OT: 10 April 1948 – John Grant “Ancient Piobaireachd”


The Oban Times, 10 April, 1948 [?]

Ancient Piobaireachd

Edinburgh, 5 April, 1948

Sir,–I have to-day sent the following criticism of the piping broadcast of March 19 to the B.B.C.–

“With reference to the Scottish Home Service broadcast of March 19, entitled ‘Modern Scottish Composers,’ and the tunes played upon the bagpipe by Mr. D. Main under the name ‘Pibroch,’ I have no hesitation in saying, without fear or favour that the B.B.C. should never have broadcast such a programme to the piping world and use the word ‘Pibroch.’ If there is no one on the B.B.C. staff who knows the classical music of the Highland Bagpipe, they should consult someone who does know that Art before passing such matters for broadcasting.

“To say the least of it, it is very degrading to the MacCrimmons, the great Masters of Ancient Piobaireachd, and an insult to all genuine lovers of the Art, who had to listen to such a meaningless music, as the matter which was piped from beginning to end had no resemblance to Piobaireachd whatever.

“I would say without mincing words that piobaireachd cannot be changed. It has come down from the MacCrimmons in perfect form, and this is the first occasion on which any piper has ever attempted to change it.

“Personally, I have no desire to lay down the law, or boast of what I have been able to do to preserve the perfect form of an Ancient Art, but what I would say, is that the B.B.C. should refrain from broadcasting anything which would tend to destroy the inheritance which we cherish as sacred to all piobaireachd performers and lovers, and more especially Gaelic-speaking pipers.

“Another thing which should be rectified is that, when piping appears in the ‘Radio Times’ programmes the word ‘Pibroch’ should be discontinued. ‘Piobaireachd’ is the word to use. ‘Pibroch’ is a modernly created word which really has got no connection with the classical music of the Highland Bagpipe.”

I am, etc.,

John Grant

OT: 17 October 1903 – A Highlander [John Grant] [“The Passing of the Piobaireachd”]

The Oban Times, 17 October, 1903

[The Passing of the Piobaireachd]

13 October, 1903

Sir,–Referring to the long correspondence in your much esteemed paper on “The Passing of the Piobaireachd,” I hope you will give the following remarks a place in next issue.

I am afraid that much of what has been said by the many writers on the subject will not further the efficient playing of our good old Highland music, viz., the piobaireachd.

Some of the writers on the subject do not appear to play piobaireachd; if so, they do not seem to realise the amount of work attached to keeping a big selection of piobaireachd in practice. It may be possible for men such as MacDonald, Inverness; MacColl, Oban; MacDougall Gillies, Glasgow; Center, Edinburgh; etc., whom we may be proud of as Masters of the instrument, to keep a big selection in perfect practice; but men who have their daily occupation to attend to have not the same chance of practising so many tunes, and are unable to do so under such circumstances, although it is surprising how many different times even then “A. M.” may hear at a gathering where ten or twelve pipers who play piobaireachd are present, as they do not generally all fancy the same tunes.

I take a very broad-minded view of what we need as a standing collection from which we may be able to play a bigger selection, and not allow those tunes not already in print be altogether lost. I certainly think it would be a very good plan to print a collection of three hundred piobaireachds, but not in an abbreviated way such as “Ceol Mor.” General Thomason deserves every credit for the work he has accomplished in his collection. It is a very good way to put so many tunes in such a small space, but the style of meditation is familiar only to the compiler, and not to piobaireachd players in general, who want to add a few more tunes to the collection which they already play with the knowledge they have already got without the aid of a teacher. The MacCruimens are all dead, and tuition is not within the reach of all, though from a book printed in a notation like Mackays Collection anyone can learn a tune after having some instruction in, or knowledge of, music.

“A. M.” in his remarks laments having to listen to the same old tunes at competitions year after year and hearing no new ones played, while there are three hundred to choose from. He has roused the enthusiasm of the Piobaireachd Society of London, and they want to have new tunes every year. They have already chosen six new tunes for their competition, which may be held at the Open Gathering next year. Another writer says the same should be done at Inverness.

