OT: 2 February 1935 – John MacKay “Reminiscences of a Long Life”

The Oban Times, 2 February 1935

 Reminiscences of a Long Life
by John MacKay

Through the courtesy of Mr. George J. Campbell, Hon. Secretary and Treasurer of the Piobaireachd Society, we were enabled to publish in last week’s Oban Times a letter from Judge Calder of the County Court, Caribou, British Columbia, dealing with Iain Dall, the friend and pupil of Patrick Og MacCrimmon, and also two pictures of Iain Dall’s chanter.

The following contribution is a copy of an article sent by Judge Calder to Mr. Campbell, giving interesting details of the Gairloch MacKays, a family famous in the annals of piping. The article is written by a member of the family.

 The Narrative

My forefathers on my father’s side were originally (I believe) from Lord Reay’s country, the most northerly parts of the mainland of Scotland; and those on the mother’s side from Kintail. My mother was a MacRae, and traced connection through some second or third cousin with Sir Roderick Murchison, the eminent geologist and president of the Royal Society of Great Britain. A grand ancestor of that gentleman was at one time Episcopal minister of Kintail, and my mother was also a descendent, by her mother, of the same Episcopal clergyman–his name was Murchison.

My father, grand-father, and a great-grand-father were successively pipers to the Lairds of Gairloch, and as such held free lands under successive Lairds. My great-grand-father was blind, and was known far and near under the name of “Piobar Dall,” that is “The Blind Piper.”

He was a poet as well as a piper, and some of his pieces are published in almost all collections of Gaelic songs, especially in MacKenzie’s collection, published in Glasgow in 1841, in which work there is also a short sketch of “The Blind Piper’s” life. The celebrated Gaelic poet “William Ross” was this blind man’s grandson by a daughter; and thus William Ross and my father were first cousins. I have no recollection of seeing William Ross, for he died quite a young man; but I remember seeing his father, John Ross, often at our house.

 A Good Scholar

My grand-father, Angus MacKay, was, I believe, a good scholar–a rare thing in the Highlands in those days. When a young man he traveled a good deal with the young Laird, Sir Alexander MacKenzie, and they were on the closest intimacy during the rest of their lives. They both died comparatively young: the Laird first, my grandfather attending him on his death-bed. My grand-father, Angus MacKay, left two children, my father and a sister. Of my grandmother on my father’s side I do not know much: only that she was a Fraser, and was aunt to MacKenzie of Baddachro. Baddachro and my father were thus first cousins, and the late Donald and Murdoch Fraser, Robertson’s Lake, were relations of my father on the same side.

Both my father and his sister had some education. My father was some time at Thurso, Caithness-shire, and was also at Inverary, Argyllshire, at school. He must have understood the English language well, for he was the best (extempore) translator of English into Gaelic that I ever heard attempt it.

My father, besides being the recognised and paid piper of the Gairloch family, was also gamekeeper, and had charge of the woods and forests on the Estate; and as a matter of course this threw him into the company of the Lairds and of all strangers that might get permission to hunt on the Estate; and this introduced him to the best company in the place, strangers or otherwise.

This short sketch of the history of my forefathers will show that although not wealthy, they were respectable, and held a good position in the country of their nativity, and enjoyed advantages not attained by many in those days in the Highlands of Scotland. And far better than all this, I have good reason to believe they were God-fearing people, my grand-father, Angus MacKay, eminently so.

When Sir Alexander MacKenzie lay on his death-bed, his early friend, Angus MacKay, was scarcely ever from his side, praying with him and for him, and counseling and instructing him in the things of the coming world. The dying man often declared that he found more comfort in the prospect of death from the conversation and counsel of Angus MacKay than from any other human source whatever.

With respect to my own father, I can testify that he was verily a painstaking man. There was a large family: ten girls and two boys–besides generally a servant man. We were some ten miles from the nearest Church: very few could go and very few did go. I have no recollection of seeing a Minister in our house for the purpose of catechising. There were about ten families in the village, and my father kept worship and reading every Sabbath day for all the villagers. Some understood English but himself, and there were no Gaelic books in those days. Even the Bible could not be got in Gaelic. My father translated from the Bible, and from Boston, Baxter and Dyer, and then after the reading was over and the villagers dismissed the family exercises would commence. He was very exacting upon his children in these exercises, and insisted on the strictest compliance with all his requirements in the matter of our tasks and lessons.

My father had one way of dealing with his children that I never saw practised in any other family. When a daughter or son arrived at the age of fifteen, he would on a Sabbath evening call that one up in the presence of the rest, and then explain to him or her the import of the Baptismal Vows, and how he (the father) had become bound, on behalf of the child, for its godly uprearing, until it (the child) came to years of discretion, and now that it was of such an age he placed the Vows upon its own head. Young though I was, I can never forget the solemnity of those scenes.

Picturesque Place of Nativity 
I was born at the south side of one of the largest and most picturesque fresh water lochs in Scotland. It is in length something over twenty miles, and its breadth is from two to four or five miles. I do not know its depth, but believe it to be very deep, from the fact that no part of it ever freezes. It abounds in trout and salmon. The River Ewe, by which it discharges its surplus water, after a run of something less than two miles, is celebrated for the excellency of it salmon fishing.

There is a range of high mountains along the north side of the loch running nearly its whole length, rising sheer out of the loch in the height of from three to four thousand feet. The bases of these mountains are covered with Scots fir, and coppis wood of birch, ash and hazel, while their bare and sterile backs are raised high in their savage grandeur of craggy rocks and precipices, covered for ten months in the year was snow. Along the north side of the loch, in its whole length, there were only ten places giving room for cultivation between the mountains and loch, and pretty places they are: “Letter Ewe” and “Ard Lair,” two seats of the MacKenzies of “Letter Ewe,” a branch, I believe of the Gairloch family.

The formation on the lands on the south side of this loch differs greatly from that on the North. Here the mountains are thrown back leaving a broad margin of comparatively low grounds between them and the loch, with a good deal of arable and cultivated land. Three small rivers fall into the loch from this side, each forming a considerable strath (or dale); and at the time of which I speak there might be ten families residing on each of them. My father farmed one of these straths for many years, and there I was born in 1794, and there I passed my childhood and boyhood until I was eleven years of age. Oh! how well I do remember, even at this distant period, Those haunts of my childhood, where I roamed at large without a care or thought, enjoying the wild luxuriance of the scenes around me! The green glassy glades, the giant oak trees, the rivers and brooks, and waterfalls, the rent and rifted rocks and especially the smooth and glassy surface of the loch, with its yellow border of golden sand, and its trout and wild geese and swans and ducks.

About the middle of the loch, and, as far as I can guess, three miles from my father’s place was an island. It would be a mile and a half or so in circumference. It was covered with heath, and here and there large boulders of white stone lying scattered on the surface, as if sown broadcast in primeval times. On this island thousands of herring gulls hatched every year. Three boys of the place, not older than myself, used to go with me in the dead of night, take my father’s boat, row to the island, moor our boat on the same beach, sleep until daylight, and gather eggs until our baskets were filled. This was surely delightful work for boys.

We sometimes came across a grey goose’s nest with its five eggs, sometimes a duck’s nest with nine eggs and sometimes a moor fowl’s nest (red grouse) with twelve eggs; this however, being a game bird, we dare not take the eggs. If we did, we were sure of a thrashing. In this way we went to the island at least once a week during the month of May, after which time the birds were allowed to hatch their young undisturbed, and in this way I passed my early boyhood. Can it be wondered at, that these scenes were the subjects of many of my after night and day dreams? We left the Loch and came to Pictou [Nova Scotia] in the summer of 1805.