The Family Tree of Piping

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A Brief Look Into The Family Tree Of Piping, It's Music, And Those who have Perfected The Art Of Piping

This is a brief look into the history of the Scots and Irish pipers who formed the base of today's piping. We have them to thank for what we have today. The outstanding pipers in the history of piping are too innumerous to mention, therefore only those we know most about will be discussed.

The history of outstanding pipers goes back to the MacCrimmon family who lived in and around Skye. Piping goes back far beyond the MacCrimmon family even before the year 1500 when the bagpipe was going through its own physical change. The MacCrimmon family laid the foundation of piping, as far as we can tell from the available information. They made many improvements in the interpretation and execution of the music. This improvement in the music was not only brought about by the MacCrimmon family but by various individuals and societies who throughout the years kept the traditions and the art of piping alive, and gave to us the high standard we enjoy at the present time.

The MacCrimmon family taught advanced pipers from other Clans at Borreraig in Skye from about 1600 to 1770 where they were finished and perfected in the art of piping. It was at centers such as this that the "CeolMor" or piobaireachd the classical music of the bagpipe, reached its high standard.

The MacCrimmons

The most important event of the sixteenth century in the history of the Highland bagpipe was the appearance on the scene of the MacCrimmons, for they changed the whole face of the art of piping. This they did both by their music and by their masterly playing of the instrument: they raised the status of the pipes from that of a rustic instrument mostly used for the playing of slow airs and dance tunes, to one possessing its own extended art form, that of Piobaireachd. In this they bequeathed to Scotland and the world in the course of over two hundred years a legacy of great music that belongs to the pipes alone- a legacy which will certainly endure through the centuries to come.

The MacCrimmons were, as most people will know, the famed hereditary pipers to the Clan MacLeod. Most of them served the Chief of the Clan at Dunvegan Castle on the Isle of Skye; but we also find them attached to other branches of the Clan, namely to the MacLeods of Gesto in Skye.

The early history and genealogy of the MacCrimmons is shadowy and inconclusive. So many traditions exist regarding their origin, few if any of them verifiable, that one is left little better informed than before.

These traditions give the ultimate origin of the MacCrimmons variously as from the Norse invaders of Ireland; from Scotland itself; from Italy. It has been said that they sprang from Druids; or from the bards, because of the name relationship of Criom than with the ancient High Kings of Ireland-a name shared with Saint Colomba; and because of a similar name relationship with a famed Norse protector called Rumun.

MacCrimmons as a Clan are known to have inhabited the southern part of Harris in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. Their territory was invaded and the Clan conquered by Paul Balkeson, a Sheriff of Dkye, said to be of Norse extraction; his overlord was the King of Man, who was in turn vassal to the King of Norway.

Paul Balkeson is said to have named Leod, founder of the Clan MacLeod (the son of Olave the Black and grandson of the King of Man), as his heir, thus the MacLeods would early have possessed a feudal superiority over the MacCrimmons is a Clan. A number of the MacLeods, and probably the MacCrimmons alone with them, settled in the twelfth century in Ireland, on the lands of the 0'Donnells. Later in the sixteenth century, Rory Mor MacLeod, the great Fifteenth Chief of the Clan MacLeod went to fight for the 0'Donnells in Ireland in 1505 under the celebrated Red Hugh O'Donnell, at the rising of the Ulster Clans against English rule.

On returning from Ireland Rory Mor MacLeod is said to have brought back with a piper called Iain Odhar MacCrimmon, who in this tradition is said to be the son of Red Hugh O'Donnell's piper Donald MacCrimmon. This Iain Odhar became the founder of the Scottish piping MacCrimmons. Most traditions give the son of Iain Odhar as Donald Mor MacCrimmon as the first known composer, and possibly the deviser of Piobaireachd. Another tradition gives Donald Mor as the grandson of Iain Odhar , his father being a some-what nebulous Padruig (Patrick) Donn (dark) MacCrimmon. Others do not accept the story of Iain Odhar having come from Ireland, and give him a Scottish parent, Fionnlagh a' Bhreacain ham, or Fionnlagh na Plaide Baine, i.e. Finlay of the White Plaid. Finlay was known as a warrior rather than as a piper, and tales of his prowess are told to this day.

Another tradition has it that the first piping MacCrimmon (unnamed) was the illegitimate son of the eighth Chief MacLeod, Alasdair Crotach (i.e. hump-backed) (died 1547); and several authorities state that it was this Chief who gave the MacCrimmons the lands of Galtrigal in Skye. They lived at Galtrigal before they received from the MacLeods their holdings at Borreraig, on which they established their far-famed College of Piping.

