The Musical Legacy of the MacKays of Raasay

This is an abridged version of a presentation for the cancelled Piobaireachd Society Conference 2020…..

By Dr JKS Frater

Our Society’s website, a great resource, has a catalogue of tunes that are in the early MSS and books, the key sources for our core piobaireachd repertoire; 323 tunes are listed, of which 76 appear only in MacKay sources. 

Examples include: Dispraise of MacLeod, We will take the Highway, MacDuff’s Gathering, The Sauntering, Captain Wemyss Sutherland’s Lament, Young Allan’s Lament

Never heard of those tunes? Here are a different half dozen from those 76 MacKay only tunes: Lament for Mary MacLeod, Lament for the Earl of Antrim, The King’s Taxes, Lament for Captain MacDougall, Desperate Battle of the Birds, Young MacLeod of Colbeck’s Lament

That puts a very different complexion on the topic in hand, taking us into the heart of our mainstream repertoire. The two main figures in terms of the musical legacy of the MacKays of Raasay are Angus MacKay and his father John MacKay, but one of Angus’s nephews, Donald MacKay also features; the relevant time period spans around 100 years from the late 18th Century onwards.  Angus’s brothers Roderick, Donald and John were also pipers of note.  The family relocated from Raasay to Drummond Castle in 1823 and thence to piping posts with various notables, most notable being Queen Victoria, when Angus MacKay became the first sovereign’s piper.

Their musical legacy includes: 
1 Those tunes not found in other sources, amongst which are MacKay of Raasay compositions; 
2 MacKay settings for a large number of tunes that are also in other sources; 
3 Several surviving MacKay manuscripts; 
4 Angus MacKay’s published book of piobaireachd, the first fully successful such venture, which became a major influence, though famously not without its flaws; 
5 Their piobaireachd style.

Key early 19th Century scores, MacArthur, Donald MacDonald and MacKay, show differences in style – a key difference being the MacKays’ less elaborate gracenotes; there is the well-known example of Donald Roy MacCrimmon being sent to receive instruction from Charles MacArthur, not to learn more tunes, but to study “MacArthur’s particular graces”, suggesting there was something different about MacCrimmon and MacArthur playing, which we might speculate carried through to give the contrast we see between MacKay of Raasay and MacArthur scores.

The other major written source from this period, the Campbell Canntaireachd, is relatively bare; it has been suggested that might reflect either a very plain style, preferred by Padruig Og MacCrimmon, or may have intentionally left ornamentation to the discretion of the performer.  

As far as I can tell, and about this I am definitely interested in feedback, despite modern writers referring to ‘pre-MacKay’ or ‘original form of crunluath fosgailte’ and so on, we don’t know whether the MacKay style represents a new simpler approach dating from late 18th century or an older, plainer approach that John MacKay was taught, with the MacArthur and MacDonald flourishes an alternative or even themselves the new styles, analogous to the Rococo exuberance seen in other cultural activities in late 18th Century.

The MacKay style remains the dominant approach in modern era; it has been successfully transmitted down the years, directly from the MacKays via their own playing, their scores, their pupils and through later editors who favoured the MacKay approach.  The MacKay style attracted powerful advocates, in particular Sherriff Grant and Archibald Campbell, prime movers behind our PS books.

If you haven’t looked at Angus MacKay’s manuscripts, please do so!  His scores are often lucid and subtle, with tunes readily playable off the page.  The scores discussed here can be accessed on PS website via the Members Library.

In the Battle of Waternish Angus MacKay [AM] gives guidance about length of cadence Es, showing when held, when short, when balanced with note following.

I, like others, have often felt frustrated that our own PS scores do not always give such a clear impression of how to approach a tune, but I assume that, whereas AM would obviously be entirely comfortable presenting a specific style, those who developed scores for our PS books wanted to avoid being dogmatic.

While we have excellent, informative publications about the MacArthur/ MacGregor manuscript and Donald MacDonald’s music, Angus MacKay’s manuscripts [MSS] mainly feature in discussion of individual tunes or of others’ MSS, rather than being the subject of analysis themselves. 

Quite simple aspects of the manuscript have had little attention: for example, as has been described at our Conference in past, Angus MacKay’s main Piobaireachd manuscript is bound into two volumes.  The frontispieces of the two volumes indicate that they contain 114 and 125 tunes respectively, a total of 239 scores, but they actually contain, and are indexed for, 111 and 71 tunes, a total of 182; one tune appears twice, in different settings, but only once in index, so the overall deficit is 56 scores.  Why?  The manuscript source for Angus MacKay’s book has not been found and this has been used to question the book’s authority.  Angus MacKay’s Book contains 61 tunes, five of which look to have a plausible specific source separate from Angus MacKay’s manuscript.  Is it too fanciful to suggest that 56 scores from Angus MacKay’s manuscript were sent to the printer in Leipzig and never made it back?  Actually, I think it is probably more complicated than that, but it is at least plausible that the missing scores are the source of much that is in the book.  Worth also pondering that if the missing tunes are not in the Book, where are they and, more importantly, what are they?  Another 50+ tunes collected by AM and now lost?  

