2020-09-13: MacGregor Contributions to Piping                rak

During the EUSPBA Graduate exam in December, I had to write a
1,000 word essay on a notable piping family. I chose to write
about the MacGregor family, whose contributions spanned over a
century and outlasted the two other concurrent piping schools.

I just found the notes I wrote in my hotel room the night before
the exam to prepare. These notes were originally intended for my
eyes only, but the MacGregors were sufficiently interesting that
I thought I would share.

Credit and disclaimer: These notes are entirely sourced from the
fascinating book "Old and New World Highland Bagpiping" by
John G. Gibson (2002). Given that they were originally written
for my eyes only as a study device, it is possible that I lifted
some sentences verbatim form Gibson's book, so I apologize for
any possible plagiarism. The academic contribution is entirely
Gibson's, but I take full responsibility for any mistakes. These
notes are unedited. Without further ado:

    The MacGregor Piping Family

The contribution made by the MacGregors to piping has long been
underestimated. Their influence spanned over a century from the
traditional era to the early pre-literate era, and outlasted the
two other concurrent piping schools.

Their story begins with John MacGregor (1708-1789), piper to
Prince Charles Edward Stuart during the 1745 campaign. John
MacGregor was from Glen Lyon, Perthshire, and leading members of
his clan were barred from using the MacGregor name. John was
piper to the chief of his people. He was of a storytelling and
music-making lineage, in particular, from a family known as the
"Children of the Storyteller". Members of this family taught
many pipers of the central highlands, including the Clunys and
the MacPhersons. Though their name celebrates their storytelling
abilities, the family is today famous for their unbroken
generations of bagpipers.

In 1745, John MacGregor joined the Stuart army and became
personal assistant, piper, and likely piping tutor to Stuart
himself. He was wounded at Culloden but never made prisoner.
After the war, he became piper to Lt-Col John Campbell of
Glenlyon. He competed in his 70s in a Highland Society
competition. He had four or five sons and eight grandsons, all
of which became top-class pipers. They carried piping from early
eighteenth into the early nineteenth century.

John Cambpell died in 1746 and John MacGregor became piper to
John Campbell's son John. Though John Campbell the son saw
battle and his brother was wounded at Quebec, John MacGregor
never suffered.

MacGregors dominated competitions until about the war of 1812.
The judges were not trained in piping, and it is impossible to
know whether the MacGregor pipers were actually better than
their competitors. Some have cynically noted that they may have
dominated simply because they lived closer to the Lowlands, so
it was easier for them to attend and make much-needed money.
However, there is no reason to believe that they abandoned the
older Gaelic traditions and abruptly changed playing styles come
the nineteenth century.

The MacGregors and Children of the Storyteller ran a piping
college at Ranoch. This one existed before and after the Rankin
college in Mull closed, and lasted after the change of hands of
the MacCrimmon college in Skye in the early 1770s. John
MacGregor senior taught over ninety pipers, and his son John
taught over fifty British military pipers.

We do not know to what level of proficiency they taught nor how
many at a time. We also do not know what they taught, just as
we do not know what the MacCrimmons taught and what the Rankins
taught. There were no bands at the time, and the military did
not need standardized technique. We do, however, know that there
was a common repertoire among Highland pipers. It is possible
that the MacGregors simply built on it. At any rate, their
college adapted to post-Culloden circumstances, while the other
two did not.

It is unclear why the MacGregors suddenly disappeared from the
prize lists in 1813. It may be that musical literacy and the
standardization left them feeling undervalued.

Despite this, two MacGregors made a significant contribution to
piping in the post-1812 era. A John MacGregor, of John
MacGregor's family, took down thirty pibrochs from Angus
MacArthur. This transcription from MacArthur's whistling is the
second ever systematized transcription of bagpipe music to
musical staff notation and was a remarkable achievement. The
only other person to have done so to that point was John
MacDonald, with his treatise.

The other MacGregor was John Murray. John Murray was a general
in the East India Company and was auditor-general of Bengal.
(Recall that the MacGregor name had been banned for some time.)
John MacDonald died in India, leaving his manuscript treatise
there. John Murray found it while posted in India and brought it
back. This manuscript is immensely valuable because it is the
first staff-notation record of bagpipe music, and it gives us a
record of the preliterate tradition of bagpipe playing.

It is believed that the MacDonald manuscript may have influenced
John MacGregor when he made the MacArthur manuscript. Indeed,
copies of MacDonald's treatise were awarded as prizes at
competitions around the time the MacArthur manuscript was made.

John Murray became the first MacGregor chief in nearly three
centuries. He spoke Gaelic and was bilingual, though the trend
towards monolingualism was well underway in the second half of
the eighteenth century.

Unrelatedly to John MacGregor, there is evidence of MacGregor
pipers in France. There were many competing 18th century claims
to be accepted as chief. One of these was by James Roy, son of
Rob Roy, who escaped from Edinburgh Castle and found refuge in
France. In a letter he wrote a week before starving to death, he
pleaded with one of his countrymen to borrow his set of pipes to
play some melancholy tunes.