MacCrimmon Pipers

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.

Instruction from John Campbell, Earl of Breadalbane, to his chamberlain, Alexander Campbell of Barcaldine, c. 1697.

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

Statement of Earl of Breadalbane, 22 April, 1697, at Taymouth Castle.

MACCRIMMON TRADITIONS.

THERE was a gathering of the clans at Dunvegan Castle. There sat down to dinner at the Macleod’s hospitable table eleven noble chiefs, each accompanied by his piper, a walking exhibition of his clan’s glory and greatness. Each chief was greater than the other, and each piper was better than his fellow. Great reputations were at stake; and all were anxious to have the matter decided at once. The Macleod gave the signal. Out stepped the famous piper of the Macdonalds of the Isles, and filled the hall with the well-known strains of the old Piob-mhor. Others followed and bravely upheld the traditions of clan and family. But one was amissing. There was an anxious look in Macleod’s eye. Where was the old piper who had so long and faithfully served the chief of Dunvegan? He sent a page-boy to look for him. He returned with sad news—the piper was hopelessly drunk. Great was the chief’s anger at being thus humbled in his own stronghold. Something must be done and that quickly. The tenth piper was tuning his pipes. One more to go—and then all would be found out. A sudden idea seized the chief’s mind. He grasped the pageboy’s hand, and whispered in his ear, “You are the twelfth piper—remember your chief’s words.” The feast went on as merrily as ever, and the fun grew fast and furious—but the page-boy, MacCrimmon, was not there to enjoy it. He was lying on a hillside, cursing the unkindly fate which had put him in so awkward a predicament. But there were friendly spirits moving about. Out of the hill-side there came the prettiest little fairy ever seen by human eyes. She made straight for MacCrimmon, and soon knew as much of his trouble as he did himself. She did not try to comfort him, but she did something better. She gave him a curiously-shaped whistle and bade him play on it. He smiled knowingly—but he would oblige the little lady because she meant kindly. He blew—and soon the hills and rocks re-echoed the divinest music ever heard in Dunvegan. He turned to thank his friend—but he was alone.

At once he hurried back to the castle and just came in time to hear the closing notes of the eleventh piper’s pibroch. He stepped out in his place and, heedless of the titter which passed all round the hall, he “blew up” the pipes. The scorn of the company was soon turned into admiration as the stripling played in faultless and brilliant manner compositions unknown to the others. From that hour MacCrimmon was the acknowledged prince of pipers.

On one occasion there was a pipe-music competition at Dunvegan Castle. There were competitors from all parts of the country, and among them the head of the MacCrimmon College, and his nephew. The professor had taught his nephew all the music known to him except one tune, which, he hoped, would give himself the lead in the competition. On their way to Dunvegan, they spent a night in a way-side inn, and shared a bed. The old gentleman was soon fast asleep, and naturally enough began to dream of the morrow’s work. He seized his nephew’s arm, on it played the notes of the tune which was to give him first place among the pipers. The keen witted youth was not slow to notice that there was more in the affair than might appear on the surface, and in a very short time he committed all the notes to memory. Next day, the first piper called on to play was the nephew. His first tune astonished most of those present, none more than his tutor, who at once gracefully retired from the competition, and allowed his worthy nephew to carry off the chief honours of the day. It was doubtless this incident which gave rise to the well-known Gaelic proverb—”An gille ‘toirt bàr air Mac Criomain“—the lad, or pupil, surpassing his master, MacCrimmon.

It may be added that the MacCrimmons were hereditary pipers to the MacLeods of Dunvegan. During the sixteenth and seventeenth century several generations of them acted in this capacity. They founded a college of music at Boreraig, Skye, and thither all the leading pipers of the day proceeded to complete their education. They invented a system of musical notation for the pipes, by means of which they taught their pupils.

Kenneth Macleod.

Where All the Women are Strong, All the Men are Good Looking…

The inhabitants of this Island are for the most part of a good stature, strong and nimble, of a good complexion, live verie long, much addicted to hunting, arching, shooting, swimming, wherein they are expert. Their language for the most part is Irish, which is very empathetick, and for its antiquity Scaliger reckons it one of the material languages of Europe. They are good lovers of all sorts of mussick — have a good ear.

As to their women they are very modest, temperet in ther dyet and apparell, excessively grieved at the death of any near relation.

All the inhabitants here have a great veneration for their superiour, whom with the King they make particular mention of in ther privat devotion. Besides ther land rents, they ordinarilie send gratis to their superiours of the product of ther lands of all sorts. They honour ther ministers in a high degree, to whose care, under God, they owe ther freedom from idolatrie and many superstitious customes. Their traditions, wherein they are verie faithful, gives account that this Isle has been in time of the Danes and since, the scene of many warlik exploits. Some of ther genealogers can neither read nor writt, and yett will give an account of some passages in Buchanan his Chronicles, Plutarches Lives; yea, they will not onlie talk of what has passed in former ages, but in ther pedigree will almost ascend near Adam, as ifthey had an Ephemerides of all ther ancestors’ lives. They treat strangers with great civility, and give them such as the place does afford without ever demanding any payment. There are among them who excell in poetrie, and can give a satyre or panegyrick ex tempore on sight upon anie subject whatsomever.

