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Caithness Archives

The Pipe-Majors of Lochside:Part 1

When reading an old Caithness Courier, I came across an obituary for a Pipe-Major James Mackay, Lochside, Isauld, Reay, a soldier who had fought in the Boer War. What intrigued me about this man was not the fact that he was a soldier, but that his father and his uncle were pipers also. As I had wanted to research an article on pipers, the Mackays of Lochside seemed to fit the bill. What I did not reckon on was how long the task would  take me. The more I discovered the more the story came to resemble a Hollywood epic of the Golden Age; love, heroism, hardships, heartbreak, adventure and fortune, all connected with this one family. After four months research I have decided that, even though some issues remain unresolved, I have gone as far as I can.  One very positive thing to emerge from all this research is that two Caithness families, related  through marriage, but who had not seen one another since Pipe-Major James Mackay's funeral in 1935, have finally been reunited.

When I started this research four months ago, no one seemed to have heard of the Pipe-Majors of Lochside. Eventually I came across Marigold Taylor, nee Forbes, widow of 'Bobby' Taylor of Reay. Marigold's grandmother was 'Joan', a sister of James Mackay, who had married a Forbes. Marigold had much of the information I was seeking, and the Forbes family still have in their possession the Pipe-Major's pipes and chanters. Coincidence completed the rest of the jigsaw. Noel Donaldson asked his readers for information on an old photograph that appeared in his 'Wicker's World' column. Two sisters replied stating that the photo was of  a washing competition won by their grandmother, Mary, wife of James Mackay, Pipe-Major of Isauld. Unfortunately, the sisters gave no address, but Noel thought they stayed in Caithness. They did indeed, having recently moved to the county from Edinburgh, following their retirement. Thanks to Dunnet Post Office and their knowledge of the community they  serve, I was able to find these descendants of James Mackay and reaquaint them with their cousin, Marigold Taylor. As an added bonus, one of the sisters, Katherine Finlayson, was busy researching her family tree and was able to fill in the remaining gaps in the story of the Pipe-Majors of Lochside.    I am indebted to both of these families for their help, without which this story could never have been written, especially to Marigold and Katherine for their patience, hospitality and, most of all, their trust.

Two centuries ago those entrusted with the King's mail had to be men of integrity, honest and reliable. The post runner responsible for the Thurso to Reay mail route was such a man, an ex-soldier who had played the bagpipes in a Highland regiment. This post runner fathered a son, John Mackay, who saw the light of day in 1804.

Twenty-four years later, John married a Strathnaver lass, Elizabeth Macdonald of Skail. The young bride, 17 years old at the time of her marriage, was a direct descendant of John Macdonald, a school teacher turned piper from Argyll, who fought at Gibraltar and travelled the wide world, visiting China, India and America. John and Elizabeth Mackay took the rent of a small croft near the Glebe at Isauld, where their three sons were born; Angus, in 1829; Henry, three years later; and John, in 1837.   

The brothers Mackay grew up fine, strapping Highland lads, intelligent and swift to learn traditional family skills, of which playing the bagpipes was foremost. The three boys were also possessed of lively imaginations which were fired by the stories they heard of their forefathers military adventures. Often they must have pictured themselves away soldiering in foreign lands, marching, fighting, defending civilization and the Empire. Pipers  they became - soldiers they dreamed of becoming.   

With the return of the 93rd Sutherland Highlanders from Canada in 1848, Angus Mackay, in company with a few other local young men, sought out Sergeant Ross, recruiting agent for the 93rd. Sergeant Ross was delighted with his visitors; the Reay lads took the Queen's  shilling that very day, and were duly marched off to Aberdeen to learn the rudiments of soldiering, pausing at Elgin on the way to be formally attested. Now, while Angus Mackay appreciated the need for proficiency in parade ground drill, marching techniques and the art of musketry, he also longed to excercise his skills as a piper. In those days there were no such beings in the Army as official pipers; instead there were drummer-fifers whose place in the battle line was endowed with a dangerous  kind of glamour. Pipers, who were classed as drummer-fifers, went into battle armed with nothing but a dirk. With this slight defence the piper was expected to lead his regiment into the iron toothed jaws of an enemy fusilade, protected from harm by nothing but his comrades sharp-shooting skills. However, despite the danger, the piper's position was both respected and coveted.   

