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Gairloch in North-West Ross-Shire
Part II.—Inhabitants of Gairloch

Chapter XVII.—Hereditary Pipers of the Gairloch Family


THAT Hector Roy Mackenzie, the great founder of the Gairloch family, and his son John Glassich Mackenzie, had pipers among their followers is certain; but nothing is recorded of them. The famous hereditary pipers of the Gairloch family were Mackays from Sutherlandshire. There were but four of them, viz., Rorie, John the blind piper, Angus, and John.

Rorie or Ruaridh Mackay was born in the Reay country about 1592. Having early manifested an extraordinary talent for pipe music, he was appointed whilst little more than a boy to be piper to the laird of Mackay. We have seen (Part I., chap, xi.) how Rorie cut off a groom's hand with his dirk at the Meikle Ferry on the Kyle of Sutherland, and then became piper to John Roy Mackenzie, fourth laird of Gairloch, about 1609. From this time Rorie was a Gairloch man, yet the connection with the Reay country was maintained, as we shall see, by his descendants. Little is remembered of Rorie beyond the story of how he came to Gairloch. It was his elder brother Donald Mor Mackay who was in attendance on the twelve sons of John Roy Mackenzie when the incident at Torridon, recorded in Part I., chap, xi., took place. Donald was a great piper, and assisted his brother Rorie during his youth. Donald spent a number of years in Gairloch, but returned to the Reay country before his death. Rorie was piper in succession to four of the chiefs of Gairloch, viz., John Roy, Alastair Breac, Kenneth the sixth laird, and his son Alexander. Rorie lived at Talladale during the lives of John Roy and Alastair Breac, who resided on Eilean Ruaridh and Eilean Suthainn, islands in Loch Maree, not far from Talladale. The two last chiefs to whom he was piper resided at the Stank house at Flowerdale, and accordingly we find that Rorie lived in his later years near Flowerdale. Rorie was over sixty years of age when he married; he had but one child, who became the celebrated "blind piper." Rorie died at his home near Flowerdale about 1689, in extreme old age, being, like his son, almost a centenarian ; he was buried in the Gairloch churchyard. Rorie is said to have been a remarkably handsome and powerful Highlander; he literally played an important part in the many fights which took place in Gairloch during the earlier part of his career.

John Mackay, the only son of Rorie, was born at Talladale in 1656. He was not born blind, as has been erroneously stated, but was deprived of his sight by smallpox when about seven years old. With the exception of a slight cloudiness on his eyes, it was difficult to the most acute observer to perceive that he had not his sight. He was known as "Iain Dall" (blind John), or "Piobaire Dall" (the (blind piper). After mastering the first principles of pipe music under his father's tuition, he was sent to the celebrated MacCrimmon in Skye to finish his musical education. He remained seven years with MacCrimmon, and then returned to his native parish, where he assisted his father in his office of piper to the laird of Gairloch, After his father's death he became piper to Sir Kenneth Mackenzie, the first baronet of Gairloch; and after Sir Kenneth's death to his son Sir Alexander, the second baronet and ninth laird of Gairloch. He combined the office of bard with that of piper. Iain Dall retired when in advanced years, and Sir Alexander allowed him a sufficient pension. Like his father he married late in life; he had but two children, Angus, who succeeded him, and a daughter. After he was superannuated he passed his remaining years in visiting gentlemen's houses, where he was always a welcome guest. Like his father-he lived to a great age; he died in 1754, aged ninety-eight, and was buried in the same grave as his father in the Gairloch churchyard. He composed twenty-four pibrochs, besides numberless strathspeys, reels, and jigs, the most celebrated of which are called "Cailleach a Mhuillear," and "Cailleach Liath Rasaidh."

When he was with MacCrimmon there were no fewer than eleven other apprentices studying with the master piper, but Iain Dall outstripped them all, and thus gained for himself the envy and ill-will of the others. On one occasion as Iain and another apprentice were playing the same tune alternately, MacCrimmon asked the other lad why he did not play like Iain Dall. The lad replied, "By Mary, I'd do so if my fingers had not been after the skate," alluding to the sticky state of his fingers after having touched some of that fish at dinner ; and this has become a proverbial taunt which northern pipers to this day hurl at their inferior brethren from the south.