If there were any truth in this tradition that Alasdair Crotach established the MacCrimmons as his Hereditary Pipers, this would of course rule out the story of Rory Mor, the fifteenth Chief, having brought them over from Ireland.

The Cremona Tradition

A strange and completely different tradition is that a Chief of MacLeod, returning from the Crusades by way of Italy, brought back a musician from Cremona to be his piper. From the name of the musician's birthplace he was surnamed Cremoneh; this later, in the Scottish Gaelic fashion, became MacCrimmon. There is perhaps a little color of this tradition in that the famous Fairy Flag of Dunvegan has been pronounced by experts to be of Syrian origin, and may possibly have been brought back from the Crusades.

The account of the MacCrimmons which might have beer the most interesting of all, and which was apparently believed by the MacCrimmons themselves, was fortunately said to be suppressed through the clerical bigotry. This was in a book, the History of the MacCrimmons and The Great Pipe, written by Captain Neil MacLeod of Gesto in 1826. Gesto, who was a great lover and student of Piobaireachd, and was a friend of the last of the MacCrimmon pipers, Iain Dubh MacCrimmon, and it was doubtless from him that he got this account. Unfortunately his book contained material which was, for some reason, said to be unacceptable to the clergy, and it was withdrawn. The story goes that only two copies were saved from destruction, both of which were carried to Australia on by Captain MacLeod's son Norman (died 1847) and the other by Simon Fraser a descendant of the hereditary pipers to the Frasers of Lovet. (Simon Fraser's son, also named Simon Fraser, died as recently as 1934. Fraser's copy of Gesto's book was said to have been accidentally destroyed; the other, belonging to Norman MacLeod, was said in 1936 to be in Canada, its exact where abouts unknown.

With the suppression of Gesto 's book, which could have been so valuable to the history not only of the MacCrimmons but of Highland music and piping in general, we are dependent on such scraps of tradition regarding its contents as may have been handed down by hearsay from those who claim to have seen it, or to have information about it. The book is said to have contained a complete and comprehensive account of the MacCrimmon pipers and also of their vocables and scales, some of the details of which were said never to have been fully disclosed by the MacCrimmons even to their most favoured pupils. Unless the alleged remaining copy said to have been carried to Canada, should ever turn up, all this is forever denied to us

The book is said to have told a very curious and seemingly circumstantial story regarding the 'Cremona named Guiseppe Bruno, the son of whom, Petrus or Patrick Bruno, born at Cremona in 1475, is said to have emigrated to Ulster, Northern Ireland, in 1710. He himself assumed the name of Cremon.

In Ireland, he married the daughter of a piping family and changed his name further, in order to come into line with the clan tradition, to MacCrimmon.

This Petrus Bruno is said to have had three sons , one of whom was Findlay of the Plaid, already mentioned , the father or grandfather of Ian Odhar MacCrimmon pamphlet pose the interesting question of whether Iain Odhar 's distinctive colour of skin may not have been an inheritance from his Italian father. Thomas Pearston, in a series of articles on the subject in the Piping Times, recounts a curious statement said to have appeared in Gesto's Anapool, thought to have been composed by a MacCrimmon, had appeared in the book as "Lament for Giordano Bruno on being burned to death in Rome.

Frankly, of course in the absence of Gesto's suppressed book (if it ever really existed), one cannot accord the Cremona-Bruno story more than extremely doubtful hearsay value, though the contributory evidence is curious and interesting. Even if the book did turn up, the story is still dependent on the accuracy of the family history as transmitted by the MacCrimmons over the space of more than three hundred years, commencing in 1510 , and as finally handed on to MacLeod of Gesto by Iain Dubh MacCrimmon in the nineteenth century.

In final judgement it must be fairly stated that the "Cremona tradition" regarding the MacCrimmon history, with so many conflicting accounts of the origin of the MacCrimmons, one can only give a consensus of opinion regarding the earlier members of the family. From Donald Mor onwards, son or grandson of Iain Odhar whichever he was, we are on firmer ground.

The following pages then are the generally accepted family tree or the piping MacCrimmons.

Fionnlagh a' Breacian Bhain (Finlay of The White Plaid) Said to have come from Ireland in the early sixteenth century and to have been the son of Red Hugh O'Donnell's piper. The same is said however, of his son, Iain Odhar. He is said to have been granted the lands of Galtrigal, near Dunvegan, by MacLeod, in the early sixteenth century.

Iain Odhar Said to have been hereditary piper to Alasdair Crotach MacLeod during the first half of the sixteenth century. Some authorities consider him to be the Irish piper mentioned above.

Padruig (Patrick Donn) Doubtful, nebulous ; but said by some authorities to have been hereditary piper to MacLeod in the latter half of the sixteenth century.