The existing Volume 2 of Angus MacKay’s manuscript is almost entirely tunes we might expect him to have noted down early in his collection, with the overwhelming majority of tunes likely to be from MacKay sources, while Volume 1 has a different character, straight from the off, with the first tune, The Big Spree, copied by AM from the Highland Society of London’s manuscript (HSLMS), which AM is believed to have seen no earlier than 1833. 

AM tells us that he compiled his manuscript collection from 1826 to 1841, but if first tune in Volume 1 was copied from HSLMS in 1833, it can’t be the first tune of the collection; indeed, all tunes copied by AM from HSLMS are in what is now Volume 1 or his published book.  It seems plausible that contents of Volume 1 were actually collected after what has become Volume 2.

How does AM notate music and how should we interpret his presentation?  I don’t have the answers; I shall describe some of what I find to be of particular interest.  There is uncertainty with regard to all the older sources about how the notation used relates to what was played. 

Some have advocated playing the old sources exactly as written, others that we need to interpret the notation, based on view that there are formulaic elements reflecting conventions current at the time, but now forgotten.  Perhaps it is reasonable to take the view that the traditional teaching that has come down to us is likely to reflect how Angus MacKay played, but recognise that does not exclude the existence of other styles.

If we look at a MacKay only tune, Battle of Bealach nam Brog, we can find plenty of interest. First the ‘cadence’ E: sometimes given as a proper note, sometimes as gracenote, sometimes in a group of gracenotes; when different forms used, is that meant to indicate difference in performance?  I am inclined to think that in some places the differences are simply a way of fitting notes to the constraints of staff notation format, while in some places they do convey a difference in timing.

More challenging is hiharin; in Urlar and Taorluath & Crunluath (T&C) doublings, first two low As are short, as in typical modern birl, with last low A long; a different form is used in T&C singlings, with long first A; these differences in timing do not seem to be dictated by fitting the notes into the score, so what was intended?

Other bottom hand double echoes are also awkward, not written as we play them nowadays; again, AM format may simply be a notational device to fit these movements into perceived constraints of staff notation, with assumption, supported by traditional teaching and Eliza Ross’s MS, that Angus MacKay played them as we would now, but Angus MacKay was aware of alternative notational solutions that would appear to be more suitable if wishing to convey the timing we are expecting, so it’s a bit confusing.  

E and F echoes are usually shown in what we might see now as conventional style, though timing varies, as in the Lament for the Earl of Antrim, (Kintarbert MS better here), where the contrast of long final E and long middle F presumably convey AM’s timing for this tune, also supported by the 4/4 time signature.  

With throws, AM notation conveys subtleties of timing. In Too Long in this Condition, he puts 3 over the taorluaths in the Urlar – and over dare and edre; in MacKenzie of Gairloch’s Lament, placing the initial E of edre in the preceding pulse, shifts the musical emphasis to the second pulse, for me a much more convincing approach than we see in PS score.  

There is much more that could be discussed; I am a long way from fully understanding Angus MacKay’s manuscript.  By the way, in his score for Cluny MacPherson’s March, Angus Mackay follows a  ‘closed’ fosgailte variation with an ‘open’ fosgailte variation, an interesting historical precedent that seems to have been overlooked?

Where did AM get the 245 or so tunes in his collection?  He has over 70 piobaireachd that no one else has and many others in specific MacKay settings. We know that he was comfortable producing his own settings, though how often he did so, I have no idea. 

AM tells us about and acknowledges as sources: his father, the Highland Society of London MS, now known as the MacArthur/MacGregor manuscript, Ronald ‘Blind’ MacDougall, Peter Reid, plus contemporary composers of tunes, including John Ban MacKenzie as composer of Mrs Smith’s Salute, Wm Gunn for Capt Wemyss Sutherland’s Lament, Archibald Munro composer of Glengarry’s Lament.

Angus MacKay’s father, the famous John MacKay of Raasay, was reputed to know over 200 piobaireachd and was undoubtedly AM’s key source.  AM tells us he noted down tunes from his father’s canntaireachd.

AM had access to Highland Society of London’s manuscript (HSLMS) before his own book was published; it is believed he approached HSL asking for loan of their MS in 1833.  He prepared an index for HSLMS, marking tunes where HSLMS setting was different to setting played by his father.  He took 17 of the 30 tunes in HSLMS into his MS, converting them to MacKay style, but recording them as from HSLMS above the score.  

