This series appeared in four consecutive issues of Roslin O Roslin,
Volume 3, edited by Rory Sinclair.
First in a Series
Spring 1997 (Vol 3 No 7)
This is a photograph of the Piping Angel
in Rosslyn Chapel. It is one of the earliest depictions of a piper anywhere in
Scotland. The photograph was taken by Jim Buchanan, a brother piper, a fine
gentleman, and a long-time resident of Roslin.
[ The photo originally published with this article is not available online.
However, the Piping Angel (right) may be seen among the prints at the excellent
Rosslyn Chapel website. ]
Let us get this out of the way first: your editor is a piper and is interested
in all things related to piping. Indeed, over the years he has researched
various aspects of piping and has been lucky enough to have a few coups of his
He found, identified and authenticated a complete set of Donald MacDonald
bagpipes that were made between 1800 and 1815 and were probably played at
Waterloo. Further he located and authenticated the only known first edition of
the very first published book of Piobaireachd (pronounced pee-brock)
published by this very same Donald MacDonald in 1819. Both these items were
written up in the Piping Times, published by the College of Piping in
Glasgow and which is the magazine of record for this kind of discovery.
Do not worry if you do not understand the significance of these "discoveries" at
this point. They will become clear in time but these are mentioned at the outset
in order to prove your editor's bona fides, and to provide you with some names
that will come up later in this series.
The Great Highland Bagpipe has been so thoroughly accepted as the total
invention of the Gael as to have excluded the contribution of others such as us
Sinclairs who inhabited the periphery of the speakers of pure Gaelic. Indeed,
Caithness, with its large Viking heritage is sometimes regarded as not being a
Highland region at all. We saw this in the series last year on the Highland
Dress but we came to the conclusion that Sinclairs have a good claim on the
Tartan as do many others who are not, strictly speaking, of Gaelic extraction
As his reading on piping progressed, your editor became more and more aware of
the contribution our family has made to the Scottish Bagpipe and this series of
articles will explore this connection. Heretofore, the story has been limited to
bits of knowledge that were fragments unrelated to all the others but which,
when pulled together make an impressive story of an unrecognized impact on the
traditional music of the Highlands.
We begin with the photograph reproduced above. This is one of the earliest
representations of a piper anywhere in Scotland and it is to be found in that
"symphony in stone" Rosslyn Chapel, the crowning achievement of Earl William
Sinclair. The fact that this occurs in a Sinclair landmark is significant for
our story for it symbolizes so well the intimate connection of Sinclairs and
piping from the earliest times.
Second in a Series
Summer 1997 (Vol 3 No 8)
One thing should be understood before we proceed into a discussion of the
Sinclair connection to Scottish piping and that is this: until the advent of the
orchestra and the establishment of conventions as to what were "legitimate"
instruments as opposed to merely "folk" instruments, bagpipes were a common
phenomenon throughout Europe. Almost all cultures possessed them and the piper
appears in so many paintings of the mediaeval period as to make us certain that
there were as many varieties of bagpipes as there were local cultures.
It was in the remote hill areas of Spanish Galicia, Hungary, Sicily, and
Bulgaria for example, where orchestral conventions did not penetrate, that small
remnants of a piping tradition can be found today. This is even more true of
Scotland, for piping survived here in a big way and we could perhaps conclude
that this was so because the Middle Ages lasted longer in Scotland than they did
in France, Germany or Holland for the result here was that the pipers celebrated
by Durer and Brueghal were gone by 1750.
For Mediaeval Scotland, the pipe, the fiddle and the harp were the primary
instruments of music-making although the harp or clarsach had, for the most
part, ceased being played in the 18th century. Lest one think that Caithness was
outside the Scottish piping world, listen to this from the records of the church
court in Wick (1787):
Each musician or piper who shall take it upon him to play at a meeting where
dancing and drinking take place shall be liable to a fine of six pounds Scots.
I guess some things about piping have never changed! This piping tradition in
Caithness has carried on to the present day with Peter Henderson (fl.1890-1920),
one the best pipe makers of the last 200 years coming from Caithness and Pipe
Major Bruce Hitchings of Wick being one of today's finest players.
