April 08, 2020

‘You’re a fool, Angus’ – an excerpt from the historical novel about Angus MacKay

We recently announced the news of the publication of I Piped, That She Might Dance, a creative new historical novel by Iain MacDonald of Regina, Saskatchewan, about the life of Angus MacKay, considered by many, if not most, to be the most important Highland piper in history.

MacDonald’s book is one of the most creative efforts in piping history. He painstakingly researched and discovered historical material about MacKay, who is credited with publishing the most important collection of bagpipe music in history, ushering the repertoire into a standardized form. The collection was used as the foundation for the Piobaireachd Society’s Collection.

Angus MacKay served as piper to Queen Victoria until succumbing to mental illness, condemned to an asylum and, as he escaped, was considered drowned in the River Nith near Dumfries. His body was never found.

Angus MacKay lives again in new book by Iain MacDonald
March 19, 2020


Due to the global coronavirus crisis, Ringwood Publishing, a small, independent publisher based in Glasgow dedicated to publishing quality works of Scottish fiction and non-fiction, has suspended distribution, but the company continues to take pre-orders for the book, priced at £9.99 plus shipping.

We’re pleased to bring pipes|drums readers an exclusive excerpt from the I Piped, That She Might Dance.

Iain MacDonald sets the scene:

In this excerpt, MacKay has returned to London in late fall after the season at Balmoral. He has been having dreams and delusions throughout the fall as his mental health deteriorates and he is struggling to maintain a calm exterior. He describes the circumstances that led to his first period at St. Mary’s of Bethlehem, or as it became known, Bedlam.

A Christmas gathering of royal household staff at which the punch bowl was regularly emptied turned out to be a bad night for my employment as Her Majesty’s piper. Late in the evening, after the course of much merriment, a heated discussion arose concerning the war in Crimea, and I kicked a man square in the groin for his contemptuous remarks toward me. I was pulled back and tied to a chair. They say I was shouting in Gaelic and couldn’t be reasoned with, but I don’t remember much beyond the argument, the overwhelming anger, and then finding myself bound to the chair. One or two nervous fellows sat nearby, looking as though they might flee the room at the slightest sound.

A number of men under the direction of Her Majesty’s physician then fitted me into a straitjacket, which allowed no movement of my arms, and I was taken under protest to Bethlem Hospital, where they tried to keep me. I was furious at this insult, and the staff seemed appalled that a member of Her Majesty’s service would be thus treated. There was no formal medical certificate to hold me there, so after a time of questioning and observation I was escorted back to my home and left in the street out front. I hummed “The Unjust Incarceration” in the carriage on the return journey, much to the irritation of those who’d taken me away. They didn’t know the name of the tune and were annoyed at my seeming good spirits in the face of their failure.

When I arrived home, Mary was greatly distressed. People had come to tell her what had happened.

“You’re a fool, Angus,” – was the first thing she said. “You’ve let the drink get in the way of your work and now we’ll all pay the price. You’re away to all hours, we hardly know you live here, except for the mess you make with those damned warship models.”

“I don’t expect you to understand, Mary. The country is in grave danger, and I must assist. Others don’t know what I do, but I have been told . . . I have . . .”

“You have dreams!” she laughed bitterly. “I know. I hear the muttering, and the shouts that wake up the house.”

“Don’t mock me! I must protect my Queen from danger, I have a duty. These plots against the royal family, Mary, they cannot succeed, my plans will save this country. I know how to save the Queen.”

“Your plans are madness!” she shouted.

She wouldn’t listen, and we ended up pushing at each other until crying children drove me from the house. I spent the remainder of that morning wandering the streets, and I eventually found myself near John’s old rooms. I leaned against a wall there and thought about life when John was alive, and we had laughter, tunes and stories of walking the hills atop Eyre.

I seemed to be the subject of conversations that ended when I walked into a room, and more and more I found people distant with me.

The next weeks in service were busy and difficult. With more than normal activity in the royal household over the holidays, there was a greater call on the staff. We were expected to be in service long hours, and while I was there for much of the time there was little call for piping. Mostly I was doing other tasks and was largely alone. Other staff members no longer spoke to me unless absolutely necessary: no casual conversations about weather, no current events or politics, and no more jokes about sheep, accent or Highland costume. I seemed to be the subject of conversations that ended when I walked into a room, and more and more I found people distant with me.

To be continued tomorrow . . .


Iain MacDonald is one of the piping world’s great contributors. He is the pipe-major of Grade 2 City of Regina, a band that he has led for more than 20 years. He was a member of Grade 1 Babcock-Renfrew under the legendary Pipe-Major Iain McLeod, played with Grade 1 Simon Fraser University for several years, and currently plays with Grade 1 78th Highlanders (Halifax Citadel). He has been a teacher of piping all his life, and started the Conservatory Pipe Band for young pipers and drummers, which has produced dozens of new pipers and drummers. A composer and arranger, he published a collection of music, Along The Road, and runs a piping supplies business, Reelpipes.com, (a pipes|drums advertiser).



Angus MacKay lives again in new book by Iain MacDonald
March 19, 2020


Angus MacKay chanter to return to Scotland at Piping Live!
July 31, 2011





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