His training over, Angus Mackay joined the rank-and-file as Private 2423. For the next six years the 93rd were home-based, travelling all over Britain, one month standing guard duty at Dartmoor prison, policing the Bread Riots the next, another time providing Honour Guards for important personages. One of Angus Mackay's most treasured possessions was a hand-coloured photograph taken at Balmoral during Queen Victoria's 1850 summer holiday there. The photograph showed the Queen accompanied by her Guard of Honour formed from Highlanders of the 93rd, among whom was Angus himself.   

In February 1854 the 93rd Sutherland Highlanders set sail from Plymouth in a converted cattle boat, bound for Malta, the regiment's pipers, Angus Mackay included, playing   "Scots wha' hae and Auld lang syne". Angus was a happy man; his childhood visions of travel and military adventure were at last being realised. Had he known where his journey would end, his dream may well have been tempered by harsh reality. No sooner had the 93rd disembarked on Maltese soil, than word arrived that Britain and France had entered the war between Turkey and Russia on the side of the Turks.

To Angus Mackay, raised on stories of his forebears struggles with Napoleon's armies, the idea of fighting alongside Frenchmen seemed somewhat strange. However, the Franco-British alliance was merely one of political expedience. Nor did either country have any sympathy for Turkey, but the prospect of Russia gaining access to the Mediterranean overcame all national prejudices. Malta behind them, the 93rd sailed on to Gallipoli, a miserable assortment of huts in a picturesque setting. Their first night in this wretched place was spent in an ancient graveyard, an inauspicious beginning pregnant with evil omens.

Freezing nights were succeeded by stifling hot days during which the Highlanders had little to do but dig trench after trench. Logistics then being in its infancy, the task of adequately supplying an army with food and clothing was a formidable one. Success was rare; failure the normal order of the day. Famished soldiers woke up worn out and frozen, to labour all day long under a baking sun, returning to camp fatigued and delicate. Cholera came, killed 25 soldiers of the 93rd, and smit a further 375.

In May when orders arrived for the regiment to leave Gallipoli for Scutari, Angus Mackay and his companions heaved a great sigh of relief. From Scutari the 93rd Highlanders went on to a place called Varna, before taking ship to the Crimea, the seat of the war, where they arrived on 14th September. They landed unopposed. They came ill-equipt, carrying only their rifles, greatcoats, three days rations and a spare pair of shoes. They left their knapsacks behind; they had no tents. It rained all day and all night.

Soaked to the skin, demoralised by this foretaste of the hardships to come, Angus Mackay began to experience another aspect of military glory, one which his martial forebears had neglected to inform him of. On the 19th of September, along with their Highland Brigade cousins the Black Watch and the Cameron Highlanders, the 93rd set off on a march to Sebastapol as part of the British Army's First Division. They passed that night at a place called Alma, awaking next morning to find their way blocked by an army of 40,000 Russians, dug in along a fortified ridge.

The British and their allies numbered 63,000 men; but their enemy had the advantage of high ground. Nevertheless, the soldiers of the Highland Brigade had confidence in their step as they advanced through vineyards and swollen streams towards the Russian positions, the Black Watch leading, the 93rd slightly behind them. As they closed the range the Highlanders came under fire from the Russian artillery. Men fell, their bodies shattered, but the kilted warriors never faltered. An order was given and the pipes began to play those martial tunes which inspire courage or fear, depending on whose side you are on.

Ascending the fortified slopes, the Highlanders found themselves being fired on by the Russian infantry, whose bullets made holes in the Black Watch ranks. Yet still they came, the men of the 93rd following the skirl of Angus Mackay's pipes. Suddenly, as one, the Highlanders paused and let off a tremendous volley that disconcerted the Russians so much that the next thing they knew, their enemies were almost among them.

The Crimean War saw the British Army's introduction to the Minie rifle, an efficient killing machine which, in the hands of the 93rd, inflicted murderous damage on the Russians who turned tail and ran, discarding arms, equipment and anything else that might hinder their flight Their battle-lust abated, the men of the 93rd took stock of the regiment's casualties which amounted to 5 killed and 37 wounded, a small price compared to that paid by the Brigade of Guards and the Light Division who had also been involved in the Alma battle.

