MacLeod Piping Stories & Traditions
(and some of Donald MacLeod's Music)
Och, aye … what can one say about Skye and MacLeod Piping Traditions?
Warmth of the people on the Isle of Skye, inner Hebride, in Scotland
It's a large island among the Hebrides …
MacLeod identity, with Dunvegan, our remarkable history, and of course the MacCrimmon's as hereditary pipers to the chief of the MacLeods'
There's the language – Scots' Gaelic is still spoken on the Hebrides. There's a particularly large community of Gaelic speakers in community of Ness on Lewis, long a MacLeod Hebride.
And what we can learn from our 800 year old (at least) history and especially our music … ?
But before we begin,
I'd like to bid a warm farewell with a hearty thank you to the retiring president of MacLeod Society USA, John B MacLeod
and further bid a warm welcome to John Norman … incoming president, of MacLeod Society USA …
And I'd like to salute John See previous past president.
And thank you to Tammie Vawter, organizer first class, whom I first got to know in the MacLeod Society tent at the Pleasanton Highland Games near here, for so wonderfully organizing this gathering of the MacLeods in the San Francisco Bay Area this June 2011.
I'd also like to extend a warm greeting to young Macleods active in the woodwork of the Clan MacLeod, such as Tammie and her husband's son, Ian, who is 20, and daughter, Megan, who is 18. Please welcome more young MacLeod's into the Society.
Personal piping and Scottish anecdotes
Potted MacCrimmon piping history
And then touch on Piobaireachd, MacCrimmon's and Donald MacLeod
sprinkling a few piping tunes throughout …
Personal piping and Scottish anecdotes
Some personal MacLeod piping stories …
How did I start to play the bagpipe?
I was playing the piano from 6- 12 and was struggling a little with my mother about practicing, - and she said if I stopped playing the piano, I had to choose another instrument, so I choose the bagpipe, thinking she might not be able to find a teacher for this.
So at my father's suggestion, I think, I wrore to Dame Flora MacLeod of MacLeod on the Isle of Skye around 1972, to ask how she would suggest beginning to play.
And surprisingly for a little 12 year old yankee from Connecticut, she wrote back and said,
what don't you contact Seamus MacNeill who began the College of Piping in the 1930s in Glasgow … whom I think Dame Flora knew.
I think we may still have this letter from Dame Flora MacLeod of MacLeod.
Tune: Seamus MacNeill by Bobby MacLeod
There was also a man, Archibald MacLeish, who lived up the street in New Haven, Connecticut, where we were living at the time, who played the pipes, which I enjoyed a lot. And this was an inspiration.
But we moved to the Washington DC area at the time, and it was my mother contacting the Smithsonian Museum that eventually lead me to getting in touch with Sandy Jones, a significant piping influence on the East Coast for many decades now, who then recommended Ed Krintz, the then Pipe Major of the Denny and Dunipace Pipe Band in Washington DC around 1972.
I took lessons for a few years in Bethesda, MD, and we then moved to Pittsburgh, PA, where this young MacLeod started to take lessons with Joyce MacFarlane, who was involved with the Carnegie Mellon University Pipe Band.
I think it was during the mid-70s that I first became a member of the Clan MacLeod Society for a few years. I recall receiving the magazine.
I got this kilt before I went to Edinburgh for the first time, and it still fits. It's also one of my longest possessions, interestingly.
About 2 years later, I went to Edinburgh, Scotland to study at Fettes College, and was a good enough piper to play in the school pipe band. Because I was to be in the Pipe Band, I was also assigned to the NCO Cadre, which was nominally for budding officers … Kids at Fettes paraded around the campus on Wednesday afternoons, and I, coming out of liberal American, and who had no experience in this kind of kind of normal British 'ROTC / military training' for kids in high school, was assigned to the officers' corp – the NCO Cadre.
Marching like this was a a little bit strange for a kid without experience, but it was good training for being a MacLeod piping in the Fettes College pipe band.
That spring of 1977, I went up to the Isle of Skye and Dunvegan Castle, and saw our ancestral seat at Dunvegan for the first time in my life. My parents had been there for their honeymoon in 1957. But I didn't see Dame Flora who had written back to me just a few years earlier.
While at Fettes, we were required to go to church, and because I didn't have a suit, but did have a kilt, and this was Scotland, I could wear this instead. I suppose this is an example of being a thrifty Scot.