I am of opinion that this method will not be much good, but, on the contrary, harm to piobaireachd playing. For instance, if half a dozen of the principal games committees were to take the same steps and choose six new tunes every year, even the professional men would have to keep up a total of thirty-six in thorough practice, or, perhaps, more. In this case the average piobaireachd player or amateur is placed in a position that renders him utterly unable to take part in any competition, or, if he does, then the audience will be disgusted with discreditable playing. Competitors, I think, should be allowed to choose their own tunes for competition. If they were they would play with some life and taste which would render the tunes pleasant to the ear, but under such rules they are compelled to play a tune which they have no love for whatever, simply because they have to do so to lift the prize.

One other remark I wish to make before I close it is, that all tunes should be classified. To lovers of them, piobaireachds are very nice to listen to. I would place them first, and look on them as the essence of pipe music. We have the March, Strathspey, and Reel. Where would they come in? Piobaireachd has its place at the competition, the Castle of the Scottish Chief, and many other ways, but the March, Strathspey, and Reel should have their place for the same purpose. So we keep up a collection of Piobaireachd, Marches, Strathspeys, and Reels.

I hope the foregoing remarks will be thought over by players.–I am, etc.,

A Highlander [John Grant]

OT: 17 October 1903 – Charles Bannatyne “The Passing of the Piobaireachd”

The Oban Times, 17 October, 1903

The Passing of the Piobaireachd

Salsburgh, by Holytown, 12 October, 1903

Sir,–Will you be good enough to grant me space in your valued columns to make a few remarks anent the afore-named subject?

The term piobaireachd as applied to classical music of the piob-mhòr is a misnomer. It simply means pipe music. Its present and generally accepted use as designating the Ceol Mor, or great music of the bagpipe, is mainly due to Sir Walter Scott, who coined the word “piobaireachd,” and applied it to war tunes principally. But it is also to that great writer that we owe the revival interest in affairs Celtic, which in the early part of last century assisted in the preservation of much of the old music of the Gael.

Your recent correspondents on the “Passing of the Piobaireachd,” from “A. M.” downwards, all, except Mr. MacLennan of Edinburgh, missed the crucial points in dealing with piobaireachd, and only succeeded in showing how poorly qualified they are to deal critically with the subject. The proper point of view from which to treat piobaireachd is contained in the definition I presented in the lecture delivered to the Glasgow High School Ceilidh early this year, entitled “Pipes, Pipers, and Piobaireachd,” and which appeared afterwards in your columns. The definition is–” a piobaireachd may be a warning, a salute, a song of joy, a love song or a dirge, but whatever its object or the nature of its object, it has a fixed structure–a definite rhythm which distinguishes it from any other class of pipe music. It may be slow, it may be rapid, and some parts are very rapid alike in warning, salute, lament, etc. The first part of any piobaireachd, its theme, or ground, is the part to which words are generally adapted. It is expected to render apparent the purport of the peice, the succeeding variations picturing the varying emotions aroused by the theme. There may be in a piobaireachd as many as ten different parts distinguishable by rhythm and name.”

The foregoing definition has not as yet been improved upon, but it is in the last sentence is the key to the proper understanding of piobaireachd music is to be found. The different parts of a piobaireachd had each names which not only denote the rhythm of the part, but it’s mode of performance. This was rendered necessary on account of the Highlanders being ignorant of musical notation and so we have Suibhal, Dublachaidh, Ordaigh, Toar-luath, Crun-luath, and various other names which at once signified to the piper of old days the nature, mode of performance and time, of the part each referred to.

Not only is this the case, but it will be found that each of these variations occupies a fixed position in each tune. While the Highlanders did not divide their tunes, on paper, into bars, phrases, and measures, it is at once patent to anyone who has listened to the tunes, however irregular variations may be, composed to each other, they naturally, like all music, resolve themselves into bars, phrases, and measures. A bar is a division of a measure, and most denote the time or motion of the piece. A phrase, on the contrary, is a division of tune, and in itself is a complete musical sentence. “A.M.” Then, need not have displayed no hesitation in his application of these terms to piobaireachd.

But to return to the explanation the piobaireachd. After the ground, theme, or urlar comes a variation, which is always one of three types, viz., Dublachaidh, or doubling: Ordaig or thumb: Suibhal, from suas, Sullugh, meaning upper index finger, often called “Dithisd,” meaning “second,” or properly speaking, “coupled notes.” It is a fact worthy of notice that the terms generally refer to the grace notes employed. Thus in Suibhal and Dithisd the grace notes are performed with a high G, and E, fingers. The commonest first variation in is the allegro one known as Suibhal. It occurs in more than two thirds of the famous MacCruimen tunes.

