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Tunes and Tales: youngsters uncover the legacy of their piping predecessors

Musicians and researchers in north Sutherland are working together to explore the role of music, particularly bagpipe music, during the First World War.

It is thought that more than 2,500 pipers served on the Western Front alone, suffering heavy casualties. Their legacy is the subject of ‘Pibrochs and Poppies’, a joint venture between Strathnaver Museum and Fèis air an Oir.

The project is being supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) First World War: then and now and Museum Galleries Scotland World War I Fund 2014-2015.

The researchers have already identified a number of tunes written by First World War pipers from Mackay Country and they would like to hear from more people whose forebears were pipers in WWI. To help them uncover the stories of their piping predecessors the young people from Fèis air an Oir have organised a special event on the 28th March at the Tongue Hostel at 1pm where members of the public are invited to come along and share their family’s stories.

Pipers have long been associated with the military, and demand for them grew during 1914-1918, as they suffered heavy casualties and also to help boost morale in the trenches.

Strathnaver Museum explains that Mackay Country pipers, from as early as the 17th Century, have been renowned for their great skill and expertise. During the 19th Century Mackay Country pipers were especially prized as it was said that they ‘came down as if trained in a school’.

What is particularly striking is that there is no apparent reason for this legacy as there were many different tutors operating in the area at this time. It has been suggested that the legacy of Donald Mor MacCrimmon, of the legendary MacCrimmon family, hereditary pipers to Clan MacLeod, played a part. In 1605 Macrimmon was granted protection by Lord Reay after setting fire to a house in Kintail where the murderer of MacLeod’s brother was said to be hiding.

MacCrimmon became piper to the 13th chief Hugh Mackay and over the next 15 years taught the Mackay pipers. No doubt the atmosphere created by the Mackay chiefs also encouraged continuing high standards. Balnakeil House, built by the 2nd Lord Reay around 1642, housed a range of traditional Gaelic artists including piper, fiddler, bard, story-teller and jester showing the importance of the oral traditions.

It was not until 1854 that pipers were authorised by the War Office as before this time officers paid for the services of a piper out of their own pocket. Demonstrating the esteem and the importance placed on the piper’s role within the regiment.

This esteem is also shown by the story of John Macdonald, who was eventually to become school teacher at Tongue, who enlisted in the North Fencibles in 1778 becoming Pipe Major. However, Col George Mackenzie who was raising the 2nd Battalion for the 73rd Highlanders on hearing John play offered him a more attractive salary in order to entice him to join his new battalion.

The changing nature of military combat ushered in by the First World War, as soldiers dug in to trench warfare, made the piper who traditionally led from the front particularly vulnerable. Of course a piper is no more vulnerable than any other soldier but due to their unique skill set are more difficult to replace. After suffering heavy casualties at the beginning of the conflict most regiments tried to keep their pipers in relative security but it was the presence of the piper that was seen to inspire the men. On the battlefield under heavy fire the sound of the pipes may be drowned out but it was the piper that was followed, not his instrument.

William MacDonald from Melness was a prolific composer and the young people from Feis air an Oir are busy learning some of his pipe tunes. Willie ‘Gruids’ joined the Scots Guards as a piper in 1912 and served in France and Belgium where he was badly gassed in 1917. Despite being discharged ‘100% disabled’ Willie fought back to mobility and eventually joined the Lovat Scouts as Pipe Sergeant. A contemporary and friend of Willie’s was Tongue piper Donald Iain Mackenzie who also served in the Scots Guards during the First World War.

Another Mackay Country man who served with the Lovat Scouts during the First World War was Alexander ‘Alick’ Mackay. Alick saw service in Egypt, the Dardanelles and France where he was shot through the jaw. Alick recovered and fought on until the end of the war. Strathnaver Museum has kindly been loaned Alick’s bagpipes, medals and other memorabilia by his great nephew Allan Mackay. Alick’s story will feature in a new exhibition at Strathnaver Museum which will launch as part of the Festival of Museums on 16th May and run throughout 2015.

The project team would be delighted to meet anyone with ancestors who were pipers in WWI from Mackay Country at the Tunes and Tales event on the 28th March. For more information please contact Carol-Anne Mackay or Fiona Mackenzie at or join their Facebook page Pibrochs and Poppies or @PibrochsPoppies.