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Uncovering our piping legacy

North Sutherland is renowned for producing talented pipers and it is this legacy that Strathnaver Museum and Feis air an Oir are exploring in an innovative project called Pibrochs and Poppies.

Fiona Mackenzie, Project Researcher with 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’”.

The focus for both the musicians and researchers is 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. So far the project has identified 9 pipers from Mackay Country who were involved in World War One. With the help of the piper’s relatives the project is uncovering the piper’s stories and bringing their music to a new audience.

The musicians from Feis air an Oir have been learning a number of tunes written by William ‘Gruids’ Macdonald. Willie, born in Melness, was a prolific composer and joined the Scots Guards as a piper in 1912 serving in France and Belgium where he was badly gassed. Willie’s son and grandson, Donnie and John, came along to share their memories of Willie at a recent event organised by the team to find out more about Mackay Country pipers. They told the researchers that despite being discharged ‘100% disabled’ in 1917 Willie fought back to mobility and eventually joined the Lovat Scouts as Pipe Sergeant. He also spend many years teaching piping in Skye.

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. Donald’s daughter Betty and granddaughter June have shared Donald’s story and that of his brothers James and David. James served with the Royal Engineers and was killed in action in France. Donald survived the war and passed on his piping knowledge to his son Hamish, June’s son Ewan is also a piper having been taught by the late Pipe Major Charles O’Brien.

Duncan Matheson and his wife Brenda from Brora also came along to share their family’s story. Duncan’s uncle, William Duncan Mackay, came from Skerray and served with the Seaforth Highlanders 8th Service Battalion as a piper. Arriving in France on the 9th July 1915, William’s Battalion was soon in the front line preparing for their first major offensive at the Battle of Loos. On the 25th September the pipers from the Battalion took up position and began to play as they led “A” Company toward the German lines. It was as William played his Battalion through the gas in no-man’s land that he fell, aged just 24.

Five pipers were killed that day and another five were wounded including Donald Valentine whose grandson’s step-daughter Marelle Giles, a teacher in Kent, has sent us this photograph of the 8th Service Battalion Pipe Band taken in 1914. Duncan, who had not previously seen this image, has confirmed that his uncle William is pictured on the far right holding his pipes before he embarked for the Western Front.

The loss of pipers at Loos illustrates that 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.

The team have also uncovered what life was like on the Western Front thanks to Morag Sutherland from Brora who has kindly sent the team copies of letters William Mackay from Durness wrote. William like many Mackay Country men served with the 6th Seaforth Highlanders which was a territorial unit. Two other pipers from Mackay Country also served in this Battalion; Angus Gunn Mackay from Skerray and Angus Sutherland Mackay from Trantlebeg.

William describes his first experience of “going over the bags” during the first day of the Battle of Arras on 9th April 1917. It was during the opening day of the Battle that his Mackay Country comrades fell as they advanced on enemy lines. Medals b belonging to Angus S Mackay can be seen in the Strathnaver Museum Mackay Room. Angus was the older brother of renowned piper John Mackay, Trantlebeg who was still a boy during the First World War. On the last day of the Battle of Arras William was killed during intense fighting around the Chemical works in Roux.

Another Mackay Country man who was involved in the First World War was Alexander ‘Alec’ Mackay. Alec saw service in Egypt, the Dardanelles and France with the Lovat Scouts. Although shot through the jaw. Alec recovered and fought on until the end of the war. Strathnaver Museum has kindly been loaned Alec’s bagpipes, medals and other memorabilia by his great nephew Allan Mackay. Alec’s story features in a new exhibition at Strathnaver Museum which will run throughout 2015.

The project team will be at the Durness Highland Gathering on 24th July and they would be delighted to meet anyone with ancestors who were pipers during the First World War with a connection to Mackay Country. As part of the day a new composition written by Carol-Anne Mackay, another former pupil of Pipe Major O’Brien, will be premiered on Alec’s refurbished World War One pipes.

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.

For more information please contact Carol-Anne Mackay or Fiona Mackenzie at or join their Facebook page Pibrochs and Poppies or @PibrochsPoppies.