A month later, on October 25th, the 550 men of the 93rd Highlanders, under the  command of Sir Colin Campbell, found themselves lined up on a hillside at Balaclava. They  were watching the prelude to a battle between the British Light and Heavy Cavalry brigades and their Russian counterparts. Suddenly a squadron of 400 Russian cavalry broke  away from the main group, intent on attacking an artillery unit which shared the same  hill as the 93rd were defending. Sir Colin gave order for the Highlanders to advance to the sound of their pipes, played on this occasion by six men whose names were to pass into regimental legend; John Mcleod, Roderick Mackay, Hugh Connachar, George Macdonald, James Sinclair and Angus Mackay of Lochside, Isauld.

As they crested the hill the Russian horsemen drew rein, surprised by the sound and appearance of the Highlanders. The Russians had little time to ponder; at a range of 500 yards the 93rd fired a withering volley; at 250 yards they fired again, forcing their enemies to turn away. Flank on, the Russian cavalry presented a fine target which the Highlanders lost no time in loosing another volley into. And now the men of the 93rd were treated to a sight, unheard of at that time - cavalry put to flight by a line of infantry. No wonder the Highlanders cheered and their pipers struck up triumphant tunes.

'The Thin Red Line' represents an indelible page in the annals of Scottish military history, the story of the 93rd's heroism rapidly becoming common knowledge. Extolled by enthusiastic newspaper reporters, the Highlander's fame filled the whole world. Next day the heroes found themselves fulfilling a more mundane role - digging trenches around Balaclava, knee-deep in mud, lashed by pitiless rain, their scarlet coats falling to bits, their shoes full of holes. Winter was coming and still the men lacked tents, being forced to seek shelter wherever they could get it. When at last bell tents, each one designed to sleep 14 men, did arrive, they were found to be in such a ragged state as to be nigh on useless. Hardly homes fit for heroes.

Following the Battle of Inkerman on 5th November, in which the 93rd played no part, (although the six pipers of 'The Thin Red Line' were reputed to have been there), the war shut down for the winter. The Highlanders prepared for a season entrenched around Sebastapol. Their condition was miserable. It was to get worse.

On 14th November a ferocious hurricane struck the Crimea, leaving behind it scenes of utter desolation, with all  forms of shelter destroyed, and half-starved soldiers shivering in a barren landscape. Such misfortunes undermined even the robust Highlanders' constitutions. Between November 1854 and March of the following year, when wooden accomodation huts were at last erected, the whole of the 93rd regiment appeared, at one time or another, on the sick list. Disease, fever and cholera took away nearly a hundred young lives.

Angus Mackay survived, his health intact, his enthusiasm severely dented. May brought an opportunity to escape these scenes of death and disease, when the 93rd formed part of an expeditionary force of 15,000 Allied troops detailed to capture the east Crimean towns of Kertch and Yenikale. These places succumbed without a fight. Reaching Kertch the Allies found it had already been abandoned by the Russians, the only difficulty being in persuading the native inhabitants that the conquerers were not bent on rape, plunder or massacre.

When this had been established, the Highlanders enjoyed a brief period of friendship with their hosts - who were generous with food and refreshments  - prior to marching on Yenikale. Approaching this town the Highlanders were startled by a series of loud explosions which turned out to be nothing but the panic-stricken Russian garrison blowing up their magazines before evacuating Yenikale. Suddenly, the Crimea seemed a brighter place; two towns and 107 artillery pieces captured without a single casualty, this was warfare one could get addicted to.

No doubt Angus Mackay shared this general sentiment as he and his comrades settled down to what they hoped would be a peaceful summer in the healthy air of rural Crimea, far away from the pestilent atmosphere of Balaclava or Sebastopol. Nine days later Angus was back in the Sebastopol trenches, wallowing in mud, dodging shells and sniper-fire, alive with lice and thoroughly unhappy.

The Great Redan was a fortress held by the Russians. Its capture was seen as a vital part of the Allied plan to take Sebastopol. On June 18th a massive assault was made on the Redan, the 93rd Highlanders forming part of the Allied reserve. The attack failed. Driven back to their entrenchments, the 93rd, along with the rest of the Allied troops, sat tight for the next two and a half months. When the Great Redan did fall it was with a whimper not a bang, the Russians abandoning the fortress during the night of 7th-8th September.

Angus Mackay, however, was not present to see the Great Redan in Allied hands; on August 23rd he had been caught up in a Russian artillery bombardment on the 93rd's trenches, which had left him with a forearm severely wounded by a shell splinter.

