By Robert Wallace
Whilst Angus’s appointment as Sovereign’s Piper was definitely a step up the social ladder, it is doubtful whether he would have found himself overawed by the manners and decorum of the English court; he had already lived and worked in some high society Scottish households.
Queen Victoria’s influential husband, Prince Albert, was still only in the early stages of raising the Queen’s entourage to that of the European aristocracy, and the houses in which MacKay had so far passed his life would almost certainly have offered a polished domestic circumstance similar to that at Windsor. With his published book he had also had considerable success in the world of scholarship, albeit in a somewhat specialised corner.
In the practical pursuit of his career as a professional piper he had landed jobs with some of the biggest names in the land – and they did not come any bigger than HM The Queen. His confidence must have been at a peak, and suggestions that the sudden elevation to this new position in the Royal Household from a background of poverty was enough to precipitate a mental breakdown, must be treated with caution.
In addition to piping in front of the royal bedroom at 8 o’clock each morning (see left) and carrying out other informal commitments, MacKay was obviously required to perform on a variety of formal state occasions, similar to that already described. The wardrobe supplied by his employer consisted of a State Dress, two Dinner Dresses and one Morning Dress, with all necessary ornaments, dirks, belts, etc., and doubtless a use was found for all of these elaborate costumes.
He also travelled with the household back to Scotland. When the Royal Family arrived at the Balmoral Estate on Deeside in 1849, Angus was already playing at the door of their lodgings to welcome them. In 1852, when they attended an open-air, torchlit ball at a neighbouring hunting lodge, MacKay was the leader of the group of seven pipers charged with supplying the required dance music.
That same year Prince Albert finally acquired the freehold of the Balmoral Estate, and to commemorate the event a cairn was to be built on the hills above the castle on the highest point, Craig Gowan. The company that turned out for this ‘delightful’ occasion included all the servants and tenants of the estate and their families, and MacKay preceded the Royal party up the rock, playing all the way – and continued playing while the cairn was being built (which the Queen estimated took about an hour). Angus was obviously a fit and healthy man.
The following year, 1853, the foundation stone of the new house at Balmoral was laid – on 28th September – and once again Angus MacKay played an important role in the ceremony. On this occasion he composed a special tune, called appropriately ‘The Foundation Stone of Balmoral Castle’. This was all of the new house that he was to see. Four months later he was admitted to Bethlem Hospital, the infamous mental institution, or, as it was described at the time, the mad house. Recurring mental illness meant that Angus MacKay was to spend only three more months at liberty throughout the remaining five years of his life.
For now, let us turn the clock back to happier times. As we have heard in 1838, at the age of 25 or 26, Angus Mackay published his famous book of piobaireachd music. It was prefaced by an apology for its delayed appearance, and so must have been compiled some time previously. It contains the music of 61 piobaireachds, abundant letterpress, lengthy prefaces, historical notes, dissertations on musical theory, instructions for playing, etc., and no evidence is known of his having been helped by anyone, though a James Logan, a prominent member of the Highland Society of London at that time, probably assisted Angus in the historical and literary part of his work. This should in no way detract from MacKay’s musical scholarship.
Archibald Campbell of Kilberry, wrote: ‘The reduction of piobaireachd music into staff notation was then in its infancy. Donald MacDonald had been a pioneer, but there was room for improvement of his methods, and these improvements Angus Mackay effected. The book was accepted immediately by all pipers as their Scriptures, and their sedulous fidelity to it, in my youthful days, was sometimes grotesque. The prestige of Angus Mackay’s book still stands higher than that of any other book of pipe music, and probably, among those who are able to estimate its worth, as high as any other book on any branch of Celtic art. Not a bad effort on the part of a youth in his early twenties, who as a boy of eleven had travelled from Raasay to Crieff on foot, and probably bare-footed.’
Angus Mackay’s book contains educational material, valuable information on the families of the hereditary pipers, detailed notes of the competitions instituted by the Highland Society from 1781 onwards, and historical notes on fifty-one of the tunes published. In addition to the book, there are four manuscript volumes now safely deposited in the National Library of Scotland. The two largest contain 179 separate compositions and these formed the basis for the majority of the Piobaireachd Society’s published series of books. A fifth smaller manuscript was addressed to MacKenzie of Seaforth, presumably for the use of his piper Donald Cameron, a Mackay pupil. In this Seaforth manuscript Angus refers to his earlier work as ‘noted down from the canntireachd of John Mackay, his father, from the years 1826 to 1840’.
Angus Mackay’s published book became the single most important reference work for subsequent generations of performers. This must reflect the respect in which his father was held by his many distinguished pupils as well as regard for Angus’s own competence in accurately noting down the tunes and presenting them in such a playable fashion. One of the Mackays’ most influential pupils was the aforementioned Donald Cameron. Another was Angus MacPherson, piper to MacPherson of Cluny; these men passed their knowledge on to their sons, Sandy, Colin and Keith in the case of Cameron and Calum Piobair in the case of MacPherson. Their pupils provide a link with the present day. John MacDonald, Inverness, confirmed to Kilberry the respect which pipers of the previous generation to his own had had for Angus Mackay’s collection.
Besides his published collection of piobaireachd, Angus Mackay, in 1843, revised a ‘Tutor for the Highland Bagpipe’ which contained a collection of 100 marches, strathspeys, reels and jigs and was first produced by William Mackay, piper to the Celtic Society of Scotland and published by David Glen, the Edinburgh bagpipe maker. Subsequently in 1851 Alexander Glen published a volume of tunes described as ‘The Piper’s Assistant — Edited Angus Mackay, Piper to Her Majesty’.
The third and fourth volumes of Angus’s manuscript contain some 550 tunes of light music, all carefully recorded in neat manuscript with appropriate grace-noting. His work was accomplished between 1826 and 1854, between the ages of 14 and 42 years.
The fashion for ‘competition’ tunes – marches to which the soldier does not march, and dance tunes to which the dancer does not dance – started in Angus MacKay’s time. He is spoken of sometimes as the originator of it. If he was not, he, like other pipers about Deeside in royal or other exalted employ, was an early devotee. So far as competition marches go, his Glengarry Gathering (click to hear Gordon Duncan playing the tune on his ‘Thunderstruck’ CD) and Balmoral Highlanders may he comparable in originality with the great tunes of his gifted contemporary, Hugh Mackay (Crags of Stirling, Stirlingshire Militia etc.). I think everyone would agree that both of Angus’s tunes – adaptations from folk tunes – sit well with the pipes. Had they not done so they would not be as popular today as they undoubtedly were 180 odd years ago.
• To be continued.