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A Highlander Looks Back
My Personal Memories of the Skye Pipers

THERE were two schools or centres for the teaching of pipe music in Skye. Although the two schools were situated in different localities—the MacCrimmon in the west, and the MacArthur on the north-west side of the island—there was little difference in their manner of tuition. The two institutions appear to have been on friendly terms, and if there was any rivalry between them, it was of a friendly nature, each ready to acknowledge the best achievement, for they were all out for excellence in their art.

Fortunately for the encouragement of the art of piobaireachd in Skye, there were patrons who endowed the two schools; these patrons were Chiefs of the two great Skye houses, the Macleods and the Macdonalds. It was Alasdair Crotach Macleod who, towards the end of the 15th century, bestowed the lands of Boreraig on the MacCrimmons so that they were free to pursue the cultivation of music. It was surely a rare thing for those barbaric times that a Chief should so patronise one of the fine arts. The good example was afterwards followed by Donald Gorm Macdonald of the Isles; this Chief conferred the lands of Hunglatter upon his hereditary pipers, the MacArthurs.

The name MacArthur is an old Argyllshire name. The first of these pipers came as a young student to the MacCrimmon school in Boreraig, which is the older of the two Skye schools of music. MacArthur was so successful in his studies that he became a consummate performer and was appointed piper to the Lords of the Isles, then residing at Duntulm Castle. This was the ancient residence of the family for centuries before Armadale Castle was built.

Hunglatter was an ounce land, the lectir or slope of the unga (uncium, an ounce) the annual rental being an ounce of gold. Donald Gorm must have thought highly of the art of piping. The chief of the Isles must be second to no other chief as regards music and his pipers must have a school of their own at Hunglatter, just as MacLeod of MacLeod endowed the MacCrimmon school in Boreraig.

The group of ancient piobaireachd tunes associated with the house of the Isles may be ascribed with good reason to the Hunglatter school. The heads of that school were MacCrimmons to all intents and purposes, that is to say they received their teaching and inspiration from the Boreraig school, although their material endowment, their lands and school were granted to them by their patrons, the house of the Isles.

The Castle of Duntulm was abandoned early in the eighteenth century when the Macdonalds went to live in Monkstad before the building of the Castle of Armadale. The tradition is that actual teaching of piping by these MacArthurs in Hunglatter came to an end about 1780; but the art continued long after that and was continued right on into the 19th century. My grandfather, Angus Macpherson, whose beautiful playing I can vividly remember, was one of the last of the MacCrimmon school, having been taught by John Dhu MacCrimmon and John and Peter Bruce of Skye, also pupils of the MacCrimmons.

The method of teaching was identical in the two schools; it was the direct method, all oral. The pupil imbibed the enthusiasm of the master. Great care was given to the elementary stages of the art. The teachers of the older school claimed their descent from the Druids; they also claimed that they still retained the secret methods which were observed in the Druidic schools. The chief of these was concentration.

When a big event happened the MacCrimmon pipers were under a hereditary vow that they would not eat nor sleep until they had composed the tune which celebrated the event. It is said that some of the finest phrases in the MacCrimmon tunes were produced under these conditions. One composer stuck in his composition and had to eat or die. It was taboo for any man to add a single bar to that tune; it remains to this day like a splendid fragment or a broken column under the name of the “Half-Finished Piobaireachd”.

The notation in the Skye schools was oral and very striking. Vowels and diphthongs stood for the notes. The consonants coming before the vowels showed the grace notes, cuts, throws, cadences, etc., while the consonants which came after the vowels indicated the length or value. Thus a bar was verbal; it could be spoken or chanted. It could be repeated and memorised and in this respect it was easier for the learner than staff notation since the latter is not a verbal form like the old notation employed in the schools of Skye.

Having the good fortune of being born and reared in the atmosphere of ceol mor over seven decades ago, I claim a knowledge of the art of piping that is unique. There are many eminent pipers who support the old school of piping, while others just as eminent support the modern school. I, with all my heart, support the old school. The creation of a piper and the composition of pipe music is not a question of extensive teaching; it is more often a question of heredity and environment and the necessary inspiration required for the piper to transfer his musical soul to his fingers.

It is not to be found in any modern city, but in some such place within sight and hearing of the everlasting ocean, as for instance Slochd nam Piobairean (The Piper’s Hollow). Here the MacCrimmons composed and played the finest piobaireachd the world has ever known, and the echo of their own music relayed back to them by the surrounding rocks like silent judges very often was the medium through which they corrected imperfections in their music.

I am often asked how it is that men who were, to all intents and purposes, illiterate, and who were, by the verdict of modern culture, extremely ignorant, could compose such wonderful, enduring and soul-inspiring music. The answer is simple, for first of all people must understand that the knowledge of letters is not the only avenue that leads to wisdom and knowledge. In my boyhood days I have met and foregathered with men who had not the knowledge of letters, but who had a great deal more sense, charm and intellectual powers than are commonly met with to-day.

Many factors were responsible for this, the chief one being that these men lived in close communion with nature, and nature to them was an open book which they had the ability to read, and retain the knowledge gained in their receptive minds. The old shepherd sitting watching his flocks on the hillside heard this music in the brook or the mountain torrent and transposed it to his own mind and gave it to the world, a masterpiece to be enjoyed by those who had the soul to understand it. Or the fisherman in his boat, fighting with the grim elements which were seeking to bring about his destruction: the shrieking of the wind and the pounding of the sea were to him something that could be interpreted as music and song.

As a very willing pupil by the peat fire at Badenoch, I was initiated into the mysteries of piobaireachd, my tutor being my father, a product of the MacCrimmon school of Skye. In this modest school of learning, I have seen men, who, after a hard day’s work walked ten to twenty miles for their ceol mor lessons, no matter what the weather, and in the small hours of the morning, after Highland hospitality and the environment of the good old-fashioned ceilidh, they would tread their homeward way with their minds steeped in that which conveys to the Highlander something which nothing else can.

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