Angus MacKay is probably the of the most influential pipers in the world of Piobaireachd. A genius in the piping world from a very young age, his books and manuscripts still effect bagpiping as we play it today.
Angus MacKay was born in 1813 and was most likely born in Raasay, a small island between Skye and the mainland of Scotland. His father was John MacKay was one of the best pipers of his time. He had learned to play from the last of the MacCrimmons. Angus was most likely taught to play the bagpipes buy his father.
In 1821, John MacKay moved his family to Drummond Castle near Perth and was the piper for Lord Willoughby D’Eresby. Angus was only 10 years old at the time. He was already playing the bagpipes by this time and it is thought that he learned musical staff notation from the ladies of the house.
When Angus MacKay was twelve he entered a piobaireachd into a competition by the Highland Society where they were looking for music written in staff notation. He won a prize of 5 shillings. This was in 1825. The next year, at the age of 13 he won fourth place in the Highland Society’s annual competition playing "MacIntosh’s Lament." He went on to win the Prize Pipe (first place) in 1835, playing "Lament for the Union."
Angus MacKay’s groundbreaking work was his 1838 book A Collection of Ancient Piobaireachd or Highland Pipe Music. He was only 25 years old. This book contained over 60 piobaireachds, in staff notation, and was long considered at the time to be "the bible" of this style of music. These tunes were the ones handed down to him from his father, and in turn from the MacCrimmons. Histories of many of the tunes were also included.
Angus MacKay published several other books and manuscripts. He also made revisions to the book The Piper’s Assistant. This book was considered the best tutor for bagpiping and was still being used until the College of Piping tutors were published.
Four-parted competition marches, which are very common now, are thought to essentially be the invention of Angus. At the time, most marches were on the simple side. Many of them were just versions of popular songs of the time. The idea of marches that were composed of good melodies and intricate embellishments really started with Angus MacKay. Two of his well known tunes are "Glengarry Gathering," and "Balmoral Highlanders." He was also an arranger of tunes, including what has become the setting of the great tune "Highland Wedding."
In 1842, Queen Victoria appointed Angus as the Sovereign Piper, the first person to hold this post. His duties included piping in front of the Royal Bedroom at 8 am each morning. He also performed at state dinners, formal commitments and other important functions.
Angus also traveled with the royal family to Scotland on several occasions. In 1852, when Price Albert bought the Balmoral Estate a cairn was built on the highest point in the hills above the castle. MacKay played the Royals up the hill to the site of the cairn. He also is said to have played continuously while the cairn was being built. in 1853, he played at a ceremony for the start of the foundation of the new Balmoral House. He composed the tune, "The Foundation Stone of Balmoral Castle," to commemorate this.
Later, in 1853 Angus MacKay was committed to Bethlem Hospital, more famously known as Bedlam, due to bouts of insanity. This was most likely caused by tertiary syphilis. In 1856 he was transferred to Crichton Royal Hospital. This institution probably provided the best care at the time and was paid for by the Royal Household.
Angus MacKay died on March 21 1859. He managed to escape from the hospital by climbing a high wall and ran several miles of the river Nith. He ran into the waters and was swept away and never seen again. In 2010, a marker was placed at the site by the river where he was last seen.
Angus MacKay’s contribution to the world of piping cannot be understated. His book of over 60 piobaireachds and a manuscript of over 179 more were instrumental in preserving this ancient music. These books were used by General C.S. Thomason in his seminal works and used as source material in the creation of the Piobaireachd Society's collection.
His book set the stage for bagpipe music, particularly piobaireachd, to be written in staff notation, along with his contemporary Donald MacDonald, and ensured that these tunes would be preserved. He also essentially invented the competition march with is now a standard part of the bagpiping world.