Iain Dall MacKay holds an important place in the history of piping. Considered one of bagpiping's greatest composers, he is known to have authored at least 30 piobaireachds. Iain Dall had the distinction of being both piper and bard to the chief of the MacKenzies, an astonishing feat for the time.
Iain MacKay was born in about 1656 in Gairloch, in the Northwest of Scotland. He was the son of Ruairidh (Rorie) MacKay. Iain became blind when he was seven due to smallpox. He is commonly called Iain Dall, where Dall is the gaelic for blind.
He was first taught piping by his father who was the hereditary piper for the MacKenzie clan. When he was about 18, he was sent to study at the MacCrimmon piping school in Skye. He was there for about seven years and studied under Patrick Og who was is considered one of the greatest teachers from the MacCrimmon school.
He returned to Gairloch in the mid 1680s and helped his father in his duties. Rorie MacKay died in 1689, when he was almost 100, and Iain Dall took over his role as piper to Alexander MacKenzie.
The dates and ages might seem a little off here. Iain was born when Rorie was in his 60’s. It was a common practice in the area for men to marry younger women and have children late in life. Iain does the same thing, marrying and having children in his 60s as well.
He served 3 of the Clan Chiefs, Alexander MacKenzie, Kenneth MacKenzie, and Sir Alexander MacKenzie. He enjoyed the patronage of both the Alexanders, while they were in charge, Kenneth was an absentee Chief. He spent most of his time in London and Edinburgh. This left Iain Dall looking for support.
When Alexander MacKenzie (the first one) died in about 1694, Iain was left without much financial support. He owned a plot of land but since he was blind and at the time had no children he could not work the land. He supported himself composing music and poems and getting paid for them on an individual basis.
From Alexander's death until about 1696 Iain was receiving some support from Colonel Robert MacKay, who was Iain’s cousin. In 1697 a distant relative, Robert Monroe, who was also blind, became the Chief of the Monroes. At the time the Monroes did not have a piper. Iain Dall would spend quite a bit of time working for for them until Roberts death in 1729.
Sir Alexander (the second Alexander MacKenzie) returned to Gairloch in 1720 and Iain resumed his duties for the clan. Iain Dall married in about 1721, when he was 65, and had a son, Angus, in 1723. Iain served as the Piper of the MacKenzies until his death in 1754. He was 98.
Iain Dall was a great composer of bagpipe music. He was said to have written many tunes, at least 24 piobaireachd, but unfortunately most have been lost. Around 13 of his Piobaireachd and two other tunes, “The Miller’s Wife” and “Mrs MacLeod of Raasay,” survived.
His first piobaireachd, Nipping of the Lice was written in about 1678 while he was at the MacCrimmon piping school. It is said that he wrote it to commomerate the bugs that disturbed his sleep at the school. Some of his other piobaireachds are considered to be among the best of the repertoire, including Munro’s Salute, The Unjust Incarceration, and Lament for Patrick Og MacCrimmon.
He was also an accomplished poet and bard. He served the MacKenzies as both piper and bard which was not very common at the time. He is known for his skill in composing in many different bardic meters. His poems are known for their rich detail and the emotions that they invoke.
A piece of Iain Dall's legacy can be seen at the National Piping Center's Museum in Glasgow. His chanter, handed down through 8 generations of MacKays, is the oldest known Highland bagpipe chanter still in existence. An almost exact duplicate of this chanter was made several years ago. The reproduction, when played, has a deep, mellow sound with a much lower pitch than modern chanters.