The great pipers of the medieval period in Scotland were the MacCrimmons of Skye
who provided eight unbroken generations of hereditary pipers to the MacLeods of
Dunvegan. Almost equal in talent were the MacKays of Gairloch, Iain Dall MacKay
or the Blind Piper being perhaps the most outstanding. Iain Dall was taught by
Patrick Og MacCrimmon and was the only one who was ever considered his equal.
Bagpipe music of this era, was not the music you would normally associate with
piping that is heard today. Modern pipe music consists of slow and fast marches
and dancing tunes such as jigs, reels and hornpipes (all referred to as Ceol
Beag or "the little music"). In the MacCrimmon era, jigs were probably
played but the preeminent music was piobaireachd (pee-brock) or
Ceol Mor or "the big music".
Most of the best piobaireachds that we possess were composed in the 16th and
17th centuries; they were not written down in staff notation until the early
19th century as the original composers would have never seen printed music and
the tunes were passed on with astonishing accuracy using vocables that imitated
the notes and embellishments of the chanter.
These tunes are usually played slowly; they can take as long as 20-25 minutes to
complete; they consist of an intricate series of variations on a theme or
ground. The names of the tunes are evocative of glorious victories or of
ineffable sadnesses of bygone times but at the same time have titles that are as
modern sounding as the titles of Blues songs:
- Too Long in this Condition;
- A Flame of Wrath for Squinting Patrick;
- Lament for Red Hector of the Battles;
- All the Old Men Have Paid Rent but Rory;
- Red Hand at the MacDonald Arms.
Your editor was initially given to understand that only Gaelic speakers would
have composed piobaireachds in the first place and therefore would have had
tunes named after them in the second place.
Imagine his joy when he discovered that in addition to the piobaireachd
"Spaidseareachd Mhic na Cearda" (The Sinclair's March ) , there in are in fact
two others: "Robert Sinclair's Wife's Lament" and "Lord Berriedale's Salute"
(Lord Berriedale being the title of the son of the Earl of Caithness). Your
editor has researched and retrieved the music for these tunes and, although they
are not currently being played, in competition or otherwise, intends to bring
them back from the obscurity in which they have lain for so many years.
The Sinclair Piobaireachds will be heard again!
Third in a Series
Autumn 1997 (Vol 3 No 9)
One of the most important individuals in the last 200 years of piping is Donald
MacDonald (1767-1840). He was a first class piper, he was a talented maker of
bagpipes as well as of other instruments and he was a collector of ancient
piobaireachd, the classical music of the Great Highland Bagpipe.
Most important, he was the first to attempt to devise a method of putting
piobaireachd in staff notation and the first to actually publish a collection of
20 tunes (1819). In 1994, your editor located and identified the only known
first edition of this collection. Further, your editor identified a very rare
complete set of Donald MacDonald bagpipes on which he reported in the July 1992
Piping Times (only two other such sets are known to exist). So this Sinclair
already feels a deep connection to Donald MacDonald.
There is no doubt that Donald MacDonald was a great musical genius but what is
not known is that he got his first ‘leg-up’ from that amazing man of boundless
energy, and insatiable curiosity, Sir John Sinclair of Ulbster, (the great x4
grandfather of John Sinclair, the present Viscount Thurso of Ulbster).
Donald MacDonald first appears on record as piper to the Caithness Highlanders
when he gained 3rd prize at the competition sponsored by the Highland Society of
Scotland in 1799. This organization along with the Highland Society of London,
was charged with the task of rescuing from oblivion the remnants of Highland
culture that had suffered so much between the defeat of the Highland Clans at
Culloden in 1746 and the repeal of the Disarming Act in 1781 which had
forbidden, amongst other things, the wearing of the tartan and the playing of
How much time Donald would have spent with his regiment rather than with the
Colonel is an open question but there can be no doubt that Sir John knew piping
well enough to recognize a good piper when he saw one and in Donald MacDonald,
Sir John had selected and promoted a piper who would have a huge impact on the
revival of the music of ancient Scotland.
In 1804 the Societies started making positive efforts to get Highland pipe music
set on to the staff. It was none other than Sir John Sinclair who made the
brilliant suggestion that money prizes should be awarded to competitors who
brought written versions of their tunes to the competitions. It was a successful
strategy for many pipers did exactly that and thus began the process of
"collecting" piobaireachd that has gone on to the present day.
We should note that the first prize ever to be awarded for notation was in 1806
to Donald MacDonald. (His son John won in 1808).
