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The Aged Piper and his Bagpipe
From the Celtic Magazine November 1879


There are many incidents of deep interest connected with the attempt to reinstate the Stuarts on the British throne. Since the period of the Rebellion, many things have occurred, and not a few changes have happily tended to strengthen the reigning dynasty, and to extinguish the Stuarts' last ray of hope. The Stuart family, as is well known, had many friendly and faithful adherents in the Highlands of Scotland, by whom every attempt was made at the time to obtain the services and to secure the allegiance of the powerful and brave. The subject of this brief notice was a man far-famed in his day, for his proficiency in the martial music of the Highlands, and not less so for his personal agility and warlike spirit John Macgregor, one of the celebrated “Clann Sgdulaich,” a native of Fortingall, a parish in the Highlands of Perthshire, was, like too many of his countrymen, warmly attached to the Prince’s cause. He embraced, in consequence, the earliest opportunity of joining his standard. Soon after Charles had set his foot on the soil of Scotland, Macgregor resorted without delay to the general rendezvous of the clans at Glenfinnan, and shortly became a great favourite with the Prince. Macgregor was a powerful man, handsome, active, well-built, and about six feet in height. He was a close attendant upon his Royal Highness—accompanied him in all his movements, and was ever ready and willing to serve him in every emergency. Charles placed great confidence in his valiant piper, and was in the habit of addressing him in kind and familiar terms. Unfortunately, however, the gallant piper had but a very scanty knowledge of the English language, and could not communicate to his Royal Highness various tidings that might be of service to be known. The Prince, however, acquired as much of the Celtic tongue, in a comparatively short time, as enabled him to say, "Seid suaa do phiob, Iain ” (Blow up your pipe, John). This was a frequent and favourite command of the Prince. When he entered into the city of Edinburgh, and likewise after the luckless Cope and his dragoons took flight at Prestonpans, the Prince loudly called, “Seid soas do phiob, Iain.” John could well do so, and the shrill notes of his powerful instrument were heard from afar. He stood by the Prince in all his movements, and went wherever he went. He joined in the march to Derby; was present at the battle of Falkirk; played at the siege of Stirling Castle; and appeared with sword and pipe at the irretrievable defeat at Culloden, where, alas! on the evening of the fatal day, he beheld the last sight of his beloved Prince.

Poor John received rather a severe wound by a ball in the left thigh, causing a considerable loss of blood, and consequent weakness. By the aid of a surgeon which he fortunately met with, the wound was dressed, and he made the best of his way, after many hair breadth escapes and distressing deprivations, to his native glen, where he resided to the day of his death. He had numerous descendants—four sons and eight grandsons and all of them pipers. Of these, the last alive, but now dead, was a grandson, the aged piper referred to at the head of this article, who was also a John Macgregor.

The identical bagpipe with which Macgregor cheered the spirits of his Jacobite countrymen in their battles and skirmishes was still in the possession of this grandson, the John Macgregor already alluded to, who departed this life only a few years ago, at a very advanced age, at Drumcharry, in the parish of Fortingall. The instrument was in excellent preservation, and was undoubtedly worthy of a place in some museum. It had but two drones, the third in such instruments being but a modern appendage. Its chanter was covered with silver plates, bearing inscriptions in English and Gaelic. The late Sir John Athole Macgregor, Bart., added one plate to it, on which are inscribed the following words in both languages:—“These pipes, belonging to John Macgregor, piper to his Grace the Duke of Athole, were played by his grandfather, John Macgregor, in the battles of Prince Charles Stuart’s army in 1745-6, and this inscription was placed on them by his Chief, Sir John Athole Macgregor, Bart, of Macgrogor, in 1846, to commemorate their honourable services.”

The late owner, John Macgregor, was also a celebrated piper in his day, and was able to play the old pipe with wonderful efficiency, until he parted with it, as described below. He gained the prize pipe at the Edinburgh competition for Piobaireachd in July 1811. He was for several years in his youth piper to his Grace the Duke of Athole, and subsequently to Mr Farquhanson of Monaltrie, and Mr Farquharson of Finzean, In 1813 he played at the assembling of the Isle of Man proprietors at Tynwald Hill. He performed at the head of his clan in Edinburgh during the Royal visit in 1822. He played the Piobairoachd, “Than na Griogairich, Thain na Griogairich, tbainig, thkinig, than’ na Griogairich,” in the great procession, when his Chief, Sir Evan Macgregor, Bart, of Macgregor, was conveying the Regalia of Scotland from the Castle to the Palace of Holyrood. He was piper to the Athole Highlanders at the Eglington Tournament in 1839, and had the honour of performing before Her Majesty the Queen at Taymouth Castle. But John became latterly frail and aged, and was unfortunately in rather straitened circumstances. He was modest and unassuming, and would rather endure privations than let his wants be made known to others.

Worthy old John about sixteen years ago communicated by letter with his namesake, the writer, and gave in detail the above particulars relative to his grandfather and his ancient bagpipe. It was recommended to John, for his own benefit, as well as for the preservation of the interesting relic of the olden times in his possession, to give his consent to a notice being inserted in the public prints, that he was willing to part with it to some benevolent antiquary. The consent was given and the notice duly made public. In a very short space of time John received letters from several parties of distinction, among whom was Mr Mackenzie of Seaforth, and other Highland proprietors, offering handsome sums for the valuable relic. At length the advertisement was observed by his Grace the Duke of Athole, who lost no time in acquainting the aged Macgregor that he had every desire to become the owner of the interesting instrument, and that he behoved to have it, as John was willing to part with it. His Grace at the same time intimated to the old man that he would allow him not only a sum equal to the highest offered to him by any other, but would in addition settle upon him a comfortable half-yearly pension as long as he lived. It is needless to say that the Culloden bagpipe became at once the property of his Grace, and that, no doubt, it now lies in silence in the ducal repositories of Athole, while old John Macgregor has been for some years in the silence of the grave.

ALEX. MACGREGOR.


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