Famous Pipers: Angus MacKay, Life and Times of a True Piping Genius

By Robert Wallace

The year 2009 saw the 150th anniversary of the death of Angus MacKay, surely a genius in the history of world piping. Angus stands at the pinnacle of the post-MacCrimmon era, an extremely gifted musician, who, though he died fairly young, will never be forgotten. In 1838 he published a collection of 61 piobaireachd, a publication that has been regarded with the highest esteem by professional pipers since that time, particularly among those devoted to  ceol mor.

For a young man of only 25 years this was an astonishing achievement. As a consequence, Angus’s contribution to piobaireachd playing can never be over estimated. It was he who ensured, via his system of staff notation (basically the same system we use today) that the heritage of the MacCrimmons would be handed down through the generations.

And in weighing the importance of his piping life we must also consider his vital role in restoring the bagpipe to a position of esteem in what was  previously a hostile social environment.

In 1844, a banquet was held in Windsor Castle at which Queen Victoria entertained King Louis Phillipe of France, and his Queen. The occasion was unique since it was the first visit to Britain by a reigning French monarch. It was noteworthy, perhaps remarkable, in that part of the entertainment included a recital by Queen Victoria’s piper Angus MacKay, Angus from the Hebridean island of Raasay, appointed the previous year as first Sovereign’s Piper. Consider that less than a hundred years before the bagpipe had been outlawed, if indirectly, in an effort to destroy the very culture that Angus now represented.

Angus MacKay was the man who, in successfully fulfilling his royal role, secured the bagpipe’s respect among the upper echelons of society, a powerful cadre of individuals who might just as easily have cast it off as a disreputable tool of the peasant class. This respect, and the fact that it helped men win battles, led, in turn, to its widespread adoption by the British Army, the formation of pipe bands and the worldwide spread of the instrument and its music.

The Book

Angus’s monumental work is the ‘Collection of Ancient Piobaireachd’ published with the support of the Highland Society of London. The last five years of his life, when he suffered from mental illness, should never be allowed to diminish this work – despite the contention of writer Alistair Campsie in his book ‘The MacCrimmon Legend and the Madness of Angus MacKay’ that he invented and contorted much of the material. Not so. Angus’s great contribution to Highland music was presented to the piping fraternity well before the onset of mental illness in 1854. After a time in St Mary of Bethlehem Hospital in London (‘Bedlam’) Angus spent the last three years of his life at Crichton Royal Hospital, Dumfries, and drowned while attempting to cross the River Nith on 21st March,1859.

His diary, compiled whilst in St Mary’s, is written over several flimsy pages at the beginning of one of his ceol beag MSS. It is now in the National Library of Scotland (ref: 3756) in Edinburgh and makes rather pathetic reading; rambling and incoherent. Sad that a man could tumble from on high so quickly. One lucid excerpt:

‘My father John Mackay was, I believe, left an orphan with one sister; he was reared up by Malcolm Macleod, Raasay, being there employed as a herd boy, etc. and in the house. MacLeod 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 moors while herding. Once he was overheard by Captain MacLeod (grandson of John Garve MacLeod) who was impressed, taught him and afterwards sent him to the College of the MacCrummens and to the Mackays of Gearloch….’

The remains of John MacKay’s croft on Raasay

The father, John Mackay, who, according to tradition, was ‘three six months’ with the MacCrimmons, was born about 1767 and died about 1848 at Kyleakin. He was the most notable piper of his time, and this included the concluding years of the last MacCrimmons. He won the first prize at the Highland Society’s competition in 1792.

The prestige of Angus Mackay’s recorded works was due to a belief (which he himself declared to be a fact) that what he wrote was derived entirely from his father. The latter’s eminence in the piping world of the period was described in an 1821 letter from William MacKenzie, secretary to the Celtic Society, to the Highland Society of Scotland:
‘I met Mackay, Raasay’s piper. The fame of this man is too well known to require any praise from me. He is not satisfied with the treatment he is receiving, and as his abilities are unnoticed and his allowance so reduced that he cannot exist, he talks as a last resource of going to America. To let this man leave the Highlands will bring deserved obloquy on these institutions who have it in their power to relieve one so capable of preserving in purity the strains of our beloved ancestors, and, in the event of his quitting his native land, we lose a treasure, as he will leave none behind him worthy of being his successor.’

What action, if any, was taken on this appeal is not known, but John Mackay was engaged by Lord Willoughby d’Eresby, at Drummond Castle near Crieff in Perthshire. Some 50 years later, Pipe-Major Robert Meldrum, also employed at the castle, heard an old man describe the arrival of John Mackay and his family, all on foot with their belongings carried in peat creels on two Highland ponies.

All four sons of John Mackay were pipers of repute. Angus competed at the Highland Society competitions in 1825 when he was awarded 5/- (five shillings – 25p in today’s money) for producing music written in staff notation. In 1826 he was placed fourth, over the heads of his brother Roderick and several others, playing MacIntosh’s Lament. In both years he was described as a boy of 13, so his year of birth may be put down as 1812 or 1813. In 1835 he competed again and was first with Lament for the Union, having played Lament for the Viscount of Dundee at the rehearsal.

Thereafter Angus became piper, first to Campbell of Islay and then to Queen Victoria. Consulting Queen Victoria’s ‘Highland Journal’ we learn that Angus was recommended to her by Lord Breadalbane who remarked that according to his own piper John Ban Mackenzie, Angus was the best piper in Scotland. The story goes that the job was offered to John Ban but he refused. When he was asked if he could recommend someone else of similar ability and as good looks he said he would fail on both counts but eventually suggested Angus.

Queen Victoria’s appreciation of the Highland bagpipe was expressed in a letter to her mother when she first visited Scotland in 1842: ‘We have heard nothing but bagpipes since we have been in the beautiful Highlands and I am become so fond of it that I mean to have a Piper, who can if you like it pipe every night at Frogmore.’ (Frogmore is a Royal Family retreat near Windsor, Berkshire.)

We know from Queen Victoria’s Journal that the first performance took place on 19 June 1843: ‘Was agreeably surprised at 8 [am], by hearing our new (appointed) Scotch piper, whom Albert had ordered to walk before the Palace, without telling me anything of it. It put me so in mind of Scotland. The Piper is called Angus Mackay.’

To be continued.

1 thought on “Famous Pipers: Angus MacKay, Life and Times of a True Piping Genius

  1. MaNy thanks for the info have been in the. U. S for 52yrs and miss my old days with. Woolley colliery pipe band under borrow. Summers. Will be at th. Worlds this year again. It’s my once a year day. Thanks. John nisbet

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