Next to is comes the Ordaig or thumb variation. It consists in substituting for the first note in each cadence with which the phrases end, in the ground, the high A, or thumb note. But the substituted note may occur at the beginning of a phrase, as can be seen in the Ordaig variation in “MacRae’s March.” What the note replaced is, depends altogether on the nature of the theme. The variations are not arranged as “A. M.” states according to the arrangement of the theme. It is exactly in the arrangement of the basse notes of its bars, measures, and phrases that a variation differs from its theme. A variation must bear a key relationship to the theme and to the other variations, but the difference of arrangement of its notes is what constitutes a variation. A variation then is “an arrangement of the same thing.”

Next in popularity to the Suibhal we have stated comes the Ordaig or thumb variation. It occurs in three MacCruimen tunes, viz., “MacCruimen’s Lament,” “The Glen Is Mine,” and “The Lament for the Children,” and not only in one tune as your correspondent “A. M.” asserts. The next in order as a variant of the ground is the Dublachaidh or doubling. The MacCruimens were not partial to doubling the ground, and so far as I remember it only occurs in “Donal Dougal Mackay’s Lament.” Now doubling, notwithstanding “A. M.” and several of your other correspondents, is not a simple change, and it does not necessitate any change in time. It is a drastic change in the character of the phrases of a measure, and consists in absorbing the cadence with which each phrase ends, and doubling the chief note, often the first of the cadence. Whatever variation doubling occurs in, its place of occurrence is always fixed, and the effect is always similar. The effect is to apparently blend all the phrases of a measure into one long phrase, the place of junction being still appreciable to the ear on account of the retention of the chief note of each cadence. It can be studied in the theme of “Donal Dougal Mackay’s Lament,” and in the Toar-luath and Crun-luath of any other tune. A very good tune to get it pure in is “Too long in this condition.”

Almost invariably the second variation in a piobaireachd is a Toar-luath, in one form or another. Toar-luath is from Tri-lugh–three fingers. The three fingers with which the cuts are done in the four note Toar-luath are D., E, and high G. This is the form often erroneously called “Breabach.” Simply speaking if it is a tripling, “Breabach” literally means a kick, and is so named from the snap sound it is to the ear when played, but it consists in the deliberate addition of, in the Toar-luath, one note, and in the Crun-luath, to notes, which are new notes, and not depending for their presence on their occurrence in the theme, as in the four single note Toar-luath. The pure three note Toar-luath is performed with a grip on the lower hand, the chanter being closed, and opened with the D, and E fingers. This is “hirrin!” The Toar-luath a mach is performed by doubling the notes played, and in the Toar-luath Fosgailte there is no grip in the lower hand.

The movement succeeding the Toar-luath in all piobaireachd is the four note movement called Crun-luath, from Ceithir-lugh–four fingers. Add the E and F grace notes to the “hirrin” and we have a Crun-luath, and it also may be doubled, a mach, Breabach, or Fosgailte. The Breabach here requires an extra low A added in addition to the kick note, but the extra “A” is played as a grace note by doubling the E and F grace notes. Tripling of a Crun-luath or Toar-luath consists in playing the turns a mach, with the same changes of phrase cadences as I have before described.

“A. M.” Apparently has only made a very superficial examination of the subject he attempts to treat of, and his errors are often sophistical. In no part is this sophistry more apparent than where he quotes from “Pipes, Pipers, and Piobaireachd,” this fragment. He says, “Not long ago my eye was caught by an essay on piping in which the author stated, ‘I am no advocate of the ridiculous theory that pipe music speaks in actual language. No! only that of the emotions!’” Let me finish the quotation:–” nevertheless it may be that each clan had a secret system of musical signals applicable to the pipe, so that the traditional signals of warnings conveyed in tunes such as that of “Dunyveg” may have some foundation in fact, and not be the mythical fables generally supposed.”

“A. M.,” However, only quotes enough to send his own purpose, and then proceeds to demolish me in the following words, where, by the way, he commits the fallacy of assuming what he should first prove. He states–” erroneous the theory may be, but to call it ridiculous is exceedingly strong language. In fact, the knowledge that piobaireachd are constructed according to a fixed pattern is very much in favour of the theory being correct.” Is it? Why? There are many art forms of music constructed according to a fixed pattern, but no musician claims that they speak any language, but that of the emotions.