We can illustrate his approach with two tunes that are in both HSLMS and his own published book: he gives Lady MacDonald’s Lament in essentially the same setting as in HSLMS and acknowledges HSLMS as the source; in contrast, Murray of Abercairney’s Salute is acknowledged as a MacArthur composition, but is in a different setting from HSLMS and there is no reference to HSLMS as its source, presumably because tune was already known to AM, whose brother Roderick MacKay was Murray of Abercairney’s piper.

The Big Spree is the first tune in V1 of AM MS, clearly marked as from HSLMS, and the score is not, I feel, one of AM’s better efforts, so perhaps, like others after him, AM struggled to interpret the rather eccentric HSLMS.

AM explicitly indicates Ronald MacDougall as his source for the Kings Taxes, Lament for Capt MacDougall, Sutherland’s Gathering, Drizzle on the Stone; Gray John’s Lament & Lament for John Kear, Chief of the MacDougalls [two settings of same tune] ; possibly Duntron’s Warning [ now known in different setting as The Sound of the Waves against Castle of Duntroon], MacDuff’s Gathering and Brother’s Lament or perhaps for these last two only the tune names came from Ronald MacDougall. 

AM had access to material from Peter Reid, but Reid also had access to MacKay of Raasay settings, hearing, and possibly noting, tunes played by various MacKay of Raasay pipers or their pupils at the competitions, so for any tune it is difficult to know which might be primary source.

Tune 40 in AM MS is a Nameless tune which he annotates: “This has a resemblance to Mr Reid’s Tulloch Ard”, which it does, but there are also significant differences; later in MS, tune 107  is: “Tulloch Ard from Mr Reid”, indexed as “Tulloch Ard (Mr Reids)”.

Incidentally, this may be an example of similar tunes, perhaps deriving from same original source, but which have evolved into settings so different as to be regarded as different tunes?

Kilberry concluded over 80 years ago that AM had access to tunes in Campbell Canntaireachd (CC), but, rather than the CC volumes we have now, that AM saw another CC manuscript, possibly while working in Islay. 

Sobieski’s Salute is one of the tunes in the specimens of CC that AM noted and his staff notation score is very similar to CC setting, suggesting he may have sourced this tune from CC, whereas for the Battle of Strome, another of his examples of CC, his staff notation score has a different name and is a significantly different setting, suggesting CC was not his primary source. It seems unlikely that AM sourced much from CC.

There appears to be no evidence that AM and Donald MacDonald met, even though they were quite possibly at the same venue at the same time for one or more of the Edinburgh competitions and probably at times lived only hundreds of yards apart.  

Lament for Ronald MacDonald of Morar is in DMacD book and AM MS, indeed they are the only original sources: both scores have the same bar missing, Var1 L3 B1; was it a tune from MacDonald tradition, which AM copied from DMacD bk, which we know he had, perhaps not recording source as it was already published and so source was taken as obvious? 

As with HSLMS, there are tunes which AM and DMacD have both recorded, but clearly have not sourced from each other, e.g. Parading of MacDonalds, with differences in score and name; Craigellachie is in both their books, but settings are different.

AM and DMacD versions of the Bells of Perth are very similar; Roderick Cannon concluded that the tune came from a MacKay of Raasay source, quite possibly someone other than AM, i.e. although D MacD produced a score for Bells of Perth first, he is not our source for the tune.

AM was a great collector, it must have been a massive personal effort compiling his MSS; very likely his father was his key source both in terms of style and for many tunes; AM definitely used HSLMS, adapting tunes to MacKay style, though he already had some of the tunes from other, probably MacKay, sources; AM had access to some tunes in CC, but probably not many; he had DMacD’s book, adapting some tunes to MacKay style in his own MS, but already had some tunes from other, probably MacKay, sources; he acknowledges Reid, MacDougall and others. There is plenty more detective work that could be done!

For any given tune, how do we establish which, if any, of our existing sources has primacy?  It is surely possible that all the early authors or their teachers, Donald MacDonald [DMacD], MacKays, MacArthurs, Campbell of CC, Reid, might have heard the others’ version of the tune and added to their own collection adapting setting to their own style?  Any of them might have same tune separately from an earlier, original source that we no longer have.

We know the primacy for tunes such as Lady MacDonald’s Lament, as it was composed by Angus MacArthur and we have it in the HSLMS that was prepared with his input and assistance; also reasonable to assume that, in the MacKay of Raasay sources, we have original versions of MacKay of Raasay compositions.  For anything else, are we struggling to know?  

If we have only a couple of sources and tune is very similar in both, we might make a judgement about which is original?  Noting, of course, that the date when a particular MS was written does not tell us how old the setting is.

