Famous Pipers: The Sad End of the Great Genius, Angus MacKay

By Robert Wallace
By Robert Wallace

Despite all of this considerable body of work and scholarly achievement, Angus MacKay does not always get a good press – even today.

Kilberry again: ‘The critical eccentric, with fingers more skilled to the pen than to the chanter, made Angus Mackay a special target. The accusation that he was uneducated or ill-educated was based on no better foundation than the fact that he was what would have been called in Victorian times ‘of humble parentage’. I can only say that I have made an exact copy by hand of the whole of his voluminous piobaireachd manuscript, Vols. I and ll, and claim that anyone who does that sort of thing must know something about the author when he has finished. 

‘Wherever Angus Mackay got his education, I declare without hesitation that he was a well-educated man. His spelling may not always be above reproach, but the same could be said about many a university graduate in honours. His calligraphy was marvellously good, and his capacity for expressing himself in English very remarkable. In both his published and unpublished works he uses copiously and freely such Italian terms as ‘Allegro, Andante, Con animo, De capo, Volti subito’, etc., and this has been pointed to as proof that his book must have been written partially or wholly by someone else. Such an argument falls to the ground once he is accepted as a well-educated man. Furthermore, to drag in my own experience once more, I am convinced, from my knowledge of pipers, that the published book could not have received the immediate and unreserved reverence which it did, if Angus Mackay were known to have had an assistant or assistants.          

‘The implicit reliance on those writings by all high-class pipers since the publication of 1838 was, and is, unanimous. Thirdly, it is impossible to imagine that anyone under the slightest suspicion of mental disorder in 1843 would have been appointed then a personal attendant in the Royal Household.’   

A logical and sensible assessment in my view.

And so now we must turn to the end of this great man’s life………..Angus’s first attack of insanity appears to have come as a surprise to everybody, and to have left them in a state of confusion approaching his own. He was admitted to Bethlem on petition of his wife and on/off bouts of illness followed. Eventually, on the 1st March 1856, Angus was admitted to Crichton Royal Hospital in Dumfries, a still young establishment opened in 1839.

Crichton-Painting
Crichton Hospital from a contemporary painting

It was a state of the art institution, forward in its thinking and treatment of patients, a model for those which followed. Why Angus MacKay was sent to Crichton is open to speculation. It may have been that Queen Victoria showed some compassion towards him and wanted him to have the best available care in his home country. The Royal Household paid for this at £30 per annum.

Angus’s admission note to Crichton
Angus’s admission note to Crichton

Cynics might say that such was the stigma and embarrassment attached to mental illness in those days that the Queen would pay anything to have him as far away from London as possible. I take the former view. She clearly adored the bagpipe and appointed a successor to Angus within weeks of his admission to Bedlam. She wanted to do her best by the man who in many ways provided the sound track to her love affair with Scotland. (Thomas Hardie, a Skyeman, was MacKay’s successor. He only lasted a few months, being returned to his regiment after a fall-out with a footman who was making fun of his accent. The job then went to William Ross, he of 1860s book fame and not to be confused with Willie Ross, Scots Guards.)

Angus MacKay’s life continued for another three years with periods of madness and remission, brought on, we can now be fairly sure, by tertiary syphilis. There was, therefore, no improvement in his mental state. There were repeated periods spent in seclusion and restraint as recorded in the hospital register. There is no note of his having a bagpipe at Crichton and his condition would have been too far gone to allow him to play properly, if at all.

crichton-room
A room at Crichton exactly the same as the one which was occupied by Angus in his last few years of life…a bed, a table and a wardrobe his only furnishings

Crichton Royal Hospital still stands and is now part of  a university campus. Though converted to an office, it is possible to enter what was probably the small room where Angus MacKay went through his final agonies. It is possible too, to walk the corridors where he acted out his delusions and manic rants. This I did a few years ago and half closing the eyes you could just about imagine the scene…………..

On March 21, 1859, over one hundred and fifty years ago, this deranged master of our music escaped. It was a pleasant, early spring day as he raced down the hill from the hospital to find his way blocked by a locked gate and a high wall. Angus, a strong man and fevered even stronger, clambered over.

He turned south and, with hospital attendants in close pursuit, ran for almost four miles in the direction of the small fishing village of Glencaple and freedom. At a point where the River Nith broadens to its estuary, Angus, exhausted, plunged in. He was immediately swept away by rapid tidal waters, consumed by quicksand, and never seen again. Thus ended the life of the greatest figure in piping then or since, Angus MacKay. Five years ago I launched a campaign for a cairn to mark the spot. It was unveiled in 2010 (see end of article) and stands as a modest memorial to him.

The place on the shores of the River Nith that Angus plunged in and was drowned
The place on the eastern shore of the River Nith where  Angus plunged in and was drowned
angus-as-balmoral
How we should remember him….Angus in his glory years at Balmoral from a painting in the Royal Collection by William Wydd

Now let me summarise Angus MacKay’s contribution to Scotland’s music. He published a book of sixty-one piobaireachd in staff notation, thus providing pipers with a valuable source of tunes, a  reference for memorising them and a guide to their interpretation. His manuscript of 179 further tunes provided a base for others to work from, notably General Thomason in his ‘Ceol Mor’ and the Piobaireachd Society in its series of publications. He also produced outstanding marches in the newly developing ‘competition’ style, tunes that are still regularly played by present day competitors, soloist and band.

Finally, and perhaps more importantly, he raised the bagpipe and its music to a level of social acceptability that guaranteed its future. In his successful role as Sovereign’s Piper he established it as Scotland’s national instrument and demonstrated its importance within Highland culture and that of the broader nation. To this day a piper can be heard playing at Buckingham Palace when The Queen is in residence – and The Queen is Patron of the Piobaireachd Society.

We can add this from Kilberry, writing in the 1950s: ‘There can be no one alive now who ever heard Angus MacKay play, and few who have heard his playing described at first hand. Sandy Cameron remembered him playing piobaireachds at Maryburgh in his father’s house, but he must have been quite a young child at the time, for 1848 was his birth year. But reputedly Angus MacKay’s technical skill was very great, and I have never heard it described otherwise.

‘No more need be added about his influence on present day ceol mor than that, without him, the publications of General Thomason and of David Glen would have been very different things, those of William Ross, Macphee and Bett, in all probability would never have been printed, and manuscripts like that of Duncan Campbell would never have been written. 

‘To pronounce a verdict upon the career of this remarkable man requires more information about it than I have been able to collect. Such evidence as has come my way suggests that his destiny was that of many another genius – a bright beginning, a prosperous interim and a sad ending. Yet he was, surely, a great man and a notable piper in Highland history. We pipers owe him much gratitude for many happy hours spent in playing or in listening to what he has preserved for us, and in poring over what he has written and inspired others to write.’

cairn
The memorial cairn…the inscription reads ‘Angus MacKay……Drowned in the River Nith near here on 21st March, 1859. A great genius of the bagpipe, his work laid the foundation of our modern tradition.’

• Angus MacKay’s book and MS can be studied on the Piobaireachd Society website.

2 thoughts on “Famous Pipers: The Sad End of the Great Genius, Angus MacKay”

  1. Excellent account Rob. One small factual correction – Crichton is now a university campus, which is what it what it was intended to be when it was first mooted.

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