I also started Scottish Country Dancing while in high school in Pittsburgh, before and after I went to Edinburgh in 1976-77.
Scotland in 1982
I returned to Scotland in the spring of 1982 on a ZIS stipendium (a monetary grant for college students to student something of their choosing UNESCO – United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) to study “Bagpiping in Scotland” for which I received something like the equivalent of $800 to get to and from Munich, West Germany, where I was studying at the University of Munich.
This bagpiping PAPER, by me as a 21 year old MacLeod, is still in Schloss Salem, which is an old castle and one of the few private Gymnasiums, or high schools, in Germany, and which is the library for all such ZIS student papers …
On this trip to Scotland from Munich, I both took a workshop with Duncan Johnstone, a very piper who composed lyrical tunes, like Donald MacLeod's, but also went to the Isle of Skye again. When I arrived on the bus at Dunvegan, I saw John MacLeod of MacLeod in the arrival area, but being a little too shy to go up and meet him, I perhaps missed an opportunity.
This MacLeod played a little in the City of Roses Pipe Band in Portland, Oregon, in the early '80s.
I lived in Scotland in 2003-2004 studying at the University of Edinburgh in the School of Celtic and Scottish Studies on the very picturesque George Square at the University of Edinburgh.
Gary West, who does the BBC Pipeline Radio show was my adviser.
My focus of study in Edinburgh was St. Kilda, the island archipelago off the west coast of Scotland, for which the MacLeods were the factors, or tax-collectors. I was interested in studying St. Kilda as a kind of virtual place on the world wide web, which people could visit at the National Trust for Scotland's web site. I wanted to think through whether people were visiting a virtual site via the internet.
So when I went to visit actual St. Kilda, which is the largest island archipelago at the greatest distance from Britain, which you can only get to by hiring a boat, I also went to Dunvegan Castle again, for the 3rd time.
There's no ferry or anything to St. Kilda, it's so remote. St. Kildans, many MacLeods included, were birders. They made their living by rappelling from the steep cliffs of St. Kilda, and capturing Gannets, Puffins and Fulmars, by hand I think – at least back 2000 or so years.
And St. Kilda, was evacuated by the British government in 1930, when its population had dwindled to around 30 people. At its most populous, St. Kildans numbered around 180 in the late 1700s.
What the MacLeods as factors came over a rough sea annually to collect was a share of these oily birds.
So, in going to Skye this time, I had the good fortune of meeting John MacLeod of MacLeod, and of sitting and talking with him in the living room at Dunvegan, of talking about Dame Flora, and of hearing of all the records of St. Kilda in Dunvegan, something for future possible study.
But I have not yet learned of any pipers in St. Kilda's MacLeod history, although it wouldn't surprise me.
Pittsburgh, PA again
From 2006 – 2008 I returned to Pittsburgh to live when was father was ill, and played a little again in the Carnegie Mellon Pipe Band.
San Francisco, CA
So now this MacLeod is beginning to pipe in the Grade 2 Prince Charles Pipe Band of San Francisco.
And I continue to be fascinated by this amazing unique music of Scotland, which is so entwined with the Clan MacLeod via the MacCrimmon's, as hereditary pipers to the chief of the Clan MacLeod
In a somewhat unique way of thinking about piping, I'm curious how practicing Bagpipe music can become like drinking a kind of lager, or beer – where the series of tones kind of elevate you, naturally.
And I'm also musing in what ways the beautiful, slow and stately Piobaireachd, can be even a kind of meditative practice, the drones expressing a kind constancy, which the piper attunes to with his / or breathing, and the notes themselves become a kind of expression of the piper's meditative state.
Potted piping history …
especially v-a-v the MacCrimmons
MacCrimmons were a line of pipers who were hereditary pipers to the chiefs of the Clan MacLeod, for possibly many more than 10 generations, and created composed and gave form to the classical music of the Scottish Highland Bagpipe called Piobaireachd or Ceol Mor, meaning 'Big Music.'
They also started a piping school on Skye – possibly no more than a croft at times, but a school, nevertheless
There's a cairn on the Isle of Skye at Borreraig to commerate the MacCrimmons and this college of piping.
In many ways, their college has been an inspiration to many successive colleges of piping.
