History: John MacFadyen Hails Angus MacKay’s Book as a Work of a Genius

Fifty years ago John MacFadyen, award winning piper, teacher, administrator, wrote a review of a new edition of Angus MacKay’s historically crucial work, ‘A Collection of Ancient Piobaireachd’. The following is from this review, published in the Oban Times in 1973 in John’s ‘Piping World’ column…

Conditioned by the materialism of the society in which we live my first reaction to the news that a reprint Angus MacKay’s ‘Collection of Piobaireachd’ was available to all who have £3 [$5US] to spare was one of slight dismay.

At a stroke the scarcity value my own original copy was devalued and although the musical content remained unchanged, some of the glamour and charisma surrounding its possession vanished.

This feeling, I’m glad to say, lasted for but a few seconds and was replaced by one of delight that this valuable work is now readily available to all at such a modest price.

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Angus MacKay was born in Raasay in the year 1812 and remained there for the first 11 years of his life. He was one of nine children and second youngest son of John MacKay of Raasay, probably the greatest and certainly the most attractive player of his generation.

His eminence as a player was secured when, in 1792, and at the early age of 25 he won first prize for piobaireachd playing in Edinburgh, and his position as an authority stemmed from the belief that he had been a pupil of Iain Dubh MacCrimmon and that he had retained in purity the magic of the music of Borreraig.

That he was a man of vast prestige is borne out by letter sent to the Highland Society of London [which] sought financial assistance for MacKay who was living in dire poverty and had decided to emigrate….. and in support of the appeal the writer stated that by allowing MacKay to quit his native land ‘we were losing a treasure as he will leave none behind worthy of being his successor’.

It is only natural that such a man should want his sons to play and he must have been delighted and gratified to find them both enthusiastic and gifted. Three of them Angus, Roderick and Donald, followed in his footsteps by winning the premier prize in Edinburgh; and Angus, aged 13, won a prize for the writing of pipe music on the stave, a comparatively new science.

This interest and ability was to abide with him for the rest of his life and by the time of his early and unfortunate death he had compiled the largest and most significant collection of pipe music ever assembled.

John MacFadyen

In 1838, aged 26, he published his famous collection of piobaireachd. The writing of piobaireachd on the stave was then in its infancy and inspired no doubt by Donald MacDonald, Angus set his brilliant mind to the task of developing and improving the system.

He succeeded beyond his dreams and his book and unpublished manuscripts are in many ways the most valuable piobaireachd possessions we have. It in no way detracts from MacKay’s work to remember that Donald MacDonald published a collection of piobaireachd in staff notation more than 25 years before MacKay’s book appeared.

The book itself contains 61 tunes, only three of which appeared in MacDonald’s work, and was at once hailed by the piping world as a form of scripture. The slavish adherence and fidelity to it – misprints and all – was, as Kilberry said, sometimes grotesque.

Angus MacKay was a man of genius to whom we owe a tremendous debt of gratitude. His work in preserving the music of our ancestors has provided a foundation on which others have built and without which subsequent works would have been impossible.

It is to be hoped however that the result of the reprinting will not be another wave of MacKay hysteria and that we will be faced with people from all over the world playing tunes like the Viscount of Dundee and I Got a Kiss of the King’s Hand as written by MacKay. This would be most unfortunate and would only serve to debase a brilliant work completed by a great player at an early age.

What a pity it is that the publisher did not add an errata. This would have gone a long way in preventing further propagation of palpable errors and [would have] added another value to the reprint.

The reprinting is a positive contribution to piping and I imagine that those who do not have a copy of the original will waste little time before adding it to their bookshelves. At £3 a definite bargain.

  • ‘A Collection of Highland Pipe Music’ by Angus MacKay, reprinted by EP Publishing Ltd., with a Foreword by Seumas MacNeill.

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