Sir John Sinclair’s interest in piping did not end here for we hear of him
designing a new chanter for the bagpipe in the early 1800's and in 1824 we see
him judging the piping competition for the Highland Society’s Gold Medal.
Interestingly enough for us Sinclairs, at this very competition at which Sir
John judged, one of the competitors was Kenneth MacRae an excellent piper who
had placed 2nd the previous year.
Kenneth MacRae was piper to James Sinclair, Lord Berriedale, eldest son of
Alexander 13th Earl of Caithness. (Pictures of Alexander and of James, later
14th Earl of Caithness, were published in the Autumn 1996 issue of Roslin O
It may be recalled that we Sinclairs are the proud possessors of not just one
Clan Piobaireachd (many clans don't have any), but three! Three and a half, if
we count the "Carles with the Breeks" composed by a Campbell piper on the
victory of the Campbells over the Sinclairs at the Battle of Altimarlach in
One of the most beautiful is "Lord Berriedale's Salute" written by this same
Kenneth MacRae, then named "Piper to James Sinclair, Earl of Caithness". From
this we can assume that the tune was written in honour of James’ eldest son
George, then Lord Berriedale.
Here, much like we saw in our investigation into the history of the Highland
Dress where in the early 1800's, Sinclairs participated with great gusto in its
resurrection, Sinclairs were also major participants in the recovery and
promotion of the ancient music of the Scottish bagpipe. More important, we
Sinclairs were not just participants, we were major players .
Final in a Series
Winter 1998 (Vol 3 No 10)
For this, the last in our series on Sinclairs and Piping, we are going to tell a
remarkable story that involves one of the greatest of the piping families of
Scotland (outshone only by the MacCrimmons of Skye) and the eventual connection
of this family to a Sinclair family in Nova Scotia.
The story involves the genealogy of four generations of that family in Scotland
and five further generations after it became transplanted in the New World early
in the 19th century. Further, we follow this family as it eked out a living in a
harsh new land, eventually achieving success while at the same time, never
forgetting its roots in its Scottish traditions. When we come to the present
day, we find that there is in the possession of this family, now Sinclairs, an
ancient artifact that is startling both in its age and in its importance to the
whole world of Scottish piping past and present.
Now to our story.
Rory MacKay (1592-1689) came from the Reay Country (north-east tip of Scotland)
in 1609 and settled in Gairloch on the west coast near Loch Maree. Some say he
fled to avoid retribution for a murder he committed in Tongue. Whatever the
truth of this, the Reay area of Sutherlandshire produced good pipers (Joseph
MacDonald and the MacKays of Raasay being some of them) and Rory was more than
competent enough to be piper to four successive lairds of Gairloch.
He married late and his eldest son was the famous Iain (or John) Dall MacKay,
the Blind Piper (1656-1754). Iain Dall’s life spans the really golden age of
piping and he was considered so good that his abilities as a piper and a
composer were said to be equal to those of the great MacCrimmon Family.
The 30 or so tunes of Iain Dall are of great quality many of which are still
played today. The most famous of these is a composition of spectacular eeriness
- "The Lament for Patrick Og MacCrimmon", Iain Dall’s salute to his deceased
teacher. The only difficulty was that Iain Dall had been given false information
for Patrick Og had not died and we can only imagine the good laugh they had when
Iain Dall played it for him in the flesh.
Iain Dall's son, Angus MacKay (1725-70), was also a fine piper and composer as
well as was his son John Roy MacKay (1753-1835). John Roy was piper to the
Lairds of Gairloch as had been four generations of his ancestors so when he
emigrated to Nova Scotia in 1805 in order to better provide for his eight
children, there had been MacKay pipers to the Mackenzies of Gairloch for just
short of 200 years.
The ways of the Highlands had changed, the clearances were in full swing, the
MacCrimmon College at Boreraig, Skye had ceased to exist in the 1780s - it was
no longer possible to live in the old ways.
John Roy settled in Pictou, Nova Scotia. He continued to pipe but none of his
children were pipers.
His son John (1793-1884), known as "the Squire" lived a long a successful life
in New Glasgow becoming widely respected as Stipendiary Magistrate for the town.
He wrote his memoirs in his fascinating manuscript, Reminiscences of a Long Life
in which describes clear memories of his home, his friends and relatives in
Slattadale near Loch Maree which he had left at the age of 12.