(The following notes and quotes are from Wikipedia and from P.M. Donald MacLeod's audio cassette "Piper in the Nave")
"In the 20th century the chiefs of Clan Macleod instated two MacCrimmons as hereditary pipers to the clan.
The origin of the MacCrimmons is vague and has long been debated. One fanciful theory originating from Captain Neil MacLeod of Gesto was that the MacCrimmons descend from an Italian from the city of Cremona. Gesto was an intimate friend of Black John MacCrimmon (d 1822) the last hereditary piper to MacLeod, and it is reputed that from him Gesto received the "Cremona tradition". According to Gesto, the founder of the MacCrimmons was a priest from Cremona named Giuseppe Bruno, whose son Petrus (or Patrick Bruno) was born at Cremona in 1475 and later emigrated to Ulster in 1510. On Patrick's arrival in Ireland he then married the daughter of a piping family and Gaelicised his name. Gesto's origin for the MacCrimmons is not taken seriously today.
It is generally accepted that the surname may be of Norse origin. With MacCrimmon being an Anglicised form of the Scottish Gaelic Mac Ruimein meaning "son of Ruimean". Ruimean is possibly a Gaelic form of the Old Norse personal name Hroðmundr which is composed of the elements hróð (meaning "fame") + mundr (meaning "protection").
While this name origin would seem to tie in with the MacCrimmons' association with the MacLeods and the Isle of Skye the earliest references to a MacCrimmon (who were also pipers) appears in Campbell lands. The earliest reference is found in a bond of manrent of November 29, 1574 between Colin Campbell of Glenorchy and "John Tailzoure Makchrwmen in the Kirktoun of Balquhidder and Malccolme pyper Mackchrwmen in Craigroy", this reference being over ninety years before the MacCrimmons are found as pipers to MacLeod of Dunvegan in Skye.
Another early reference is to a "Patrik Mcquhirryman, piper", mentioned in the Register of the Privy Council, vol.5 (1592–99), who is mentioned in connection with a crime in Perthshire. Alastair Campbell of Airds speculated that MacCrimmons were pipers to the Campbells of Glenorchy prior to the MacLeods of Dunvegan and Harris.
By the mid 1690s the MacCrimmons are confirmed to have been located in the Hebrides and appear to have been recognised as masters of their craft. An order from John Campbell, Earl of Breadalbane to his chamberlain, Campbell of Barcaldine reads: "Give McIntyre ye pyper fforty pounds scots as his prentises(hi)p with McCrooman till May nixt as also provyde him in what Cloths he needs and dispatch him immediately to the Isles". The order seems to relate to a statement written by the mentioned earl of Breadalbane on April 22, 1697 at Taymouth in Perthshire: "Item paid to quantiliane McCraingie McLeans pyper for one complete year as prentyce fie for the Litle pyper before he was sent to McCrooman, the soume of £160" (modern translation: "Item, paid to Conduiligh Mac Frangaich [Rankin], MacLean's piper, for one complete year, as apprentice fee for the Little Piper before he [the Little Piper] was sent to MacCrimmon, the sum of £160"). The MacCrimmon instructor that is referenced to may well be Pàdraig Òg.
Boreraig, Isle of Skye
Though much has been written about the MacCrimmon pipers to the MacLeods of Dunvegan, there is little reliable information on them. The genealogy of the "hereditary pipers" has also been the subject of debate and speculation. The MacCrimmon of whom there is the most reliable information is Red Donald (Dòmhnull Ruadh) (d July 31, 1825). Red Donald held tacks at Borreraig and Shader, and at Trien in Waternish, and also a farm at Glenelg. Red Donald's older brother was Black John (Iain Dubh) (d 1822), who also held the Boreraig tack. Interestingly the MacCrimmon brothers had their most formative years during the Disarming Act. Today it is accepted that these MacCrimmon brothers were sons of Malcolm (Calum), son of Pàdraig Òg, who were both pipers to the chiefs of MacLeod and who also held land from them. Red Donald and Black John's father and paternal uncle (Donald Ban) both piped for the Government forces in the 1745-46 Jacobite Rising.
