The Piper of Reay

In 1609 John Roy Mackenzie, one of the Gairloch lairds, paid a visit to his stepfather on the north coast, Lord Reay.  They spent a jolly time at Tongue House, hunting, drinking, riding and piping.  When the time came for John Roy to return south, MacKay decided to accompany his stepson all the way to the Sutherland border, to the Meikle Ferry just a few miles south of Dornoch.  From there John Roy would continue his journey over the Struie, towards Dingwall, and then westwards.  The party rode up to the ferry, the two lairds riding ahead and their grooms, pipers, retainers and luggage clattering behind them.  Loping along beside John Roy were the two new deer-hounds he had acquired in the north: “Cu dubh” and “Faoileag” (“Black Hound” and “Seagull”).  But they weren’t the only group planning to make the crossing that day.  Another gentleman was also travelling south with his men and, full of a sense of his master’s dignity, his groom attempted to prevent anyone else getting on to the boat along with them.  Reay’s piper, Rory MacKay, was a young, handsome seventeen-year-old.  Outraged at the slight, Rory attacked the groom.  In the scuffle Rory pulled out his dirk and, with one blow, cut off the groom’s hand at the wrist.  There on the beach at Meikle Ferry, amid the blood and the screams, the laird of Reay realised the seriousness of the situation.  “Rory, I cannot keep you with me any longer; you must at once fly the country and save your life.”  John Roy Mackenzie saw how he could help.  “Will you come with me to Gairloch, Rory?”  The young piper must have flushed with relief and immediately accepted.  Mackenzie might have thought he was doing his stepfather a favour, but MacKay had an eye for a bargain.  Reay turned to John Roy “Now, as you are getting my piper, you must send me in exchange a good deer-stalker.”  Once he arrived back in Gairloch John Roy did exactly that, dispatching Hugh Mackenzie, whose descendants (at least in the 1920s) still live in the Reay country. 

ImageMeikle Ferry Crossing – Easter Ross side.  Photograph from Collection of Elizabeth Ritchie

Rory must have been happy in his new situation and perhaps sent word north, for it wasn’t long before his older brother, Donald, came to join him.  Rory made his home at Talladale, where the Loch Maree Hotel now is.  His first two masters, John Roy and then his son alasdair Breac, lived in houses well defended by Loch Maree, built, as they were on islands, Eilean Ruairidh Beag and Eilean Subhainn.  Skirmishes, raiding and tit for tat attacks were ordinary life to any self-respecting chief so an island residence was a great protection for Mackenzie’s women and children.  Rory was no disinterested bystander when his laird took to arms.  The piper literally played an important part in every fight.  Despite being handsome, with a good job, Rory was in no rush to marry.  He was fully sixty years old before he committed himself to matrimony.  His wife must have been significantly younger than he, but that they only had one son suggests that she may have been a mature woman, possibly a widow.  Young John was born at Talladale in 1656.  When the boy was about seven years old he caught smallpox and lost his eyesight.  His father would probably have trained him in the profession regardless, but this calamity meant piping was one of the few good options open to the lad.  Fortunately he had talent.  Iain Dall (Blind John) became known as Piobaire Dall (the Blind Piper).  Once his father had taught him everything he knew, he sent Iain to the celebrated Macrimmon of Skye for seven years to finish off his musical education.  Iain returned to find Rory and his wife living in the Baile Mor, some miles west of his birthplace.  They had followed the new laird and his son, Kenneth and Alexander, who were building a new house just above where Flowerdale House now sits.  Still mindful of danger, the Tigh Dige was equipped with a moat and drawbridge.  There Iain Dall assisted his father as piper until old Rory MacKay of the Reay country died in 1689 at the age of ninety seven.  The rash actions of the impetuous teenager on the beach at Meikle Ferry, had resulted in Mackenzies in Reay, MacKays in Gairloch, and four generations of legendary pipers on the shores of Loch Maree.

 Osgood MacKenzie, A Hundred Years in the Highlands, (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1921, 1965), pp 190-191

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