Exiled or at home, love of country and clan
Are feelings we'll never let die;
Defy and defend, stand true to the end,
And honour the name of MacKay."
Let us begin our story of the MacKay pipers in the year 1626. It was in that year that Sir Donald MacKay (also known as Donald Duaghal) raised two thousand men from the MacKay country to go and fight for King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden (who was the champion of the Protestant cause). Religious wars were raging in Germany in the same way as they are going on in Ireland today. The Scots' troops were used as shock troops for the Protestant cause. They made a great name for themselves but the casualties were extremely high. After eight years of fighting only one piper of the original thirty-six remained. In that year, 1634, all the mercenaries from Scotland, France, Holland and Germany were brought together to form one regiment under the command of Sir John Kepburn, himself a Scot. When Hepburn arrived to take over his new command, the remaining MacKay piper blew long and loudly a note of welcome on the Great Highland war pipes. Sir Donald MacKay's regiment remains today as the Royal Scots.
Gairloch is the ancestral home of the MacKenzies of Gairloch. Hereditary pipers to the MacKenzies were the MacKays who came from Sutherland. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries these MacKay pipers were almost as celebrated as the MacCummons of Skye. The first of the family, Ruairidh, came to Gairloch in rather a strange fashion. The chief of the Sutherland MacKays was on his way south to visit the land of Gairloch. At the ferry at the Kyle of Sutherland a dispute arose between MacKay and his followers and another party over which group had priority for the crossing. Ruairidh MacKay, a young lad of seventeen, cut off the hand of a man who was trying to impede his chief. Because of this deed, Ruairidh had to flee from Sutherland. MacKenzie of Gairloch asked him to become his piper. Ruairidh was over sixty when his only son, Iain, was born.
When he was seven years old, Iain lost his eyesight after contracting smallpox. Iain was a piper of renown and became known as Iain Dall (Blind John) or Am Piobair Dall (The Blind Piper). At an early age he was sent to the MacCummon College of Piping at Dunvegan in Skye. Jealous of the Blind Piper's skill, pupils of the college planned to kill him. They chased him over a rock causing him to fall between twenty and thirty feet below. Miraculously he escaped serious injury. Iain Dall was piper to Sir Kenneth MacKenzie, the first baronet of Gairloch. He was a gifted poet as well as a piper. He had the rare distinction of combining the office of bard with that of piper. Iain Dall's stature in the Gaelic music world was immense and the stories of his skill are still repeated. His compositions of ceol more (great music) and ceol bag (little music) were not written down until after his death. When he died at the age of ninety, his only son Angus succeeded him as MacKenzie's hereditary piper.
One story told of Angus is that there was to be a great competition in Edinburgh. Angus was expected to win. As there was always jealously among pipers, just before the competition was to begin, one of his rivals pierced his pipebag with a knife. A friend, whose name was Mary, came to his aid by finding him an undressed sheepskin. Working throughout the night, Angus fashioned it into a bag for his pipes. The next day he won the competition and later composed the well-known piobaireachd Maladh Mairi (Mary's Praise for Her Gift). The last of these Gairloch pipers was John, son of Angus. He had a very large family - ten daughters (three of whom were married) and two sons. He thought there would be a better future for them in America.
In June 1805 on the Sir Sydney Smith, John MacKay and his family shipped out of Stornoway. The Atlantic crossing was perilous, owing to the presence of a French fleet serving as a decoy to Admiral Nelson, as part of the naval cover for Napoleon's planned invasion of Britain. The MacKays must have been anxious to emigrate as they couldn't have chosen a more dangerous time to leave. The Sir Sydney Smith landed its passengers at Pictou, Nova Scotia some nine weeks later. John MacKay brought his family to settle along the East River. In July 1811, he petitioned the government for a grant of Crown land at East River having already purchased a holding there when he had arrived in 1805. John's two sons were proficient pipers. Angus, the elder, was presumably trained in Scotland with a view to taking his father's place as Gairloch piper. He continued to pipe in Nova Scotia and he also taught. Squire John, the younger son, quit piping at the age of eighteen.
This John MacKay from Gairloch was not the first piper in Nova Scotia. The story is told that a piper arrived at the Hector when it was due to sail from Loch Broom. He didn't have any money for passage and was refused permission to board the ship. The other passengers prevailed upon the captain to permit him to join them. They agreed to share the food with him if permission was granted. On September 15, 1773 the Hector dropped anchor in Pictou Harbour. The passengers were piped ashore to beloved music of John MacKay's pipes. Alice Bardsley, Director of Publicity for the Clan MacKay Society of Nova Scotia, can trace her family back to John MacKay.