During the Jacobite Rising in 1745 the chief of Clan MacLeod supported the Hanoverians against the Jacobites. As MacLeod's piper, Donald Ban MacCrimmon (Dòmnhall/Dòmnhull Bàn MacCruimein - bàn meaning fairhaired cf Duncan Ban MacIntyre) took an active part in the conflicts against the Jacobite forces. Donald Ban was captured on December 23, 1745 following the Hanoverian defeat at Inverurie. During his captivity, the pipers in the Jacobite army went on strike, refusing to play while the "King of Pipers" was held captive. According to popular tradition, Donald Ban wrote his well known lament, Cha till, cha till, cha till, MacCruimein (meaning literally "MacCrimmon will not, will not, will not return." it has been variously titled "No more, no more, no more, MacCrimmon", "MacCrimmon shall never return", "MacCrimmon's Lament" among others) with an intimation of his fate.
Donald Ban was eventually killed during the so-called "Rout of Moy" when on February 18, 1746, with the Jacobites marching on Inverness, Lord Loudoun led 1,500 men in an attempt to capture Charles Edward Stuart. When the Government troops advanced upon Moy in the dark they encountered a watch made up of only a handful of Mackintoshes. In the encounter a single shot was fired and Donald Ban was instantly killed. With the death of their piper, panic quickly spread and Loudoun's forces fled in the "Rout of Moy". According to John William O'Sullivan's narrative, "McCloud had his Piper killed just by his side, & was very much laughed at when he came back".
Red Donald and Black John
The MacCrimmon of whom there is the most reliable information is Red Donald (Dòmhnull Ruadh) (d July 31, 1825). Red Donald held tacks at Borreraig and Shader, and at Trien in Waternish, and also a farm at Glenelg. In the early 1770s he left Scotland and settled in North America in what is now North Carolina. He was away from Scotland for about seventeen years (1773–1790), though there is no record of him associated with his involvement with the pipes in anyway. He settled in Anson County (located in what is now North Carolina, USA). He took part in the American Revolutionary War as a Loyalist, raising troops for the British forces and served as a Lieutenant. He claimed to have been present at the Battle of Moore's Creek Bridge in 1776. He eventually lost an eye. Red Donald evidently evaded capture by the Americans at Yorktown in 1781. After the end of hostilities he spent seven years as a Loyalist in Shelburne County, Nova Scotia, (located in what is now Nova Scotia, Canada).
He returned to Scotland in 1790, at the insistence of the Highland Society of London which defrayed the cost of MacCrimmon, his wife, and three of their four children's journey back to Scotland. In 1808 the Highland Society of London proposed that a College of Piping be re-established at Fort Augustus, and that Lt. MacCrimmon should supervise instruction. This proposal was declined though, causing Red Donald "disappointment and mortification".
According to J. G. Lockhart's biography of Sir Walter Scott: "MacLeod's hereditary piper is called MacCrimmon, but the present holder of the office has risen above his profession. He is an old, a lieutenant in the army, and a most capital piper, possessing about 200 tunes and pibrochs, most of which will probably die with him as he declines to have any of his sons instructed in the art. He plays to MacLeod and his lady, but only in the same room, and maintains his minstrel privilege by putting on his bonnet so soon as he begins to play".
Red Donald's decision not to pass his knowledge of piping on to his sons seems to be related to the massive emigration of the MacLeod estates in the 1770s, in which he himself gave up Borreraig and sailed for North America. Even in 1799 after his return to Scotland Macleod put many substantial tacks up for sale around Dunvegan. In his later life, he is associated with Glenelg, which MacLeod sold in 1798 and subsequently re-sold in 1811, 1824, 1837, further forcing the poorer Highlanders to emigrate to North America.
The last MacCrimmon to be hereditary piper to MacLeod of MacLeod (until the modern era) was Black John MacCrimmon. According to tradition in 1795 Black John decided to emigrate to America, though only got as far as Greenock, before making up his mind to stay on the Isle of Skye, where he died in 1822 aged ninety-one.
Modern Appointment of Hereditary Piper of MacLeod
The MacCrimmon piping dynsaty is honoured in the form of cairn built in 1933, at Borreraig. This cairn, which overlooks Loch Dunvegan across to Dunvegan Castle, was paid for by clan societies and donations from around the world. The Gaelic inscription on the cairn reads in translation as: "The Memorial Cairn of the MacCrimmons of whom ten generations were the hereditary pipers of MacLeod and who were renowned as Composers, Performers and Instructors of the classical music of the bagpipe. Near to this post stood the MacCrimmons' School of Music, 1500–1800".
