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A Highlander Looks Back
My Stay at Skibo Castle


THE year 1898 brought me good tidings and many successive years of happiness and useful experience. Hitherto, my life was rather unsettled, doing the best I could whatever duty called, doing the round of the annual Highland Games, and endeavouring to maintain the reputation of my ancestors in the arts of piping and dancing. But this pursuit had now to stop as I was offered a permanent calling, the fulfilment of my dreams of ten years previously.

Mr and Mrs Carnegie could no longer have Cluny Castle as their permanent home, and as a daughter had been born to them in March of the previous year it was now more than ever necessary to get settled in the Highlands, which were so dear to their hearts. At Cluny and throughout my native Laggan, this birth was hailed with great joy and celebrated in true Highland fashion. Bonfires were blazing on the surrounding hill-tops, and music and dancing carried on until the early hours of the morning.

Little Miss Margaret Carnegie spent her first summer in Cluny near to where, by the mountain streams that flowed from the Monaliadh Mountains, that great woman, Mrs Grant, of Laggan. wrote her imperishable poems and her “Letters from the Mountains”. Margaret Carnegie, now Mrs R. Miller and the Lady of Skibo, was therefore early nourished in one of the most romantic and historic parts of the Scottish Highlands.

In 1898, Skibo Castle, situated on the Dornoch Firth between Bonar-Bridge and the Royal Burgh of Dornoch, was recommended and leased with a view to buying. Meantime, my brother John had left the Carnegie service and joined up with the Earl of Ancaster at Drummond Castle, Crieff. A piper for Skibo must be got, and Mrs Carnegie did not forget the boy she knew at Cluny Castle, and so I was written to and offered the situation, and proudly did I accept. By coincidence, almost to a day from the day the Carnegie four-in-hand coach arrived at Cluny Castle ten years before, I was on the lawn at Skibo Castle, with my bagpipes welcoming Mr and Mrs Carnegie and their daughter, Margaret, to what was to become their permanent Highland home.

Skibo in those days bore no comparison to the Skibo it became in the lifetime of Mr and Mrs Carnegie. The man who could always see wherein lay potentiality had already well-laid schemes for improvement, and instead of it being, as it was then, a ground for thousands of pheasants, it became a place for much needed work and prosperity for hundreds of workmen with improved houses and new modern homes.

The present massive castle with the exception of a very small part of the old building was built; roads and bridges too, and all that was needed for the good of a Highland estate. A golf course too, with democratic rules that did not confine its benefits to the Castle guests only. This can also be said of the magnificent swimming pool, and also the wonderful construction of trout lochs and hatcheries, and a salmon loch connected to the Dornoch Firth, which from results proved a far-sighted and prolific undertaking.

My duties besides those of piper were also those of groom of the chambers, and accompanying Mr Carnegie when he went fishing. It was then I got my first introduction to the Shin river, little knowing that in years to come I would be in possession of the Inveran Hotel and farm, and catering for the Shin angling tenants, to which I refer in my fishing chapter.

My seven years in the service of Mr and Mrs Carnegie were indeed happy years. It was a great privilege to be in the environment of such a home both from the spiritual and material point of view. There I met some of the greatest men, in all walks of life, of that generation. In 1903 I had the honour of playing the bagpipes to that great and good man His Majesty King Edward the Seventh when he made his delightfully informal visit to Skibo Castle. This was indeed a great occasion, and although the intimation of the King’s visit was only made half an hour or so before His Majesty’s arrival, I believe everything passed off better than if months of preparation had been made.

I used to dance before many of the distinguished guests. A piper would be engaged for the evening, and I would do as many as five dances—Highland Fling, Sword Dance, Sheann Truibhs, Hornpipe and Jig, and each in the appropriate costume. This gave great pleasure to the American guests, and Mr Carnegie in his own kindly way never forgot to say something nice about the performer.

When I would be playing my pipes round the Castle in the morning, Miss Margaret would have her pretty, fair head well out of the nursery window watching my every step until the last note died away round the corner, and the love for our Highland music has never left her.

In the winter months I accompanied the family to New York, America, another great experience. Even in those far off days it could be seen that America was destined to become the great nation, she now is.

In 1905 I took the notion of striking out in business on my own account. With a good deal of trepidation, and although Mr and Mrs Carnegie wanted me to stay on, I took the plunge. I said goodbye to Skibo where I had spent so many happy days. In parting, Mr and Mrs Carnegie saw to it that I had more than would buy me a new set of bagpipes, as they wanted the set bought for me in 1898 for a family set. So with a present and two autographed photographs on which Mr Carnegie wrote the following words:—“To Angus Mac-pherson. With best wishes My Dear Angus wherever you go,” I took my leave of him, and in shaking hands he said: “We will not lose sight of you”.

Nor did they, as will be noted later.


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