“Loch Duich” – a historical investigation of the origins of the tune
By John-Don Mackenzie
Willie Fergusson (1885-1949) was born in Arbroath, Scotland. As a youth and now living in Glasgow he became a pupil of Farquar MacRae. He joined a Boys’ Brigade band but ran away from home and tried to join the Scots Guards, but being underage his father was sent for and he was taken home. As soon as his age permitted, he joined the 7th Battalion Highland Light Infantry. The pipe-major was his teacher, Farquar MacRae, which was most likely the reason for choosing that regiment.
In 1914 MacRae resigned from the HLI and formed the City of Glasgow Pipe Band. Later in the same year, when the First World War was declared, Fergusson was made pipe-major of the 7th Battalion HLI at the age of 29. Fergusson served in Flanders, Gallipoli and Palestine. Following the Armistice in 1918 he restarted the City of Glasgow Pipe Band, as Farquar MacRae had died in 1916.The band now included five ex-army pipe-majors.
His skill in setting chanters and drones, along with his teaching ability, was rewarded by the band winning the Cowal Championship in 1919. Confusion reigned, however, through newspaper reports that incorrectly attributed the winning title to the “City of Glasgow Police Pipe Band.” Fergusson decided to rename the band in order to avoid further confusion and in honour of his friend and teacher Farquar MacRae and, with the support of the Clan MacRae Society, the band became “The Clan MacRae Society Pipe Band” on May 1, 1920, with Major MacRae-Gilstrap (the MacRae Clan Chief and owner of Eilean Donan Castle) being its patron.
Under Fergusson’s leadership the Clan MacRae band went on to win the Cowal Championship four times and was runner-up three times between 1921 and 1927. Another honour was that the band was the first ever to do a radio broadcast. In 1929, following a serious accident at work as a carpenter when he fell 30 feet down a stairwell, he gave up leadership of the band and went to convalesce in Canada.
He did return to Scotland and died in 1949 at the age of 64, predeceased by his wife, Cathrine, by nine years. She was a native of Edinbane in Skye, where Willie Fergusson spent many holidays and learned to speak Gaelic. Willie Fergusson was one of the great pipe band leaders, but his legacy to piping was his compositional skill. He made many great tunes, including the 2/4 marches “Kantara to El Arish,” “The Australian Ladies,” “The Atholl and Breadalbane Gathering” and “Dornie Ferry,” to name just a few.
In 1939 Willie Fergusson compiled a collection of music entitled Fergusson’s Bagpipe Melodies, which contained 55 five tunes mostly composed by him. But he chose not to attribute composer’s names to any of the tunes, so it is difficult to ascertain which were in actual fact his own, or merely his settings or indeed by other composers. The collection is also notable for it being the first publication of the strathspey “Dornie Ferry” and also the debut of the famous slow air, “Loch Duich.”
There were a number of pipers from Dornie who joined the Scots Guards under Pipe-Major Willie Ross. One was Kenny MacKay, who after the war became Keeper at Pait Lodge in the remote Loch Monar area north of Strathfarrar. He had a brother, Farquhar, who in these days was thought of as “simple” and remained at home in Dornie. They were both accomplished players and composers, Kenny of Gaelic song as well. I have a number of their hand-written compositions, which were given to me by Kenny’s son, Iain, and they are musical indeed. My grandmother said that they would compose tunes and send them of to Glasgow for a fee of up to 10 shillings. Any specific details are not known.
It has been told to me by older folk from the area, pipers among them, that Fachy MacKay was the composer of “Dornie Ferry.” None of these people had any knowledge of Fergusson or his book. “Loch Duich” has been around in Kintail for many years. An 88-year-old acquaintance of mine who is an accomplished accordion player informed me it was a song his mother sang to her in her younger days. It may have been Fergusson who gave the tune its name. In the collection, as mentioned, he doesn’t accredit a composer to “Loch Duich” or “Dornie Ferry,” but it’s mistakenly taken for granted that he composed the tunes.
I’d like to emphasize that this article in no way is an attempt to take anything away from Fergusson’s reputation or ability. As previously stated he was by all accounts a top-class bloke with an impeccable character. But “Loch Duich” in fact is a much older melody composed in 1804 either as a pipe lament or song-melody.
There was a Christopher Macrae, whose father lived in Torlishy, about two miles from Shiel Bridge. He was a lieutenant in the 2nd Battalion of the 78th Highlanders, which was raised in 1804. He quickly came through the ranks and he returned to Kintail as a recruiting officer. Lieutenant MacRae, using his local knowledge and influence, brought 22 young men back to his battalion, all from Kintail. In recognition of this feat he obtained an Ensign’s Commission for his younger brother Farquhar. The departure of these men was commemorated (or mourned) by the air, “Loch Duich.” The haunting melody expresses the sadness felt by the Kintail people as the memory of Sheriffmuir and Culloden and its aftermath were still strong. The sadness was indeed well founded as Lieutenant MacRae and seven of the Kintail boys were killed at the Battle of El Hamet in 1807. An account of the battle by General Stewart, Commanding Officer of the 78th Highlanders in his memoirs:
Sergeant John MacRae, a young man about 22 years of age, but of great size and strength of arm, showed that the Highland Broadsword, in a firm hand, is as good a weapon in close combat as the Bayonet. MacRae, killing six men, cutting them down with his broadsword (of the kind usually worn by Sergeants of Highland Corps.), when at last made a dash out of the Ranks at a Turk, whom he cut down; but as he was returning to the square he was killed by a blow from behind, his head being nearly split in two by the stroke of a Sabre.
Lieutenant Christopher MacRae, whom I have already mentioned as having brought 18 men of his own name to the Regiment as part of his quota for as Ensigncy, was killed in this affair with six of his followers and namesakes, besides the Sergeant.
On the passage to Lisbon in 1805, the same Sergeant came to me one evening, crying like a child, and complaining that the ship’s Cook had called him English names which he did not understand, and thrown some fat in his face.
Thus, a Lad who in 1805 was so soft and childish, displayed in 1807 a courage and vigour worthy of Ossian.
I’m sure these words were poor comfort to the families of the soldiers killed and the pipe tune composed for their departure took on a more poignant role. There are two graveyards in Kintail, Clachan Duich at the Glenshiel end of Loch Duich, and Ard Dearg on the South Shore. The normal practice at funerals is for the piper to play “Theid mi Dhachaidh Crodh Kintaile” at Clachan Duich and “Loch Duich” at Ard Dearg.
Why? No one knows.
John-Don MacKenzie lives in Dornie, Scotland, and is an accomplished solo piper. He has received many prizes in competition, including the Northern Meeting. He now contributes to the piping scene through teaching and judging.