We still make bold to say that the theory is not only erroneous but ridiculous, and utterly ridiculous. It has been proved time and again by “Fionn” and others that many of the tunes were composed long after the events they celebrate, and that the stories connected with many tunes are of much more recent origin then the tunes. The theory is ridiculous, because it reduces to the level of a telegraphic code the fine old airs which are at once the most singular the most original and the most pathetic expressions of the whole gamut of the more essential human passions known to the civilised world. To make these tunes merely ciphers is not complementary to either the genius or imagination of the great race out of whose daily existence the tunes were evolved, and certainly out of whose inmost hearts sprang the celebrated and moving music properly called Ceol Mor.

“A. M.” Pokes sarcasm at those who argue that authentic settings of the tunes should be printed. This, I think, is of great importance, and I note it is to be one of the first tasks performed by the recently formed Piobaireachd Society of Scotland. Its effect would be to the advantage of both judges and competitors, and would save much heart-burning. There is no doubt many of the tunes require revision, as their occur in many of them glaring errors, known to pipers, and easy of correction. When one finds a variation, a bar short as compared with the theme, as occurs in the Suibhal of “I Got a Kiss of the King’s Hand;” or a Toar-luath whose base notes and general effect are quite distinct from those of the theme as in “The Desperate Battle” and “the Lament for the Earl of Antrim,” or a markedly stupid variation, such as the Suibhal in “Mary’s Praise,” and a host of other glaring errors I could point out if space permitted, one is forced to conclude there is room for revised versions of such tunes.

“A. M.” Mentions the tripling or trebling in Mackay’s banner as an exception in point of treatment. MacPhee is the Crun-luath in that tune as an ordinary Crun-luath a mach, while Mackay gives it as a common Crun-luath differing only from its doubling in the treatment of the key or base notes of each alternate bar. Which is correct? Mackay gives the base notes of alternate bars of the Crun-luath with the G and D grace notes; MacPhee gives them as “hirrin,” that is to say, with a grip from G, opening the note operated on, in this case a C, with the D grace note. Practically the same differences are apparent in the Toar-luath and its doubling and trebling, and I venture to assert that McPhee’s version is the better one, according to any recognised rule, and probably is the correct one.

In various tunes mentioned by “A. M.” As containing variations striking in form, such as “Isabel Mackay,” “”Donal Ban MacCruimen’s Lament,” “Padruig Og MacCruimen’s Lament,” and a few others, it will be at once apparent on close examination, that the originality of their respective themes explains them all. The second variation of “”Donal Ban’s Lament” is a Suibhal, the first being an Ordaig or thumb variation. “Isabel Mackay” contains an ordinary Suibhal and a thumb Suibhal: in short, it will be found that none of the tunes mentioned contained a variation of original form, the apparent originality being due to originality of the theme.

Here let me point out a serious mistake that has been made in a well-known popular setting of the piobaireachd, which is arranged and sung as “MacCruimen’s Lament.” The tune in question is not a setting of “MacCruimen’s Lament” or “Cha Till MacCruimen,” but a setting of the tune called “MacLeod of MacLeod’s Lament,” also a MacCruimen tune.

I see the Scottish Piobaireachd Society guarantee competitors that the judges they appoint “will know the tunes.” Now, “knowing the tunes,” is not a sufficient qualification for a judge of piobaireachd, and I question very much if the majority of those whose names appeared as judges at recent competitions could detect the missing of a prominent grace note, or its performance with a wrong finger. Men are wanted as judges who not only know the tunes, who have a theoretical and practical knowledge of the bagpipe, its intricate system of grace notes and peculiar technique. A few more judges like the late Dr. Bett, of Coatbridge, would at once raise the standard and number of players and piobaireachd competitions.

Finally, let me say that until piobaireachd music is written in a more intelligible style, until a better and clearer description is given of the methods of playing the different styles of grace notes peculiar to Ceol Mor, we need not hope that young pipers will study those classical tunes. Let me express the wish that the Piobaireachd Society will see to this, and also, as Mr. MacLennan has already suggested, place their MSS. in the hands of men having the necessary theoretical and practical knowledge and so have the music of piobaireachd placed on a sound and sensible basis. Once this is done I venture to prophesy that there will be no more need to bemoan “The Passing of the Piobaireachd.” –I am, etc.,

Charles Bannatyne, M.B., C.M.

OT: 25 March 1950 ff. John Grant “It Was Dunvegan Castle!”

The Oban Times, 25 March, April 8, 15, 29, 1950

Part I

by John Grant, F.S.A. (Scot.) 


Eain Odhar, or Dun-Colored John, was the first of the MacCrimmons who can be traced traditionally or otherwise as having been pipers to the MacLeods of Dunvegan in the Isle of Skye, and that he was proficient in everything pertaining to ancient piobaireachd goes without saying, for from him has come down through the ages all that is now known about an art which has lived through the ups and downs of peace and war. But the birth of Piobaireachd goes far back into the recesses of time, because the progress of its growth and maturity must have occupied the minds of many generations of pipers prior to the birth of Eain Odhar MacCrimmon. 

 Donald Mor succeeded his father Eain Odhar as hereditary piper at Dunvegan, and he became an eminent performer and instructor, as well as a diligent composer of Piobaireachd. Patrick Mòr succeeded his father Donald Mòr as hereditary piper in Dunvegan. Patrick Mòr was a piper of exceptional merit, both as a composer and instructor of young pipers. His compositions were many, but unfortunately a great number of them must have been lost for want of being recorded. It was Patrick Mòr who had eight sons, and he walked to church one Sunday with them all shoulder to shoulder, but before the end of a year hence seven of them were laid to rest in the Churchyard of Kilmuir in Skye. Overcome with grief, under such sad circumstance, the broken-hearted father composed that most beautiful and heart-rending Piobaireachd, “Cumha na Cloinne,” i.e., “The Children’s Lament.” 

 Patrick Òg succeeded his father Patrick Mòr as hereditary piper at Dunvegan. He was greatest of all the MacCrimmon pipers, for his pupils excelled all the previous candidates of the Boreraig School. Patrick Òg was also a composer of unprecedented merit, and spent much of his time within the precincts of his own private apartment in the creation of new compositions. Patrick Òg was twice married. He had by his first wife a son called Malcolm, and by his second wife he had three sons named John, Donald Ban, and Farquhar. John was piper to Seaforth, and Malcolm and Donald Ban were for a short period joint hereditary pipers at Dunvegan, but Donald Ban was killed at the rout of Moy during the Rising of ‘45. 

Malcolm, therefore, succeeded his father Patrick Òg as hereditary piper at Dunvegan. The fame of the MacCrimmon pipers began to wane with Malcolm, of which very few particulars of his abilities as an instructor has been recorded. So far as is known Malcolm composed only one tune, which is called “Mal Dhonn” or in other words, “MacCrimmon’s Sweetheart,” which was attuned to that passion of “Love” for Mal Dhonn was the sweetheart of Donald Ban, who lost his life at Moy Hall, and he composed his own Lament on the eve of his departure from Dunvegan to follow his master in the Rising of ’45. This tune is called “Cha Till Mhic Cruimein,” for MacCrimmon never did return. 

 John Dubh succeeded his father, Malcolm, as the last of the hereditary pipers at Dunvegan. Little has been recorded of his abilities either as a composer or an instructor of Piobaireachd, although he held the office of piper at Dunvegan for many years. John Dubh had two sons, Malcolm and Donald. Malcolm did not follow his father’s profession, while Donald went out to the West Indies, and died on his homeward journey. 

 Here ended for all time the last of the celebrated MacCrimmon pipers. John Dubh returned in spirit to his favourite Piob Mhòr, being much too feeble to play upon it. The year 1822 close the MacCrimmon era. John Dubh died at the advanced age of 91 years, and was laid to rest in the family tomb around which the zephyrs still moan “Cha till Mhic Cruimmein.”

 PART II (8 April, 1950) 


Rory MacKay was the first of the hereditary pipers to the MacKenzies of Gairloch, and the means by which Rory was brought to Gairloch was connected with an incident which took place at the Meikle Ferry, on the Kyle of Sutherland. He was born about the year 1592. 

 John Roy MacKenzie of Gairloch paid a visit to his step-father, the Laird of Reay, in Sutherland, about the year 1609, and on John Roy’s return from Tongue House, Lord Reay accompanied him as far as the Meikle Ferry. On their arrival at the Ferry it was observed that there was another gentleman crossing, who was accompanied by a groom, who attempted to prevent anyone else from entering the boat except his master and his party. The Laird of Reay had his piper Rory Mackay with him, a young handsome lad of 17 summers. A desperate battle ensued between the piper and the groom; the former there and then drew his dirk from its sheath, which was suspended by his waist-belt, and with one mighty blow cut the groom’s hand off at the wrist. 

 Realizing the seriousness of the situation in which his piper’s act had placed them, Lord Reay immediately said to his piper, “Rory! I cannot keep you with me any longer; you must at once fly the country and save your life,” whereupon John Roy MacKenzie said– “Will you come with me to Gairloch, Rory?” and the piper was only too glad to accept MacKenzie’s offer. So Rory Mackay became the first piper to Gairloch. 

 Rory married late in life at the age of 60 years, and he was piper to four successive lairds. He had only one son, John, better known as John Dall MacKay, Gairloch’s blind piper. 

John Dall Mackay succeeded his father Rory Mackay as hereditary piper to Gairloch, and in due course he was sent to Boreraig, near Dunvegan for the purpose of receiving instruction by that famous master Patrick Og MacCrimmon. 

 After a period of seven years tuition he was acknowledged to be in every way equal to is master, Patrick Og, who was very proud of him, a fact which was proved by John Dall having struck up a third part to the “Half Finished Piobaireachd,” which MacCrimmon failed after a considerable time to complete. 

 John Dall left behind him a son, Angus, and it is related by one of the MacKenzies of Gairloch that the father composed twenty-four piobaireachds. 

Angus succeeded his illustrious father, John Dall MacKay, as hereditary piper to Gairloch. He equalled his ancestors as a masterly performer of Piobaireachd. Angus attended a competition for Piobaireachd playing at Edinburgh, when some of the other competitors, who were jealous of his piping abilities, cut a hole in the bag of his pipes, but Angus had there a fair friend called “Mary,” who found for him a sheep-skin, out of which he made a bag, and next day he carried off the coveted prize. Shortly after, Angus composed that beautiful Piobaireachd entitled “Moladh Mairi,” i.e., “Mary’s Praise For Her Gift.” Like his forefathers Angus lived too a ripe old age, and left behind him one son, John. 

 John succeeded his father, Angus MacKay, as hereditary paper to Gairloch. He was equal in merit to his ancestors in the art of Piobaireachd playing. As a young man he returned to the Reay country, the land of his fathers, for the purpose of receiving instruction and practice in the art of piping, and he excelled in his profession. 

 John lived in the latter part of his career at Scatadale, where he married, and had a large family, for whose advancement he emigrated to America with all his children. His master Sir Hector MacKenzie, said–”John was a distinguished piper,” and when he left his service he would never have another piper, so like the MacCrimmons. Mackay left Gairloch “never to return.” 


Roderick Mackay was the first of the pipers to the MacLeods of Raasay. He also came from the Reay country, and received his instruction from his namesake and kinsman, John Dall Mackay, Gairloch’s blind piper. In fact, it is stated that Roderick Mackay and John Dall were related to each other. 

 Roderick was a distinguished piper, and author of a number of fine Piobaireachd. He died at a very early age, and left one son, called John, who was then only a boy. 

 John succeeded his father as hereditary piper to the MacLeods of Raasay. The MacLeod of Raasay’s brother, Malcolm, was himself a piper of merit, and he was so impressed with the young piper’s apparent abilities that he superintended his instruction in piping as far as he could, and ultimately sent him to the MacCrimmon School in Skye to complete his studies there, at the expiration of which, as already stated, John was then appointed piper to Macleod of Raasay. Increasing misfortune overtook the Raasay family, and John MacKay then became piper to Lord Willoughby d’Eresby in Perthshire, and settled down finally at Kyleakin in Skye. 

John Mackay was probably the most famous of all the Mackay pipers. He had four sons – Donald, Roderick, Angus, and John, all of whom were their father’s pupils, and distinguished pipers together with John Ban MacKenzie, who was of the same age as Mackay’s four sons, and was also taught along with them. 

 Of John’s sons, Donald was piper to His Royal Highness the Duke of Sussex. 

 Roderick was piper to James Moray of Abercairney, near Crieff. Abercairny house is the only residence in the Highlands of Scotland which was ever built for the convenience of a piper. It has a corridor about 30 yards in length, where the piper marches to and fro in a dignified manner, which becomes the piper as well as the great Highland bagpipe. 

 John Mackay, the youngest of the four brothers, was piper to Lord Gwydys, but little more is known of him. 

 Angus Mackay, who was born at Kyleakin in Skye, about the year 1812, was piper to Davidson of Tulloch; then to Campbell of Islay, and finally he was appointed piper to Her Majesty Queen Victoria. Angus Mackay’s father never even dreamed that his son should ever become piper to the great Queen, for Angus was the first Royal piper to hold this exalted position in the household of Queen Victoria, the highest position that any piper has ever held in the piping world. 

Angus Mackay distinguished himself as a boy competitor in the Highland Society of London’s competitions which were held at Falkirk and Edinburgh. He collected over 240 of the 300 ancient Piobaireachd, which we now possess, and in the year 1838 published 60 of them in one volume, giving their interesting historic notes. 

 It has been said that were it not for the MacCrimmons, Angus Mackay would never have been heard of. Be that as it may, it is the truth to say that had it not been for Angus Mackay the MacCrimmon Piobaireachd would have been lost forever. He collected and preserved them. He wrote Piobaireachd in perfect form as the MacCrimmons created them, and gave them to the piping world in staff notation for the first time, which can be understood by every piper of ordinary intelligence. He did this without any assistance whatever. 

Angus Mackay was a composer of Piobaireachd as well as some of [the] finest Marches, now extant, and the finest performer of the classical music of the Highland bagpipe that ever lived. He died in the year 1859. He is dead, in the body, yes, but his spirit still lives, enshrined in the inheritance which he has given to us, his successors, and his memory is engraved in the hearts of those who know his value. 

 Until the last chanter be broken, and the last reed is silenced, Angus Mackay’s name shall outlive them all, for there will always be some of his admirers left who will chant the ceanntaireachd of the MacCrimmons, the “Coronach” of the “Immortal Royal Pipe[r].” 


John Ban MacKenzie was one of the most distinguished and best known pipers of his day. He was born near Dingwall in the year 1789, and received his tuition from John Mackay, piper to the MacLeods of Raasay, along with Mackay’s four sons, Donald, Roderick, Angus, and John.  

John Ban was not only a performer of Piobaireachd, but also a bagpipe maker of merit. He was a composer of the classical music of the Highland bagpipe and a distinguished instructor, having imparted his art to many young pupils who came from far and near to acquire a perfect knowledge of bagpipe music in theory and practice. John Ban lived in the time when Piobaireachd playing was in the process of decay, and for that reason, the art of performing Ceol Mòr was revived by means of the Highland Society of London’s competitions which were held at the Falkirk Tryst and the Theater Royal, Edinburgh. 

 He took prizes in all the grades of those competitions, and ultimately became what was known as “Champion of Champions,” the highest award then going, and to crown that distinction he was selected to play at the Theater Royal, Edinburgh the opening “Salute” to greet the great Gathering of Highland noblemen, and the most eminent pipers of that period. John Ban was piper to MacKenzie of Allangrange, Davidson of Tulloch, and finally to the Marquis of Breadalbane, at Taymouth Castle, Perthshire. 

 John married a lady of rank, Miss MacKenzie of Applecross, and Lord Breadalbane built for them a house near the castle. Breadalbane often teased John Ban about his piping, and one day asked him to take an oar when out fishing, but John said– “I cannot, my lord, it would spoil my fingers for piping.” Breadalbane said–“Other men work and pipe also, John,” to which John replied, “Yes, my lord, these men are labourers, but I am your lordship’s piper.” 

 John Ban remained at Taymouth Castle until he became unable to play upon his beloved instrument, when he returned to his native country, where he died in the year 1864, at the age of 75 years. There and there [then] one of the finest pipers Scotland ever knew was laid to rest among the mountains, lochs and glens which he loved so dearly. 


Ronald MacKenzie was born at Fodderty, in Ross-shire in the year 1842, and was brought up by his uncle, John Ban MacKenzie, at Taymouth Castle, where he was educated in the art of Piobaireachd playing. Ronald joined the Army at the Castle, Edinburgh, in the year 1860, for [four] years before the death of his beloved uncle, and at that time he could not play a March , Strathspey or Reel. 

Piobaireachd was the playing [piping] art in John Ban MacKenzie’s time, so Ronald was steeped in the throws and charms of the classical music of the Piob Mòr. He was not long in the army, however, when he mastered the playing of Marches, Strathspeys and Reels, the lighter music of the Highland Bagpipe. 

Ronald was soon promoted to Pipe-Major in his regiment, the Seaforth Highlanders, having adopted the army as a profession. He won all the premier prizes in competition for the playing of Piobaireachd, his beloved music, and taught many fine pipers to play the “Great Music,” of which John McColl, Oban, was one of the most distinguished. 

Ronald MacKenzie’s name was a household word in every Highland laird and nobleman’s residence in the Highlands of Scotland, and he was for a considerable time the sole judge at all the Piobaireachd competitions, which were held at Inverness, Oban, Portree, and Stamford Bridge, London. On retiring from the army he was appointed “Family Piper” to the Duke of Richmond and Gordon at Gordon Castle, in Morayshire, a post which he held until his death, which took place in the year 1916 at the age of 74 years, the last of a long line of genuine pupils of the MacCrimmon school. In the year of imagination I can still hear him play that set lament, “Cha till Mhic Cruimein.”(The End.) 

[Editor’s note: 18 June 2012. The previous serialized essay was completed by John Grant on 1 April 1947 and the manuscript bound in booklet form. The original is housed among the Grant Papers at the Houghton Library, Harvard. fMs Mus. 120.6, Box 3, fol. 37.] 



OT: 20 March 1948 – “Fifty-two Years’ Piping Record”

The Oban Times, 20 March, 1948



 Fifty-two Years’ Piping Record
Mr. John Grant, Edinburgh

Mr. John Grant, 35 Groathill Avenue, Edinburgh, began his study and training in the art of piping over 52 years ago, under that distinguished master, Pipe-Major Ronald Mackenzie of the Seaforth Highlanders, and he can trace his tuition back to the MacCrimmon School in Skye. Ronald McKenzie was taught by his uncle, the famous John Ban Mackenzie, piper to Breadalbane, who was taught by John MacKay, piper to Raasay, who was taught by his kinsman Iain Dall Mackay, Gairloch’s Blind Piper, who in turn was taught by Patrick Og MacCrimmon, piper to MacLeod of Dunvegan. 

Mr. Grant’s period of instruction and training extended over seven years, and he had to walk a distance of 22 miles twice a week from his home to Gordon Castle and back in summer and winter, often carrying a set of bagpipes with which to break the monotony of the march by having a “skirl” on the way. He was a chosen pupil of his master, who spent much time and pains upon his education as a piper. 

Soon after having been able to play a number of Marches, strathspeys and Reels, Mr. Grant began to play Piobaireachd, the classical music of the Piob Mhòr. He was also trained in pipe band playing, being a member of the 3rd Volunteer Battalion Seaforth Highlanders, and won the Championship Gold Medal of that band of 32 pipers. 

He was appointed family piper to Captain Home Drummond Murray, of the Scots Guards, at Abercairny, where he remained for about five years, after which he went to Edinburgh in 1903. He collected a great deal of ancient Piobaireachd from valuable and reliable manuscripts and copied hundreds of pages of MSS. 

During the 1914-18 War Mr. Grant taught scores of young pipers and carried on five classes. 

Mr. Grant’s first composition was a piobaireachd entitled “His Majesty King Edward Seventh’s Salute,” which was accepted by the King in July, 1906. Since then, within a period of 42 years, he has composed 85 tunes: 61 piobaireachd, 18 marches, and 6 strathspeys and reels. 

Most of the piobaireachd have been dedicated to Scottish noblemen and gentlemen who have done much to encourage the cultivation and preservation of the art of piobaireachd. 12 of them are Royal Piobaireachd, and others commemorate events in the 1914-18 and 1939-45 wars. Mr. Grant retired from the staff of the Collectors Department of the Inland Revenue, Edinburgh, after completion of 28 years’ government service, and much of his work has been completed since that time. He is in his seventy-second year, and still enjoys playing a tune on his beloved instrument, the Great Highland Bagpipe.  























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