Iain McDonald (2021) I Piped, That She Might Dance.

The title is like the snatched breath of an overhead conversation. It makes assumptions and asks questions of the reader. ‘Piped,’ refers to playing bagpipes. The identity of the ‘She’ refers to Queen Victoria. The narrator is Angus MacKay (1812-1859) telling the story of his life from a cell in Bethlem Hospital (Bedlam).

Iain McDonald takes on the persona of Angus McKay. A factional story, fictionalising the few facts known about McKay. The kind of thing we watch on telly—based on true events.

What McDonald initially knew was that McKay had published A Collection of Ancient Pìobireachd or Highland Pipe Music (1837); he was a drunken syphilitic that drowned while trying to escape from an asylum (Crichton Royal Institution in Dumfries). He played bagpipes for Queen Victoria and Prince Albert who loved all things Scottish as is shown by a hagiography in the Inverness Courier (1842).

Some very special guests had come to stay at Taymouth Castle: Queen Victoria and Prince Albert…

HER MAJESTY’S PIPER – The Queen has just appointed Angus Mackay, brother of the piper of the late Duke of Sussex, to be her Majesty’s piper at the palace, so that the Royal ear, and that of various Right Honourables, will be regaled with our mountain music at the Court of England. Highland dresses and ornaments are to be provided for the new functionary, and our townsman, Mr. Macdougall, of the tartan warehouse (who has done so much work to bring the national costume into notice), has been authorised by Lord Jersey and the Honourable Captain Murray to furnish three suits – one for the morning, one for mid-day, and a third for after dinner and state occasions. The equipments will be complete and splendid. [‘equipments’ spelling as show in Courier]

 McKay £75-per-annum salary was enough to place his wife and four children at the heart of the expanding British Empire in London. His journey from Edinburgh had taken him three days by coach, paid for by the Monarch. Returning home by train, he didn’t have to move his luggage and it took less than a day. McKay was part of the Royal Staff, travelled with Queen Victoria on the Royal yacht, and dressed the young Prince Edward in his “Scotch costume” in which her majesty liked to see her children attired. Only when the drink took hold of McKay was he superseded by another Scot, John Brown.

The Queen’s piper had not initially understood,

‘the full extent of the animosity between the English and the Scots. Before I’d even met the queen, I’d heard us referred to as lazy thieves, inbreds and so on, all from common folk. And it wasn’t only Scots that bore the brunt as well; the Irish and Indian staff were mocked and bullied relentlessly in equal measure for their language and appearance.’

He was privileged with ready access to Queen Victoria. But he observed as he passes through the lower reaches of the capital.

‘The air became rank and heavy, enough to make a person gag… Tar and excrement and long-butchered carcasses… The place assaulted all the senses, and none more so than hearing. Every street was alive with the movement of animals and carts, thousands of people, and there was the constant clamor of construction as the city exploded outwards, its borders swelling. On the busiest streets, people were having to lean in close to have a conversation with one another, and every seller shouted to be heard.’

Queen Victoria is liberally minded as far as drink was concerned. McKay as something of a celebrity dives in.  “Lament for the Union” had established him as one of the most talented pipers alive. Whisky flowed. He’d come a long way from his father’s house in Eyre, waves lapping at the Raasay shoreline, where he’s spat out his first drink of whisky because of the foul taste. His father, John Mackay of Raasay (1767-1848), one of the the last great piper to have had lessons from the MacCrimmons and learn by song, with nothing written. He was the best player, composer and teacher of his day, and his sons followed in his footsteps. Angus was determined, however, to record these great works, to go against the grain and write them down.

He was successful and unsuccessful in finding voice and losing himself.

‘Writing music…They were written in canntaireachd. The challenges sometimes lay in finding the timing and precise pitches of notes – no wonder there were always so many versions of the same tune if each one called for different timings! – but I used my knowledge of playing the tunes to determine how they should be written. To the experienced piper, any manuscript serves as but a rough guide to finding the music anyway.’

His nemesis was James Logan. A self-proclaimed expert in Highland music and culture. He wore a bright tartan waistcoat in their first meeting. More importantly, Logan had the aristocratic connections to get the book published. Logan believed Highland music had to bend the knee to social class and society’s foibles.

McKay did not. He believed in the purity of intention and his translation of these ancient piping traditions.

His book was published but butchered by Logan. McKay was told it was ‘well received’ by the Highland aristocracy and gentry. So well received that Logan suggested no other work on pipe music need to be published henceforth.

McKay could only see the flaws. His intention to publish a rebuttal, without countless errors of the scores, but the proposed second volume cut off by Logan and the difficulty of publishing.

In the Great Empire Exhibition, he’s introduced to a tiny, ugly woman with bad teeth, Charlotte Bronte. He attended a lecture by William Makepeace Thackery. A novelist the Queen disapproved for his social satire. But it’s the machinery court that catches his eye. Printing press, capable of churning out more than 5000 copies of The Illustrated London News in a single hour. With such a typesetting revolution, he could cut out the Logans of the newly industrialising world.

With no cure for the ‘French Pox,’ he drinks more of ‘the water of life’ to deaden the pain. He believes he’s got to warn Queen Victoria about a plot against her—and dreams they’ve become more intimate. Mary, his wife, rallies against him. He’s incarcerated in Bedlam.

Iain MacDonald ghost-writes Angus McKay and brings him to life. We always kill the things we love. Read on.  

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