Description of Sky from The Spottiswoode Miscellany: A Collection of Original Papers and Tracts, Illustrative Chiefly of the Civil and Ecclesiastical History of Scotland, Spottiswoode Society, 1845.

Once in a Lifetime

The Quiraing.
The Quiraing.

The red hot sun burns up the hill
The winter’s bride, the summer’s king
I tramp these acres and I feel
Once upon a time
Then it seemed that everything
You saw and touched and felt was real
You turned the tap and you turned the wheel
Breathing free

Once in a lifetime
You live and love
Once in a lifetime
You die
Once in a moment
The sun goes down
Protect and survive

Now you search the open evening sky
Trace the memories in your eyes
For the prophet’s hard rain and the deluge
Lie in tears around your door
Once there were trees and livestock here
A mother’s love, the warnings clear
But you chose to turn away from fear
Breathing free

Once in a lifetime
You live and love
Once in a lifetime
You die
Once in a moment
The sun goes down
Protect and survive

Now there’s a faceless cross on a distant hill
A wasted voice, a silent scream
Where the lovers love and the dreamers dream
You stand and dream alone
You took your sacrifice to the gods of war
Traded your children’s lives for a mess of gold
And you beat your ploughshares into swords
Breathing free

Once in a lifetime
You live and love
Once in a lifetime
You die
Once in a moment
The sun goes down
Protect and survive

Protect and Survive from the album Once in a Lifetime, Runrig;
recorded at Glasgow and Eden Court Theatre, Inverness, 1988;
songwriters Rory MacDonald & Calum MacDonald.

An t-Eilean Sgitheanach

The Isle of Skye as shown on Willem Blaeu’s 1654 Atlas of Scotland.

“This Ile is callit Ellan Skiannach in Irish, that is to say in Inglish the wyngit Ile, be reason it has mony wyngis and pointis lyand furth fra it, throw the dividing of thir foirsaid Lochis.”

— Description of the Western Isles of Scotland called Hybrides, by Mr. Donald Munro, High Dean of the Isles, who travelled through most of them in the year 1549.

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Here is the link to the large version of this map.

Father of the Clan

Dunvegan Castle on the Isle of Skye, from the gardens.

The name of highest dignity is Laird, of which there are in the extensive Isle of Sky only three, Macdonald, Macleod, and Mackinnon. The Laird is the original owner of the land, whose natural power must be very great, where no man lives but by agriculture; and where the produce of the land is not conveyed through the labyrinths of traffick, but passes directly from the hand that gathers it to the mouth that eats it. The Laird has all those in his power that live upon his farms. Kings can, for the most part, only exalt or degrade. The Laird at pleasure can feed or starve, can give bread, or withold it. This inherent power was yet strengthened by the kindness of consanguinity, and the reverence of patriarchal authority. The Laird was the father of the Clan, and his tenants commonly bore his name. And to these principles of original command was added, for many ages, an exclusive right of legal jurisdiction.

This multifarious, and extensive obligation operated with force scarcely credible. Every duty, moral or political, was absorbed in affection and adherence to the Chief. Not many years have passed since the clans knew no law but the Laird’s will. He told them to whom they should be friends or enemies, what King they should obey, and what religion they should profess.

– Samuel Johnson, A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (1775).

De Apro Per Ejus Orationem Interempto

Alio in tempore, vir beatus, cum in Scia insula aliquantis demoraretur diebus, paulo longius solus, orationis intuitu, separatus a fratribus, silvam ingressus densem, mirae magnitudinis aprum, quem forte venatici canes persequebantur, obviam habuit. Quo viso eminus, Sanctus aspiciens eum restitit. Tum deinde, invocato Dei nomine, sancta elevata manu, cum intenta dicit ad eum oratione, Ulterius huc procedere noles: in loco ad quem nunc devenisti morere. Quo Sancti in silvis personante verbo, non solum ultra accedere non valuit, sed ante faciem ipsius terribilis ferus, verbi ejus virtute mortificatus, cito corruit.

St. Adomnán’s Life of St. Columba, Book II, Chapter 27.

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Artist Daniel Mitsui designed an image portraying this event, of St. Columba’s striking dead the wild boar, and I have it tattooed on my right arm.

St. Columba and the Boar tattoo.

One odd thing about this episode is that in some manuscripts of the Vita Columbæ it is located in Book II, Chapter 27.  In others, Chapter 27 is the encounter with the River Ness beast and the boar story is absent altogether.  In one English printing, the title for the Chapter is present but the text is absent.  I’ve wondered what was special about this episode in the Saint’s life that it should be treated so, especially since all of the manuscripts/printings I have seen are remarkably consistent in their numbering and order of the episodes.