The MacArthurs, Pipers to the Lords of the Isles By Seumas MacNeill

The MacArthur Clan first appears in Highland history as being associated with Clan Campbell in the Lennox and Dumbarton. They supported Robert the Bruce in his campaign and so were given lands in Lorne and became keepers of Dunstaffnage Castle. Early in the 15th Century Chief John became a victim of James the First’s periodical attempts to subdue the Highlands. He was beheaded and his estates forfeited.

From an early time the clan became famous for the number and quality of its pipers. The piping branches were spread widely throughout the Inner Isles principally at Mull and Ulva, and in Islay. Archibald MacArthur (1770-1834) piper to MacDonald of Staffa, was awarded third prize at the Edinburgh competition in 1804.

Tradition says that the MacArthurs of Skye were a branch of the Islay family. In the 17th Century there were MacArthurs at Proiag on the east coast of Islay just south of MacArthur Head.

By the end of that century the Skye MacArthur Pipers were firmly established at Hungladar on the Trotterish peninsula. The first one for whom there is any written record is Angus, mentioned in a “judicial rental of the lands of Sleat and Trotterish” dated 1733. It begins “Charles MacArthur in Hungladar being sworn and interrogate in the Irish Language depones that he and Angus MacArthur his father possesses between them the one penny land of Hungladar whereof the ordinary rent is 85 merks of silver …” and finishes “… but the deponent being the Laird’s piper for his pains he is allowed to retain three-fourths of the hail rent and this is the truth as he shall answer to God. Cannot write.”

The dates of birth and death of the MacArthur pipers have not as yet been clearly established. Angus lived from approximately 1665 to perhaps 1745, so at the time of this rental he would be about 68 years of age and had probably handed over the reigns of office to his eldest son Charles. In 1735 there is a note of payments for servants’ wages for the house of Monkstadt, also in Trotterish and to which the MacDonald Chiefs had moved from Duntulm Castle. It includes:

“To Angus MacArthur piper and his son Charles as their wages for one year to Whit last £59.6s.8d.” and also “To Neil  MacArthur piper as one year’s wages  to Whit last £9.5s.4d.”

Angus had 3 sons, Charles, Neil and Iain Ban. The genealogy of the family is as shown on the table below:

Angus c. 1665 – 1733+
Charles c. 1688 – c. 1768Neil ? – 1762Iain Ban ? – 1779
DonaldAlexJohnCharles IIAngus

The elder Charles lived from about 1688 to 1768. According to tradition he studied under Patrick Og MacCrimmon for a period of 11 years, probably from about 1693 to 1704. On his return from Boreraig he no doubt took the position of second piper, after his father, to the MacDonald Chief, Sir Alexander MacDonald.

When Sir Alexander went to University in St Andrews from 1726 to 1729. Charles MacArthur accompanied him as his piper, his pay in 1729 being £66.13s.4d. By the middle of the century he was famous enough to be linked with MacCrimmon in a poem by John MacCodrum, the North Uist Bard. He it was to whom Donald Ruadh was sent for 6 months to learn the “MacArthurs’ particular graces” as described by Angus Mackay of Roasay. He composed in 1766 the lament for his Chief, Sir James MacDonald, and then became piper to Sir James’ brother Alexander, later the first Lord MacDonald. He died probably in the late 1760s.

Charles had two sons, Donald and Alexander, both of whom were good players. Charles is buried in the cemetery at Peingown. which is about half a mile on from the museum at Kilmuir and within sight of Hungladar. Peingown is where the MacArthurs had their school of piping.

After Charles died Donald commissioned a tombstone to be placed over the grave with a suitable inscription. The stone, which was restored a few years ago, bears the inscription as follows:

“Here lie the remains of Charles MacKarter whose fame as an honest man and a remarkable piper will survive this generation. For his manners were easy and regular as his music and the melody of his fingers will”

And that is as far as the stone mason got. Apparently Donald who was to pay for the stone drowned while ferrying cattle from Uist to Skye and the mason, fearing that nobody was going to pay for his inscription, simply abandoned the job.

Charles’s second son, Alexander, another competent player, was never appointed as piper to the MacDonalds, but more of him anon.

Angus’s second son Neil followed the family tradition of being piper to the MacDonalds but later he left Skye to become a piper in the 77th Regiment. Montgomery’s Highlanders, commanded by Colonel Archibald Montgomery. One of the Colonel’s sisters was the famous Lady Margaret MacDonald. having married Sir Alexander MacDonald of Sleat, and it was probably because of this connection that Neil decided to join the Army and certainly to join that particular Regiment.