The name of Florence Nightingale will be forever linked with the Crimean War. Outraged by eye-witness accounts of the dreadful conditions prevailing in British military hospitals there, Florence set about improving the standards of basic sanitation and hygene. Even so, a wound was a thing to be feared. Miss Nightingale's reforms may have led to better conditions, free from rats and breeding grounds for bacteria, but she could do nothing to change the fact that surgery was not equipt to deal with the kind of wounds dealt out by modern ballistics. The gaping, ragged flesh craters caused by exploding bullets or shell splinters were a far greater challenge than the old musket ball wounds. In many instances the surgeon was one more enemy for the soldier to contend with.  

Angus Mackay was lucky. Hospitalised for six months on account of his wounds, he was eventually nursed back to almost complete fitness. Who knows, perhaps his brother and cousins, also serving soldiers in the Crimea, or his companions in arms assisted his recovery? We would like to think so. One thing is certain - Angus Mackay's soldiering days were over. Returned to Britain as soon as fitness permitted, he was discharged with a good pension in January 1856.  Back home at Isauld, Angus was accorded a hero's welcome. He returned with the Crimean War Medal, complete with the clasps "Alma, Balaclava and Sebastapol" , along with the Turkish Crimean War Medal, both of which he was very proud of. But he returned with something else, something he had neither wanted nor expected.

The war had made nightmares of Angus Mackay's childhood dreams. A hero's welcome was unwelcome to him. 'The Thin Red Line', the Charge of the Light Brigade, the victories of Alma, Balaclava, Inkerman and Sebastopol; these were but short episodes of success in a gruelling war, a war of mud, disease, fatigue, hunger, horrific injuries and incompetence. It was also, in many respects, the first modern war, prefiguring the mighty conflict of 1914-18.

The Crimean War introduced specialist news correspondents whose reports influenced Government policy and swayed public opinion. It also saw the advent of photographs as reliable records of events. Before 1854 Britain had not been involved in a serious military conflict for 40 years; the Crimean War was popular with a public starved of the oxygen of martial triumph. To the majority of those at the sharp end of things, including Angus Mackay, it was an experience best forgotten.

At length Angus regained sufficient strength to enable him to return to his beloved pipes. He also obtained the post of piper with Mr H.C. Sinclair of Achvarasdale, owner of a croft at Lochside which became Angus's home. In 1859 he married Jessie Macdonald, daughter of an Invergordon man who had been struck dead by lightning. A family was not long in coming. Jessie bore Angus nine children, most of whom appear to have subsequently left Caithness.  

Elizabeth, born 1860, married a certain Alexander Cunningham. Alexander, born 1861, who became a joiner and Clerk of Works for Battersea  Town Council. Johanna, 'Joan', born April 4th, 1862, married Alexander Forbes, Achvarasdale. Joan died September 3rd, 1939, a year after her husband passed away. Joan and  Alexander were the grandparents of Marigold Taylor of Reay. James Macdonald, born 1863, who will feature in another article in this series. Marjory, born 1864, mother of a daughter Alberta, or 'Bertie'. Robert, born 1866. He became a postman in Coatbridge. Hughina, born 1868, who married a man McKinnon, keeper of a chemist shop in Newton Stewart. Henrietta, born 1870. She had a daughter who was born blind. Jessie, born 1871, who married a stevedore.

A piper is an ornament to any society, and Angus Mackay found his services much in demand at local gatherings. Wedding marches being his speciality, he became a permanent fixture on all the parish's wedding guest lists. In those days folk made very merry at weddings, one celebration at Brubster lasting a whole week, Angus leading the revellers from house to house, pipes playing, resplendent in scarlet coat and trews, always the last man left on his feet at the end of the day. One thing he refused to do - he never donned the kilt, his memories of the Crimean War proving too painful, too bitter to be reminded of.

Angus and Jessie appear to have seen out their remaining years beside Loch Achbuiligan, happy and contented with one another. When Angus passed away on September 1st, 1907, he was afforded a military send off, his coffin draped in the colour  of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, the Reay Volunteer Company firing three shots over his grave and a bugler sounding Reveille and the Last Post. It was a fitting tribute to one of the 'Six Pipers of the Thin Red Line.'

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David Bews 1998
Steven Cashmore 1998

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