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Issue 50 - The clan MacCrimmon

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 50
April 2010


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The clan MacCrimmon

James Irvine Robertson looks at another of Scotland's great families.

Not all clans possessed great tracts of the Highlands. Many survived under the sheltering wing of the great families that did, fighting for them and serving them in exchange for protection. To stand alone was to be preyed upon by more powerful neighbours and end up a broken clan without land or security. The MacGregors are the best known of these.

They fell foul of the rapacious Campbells of Glenorchy who stole their lands and made them outlaws. Some families survived by offering professional service to great clans.

The Beatons or Bethunes were physicians to the Lords of the Isles. Some MacGregors became hereditary pipers to their persecutors, the Campbells of Glenorchy. The MacArthurs were pipers to the MacDonalds of Sleat, the Rankins to the MacLeans of Coll.

And in this profession the greatest exponents were the MacCrimmons, famous as pipers to the MacLeods of Dunvegan.

The kindred was based at Borreraig, a few miles up the loch from Dunvegan Castle.

When they first took up their position is lost in time. The name means Mac Ruimein which is believed to be a form of the old Norse name Hroðmundr which gives them a shared Viking origin with the chiefs of Clan MacLeod. Alasdair Crotach the 8th chief gave the family their lands in the first half of the 16th century. Curiously the first of the MacCrimmons on record is “Malccolme pyper Mackchrwmen in Craigroy” on a bond of manrent with Colin Campbell of Glenorchy in 1574 and a “Patrik Mcquhirryman, piper”, resident in Perthshire, is mentioned in the Privy Council register for stealing nearly 150 cattle.

Pipers were gentlemen, amongst the most important of a chief’s retainers and had their own ghillies to serve them and to carry their instruments. As well as entertaining the chief and his guests, pipers, of course, were critically important in warfare. No other instrument was capable of piercing through the clamour of a battle – the cries of the warriors, the screams of the wounded, the gunfire and the clatter of steel on steel. The pipes could inspire, rally and, if needs be, console. And the MacCrimmons were recognised throughout Scotland as the prime exponents of the art. Other chiefs sent their pipers to the college at Borreraig to learn some 300 pibrochs in courses that lasted seven years. The MacCrimmons influence on this Scottish symbols is immeasurable..

When his brother was killed by the Mackenzies, Donald Mhor – Big Donald – MacCrimmon swore vengeance and carried out a series of one-man raids on his enemies.

On one expedition he burned 18 house in Kintail. Taking shelter in a cottage, he hid in a corner when a party of MacKenzies searching for him entered and decided to spend the night. As they sat round the fire, the woman of the house took their wet plaids ostensibly to dry and hung them to create a curtain behind which Donald made his way to the exit and escaped. He returned when his pursuers had settled round the fire for the night and piled their weapons alongside their sleeping leader. In the morning he realised what had happened and, in return for sparing his life, he arranged a pardon for Donald who returned home.

John MacCrimmon led the pipers at the coronation of Charles II as King of Scots at Scone. His contemporary Patrick Mhor was usually escorted by his eight sons, seven of whom died of fever within a year and the sorrowing father composed the pibroch ‘Cumhadh na Cloinne’ – the Lament for the children. In his old age Patrick took part in the Battle of Worcester in 1651 when Cromwell routed the royalist forces. He was taken prisoner but was released and made his way back to Skye.

During the 1745 Rising, the MacLeods of Dunvegan supported the government. In December 1745, the MacLeods were surprised by the Jacobites at Inverurie and made a fighting retreat by moonlight. Donald Ban MacCrimmon then considered the greatest of all Highland pipers was captured.

The pipers with Prince Charles’s forces went on strike until Donald was released and joined the government forces once more.

Donald Ban had second sight. He composed a lament before he left home ‘MacLeod shall come back, But MacCrimmon shall never’ and his foreboding was justified at the Rout of Moy a month before Culloden. The Prince was staying at Moy Hall and the Hanoverians got wind of this. With 1500 men Lord Loudon set off at night to capture him.

Word reached Moy Hall and five men were sent to await this army. As they approached, they fired their muskets and made a great hullaballoo, shouting the war cries of the Camerons and Macdonalds. The only casualty was Donald Ban.

In the aftermath of the Rising, bagpipes were declared ‘Instruments of War’ and were banned along with kilts, tartans and the power of the chiefs. Most of the MacCrimmons emigrated to America.

In 1933, Clan Societies and Scots throughout the world paid for a cairn overlooking the sea at Borreraig. The Gaelic inscription reads: ‘The Memorial Cairn of the MacCrimmons of whom ten generations were the hereditary pipers of MacLeod and who were renowned as Composers, Performers and Instructors of the classical music of the bagpipe. Near to this post stood the MacCrimmons’ School of Music, 1500 – 1800’. In 1942, Dame Flora MacLeod appointed Malcolm Roderick MacCrimmon the hereditary piper to the chief of Clan MacLeod and his son succeeded him in this post in 1978.