The Regiment was raised in 1757 and went abroad to fight the French in North America and the West Indies. Neil died during the expedition to the Havanas in 1762. He left a son John, who perhaps because of his father’s departure from Skye. was taught by his Uncle Charles. Probably he would have had lessons from Charles anyway, he being the best piper and the senior member of the family by this time. John is also reputed to have had lessons from one of the MacCrimmons. He too left Skye but this time to go to Edinburgh where he set up as a merchant in the High Street. With his background he was undoubtedly the most famous piper in Edinburgh and greatly sought after as a performer and a teacher.

In 1783 at a special competition he was presented with a set of pipes by the Highland Society of Scotland, and later that year was appointed “Professor of the Ancient Caledonian Music and Piper to the Highland Society of Scotland.” His salary for this was five pounds per annum, later raised to ten pounds.

He seems to have been very active as a piper and he put forward a plan for a college of piping with the object of instructing “those whose services as pipers may be useful in Highland regiments.” Nothing came of this however. He composed the Highland Society of Scotland’s Salute which has been published in various places. He died in 1790 being described as “Professor of the ancient music of Scotland, no less eminent as a performer than distinguished by his elegant musical compositions for the bagpipe.”

Not a great deal is known of Charles’s second brother Iain Ban. He was piper to Sir Alexander MacDonald of Sleat in 1745 and died in 1779. His widow, Marion MacLean. received the sum of £3.0s.6d. and a yearly pension of a boll of meal.

The remaining two grandsons of Angus MacArthur made significant contributions to piping. Iain Ban’s elder son Charles (usually referred to as Charles II in piping literature) took second prize at the famous Falkirk Tryst competition in 1781. the event which heralded the repeal of the Act of Proscription. He became piper to the Earl of Eglinton, grand-nephew of Lady Margaret MacDonald of Sleat, and as a result spent a great deal of time at Elginton in Ayrshire. He is almost certainly the piper who became friendly with Robert Burns, mentioned by Burns as the Highland piper who introduced him to the beauties of bagpipe music.

More important to the history of bagpipe music however was Angus, Iain Ban’s second son. He succeeded his Uncle Charles as piper to Lord MacDonald. He played in his own house in 1772 to Pennant who described the building as having four apartments, one being a hall set aside for students. In the following year he performed for Dr Johnson in Armadale Castle, and both of these men were sufficiently impressed to leave us permanent records of their reactions to Highland music.

Lord MacDonald later moved almost permanently to London and Angus MacArthur went with him. When the Chief died in 1796 Angus composed the very fine “Lament for Lord MacDonald.” By all accounts Angus was a very fine player and certainly a talented composer. Apart from his Lament for Lord MacDonald his tunes include the Salute to Lady Margaret MacDonald and the Lament for Lady Elizabeth MacDonald. He died in London, about 1820.

The great importance of Angus MacArthur to piping lies not in what he did during his lifetime, but principally that he was responsible for a manuscript of 30 piobaireachds, six composed by members of his family, set down in staff notation shortly before his death. Apparently Angus played the tunes on his practice chanter and they were written in staff notation by a John MacGregor, probably a member of the famous Glenlyon Clan of the Storytellers. MacGregor was an accomplished musician and so for the first time in the history of piping piobaireachd was notated in staff notation by men who were themselves expert players. A Mr Andrew Robertson was also involved, probably checking the work of John MacGregor. Unfortunately the tunes were written in the key of C, five notes below the key later standardized by Donald MacDonald and Angus MacKay and now accepted by pipers everywhere. Recently however the tunes have been transcribed and the transcription together with a photocopy of the manuscript is being prepared for publication.

With Angus MacArthur died the last of the hereditary pipers to the Lords of the Isles. His cousin Alexander, second son of the elder Charles, unsuccessfully petitioned Lord MacDonald to be appointed hereditary piper. On being refused he emigrated to America.

The MacArthurs’ style of playing, though not far different from the MacCrimmons, has its own “particular graces” and these are proving of considerable interest to students of piobaireachd nowadays. The main line of MacCrimmon teaching which has come down to us though the book of Angus MacKay and the pupils of his father, is the style played generally nowadays, but the MacArthur playing represents a strong and vigorous alternative and although there are no direct descendants in the teaching sense today, it is very possible that with the publication of Angus MacKay’s manuscript some of these different and exciting styles may be heard in the future from our top players.