The MacCrimmons (Gaelic: MacCruimein) were a Scottish family, pipers to the chiefs of Clan Macleod for an unknown number of generations. The MacCrimmon kindred was centred at Borreraig near the Clan Macleod seat at Dunvegan on the Isle of Skye. At Borreraig the MacCrimmons taught at one of the best known "piping colleges" in the Highlands of Scotland.
Over time many pieces of Pìobaireachd (also known as Ceòl Mòr: "Big music") have been attributed to the MacCrimmons by popular tradition, yet the actual authorship of these cannot be verified. Popular lore has made the MacCrimmon pipers as one of the most famous families of hereditary pipers along with the MacArthur (pipers to MacDonald of Sleat), MacGregor (pipers to Campbell of Glenlyon), Rankins (pipers to the MacLeans of Coll, Duart and Mull). Even though the term hereditary is not a native Gaelic term, though in popular lore it has been used to imply an above average skill or special status. It should be noted that in the Scottish Highlands and in Europe itself until the Industrial Revolution most positions were inherited, "from the chief down to the humblest cotter".
The origins of the MacCrimmons is debatable; even the genealogy of the pipers themselves is the subject of debate and speculation. In the 20th century the chiefs of Clan Macleod instated two MacCrimmons as hereditary pipers to the clan.
The origin of the MacCrimmons is vague and has long been debated. One fanciful theory originating from Captain Neil MacLeod of Gesto was that the MacCrimmons descend from an Italian from the city of Cremona. Gesto was an intimate friend of Black John MacCrimmon (d 1822) the last hereditary piper to MacLeod, and it is reputed that from him Gesto received the "Cremona tradition". According to Gesto, the founder of the MacCrimmons was a priest from Cremona named Giuseppe Bruno, whose son Petrus (or Patrick Bruno) was born at Cremona in 1475 and later emigrated to Ulster in 1510. On Patrick's arrival in Ireland he then married the daughter of a piping family and Gaelicised his name. Gesto's origin for the MacCrimmons is not taken seriously today. According to Alastair Campbell of Airds the tradition was "fuelled by a non-Latinist finding the word 'Donald' in a 1612 Latin charter to Donald MacCrimmon, is that they were Italians from Cremona".
It is generally accepted that the surname may be of Norse origin. With MacCrimmon being an Anglicised form of the Scottish Gaelic Mac Ruimein meaning "son of Ruimean". Ruimean is possibly a Gaelic form of the Old Norse personal name Hroðmundr which is composed of the elements hróð (meaning "fame") + mundr (meaning "protection").
While this name origin would seem to tie in with the MacCrimmons' association with the MacLeods and the Isle of Skye the earliest references to a MacCrimmon (who were also pipers) appears in Campbell lands. The earliest reference is found in a bond of manrent of November 29 1574 between Colin Campbell of Glenorchy and "John Tailzoure Makchrwmen in the Kirktoun of Balquhidder and Malccolme pyper Mackchrwmen in Craigroy", this reference being over ninety years before the MacCrimmons are found as pipers to MacLeod of Dunvegan in Skye. Another early reference is to a "Patrik Mcquhirryman, piper", mentioned in the Register of the Privy Council, vol.5 (1592-99), who is mentioned in connection with a crime in Perthshire. Alastair Campbell of Airds speculated that MacCrimmons were pipers to the Campbells of Glenorchy prior to the MacLeods of Dunvegan and Harris.
By the mid 1690s the MacCrimmons are confirmed to have been located in the Hebrides and appear to have been recognised as masters of their craft. An order from John Campbell, Earl of Breadalbane to his chamberlain, Campbell of Barcaldine reads: "Give McIntyre ye pyper fforty pounds scots as his prentises(hi)p with McCrooman till May nixt as also provyde him in what Cloths he needs and dispatch him immediately to the Isles". The order seems to relate to a statement written by the mentioned earl of Breadalbane on April 22 1697 at Taymouth in Perthshire: "Item paid to quantiliane McCraingie McLeans pyper for one complete year as prentyce fie for the Litle pyper before he was sent to McCrooman, the soume of £160" (modern translation: "Item, paid to Conduiligh Mac Frangaich [Rankin], MacLean's piper, for one complete year, as apprentice fee for the Little Piper before he [the Little Piper] was sent to MacCrimmon, the sum of £160"). The MacCrimmon instructor that is referenced to may well be Pàdraig Òg.
Though much has been written about the MacCrimmon pipers to the MacLeods of Dunvegan, there is little reliable information on them. The genealogy of the "hereditary pipers" has also been the subject of debate and speculation. The MacCrimmon of whom there is the most reliable information is Red Donald (Dòmhnull Ruadh) (d July 31 1825). Red Donald held tacks at Borreraig and Shader, and at Trien in Waternish, and also a farm at Glenelg. Red Donald's older brother was Black John (Iain Dubh) (d 1822), who also held the Boreraig tack. Interestingly the MacCrimmon brothers had their most formative years during the Disarming Act. Today it is accepted that these MacCrimmon brothers were sons of Malcolm (Calum), son of Pàdraig Òg, who were both pipers to the chiefs of MacLeod and who also held land from them. Red Donald and Black John's father and paternal uncle (Donald Ban) both piped for the Government forces in the 1745-46 Jacobite Rising.
During the Jacobite Rising in 1745 the chief of Clan MacLeod supported the Hanoverians against the Jacobites. As MacLeod's piper, Donald Ban MacCrimmon (Dòmnhall/Dòmnhull Bàn MacCruimein - bàn meaning fairhaired cf Duncan Ban MacIntyre) took an active part in the conflicts against the Jacobite forces. Donald Ban was captured on December 23 1745 following the Hanoverian defeat at Inverurie. During his captivity, the pipers in the Jacobite army went on strike, refusing to play while the "King of Pipers" was held captive. According to popular tradition, Donald Ban wrote his well known lament, Cha till, cha till, cha till, MacCruimein (meaning literally "MacCrimmon will not, will not, will not return." it has been variously titled "No more, no more, no more, MacCrimmon", "MacCrimmon shall never return", "MacCrimmon's Lament" among others) with an intimation of his fate.