Iain Dall's first pibroch, called "Pronadh na Mial," had reference to certain small insects that disturbed his slumbers during the earlier period of his apprenticeship.

One of the MacCrimmons, known by the by-name of "Padruig Caogach," composed the first part of a tune called "Am port Leathach," but was unable to finish it. The imperfect tune became very popular, and being at the end of two years still unfinished Iain Dall set to work and completed it. He called it "Lasan Phadruig Chaogaich," or "the wrath of Padruig Caogach;" thus, whilst disowning any share in the merit of the composition, anticipating the result which would follow. Patrick was furiously incensed, and bribed the other apprentices, who were doubtless themselves also inflamed by jealousy, to put an end to Iain Dall's life. This they attempted while walking with him at Dun-Bhorraraig, where they threw the young blind piper over, a precipice. Iain Dall fell eight yards, but alighted on the soles of his feet, and suffered no material injury. The place is still called "Leum an Doill." The completion of MacCrimmon's tune brought great fame to Iain Dall, and gave rise to a well-known Gaelic proverb, which being translated says, "the apprentice outwits the master."

Iain Dall made a number of celebrated Gaelic songs and poems. One of them, called "Coire an Easain," was composed on the death of Mackay Lord Reay. It is said not to be surpassed in the Gaelic language. Another fine poem of his was in praise of Lady Janet Mackenzie of Scatwell, on her becoming the wife of Sir Alexander the ninth laird of Gairloch. His fame as a bard and poet seems to have almost equalled his reputation as a piper. A number of his songs and poems appear in the "Beauties of Gaelic Poetry."

Angus, the only son of "Iain Dall," succeeded his illustrious father as piper to the lairds of Gairloch. He was born about 1725. He was piper to Sir Alexander Mackenzie, tenth laird of Gairloch. When Sir Alexander visited France as a young man, he left Angus for tuition in Edinburgh. We know little of him beyond that he was a handsome man, and that he at least equalled his ancestors in musical attainments. He married Mary Fraser, daughter of William Fraser, of Gairloch. He attended a competition in pipe music whilst in Edinburgh. The other competing pipers, jealous of his superior talents, made a plot to destroy his chance. The day before the competition they got possession of his pipes, and pierced the bag in several places, so that when he began to practise he could not keep the wind in the pipes. But Angus had a fair friend named Mary, possibly his wife. To her he went in his trouble ; she found for him a sheepskin from which, undressed as it was, he formed a new bag for his beloved pipes, and with this crude bag he succeeded next day in carrying off the coveted prize. He composed the well-known pibroch called "Moladh Mairi," or "the praise of Mary," in honour of his kind helper. This anecdote is sometimes connected with one of the other Mackay pipers. Angus lived to a good old age, and was succeeded by his son John.

John Mackay, grandson of the "blind piper," was born about 1753, and became on his father's death family piper to Sir Hector Mackenzie of Gairloch. As a young man he went to the Reay country, the native land of his great-grandfather Rorie, and there received tuition on the little pipes, which are often used for dance music He lived in the latter part of his career in Gairloch at Slatadale, where he married and had a numerous family, for whose advancement he emigrated to America with all his children except one daughter. She had previously ma'rried, but her father was so anxious that she should emigrate with the rest of the family, that she had to hide herself the night before the family left Gairloch in order to avoid being compelled to accompany them. John Mackay was a splendid piper; when he went to America, Sir Hector said he would never care to hear pipe music again. John prospered in America; he died at Picton about 1835, over eighty years of age. One of his sons, who was a stipendiary magistrate in Nova Scotia, died in the time of harvest 1884. The daughter who remained in Gairloch was married to a Maclean; their son, John Maclean of Strath, called in Gaelic "Iain Buidhe Taillear," has supplied much of the information here given regarding his ancestors, the hereditary pipers of the Gairloch family.

It is a singular fact that the four long-lived Mackays were pipers to the lairds of Gairloch during almost exactly two centuries, during which there were eight lairds of Gairloch in regular succession from father to son, but only the four pipers.


 


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