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A Hundred Years in the Highlands
Chapter XVII - The Famous Gairloch Pipers

In 1609 an ancestor of mine, who was also one of the most famous of the Gairloch lairds, John Roy Mackenzie, paid a visit to the laird of Reay in Sutherland. I believe the laird of Reay (Lord Reay) was his stepfather. On John Roy's return from his visit to Tongue House, Mackay accompanied him as far as the Meikle Ferry, on the Kyle of Sutherland. On their arrival at the ferry it seems there was another gentleman crossing, accompanied by a groom, who attempted to prevent anyone entering the boat but his master and his party. Mackay had his piper with him, a young, handsome lad of only seventeen summers. A scuffle ensued between the piper and the groom, the former drew his dirk, and with one blow cut the groom's hand off at the wrist.

The laird of Reay at once said to his piper: “Rory, I cannot keep you with me any longer; you must at once fly the country and save your life." John Roy said: “Will you come with me to Gairloch, Rory?” And the piper was only too glad to accept the offer.

As they were parting, the laird of Reay said to his stepson: “Now, as you are getting my piper, you must send me in exchange a good deer-stalker." On his return home the latter at once sent Hugh Mackenzie, whose descendants still live in the Reay country. To this day it is remembered how and in what capacity their ancestor came from Gairloch.

I may mention that, besides the piper, John Roy took two good deer-honnds back with him from Sutherland, and even their names are not yet forgotten—"Cu dubh” and “Faoileag” (“Black Hound” and “Seagull”).

Rory, the young piper, who was also a Mackay and was born about 1592, was soon after followed by an older brother, called Donald. It was Donald who was in attendance as piper on the twelve sons of John Roy, when Kenneth, Lord of Kintail, met them at Torridon, where John Roy so nearly met with his death.

Rory was piper in succession-to four of the Gairloch Lairds—namely, John Roy, Alasdair Breac (who was a head taller than any of John Roy's eleven other sons), Kenneth, the sixth laird, and his son Alexander. Rory's home was at Talladale, on the mainland, while his first two masters, John Roy and Alasdair Breac, resided mostly in their island homes on Eilean Ruairidh Beag and Eilean Suthainn, in Loch Maree, opposite Talladale, which were, I suppose, considered safer, at'any rate for the ladies and the children, in those wild times. The last two chiefs, however, whom Rory served, lived in the original Tigh Dige or Stank House of Gairloch, which had the moat round it and the drawbridge. Rory did not marry till he was sixty years old. He had just the one son, the celebrated blind piper, and during the latter part of his life he lived in the Baile Mor of Gairloch, so as to be near his masters in the Stank House. Rory died about 1689, in extreme old age, being, like his son, almost a centenarian. He was buried in the Gairloch churchyard. He is said to have been a remarkably handsome and powerful Highlander. He literally played an important part in the many fights which took place during the earlier part of his career.

John Mackay, the only son of Rory, was born at Talladale in 1656. He was not blind from birth, as has been erroneously stated, but was deprived of his sight by smallpox when about seven years old. He was known as Iain Dali (Blind John) or an Piobaire Dali (the Blind Piper). After mastering the first principles of pipe music under his father’s tuition, he was sent to the celebrated Macrimmon in Skye to finish his musical education. He remained seven years with Macrimmon, and then returned to his native parish, where he assisted his father in the 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 Dali retired when in advanced years, and Sir Alexander allowed him a good 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 Gailleach Liath RasaidJi.

When he was with Macrimmon there were no fewer than eleven other apprentices studying with the master piper, but Iain Dali 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, Macrimmon asked the other lad why he did not play like Iain Dali. The lad replied, “By St. 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 on which Macrimmon had fed them at dinner. And this has become a proverbial taunt which northern pipers to this day hurl at their inferior brethren from the south.

One of the Macrimmons, known by the nickname of Padruig Caogach, composed the first part of a tune called Am port Leatach (the half tune), but was quite unable to finish it. The imperfect tune became very popular, and, as it was at the end of two years still unfinished, Iain Dali set to work and completed it. He called it Lasan Phadruig Chaogach, 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 Dali's life. This they attempted while walking with him at Dun Bhorreraig, where they threw the young blind piper over a precipice.

Iain Dali 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 Leap of the Blind).

The completion of Macrimmon's tune brought great fame to Iain Dali, and gave rise to the well-known Gaelic proverb which, being translated, says: “ The apprentice outwits the master/' Iain Dali 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 the 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. Several of his songs and poems appear in that excellent collection The Beauties of Gaelic Poetnj. ,

Angus, the only son of Iain Dali, 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, and when Sir Alexander visited France as a young man he left Angus in Edinburgh for tuition. We know little of him beyond that he was a handsome man, and that he at least equalled his ancestors in musical attainments. 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. To her he went in his trouble. She found for him a sheep-skin, 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 Main, or “The Praise of Mary," in honour of his kind helper. Angus lived also 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 my grandfather, Sir Hector Mackenzie of Gairloch. As a young man he went to the Reay country, the native land of his great-grandfather Rory, and there received tuition on the little pipes which are often used for dance music. He lived in the latter part of his career 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 married, 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 they left Gairloch, in order to avoid being compelled to accompany them. John Mackay was a splendid piper, and when he went to America Sir Hector said he would never care to hear pipe music again, and he never kept another piper. John prospered in America, and died at Picton about 1835. One of his sons, who was Stipendiary Magistrate in Nova Scotia, died in the autumn of 1884. The daughter who remained in Gairloch was married to a Maclean, and 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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