Piobaireachd Society Summer School on Skye

I had always wondered why the last of the MacCrimmons, Donald Ruadh, found himself on the mainland at Glenelg. Thanks to research by Dr Decker Forrest we now know that those fertile lands, directly opposite Skye on the old drove road to Mam Ratagan and the south, were owned by the MacLeods of Dunvegan.

Back then the MacLeods revered their pipers, granting them land rent free on Duirinish, and would not, I feel, have been averse to setting Donald up in Glenelg.

By Robert Wallace

We took ourselves there last week during the PIobaireachd Society’s Summer School. The thrill of the mountain pass and that charming marvel, the Kylerhea Ferry, brought us to ancient brochs and the Bernera Barracks ruin. This was where, in the late 18th century the Highland Society of Scotland proposed a College of Piping, a mirror of Borreraig, with Donald Ruadh as master.

MacRaeBanner ’19
Ayrshire Bagpipes Nov 2020
shepherd banner ’22
silver chanter banner 2024

The money was in place, the tutor, the premises, yet….nothing. It was to be 150 years before Tommy Pearston and Seumas MacNeill made it happen in the contrasting setting of grimy, 1944 Glasgow.

Glenelg is mentioned in Boswell’s ‘Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Dr Johnston’ in 1773 and indeed on page 229 he confirms the Clan MacLeod connection.

Fellow tutor Jack Taylor told the story of another visitor, Alexander Campbell, who, 40 years later, in 1813, wrote:

‘After a few glasses of his own good toddy, MacCrummin seized the pipe, put on his hat (his usual custom), breathed into the bag, tuned the drones to the chanter, gave a prelude in a style of brilliancy that flashed like lightening, and commenced ‘Failte Phrionnsah’ [The Prince’s Salute] in tones that spoke to the ear and affected the heart…… Are the talents of MacCrummin doomed to decay in solitude?…..’

Jack reprised the tune, this time outdoors with the barracks ruin in the background:

Back at base, Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, the irreplaceable Gaelic College on Sleat, Skye, Decker gave us an hour long lecture on the language and its connection to the music – and a good telling off for our pronunciation (not Donald Dougal but Downal Doo-al, and, btw, Mail Donn refers to a bald, i.e. hornless, brown cow). Talk over, the evening ceilidh…

How extraordinary it was to hear Catriona Hill, 84, playing that very tune, aka MacCrimmon’s Sweetheart. Jack did the blowing whilst this gifted lady, injured arm and all, fingered the chanter….

Many lumps in throats after that I can tell you. Later Catriona told me she had learned the tune from Dr Calum MacCrimmon the man who, in 1938, presented the Bratach Gorm for competition at the London Championship. She had begun her piping with her father Bob Hill, he of the famous ceilidh, and had further lessons from Dr MacCrimmon, David Ross, Rosehall, and JB Robertson.

After marrying piper Gordon Speirs she moved to New Jersey in the US. She attended a summer school where Jimmy McIntosh advised her to take lessons from George Bell. Catriona called him and he refused, saying he wouldn’t teach a woman. She let Jimmy know. An hour later George was back on the phone apologising and of course he would teach her. Catriona believes Jimmy’s intervention was crucial. Catriona, ably supported by her son Ross, aims to be back with us next year.

This was just one day in a busy week of ceòl mòr study. It was our third annual PS Summer School. We had 17 students. From all over the UK, the US, Canada, Austria, and Germany, they came. Mixed abilities yes, but I believe we set them on the right road of improvement and understanding.

Here are some random shots that may give you a flavour of our very enjoyable week:

rw class
Robert’s class
Marching back from Bernera Barracks
Ross playing at the Brochs
Looking out at the Kylerhea Ferry
Keith at the ceilidh
jack class
Jack’s class
Uwe at the ceilidh
calum at PS SS 2024
Calum at ceilidh
pile o pipes
previous arrow
next arrow

Tunes covered/ played/ discussed: Duke of Atholl’s Salute, Lament for Mary Macleod, Beloved Scotland, Catherine’s Lament, Glengarry’s March, Lament for the Little Supper, Corrienessan’s Salute, Earl of Seaforth’s Salute, Lament for Alan, Unjust Incarceration, the Fingerlock, Glen is Mine, Rory MacLeod’s Lament, Munro’s Salute, Old Woman’s Lullaby, Ewan of the Battles, Massacre of Glencoe, Lord Lovat’s Lament, Sound of the Waves, MacCrimmon’s Sweetheart, Too Long in this Condition, Lament for Donald Ban MacCrimmon, Prince’s Salute, Old Men of the Shells, Sir James MacDonald of the Isles.
We’ll do it all again next year from June 1 – 6.

  • If you were wondering where the good Scottish name off Weatherston comes from then here’s your answer. The notice below was pinned to the outside wall of the Kylerhea Ferry office. Self explanatory really. Who needs the Met Office?

2 thoughts on “Piobaireachd Society Summer School on Skye

  1. It is good to see and hear Catriona Hill Playing, sorry to see she has an injured arm. I knew her when they lived here in the US. I kept running into her at the games here in the EUSPBA. As well as Ross too, who is a good player in his own right. I knew that he had returned to Scotland, but not that Catriona had as well. Kind regards to both.
    John Recknagel

  2. So good to see Catriona Hill playing on Dr. Jack’s pipe chanter. Her dad, P/M Bob Hill (ex-Scots Guards and Argylls) was my first pipe major, when I joined his grade 2 RAMC (TA) pipe band in the mid-60s, and Gordon Speirs, my second pipe major, when Bob retired: I played Gordon’s 1916 Henderson set for thirty years, before it was sold to Gordon and Catriona’s son Ross. I always enjoyed Catriona’s playing and sister, Mairi’s highland dancing at London ceilidhs. Brother, Andrew was a good piper too: Bob’s wife, Vi, insisted I help Andrew with his French ‘O’-Level when I’d only just passed my ‘A’-Level. When Bob, Vi and Andrew finally moved up to Alness, I often stayed with them in the summer holidays. On one occasion I gave a lift to Andrew for his lesson with John D. Burgess and sat in my car outside the house. So many wonderful memories !

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *