OT: 9 January 1937 – John Grant “Angus Mackay and Piobaireachd”

The Oban Times, 9 January, 1937

Angus MacKay and Piobaireachd

Mackay and the MacCrimmons Contrasted

 29 December, 1936

Sir–Who was Angus MacKay? Angus MacKay was the greatest musical genius in the art of piobaireachd in his day and generation, and he has never been equalled or surpassed since. Angus was born in the year 1812 and died a premature age in 1859. He came of a famous family of pipers.

Roderick MacKay, the first piper to Raasay, came from the Reay country, and was taught to play piobaireachd by his kinsman, Iain Dall MacKay of Gairloch.

Roderick died and left a son John. John’s mother sent him to Borreraig to complete his education in piobaireachd under the MacCrimmons.

John Mackay had four sons–Donald, Angus, Roderick and John–all of whom were notable pipers. In the year 1826 at the age of fourteen Angus was placed fourth prize-winner amongst the great pipers of that day, and was highly complemented by the patrons and judges of the triennial bagpipe competition held in the Theatre Royal in 1826.

Angus grew in stature and wisdom for in the art of piping he rose to the highest position ever held by any piper when he was appointed piper to Her Majesty the late Queen Victoria. His greatest work was that of collecting and preserving ancient piobaireachd. No one but himself could even conceive or realise what that meant for I am quite safe in saying that out of the 275 ancient piobaireachd or Ceòl Mòr, i.e., the great music, Angus rescued ninety percent of the total.

Considering the period at which Angus MacKay lived and the crude state of education in staff notation he was able practically unaided to produce a colossal work.

Can we compare Angus MacKay to the MacCrimmons who taught him? In one case we cannot put them in the same category. The MacCrimmons lived in the age when the field of piobaireachd was new and uncultivated, so to speak, and since then so much piffle has been written about them for which there is no foundation that we are almost sickened at the appearance of MacCrimmon’s name. Although from the meagre but truthful history which we possess of the Skye masters we still cherished them.

But for Angus MacKay, he had to master an art which was fully developed by the time he came under the limelight. One must remember that piobaireachd came from the MacCrimmons to Angus MacKay by means of the chanter itself only. The Skye masters never wrote their music. Canntaireachd was only sung to the pupil by the masters in Angus MacKay’s time, so that assistance there was barred, and staff notation (so far as pipe music was concerned) was only in its infancy, which made Angus’s task of rescuing piobaireachd all the more difficult.

It is nothing far short of vandalism to think of how Angus Mackay’s collection of piobaireachd has been hacked to pieces, reset and concocted in all iniquitous methods by people who do not understand the origin and construction of the classical music of the pipes. Even the Piobaireachd Society, who republished the fine old compositions in (may I tell the truth?) the form of a “Chinese Puzzle” manner, mention several authorities but always fall back on Angus MacKay as their bulwark.

Many unkind things have been said about Angus MacKay’s work in piobaireachd by men who cannot value his great achievement, but again it is the old story “one may cast their pearls before the multitude, but there are always some connoisseurs in the crowd who know their value,” and such is the case as regards Angus MacKay’s collection of piobaireachd.

A memorial has been raised to the MacCrimmons, although not by pipers. I wonder whether it has never occurred to the great masses of pipers who admire Angus MacKay, and owe him so much, that it is their duty to raise a monument as a landmark of his work and merit? Surely he is worthy of remembrance? We must not forget that had it not been for Angus MacKay’s work in collecting and recording the great music we would in all probability never have seen the tunes which he has rescued for us from oblivion in the art of piobaireachd. Where then would his upbraiders stand? Confounded!

If we do not then raise a landmark to honour the saviour of ancient piobaireachd, let us be content to discard the “basket” and look upon the “gems.” Angus MacKay has raised a living monument for himself in his collected music and when I open his published collection (now out of print) I look upon it with bare and bended head as a mark of fervent appreciation of the greatest work ever accomplished by any single piper who ever laid finger upon chanter.

I am, etc.,

John Grant, F.S.A, (Scot.).