The bagpipers of Nova Scotia are not amused.
Iain Dall Mackay (1656-1754), known as the Blind Piper of Gairloch, was a pupil of the MacCrimmons. His music and poetry is considered the finest of the 17th century. MacKay was a great player during the golden age of Gaelic piping in Scotland and the instruments played during this time were considered masterpieces. None have survived from that period 300+ years ago, except one chanter. Professional bagpipe maker and researcher Julian Goodacre describes the Iain Dall chanter as “made in lignum vitae, Iain Dall’s chanter has a luxurious feel with deep ‘softening’ of the finger holes. Compared to a modern pipe chanter, the little finger of the
bottom hand has less of a stretch, and it has a slightly sharper D and low G: this corresponds to the sound of twentieth-century masters like John MacDonald of Inverness and Donald MacLeod.”
When Iain Dall MacKay died in Scotland in 1754, one of his sons, John Roy MacKay, immigrated to Nova Scotia in 1805 and took the chanter with him. It has survived eight generations, seven of those in Nova Scotia. MacKay’s descendants, Michael and Donald Sinclair, have now handed the chanter over to the National Piping Centre museum in Glasgow. Their hope, according to one of the Sinclair brothers, is that the chanter’s “story will inspire them in their piping schooling.”
Fine ideals, indeed. But what about inspiring Nova Scotia and Canadian pipers?
The decision of the Sinclair’s has set off a huge debate in Nova Scotia, and thanks to the internet, in North America. Nova Scotia bagpiping historian Barry Shears argues “It looks like another relic has been carted off to Scotland. Nothing against the Scots but one would think they had enough castles and old instruments already….There are museums here in NS which would have taken the chanter. Any one of them would be a fitting repository for what is perhaps the oldest woodwind of European manufacture in North America. To send it back to the Scotland, placed in a display case in Glasgow, where it cannot be seen and appreciated on a regular basis by Nova Scotian pipers and those interested in the cultural history of the Gael in the New World is truly an’ Unjust Incarceration’. John Roy Mackay must be turning over in his grave. Perhaps a temporary loan would have been more appropriate and once we had a proper venue for its care and display created it would be returned.”
Needless to say, not everyone agrees with Barry, as evidenced by the outpouring of comments on the well read Bob Dunsire bagpiping forums.
As for me, I’m with Barry. I am a proud Nova Scotian who also happens to be a bagpiper and the great grandson of immigrants from the Highlands. A recent Scottish article about this brouhaha refers to this instrument returning to its native land after more than two centuries in exile in Canada.
As Barry and others from the Gaelic culture in Nova Scotia are well aware, our ancestors brought with them very little, other than our language, our faith and our culture. On isolated shores they struggled and survived with the little they possessed. What they brought with them evolved into a distinct Nova Scotia-Scottish identity. The kilts that came off the boats, the spinning wheels, the farming utensils and, yes, the musical instruments contributed to and became part of that Nova Scotia identity. The ancient “old country” bits and pieces that still remain in the ancestral home of my family are not “in exile“. They now belong here, and are a part of what gave our family the strength to survive in a difficult new world. The Sinclair’s, and for that matter any family, has the right to do with their possessions what they wish. But this chanter has become part of the Nova Scotia Gael tradition due to immigration. If this instrument can inspire future pipers or help maintain our culture by being displayed in the Antigonish cultural museum or elsewhere, I wish the Sinclair’s had considered this.
This cultural instrument of the immigrant Gael carries within it “the voice of the years that are gone“. It deserves to remain in Nova Scotia.