a’ Ghobha — John, son of Donald the Blacksmith

John was the last blacksmith in Sleat. His patronymic, ‘Iain Dhòmhnaill a’ Ghobha’, points to the fact that his father, Donald, was also a blacksmith. John’s paternal grandfather, John, was a shepherd from Caradale, a small crofting township which had been created in the 1850s but was subsequently cleared about 20 years later. Donald took over the Smithy in 1880 from a man called MacInnes who had been the blacksmith when the Smithy was built by the estate just a few years earlier.6 In John’s father’s day, blacksmiths shoed horses and made and repaired a variety of household items and agricultural implements, including horse-drawn ploughs and carts. By the time John took over the Smithy, however, many areas of the blacksmith trade began to shrink as agricultural technology advanced, the tractor replaced the horse in agriculture, and imported factory-manufactured items became increasingly available. Much of John’s work centred on shoeing horses ­— a skill for which he was renowned and in particular demand. Those who attended Ardvasar School, located near the Smithy, recall watching horses from Ferindonald, Teangue and elsewhere being walked in front of the Schoolhouse and up to the Smithy regularly to be re-shod. Once, when the smithy at Inverie (across the Sound of Sleat) had trouble shoeing a particular horse, John was called for and completed the job. Such was his reputation, he then travelled to Inverie thereafter to shoe the horse when needed until new laws came into force which, to John’s indignation, would require him to hold a certificate. As the demand for horses lessened in the second half of the 20th century, John focused on a range of commissioned pieces, including peat cutting irons, fire baskets, fireside companion sets, toasting forks, branding irons, pot stand rings, boot jacks and coat hooks. His work can still be seen in various households in Sleat and, most notably, in the weathercock on the steading tower at the Gaelic College.

•A pipe box which belonged to John MacDonald with various items, including his ‘mini pipes’ made during the 1970s and early 1980s. The Gaelic inscriptions by the bardess, Mary MacLeod (Màiri Nighean Alasdair Ruaidh), can be seen on the inside lid and on the reed box.  Photo: Decker Forrest

John has been described as both ingenious and gifted by those who knew him. He could make and repair things that went well beyond the usual tasks expected of a blacksmith and had a particular eye for wood and naturally shaped branches suitable for a variety of applications. Davey Garrett, who taught piping in Sleat in the 1970s, recalled how John had once found a mass of laburnum covered in moss growing between Ardvasar and Armadale.7 He scraped off some of the moss with his walking stick and struck the timber, producing a sharp ‘ring’. John used the wood to make a set of ‘mini pipes’ with a chanter and a number of other duplicate drone sections which may have been for another set or were simply rejects. He also made a number of practice chanters from local wood and staghorn. John’s daybooks record the dates he worked on these various instruments and reveal that they were probably all made between about 1976 and 1981 when, by this late stage in life, he was perhaps allowing himself to indulge a bit more in hobby-crafts. His daybooks show that one particular pursuit, the making of pipe and practice chanter reeds, proved to be an almost masochistic obsession; typical entries read: ‘reed failures’, ‘1 reed failure (practice)’ and ‘Reeds – mixed results’!  His reed and pipe-making tools, including a reamer fashioned from an old welding rod, were mostly handmade and he used an old second-hand treadle lathe to turn the various sections of his mini pipes. Much of the information on reed-making along with some materials came from his famous pupil, and excellent reed-maker in his own right, Evan MacRae. 

•John in his forge with a copy of ‘The Ardvasar Blacksmith’ written by his devoted pupil, Evan MacRae. Taken in the 1970s.
•‘The Ardvasar Blacksmith’ an abbreviated copy of the tune written on the back of an envelope by John MacDonald (c. 1983).

Duine Laghach Gasta — a kind and honourable man

Evan MacRae was first taught by John before he joined the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders in 1938. Evan felt a deep gratitude toward his first teacher; it is said that after the Second World War, as a Pipe Major with some influence, he once took his pipe band over to Sleat where they treated John to a surprise performance. Evan was one of the first piping instructors at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, which began its annual Easter and Autumn courses in 1974. Those who attended the classes recall Evan speaking highly of John and he often took students to the Smithy to meet him. 

•“Edinburgh’s Bearded Piper” PM Evan MacRae (1922-1991), with an American tourist at Edinburgh Castle. Evan grew up in Ardvasar and was first taught the pipes by John MacDonald. Printed in ‘Illustrated’, August 1952.