Another John MacKay was pipe major of the King's Own Borderers from 1856 - 1869 after transferring from the 78th Regiment. He is known for a number of pipe tunes.
Angus MacKay pioneered in the art of putting pipe music on paper. Without scholarly records left by him, modern knowledge of the classical music of the Highland bagpipe would be fragmentary. Angus MacKay's brother, John, did quite an extensive manuscript collection. This manuscript collection dates before 1848.
Kenneth MacKay, piper in the 79th Highlanders, earned immortal fame by playing the piobaireachd Cogra no Geth ('Peace or War') round the squares between the changes of the French Cavalry during the Battle of Waterloo.
Pipe Major John MacKay, Liverpool Scottish Pipe Band from 1903-1925, was a very accomplished player, particularly of piobaireachd.
Neville MacKay, from New Zealand, spent several years in Scotland in the late 1940's and into the 1950's. While in Scotland he received tuition from Pipe Major John MacDonald and Pipe Major Robert Brown. He was in the prize list of the Northern Meeting and for a time was pipe major of the Aberdeen Police Pipe Band. Upon his return to New Zealand, he adjudicated some of the major competitions. He was a studious piper and was considered one of New Zealand's authorities on piobaireachd.
Neville's brother, Iain, became one of New Zealand's leading solo pipers. He also spent some time in Scotland where he learned a tremendous number of piobaireachd from Pipe Major Donald MacLeod and Robert Brown. He won the New Zealand Commna Piobaireachd medal at the Hastings Highland games and at least two clasps to this coveted prize. He was largely responsible for the lecture tour visits of Pipe Major Donald MacLeod and Pipe Major Robert Brown to New Zealand in the 1960's and 1970's.
The original constitution of the Clan Mackay Society in Scotland provided for the "appointment of pipers in such numbers as the Council may think fit". Two were appointed in 1888 - Pipe Major John Macdonald, a member of the Sutherland Highlanders of Paisley, Scotland, and Donald Mackay, piper to the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII). Today, in 1988, this Society also has two pipers - Alexander Mackay, a member from the West of Scotland, and young Kenneth Mackay from Altnaharra, Sutherland.
In the records of meetings held by the Clan Mackay Society in Scotland, the piper is always mentioned. In the account of a ceilidh in Edinburgh in 1905, we find that "Pipe Major Mackay of the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders, who had distinguished himself at the Battle of Magersfontein and was a Boer War veteran, gave a stirring selection on the bagpipes".
The Mackay pipers were made of stern stuff - in 1919, the Secretary was instructed to "write a letter of congratulation to Piper John Robert Mackay as he 'had served throughout the Great War, often under arduous conditions, though well over 50 years of age when he had enlisted'!!"
In 1979 when the Clan MacKay Society of Nova Scotia was formed, Douglas MacKay of Earltown became the first clan piper. Doug enjoyed music and was a member of the group who organized the Pipers' Picnic in 1965. This picnic is still enjoyed each August in Earltown.
When Rev. J. Donald MacKay, former area representative in Pictou East, was preaching in Summerside, P.E.I., he started a pipe band, in which all members wore the Ancient MacKay tartan. The year was 1963. This summer, on 24 July 1988, Rev. MacKay and his wife Jean returned to Summerside to attend the 25th Anniversary of this band.
On May 18, 1980 Dr. Kenneth MacKay resigned as Chairman of the Board of the Institute of Piping. About thirty years previously he had proposed the idea of certificates for pipers. His project began with a meeting in the old Highlanders Institute on Elmbank Street. It was attended by representatives from all over Britain. After many meetings, the Scottish Pipe Band Association decided to opt out and initiate their own certificates. This caused the abandonment of the idea for a short time. The College of Piping, however, with Dr. MacKay as Chairman of its Executive Committee took up the idea and offered certificates which were eventually gained by pipers all over the world. The third step was the formation of the Institute - this combined the Piobaireachd Society, the Army School of Piping and the College of Piping in one joint-body for the awarding of certificates to pipers and teachers of piping.
Malcolm Mackay from Motherwell, Scotland visited Nova Scotia in 1987 during the International Gathering of the Clans. Malcolm Mackay studied piping under John MacKenzie who had been pipe major for the Argyle and Sutherland Highlanders before teaching at Queen Victoria School in Dumblane. Malcolm's brother is piper to the Clan MacKay Society in Scotland.
Another MacKay served as pipe major of the 48th Highlanders of Canada in the person of Reay MacKay.
Copyright (C) 1988; Barbara Stewart
Official Piper, Clan MacKay Society of New Scotland
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