OT: 25 March – 29 April 1950 – John Grant “It Was Dunvegan Castle!”

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


Part I (25 March 1950)

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.”

PART III (15 April  1950)


             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].”

Part IV (29 April 1950)


            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.]