In the last century, with a revival in clan interest, the modern chiefs of Clan MacLeod have instated two MacCrimmons as hereditary pipers to the chief. Malcolm Roderick MacCrimmon, a Canadian born in 1918, started piping at the age of eight. With the start of the Second World War he joined the Calgary Highlanders and subsequently joined the pipe band. At some point in time he wrote to Dame Flora MacLeod, chief of Clan MacLeod, asking for approval and support of his decorating his bagpipes in the MacLeod tartan. The chief then wrote to the regiment's Commanding Officer and permission was granted. In 1942, MacCrimmon is said to have made a verbal agreement with the clan chief and became the ninth "hereditary piper" to the Chief of Clan MacLeod. MacCrimmon claimed there was proof of his descent from the MacCrimmons of Borreraig, and as such, that he was a descendant of the hereditary pipers to the Chief. In 1978, John MacLeod of MacLeod, 29th chief of Clan MacLeod, while visiting Calgary, Alberta, Canada, formally made Malcolm's son, Iain Norman MacCrimmon, the tenth hereditary piper to the Chief of Clan MacLeod."
(from Wikipedia in May 2011)
Some highlights of MacCrimmon music, hereditary pipers to the Clan MacLeod …
per P.M Donald MacLeod
"We begin with “The Pretty Dirk.” This tune was composed by Patrick Og MacCrimmon who became hereditary piper to the MacLeod's in about 1670. Patrick Og had in mind a dirk belonging to the chief of the MacLeod's and the chief told him that if he composed an appropriate tune in his praise by the following day, then the dirk would be presented to him. Next morning, Patrick Og struck up the newly composed Piobaireachd, which seemed to express the performer's entreaties for the gift and exultation at receiving it. The MacLeod chief was so pleased that he called Patrick Og into Dunvegan castle and handed him the dirk saying that he well deserved it, for so forceable an appeal prepared in so short a time.
Patrick Og MacCrimmon died in 1730 and was succeeded by his son Donald Ban who was killed at the route of Moy in 1746. In this skirmish, a defending force of 5 men under a blacksmith called Fraser frightened off a much larger attacking force by rushing about shouting and firing at random behind peat stacks to give the impression of a more numerous body of men. It was a stormy night and the attackers, further confused by thunder, fled with the loss of one man, Donald Ban MacCrimmon, who dropped his dirk. It is recorded that this was picked up by Fraser, the blacksmith, and may well have been the pretty dirk given to Donald Ban's father, by the chief of the MacLeods."
Donald MacLeod plays “The Pretty Dirk.”
"One of two nameless tunes.
This one, “Hio Tro Tro, Hin Ban Ban,” appears on page 124 of the Piobaireachd Society's Book 4. It is translated from Colin Campbell's Canntaireachd, where it is one of a group of tunes, and it is called one of the Cragich. This obscure word, Cragich, has usually been taken to mean 'rough' or 'unfinished.'"
Donald MacLeod plays “Hio Tro Tro, Hin Ban Ban”
“Salute on the Birth of Rory Mor MacLeod.”
"This tune appears in Donald MacDonald's book, published in 1822, where it was said to be composed by MacCrimmon at the birth of Roderick Mor MacLeod in Dunvegan Castle, Isle of Skye, in 1715. However, as pointed out in Piobaireachd Society Book 4, the famous Rory Mor MacLeod died in 1626. The tune is usually attributed to Donald Mor MacCrimmon, but could not have been composed by him, as he was not born until after the birth of both Rory Mor, and his elder brother, who preceeded him as chief. If the tune had been composed on the birth of Rory Mor, then, the composer must have been an earlier MacCrimmon. The Gaelic name for the tune is “An Ann Air Mhire Tha Sibh,” which means “Are you besides yourself?,” or as Angus MacKay translates it, “Are you Merry Making?”"
Urlar to “Salute on the Birth of Rory Mor MacLeod.”
(Above quotations from Donald MacLeod's "Piper in the Nave" audio cassette, recorded in Dunfermline Abbey).
Summing up …
MacLeod piping traditions are long and alive today …
And the Clan MacLeod, through the ages, has been of great help in support of piping and furthering this tradition.
Let us continue this tradition in our families and our MacLeod Societies, for piping is a musical art with a power all its own.
Hold fast to piping