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Scottish highland bagpipe

The Highland Bagpipe by Simon McKerrell

I recently sent in my entry for the Skye Gathering piping competitions. This is a wonderfully rich and, usually, very popular festival of Highland culture in Portree in the first part of August, held in conjunction with the Isle of Skye Highland Games. As ever, the tunes for the competition always focus on the repertoire of the MacCrimmon pipers, hereditary pipers to the MacLeods of Dunvegan, whose rich history dominates this rugged island off the northwest coast.

But what do we really know about them and their music? There is no piping dynasty more mythologized or drenched in lore than the MacCrimmons of Skye. We know they definitely existed and that they were the clan pipers to the MacLeods of Dunvegan during the period from around the late 16th to the end of the 18th century. Most of the information often repeated about the origins of the MacCrimmon family of pipers comes from Angus MacKay's Account of the Hereditary Pipers, which was published in 1838 and has been often plagiarized over the last 200 years.

The other famous hereditary patrilineages in Scottish piping included: the Rankins, pipers to MacLean of Duart; the MacKays, pipers to McKenzie of Gairloch; the MacArthurs, pipers to MacDonald of the Isles; the MacIntyres, pipers to Menzies of Menzies; and the Cummings, pipers to the Grants.

In essence, the relationship of these hereditary pipers with their clans was typical of other professions, such as law, medicine and religion, in that the family performed a service for the chieftains and in return received land on the clan estates. That service consisted of playing the bagpipes in clan court and composing commemorative tunes, full of praise, for notable figures and events in the life of the clan (weddings, battles, deaths, births and the like). Pipers in the 17th and 18th centuries certainly had a much higher status in Gaelic court culture than we do today!

In the case of the MacCrimmons, we know also that they maintained a piping school at Boreraig in Skye where they taught outstanding young pipers from around Scotland.

The full text of this column is available in the Autumn 2017 issue of Scottish Life.

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