Donald Ban was eventually killed during the so-called "Rout of Moy" when on February 18 1746, with the Jacobites marching on Inverness, Lord Loudoun led 1,500 men in an attempt to capture Charles Edward Stuart. When the Government troops advanced upon Moy in the dark they encountered a watch made up of only a handful of Mackintoshes. In the encounter a single shot was fired and Donald Ban was instantly killed. With the death of their piper, panic quickly spread and Loudoun's forces fled in the "Rout of Moy". According to John William O'Sullivan's narrative, "McCloud had his Piper killed just by his side, & was very much laughed at when he came back".
Red Donald and Black JohnEdit
The MacCrimmon of whom there is the most reliable information is Red Donald (Dòmhnull Ruadh) (d July 31 1825). Red Donald held tacks at Borreraig and Shader, and at Trien in Waternish, and also a farm at Glenelg. In the early 1770s he left Scotland and settled in North America in what is now North Carolina. He was away from Scotland for about seventeen years (1773-1790), though there is no record of him associated with his involvement with the pipes in anyway. He settled in Anson County (located in what is now North Carolina, USA). He took part in the American Revolutionary War as a Loyalist, raising troops for the British forces and served as a Lieutenant. He claimed to have been present at the Battle of Moore's Creek Bridge in 1776. He eventually lost an eye. Red Donald evidently evaded capture by the Americans at Yorktown in 1781. After the end of hostilities he spent seven years as a Loyalist in Shelburne County, Nova Scotia, (located in what is now Nova Scotia, Canada).
He returned back to Scotland in 1790, at the insistence of the Highland Society of London which defrayed the cost of MacCrimmon, his wife, and three of their four children's journey back to Scotland. In 1808 the Highland Society of London proposed that a College of Piping be re-established at Fort Augustus, and that Lt. MacCrimmon should supervise instruction. This proposal was declined though, causing Red Donald "disappointment and mortification".
According to J. G. Lockhart's biography of Sir Walter Scott: "MacLeod's hereditary piper is called MacCrimmon, but the present holder of the office has risen above his profession. He is an old, a lieutenant in the army, and a most capital piper, possessing about 200 tunes and pibrochs, most of which will probably die with him as he declines to have any of his sons instructed in the art. He plays to MacLeod and his lady, but only in the same room, and maintains his minstrel privilege by putting on his bonnet so soon as he begins to play".
Red Donald's decision not to pass his knowledge of piping on to his sons seems to be related to the massive emigration of the MacLeod estates in the 1770s, in which he himself gave up Borreraig and sailed for North America. Even in 1799 after his return to Scotland Macleod put many substantial tacks up for sale around Dunvegan. In his later life, he is associated with Glenelg, which MacLeod sold in 1798 and subsequently re-sold in 1811, 1824, 1837, further forcing the poorer Highlanders to emigrate to North America.
The last MacCrimmon to be hereditary piper to MacLeod of MacLeod (until the modern era) was Black John MacCrimmon. According to tradition in 1795 Black John decided to emigrate to America, though only got as far as Greenock, before before making up his mind to stay on the Isle of Skye, where he died in 1822 aged ninety-one.
Modern Appointment of Hereditary Piper of MacLeodEdit
The MacCrimmon piping dynsaty is honoured in the form of cairn built in 1933, at Borreraig. This cairn, which overlooks Loch Dunvegan across to Dunvegan Castle, was paid for by clan societies and donations from around the world. The Gaelic inscription on the cairn reads in translation as: "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 the last century, with a revival in clan interest, the modern chiefs of Clan MacLeod have instated two MacCrimmons as hereditary pipers to the chief. Malcolm Roderick MacCrimmon, a Canadian born in 1918, started piping at the age of eight. With the start of the Second World War he joined the Calgary Highlanders and subsequently joined the pipe band. At some point in time he wrote to Dame Flora MacLeod, chief of Clan MacLeod, asking for approval and support of his decorating his bagpipes in the MacLeod tartan. The chief then wrote to the regiment's Commanding Officer and permission was granted. In 1942, MacCrimmon is said to have made a verbal agreement with the clan chief and became the ninth "hereditary piper" to the Chief of Clan MacLeod. MacCrimmon claimed there was proof of his descent from the MacCrimmons of Borreraig, and as such, that he was a descendant of the hereditary pipers to the Chief. In 1978, John MacLeod of MacLeod, 29th chief of Clan MacLeod, while visiting Calgary, Alberta, Canada, formally made Malcolm's son, Iain Norman MacCrimmon, the tenth hereditary piper to the Chief of Clan MacLeod.
- Adam, Frank & Innes, Thomas. The Clans, Septs and Regiments of the Scottish Highlands 1934. Kessinger Publishing, 2004. ISBN 1417980761.
- Campbell, Alastair. A History Of Clan Campbell: From The Restoration to the Present Day. Edinburgh University Press, 2004. ISBN 0748617906.
- Collinson, Francis. The Bagpipe: The History of a Musical Instrument. Routledge, 1975. ISBN 0710079133.
- Collinson, Francis. The Traditional and National Music of Scotland. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1966.
- Eyre-Todd, George. The Highland Clans of Scotland: Their History and Traditions. Charleston: Garnier & Company, 1969.
- Gibson, John G. Old and New World Highland Bagpiping. MacGill-Queen's University Press, 2002. ISBN 0-7735-2291-3.
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