John had a son Norman whose daughter, Norma married Donald Sinclair. Their son
was John Sinclair and, as your editor later learned, this John Sincliar was
Piper to our Clan Sinclair Association until his death in 1989.
But your editor didn’t know all this until early 1997. The process of putting
the story together began when he visited Gairloch in September of 1996 and
visited the museum in Gairloch hoping to see something on the MacKay pipers. The
regular curator was not in and so he left a note asking a few questions.
Two weeks later, a package arrived from Gairloch with much of the genealogy
given here. Within days of the package arriving and guided by the "unseen hand",
another package arrived from Dr. Michael Sinclair, a long-standing Clansman.
Michael was making your editor the wonderful and generous gift of all his father
John's piping books. In the letter with the package, Michael included little
piece of news that was the penny that finally dropped: he said that he liked
listening to piobaireachd especially "The Lament for Patrick Og MacCrimmon" that
had been composed by his ancestor, the Blind Piper!
So here your editor had on his desk:
- the Gairloch genealogy that began with Iain Dall MacKay and ended
with John Sinclair probably of Nova Scotia, and
- a letter from the son of a John Sinclair of Nova Scotia whose ancestor
had been Iain Dall MacKay!
The convergence of this strange collection of genealogical/musical material was
against all odds: the realization that the closing of the circle that resulted
was dependent on the appearance of these letters within days of one another was
psychically staggering, but it happened just so!
And take your editor's word for it: it is satisfying in the extreme! Michael
Sinclair, member of the Clan Sinclair Association of Canada, is the son of the
John Sinclair, former piper the Association and both are direct descendants of
Iain Dall MacKay.
But this is by no means the end of it. Michael added in his letter that
recently, while staying at his mother Barbara Sinclair’s home, he was listening
to pipe music composed by the Blind Piper. As he listened, his gaze fell upon
the old pipe chanter mounted on the wall. This chanter had been passed on
through the generations in Scotland; it had been brought over by John Roy MacKay
when he emigrated; it had stayed in the family for the succeeding five
generations and no one ever forgot whose chanter it originally was, nor the
roots and heritage that it symbolized. This chanter belonged to none other than
Iain Dall MacKay, the Blind Piper of Gairloch.!
Understand that bagpipes get knocked about a lot in the performance of their
duties. Pipers try to treat them well but they are played in rain, mud, sleet
and blood. They get batted around, rained on, sat on, and shot at. Hence not
many sets survive 50 years, and fewer yet, 100 years. It is very rare to see
anything over 150 years old and that is why the nearly 200 year old Donald
MacDonald set found by your editor was cause for great excitement in 1992.
This chanter of Iain Dall's must be close to 300 years old and is probably the
oldest Scottish piping artifact that is datable. It has a spectacular pedigree
and now belongs to members of our Clan!.
Your editor sent on to Michael the genealogical information from Gairloch and
one further revelation has come to light. Michael Sinclair’s family has been
very good about preserving their genealogy from John Roy on but did not have any
information on relatives still in Scotland. The information sent to your editor
from Gairloch contained that missing information and Michael and family now have
names and addresses of living relatives in the auld country.
As was said at the end of the editorial Roots: a Small Tale (Summer
1996) in which your editor recounted the discovery of his own living relatives
(after a 6 generation hiatus) in Fintry, "Sometimes small doors lead into big
Photo (not presently available online): The Chanter of Iain Dall MacKay
(Photo Courtesy of Barbara and Michael Sinclair)
Followup: From the Editorial in Roslin O Roslin, Summer 2000 (Vol 3 No
Michael Sinclair and his mother Barbara Sinclair, of Halifax as reported in an
earlier issue of Roslin O Roslin, are the proud possessors of one of
the most important piping artifacts in the world: the chanter of Iain Dall
MacKay of Gariloch who flourished circa 1650-1720.
Michael writes in response to a query from your editor that he would be happy to
allow two piping experts from Scotland, pipemaker Julian Goodacre of Peebles,
and musicologist Dr. Barnaby Brown, to measure the chanter with view to making a
copy that will be used to reproduce ancient piobaireachd tunes in a style of the
17th and 18th Centuries on instruments of the period.
Thank you, Michael and Barbara.
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