The establishment of the Gaelic College in 1973-1974 seems to have sparked in John a deep sense of pride for the Gaelic language and a concern for its deterioration. In his daybooks from May (An Cèitean) 1973 he began recording the months in Gaelic which he continued to do until the end of his life. Short, copied excerpts from Gaelic prose also began to appear in his daybooks and in his pipe box and on a reed box he copied verses from a 17th century song by the Skye bardess Mary MacLeod (Màiri Nighean Alasdair Ruaidh) about Patrick Mòr MacCrimmon.  

The 1970s were a bit of a boom time for piping in Sleat. A pipe band was established with a generous donation from Ellice MacDonald (1913-2013) and was under the direction of Davey Garrett who lived at the College and ran Saturday morning piping classes. An enthusiastic supporter, John would walk to and from the College in tackety boots with his pipes carried over his shoulder in a bundle tied to the end of his walking stick. With a lack of pipe music books in circulation and photocopies being virtually non-existent, John would often write out tunes for young pipers in careful notation. Of John’s piping, Davey recalls that he had a ‘very nice touch’ and had a good knowledge of both ceòl mòr and ceòl beag. John recorded in his daybooks the names and tunes of pipers who were on the BBC piping programme, Chanter, which was broadcast on Wednesday evenings during the 1970s. 

John is remembered as a kind, cheerful but reticent man who was in every way a traditionalist and hard worker dedicated to his craft of which he was, without question, a true master. Not owning a car, he walked from Ardvasar to Kilmore Church (about 3 miles each way) each Sunday where he would precent the psalms, another skill at which he was highly regarded. Those who visited John at his smithy recall how he would light his forge with flint and steel – never using matches – and with a bit of old dungaree cloth for tinder. He would begin pumping the bellows with his foot and have the fire roasting hot in what seemed like no time at all. Visits to the Smithy often ended with John playing a couple of tunes on the practice chanter or pipes for his guests. He never married but lived with his sister, Mary, until he died in 1985. Mary passed away a year later and the croft and smithy were left to the daughter of their younger brother, Angus, who had moved to Glasgow in his late teens, married and raised a family.


I am particularly indebted to Fiona and Peter Wilby for providing much information, photographs and other materials which have passed down to them through Fiona’s aunt and uncle, Mary and John MacDonald (The Ardvasar Blacksmith). My sincere gratitude also goes to those individuals, many of whom knew John well, who gave freely of their time during the preparation of this article, and in particular I wish to thank Ailean Caimbeul, Hugh Cheape, Davey Garrett, Gordon and Mary Ann Jeffrey, Charlie Kron, Ishy MacDonald, Maggie MacDonald and the Museum of the Isles, Charlie MacGillivray, Aird, Neil MacGillivray, Camuscross, Donald John MacInnes, Sasaig, Dr John MacInnes, Donnie MacKinnon, Camuscross, Gus MacLean, Camuscross, Donnie Nicolson, Kilmore, Graeme Smith and Sally Keighley, and Sabhal Mòr Ostaig.

  1. Cheape, Hugh & Forrest, J Decker, ‘The Piper’s House’, in Piping Today Numbers 49-51 (2010-2011). ↩︎
  2. The Caber Feidh Collection – Pipe Music of the Queen’s Own Highlanders (Seaforth and Camerons) (1984) Paterson’s Publications Ltd: 177 ↩︎
  3. Clann Iain mhic Nèill mhic Mhaol Mhoire mhic Iain mhic Mhaol Chaluim ↩︎
  4. For a fuller biography, see MacDonald, Norman and MacLean, Cailean (2014) The Great Book of Skye Portree: Great Book Publishing and MacDonald, Mairi A. ‘History of the Gaelic Society of Inverness from 1871 to 1971’ in Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness Vol. XLVI 1969-1970 (pp. 1-21). ↩︎
  5. It is understood that Calum Mòr had at least three sets of pipes during his lifetime. It seems that John received one set, as did another nephew after Calum Mòr’s death, while another set ended up with the famous Donald MacLeod who had received them through yet another of Calum Mòr’s nephews, Dr John MacInnes, Hull, for whom MacLeod composed the hornpipe ‘Dr MacInnes’s Fancy’. ↩︎
  6. Interview 11/02/83: ‘Iain an Gobha (Domhnallach), Ardbhasar a’ bruidhinn; Tormod Domhnallach a’ tadhal air’ An Comann Eachdraidh Shlèite: Tape 6. Sadly only the transcript remains. The original recording, which included John MacDonald piping, was destroyed by flooding in the 1990s. ↩︎
  7. Incredibly, the date of this event was recorded in John’s daybook from 1974 as occurring on Tuesday, 1st of January. ↩︎