Donald MacKay Jnr
Donald MacKay seems to have been rather unfairly dismissed as a piobaireachd authority; he had an impressive piping pedigree, plus he was a successful competitor and his manuscript is well worth a look.  

He was born in 1845, so he was only four or five years old when his father died in 1850, by which time his grandfather was already deceased, as was his Uncle John; his Uncle Angus was committed to Bedlam in 1854, the same year his Uncle Roderick died; it seems unlikely, therefore, that he acquired much piping directly from his piping forebears, though he is believed to have been taught piping at the Caledonian School in London, where Angus did teach.  Later, Donald was a pupil of John Ban MacKenzie and of Donald Cameron.  He won both the Prize Pipe and the Gold Medal at the Northern Meeting.  His final post was as piper to the Prince of Wales, who later became King Edward VII.

While piper at Ballindalloch Castle, he assisted General Thomason, help that was much valued by the General.

Donald MacKay’s MS is short, but has innovative features, as in his two scores for MacKenzie of Gairloch’s Salute, one similar to AM style, the second much more interesting; in it, Donald MacKay varies time signature within the ground.  

My interpretation is that he wrote the tune out in the standard format, as his Uncle Angus would, possibly even copying the tune from AM MS, but then Donald looked at it and realised that this score did not show how he actually played the tune, so he produced his own, more sophisticated version.  Also of interest is his use of abbreviations of the type used by General Thomason in his book, Ceòl Mòr.

In addition, Donald MacKay’s beautifully written score is our source for that lovely tune, His Father’s Lament for Donald MacKenzie, composed by John Ban MacKenzie.  Donald MacKay had the tune from John Ban’s nephew, Ronald MacKenzie, who was Pipe Major of the 78th, in which regiment Donald MacKay also served.

MacKay of Raasay piobaireachd compositions: mainly John MacKay, but we have one piobaireachd each from Angus, Farewell to the Laird of Islay, and Donald Jnr, The Laggan Salute.  The Laggan Salute is the first tune in General Thomason’s book and is a simple, pleasant tune, with attractive passages.

We have nine JM Snr piobaireachd: Battle of Waterloo, Lament for King George lll, MacKenzie of Millbank’s Salute (usually called Melbank’s Salute nowadays), Davidson of Tulloch’s Salute, Young MacLeod of Colbeck’s Lament, Lament for Capt Donald MacKenzie, Highland Society of London’s Salute, Lachlan MacNeill Campbell of Kintarbert’s Salute, Lady Doyle’s Salute. 

The names of these tunes might suggest JM Snr composed tunes about people or events that mattered to him personally? For example, he composed Davidson of Tulloch’s Salute for John Ban MacKenzie to play to Davidson of Tulloch and he knew both men.  It is an unusual tune in various ways, including being perhaps the only tune ever composed in perfect secondary structure, which he creates using only three different bars arranged in pairs:  [1,2], [3,1], [3,2]| [3,1], [2,1], [3,2]| [3,1], [3,2]; 

John MacKay’s piobaireachd compositions all have a regular structure, either primary, secondary or, in the majority, typical song structure. All are either 2/4 or 4/4, none in 6/8  or 3/4 time signature; none have crunluath fosgailte; none have crunluath breabach; none have crunluath a mach. Variations follow urlar closely and each variation has same melody notes. There is variety – some highly melodic, some minimal melody, several have attractive musical touches 

I have often wondered to what extent JM Snr extemporised variations in performance?  He was reputed to play over 200 piobaireachd; remembering 200 urlars is seriously challenging, remembering all the variations as well even more so?  In his own tunes, easy to memorise the variations and also I think his tunes are well suited to the MacKay style of playing.  All are fairly good tunes and some of them are excellent.  I particularly enjoy Lament for King George III (1820), the Highland Society of London’s Salute (1835) and Lachlan MacNeill Campbell of Kintarbert’s Salute (1837).

Concluding Remarks

We have had publications studying Donald MacDonald’s book and manuscript, there is a Donald MacDonald Quaich competition, there is a book devoted to HSLMS, we have mandated MacArthur settings, but we do not have a specific in-depth analysis of the musical legacy of the MacKays of Raasay in general nor AM MSS specifically nor do we set MacKay versions of tunes.  For me, the music of the MacKays of Raasay is not only very interesting in itself, but it is so important to our piobaireachd heritage and piobaireachd today, that we must try to serve it better.  There is much more that could be said now and also much more to be learnt.

I am an enthusiast, rather than an expert, and am only too happy to acknowledge the extent to which the above depends on the hard work and research of others, including those who have contributed so much to our Society’s website.  I would like also to pay tribute to the National Library of Scotland for purchasing and conserving Angus MacKay’s main manuscripts.