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The Sinclairs and Piping:
The Unknown Connection



This series appeared in four consecutive issues of Roslin O Roslin, Volume 3, edited by Rory Sinclair.


Piping Angel from the print at the excellent 
Rosslyn Chapel website - click here to visit

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 own.

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 either.

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.

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Rory Sinclair piping at Grandfather Mountain -
click here for more photos at ClanSinclairSC.org

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!

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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 the bagpipe.

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 Roslin).

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 1680.

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 .

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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 rooms!"

Photo (not presently available online): The Chanter of Iain Dall MacKay (Photo Courtesy of Barbara and Michael Sinclair)

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Followup: From the Editorial in Roslin O Roslin, Summer 2000 (Vol 3 No 20)


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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