Patrick Caog

Donald MorBorn 1570 Hereditary piper to MacLeod from 1620. Taught by his father, but supplemented his studies in Ireland.

Patrick Og Born 1645 Hereditary piper to MacLeod 1670-1770

Malcolm Born 1704
Hereditary piper to MacLeod, 1730-60

Donald Ban
Born 1710 Killed at Rout of Moy, 1746.

Iain Dubh Born 1731 Nominally hereditary piper to MacLeod, 1760-70. Died 1822.

Donald Ruadh Born 1743 Intermittently and nominally hereditary piper to MacLeod from 1795 died 1825.

Malcolm Roderick MacCrimmon Born Dec 21, 1918 Ninth Hereditary Piper to Clan MacLeod 1942-1978.

Iain Norman MacCrimmon Born Feb 29, 1952 Tenth Hereditary Piper to Clan MacLeod 1978.


Fionnlagh a ' Breacain Bhain
History tells us he came from Ireland in the early sixteenth century and to have been the son of Hugh 0' Donnell's piper. The same is said of his son, Iain Odhar who was g ranted the lands of Galtrigal , near Dunvegan, by MacLeod, in the early 1600.

Iain Odhar
Hereditary piper to Alasdair Crotach MacLeod during the first half of the 1600 and it is believed he is the Irish piper mentioned above.

Padruig Donn
It is believed he became hereditary piper to MacLeod near the end of the sixteenth century but is doubtful.

Donald Mor
Born c. 1570
Hereditary piper to MacLeod from c. 1620. Taught by his father, but also studied in Ireland.

Patrick Og
Born c. 1645. Hereditary piper to MacLeod 1670-1730.

Born c. 1704 Hereditary piper to MacLeod 1730-60.

Donald Ban
Born c. 1710 Killed at Rout of Moy, 1746.

Iain Dubh
Born 1731 Hereditary piper to MacLeod 1760-70 Died 1822.

Donald Ruadh
Hereditary piper to MacLeod from 1795. Died 1825

Malcolm Roderick MacCrimmon

Malcolm Roderick MacCrimmon 1942

Ninth Hereditary Piper to Clan MacLeod. Born Dec 21, 1918

At the outbreak of WWII, a young Malcolm Roderick MacCrimmon of Edmonton signed up with the Calgary Highlanders. His Uncle Art had told young Malcolm of the great pipers who had gone before him. A piper since the age of eight, Malcolm was immediately made a member of the pipe band.

George Poulter, a student of the MacCrimmon history and member of the Clan MacCrimmon Society of London lived in Surrey, not far from Camp Aldershot. Malcolm's uncle Arthur MacCrimmon arranged for Poulter to meet with young Malcolm. Years of painstaking genealogical research assured Mr. Poulter that the young Canadian soldier was indeed from the blood of Donald Ruadh.

In 1942 Malcolm ventured north to Dunvegan meet Dame Flora MacLeod of MacLeod and effectively re-instated the line. This was a verbal agreement, which established Malcolm R. MacCrimmon as the 9th Hereditary Piper to the Chief of the Clan MacLeod.

As a Calgary Highlander, he studied at the Army School of Piping under Sir Willie Ross. Malcolm was later transferred to the famed Scots Guards and again was entitled to attend the piping school located at Edinburgh Castle. As it was a rare thing for a Canadian to be given a transfer to a British regiment, the story was carried in newspapers all over the UK and Canada.

At the end of the war, Malcolm took a bride (Mairi Chisholm) from Gravir on the Isle of Lewis and returned to Canada. They went into farming just north of Edmonton and Malcolm put his pipes away for a few years.

Iain Norman MacCrimmon

Iain Norman MacCrimmon

Tenth Hereditary Piper to Clan MacLeod.. Born Feb 29, 1952 In time, young Iain distinguished himself as a capable musician and member of the local piping fraternity. He studied under many of the luminaries of his day. Added pressure and high expectations became a way of life as Iain gained a solid reputation on the Canadian piping stage. He began with the Edmonton Boys PB then went on to Grade One competition with Viscount Park, Alberta Caledonian and eventually Clan McBain in Calgary. He served as pipe major for the later three and managed to publish two volumes of pipe music.Tunes like Morison Avenue, Maxwell's Bonnet and many others have found their way into the repertoirs of bands around the world...and a number of World Champions.

Chief John MacLeod of MacLeod came to Calgary on a concert tour with his wife Melita in September, 1978. While in Calgary, the chief agreed to formalize his association with the MacCrimmon family.

As Dame Flora had appointed Malcolm as the 9th, it was fitting that his son Iain be handed the torch on the evening of September 28th, 1978 in the MacLeod Room of the Highlander Hotel, Calgary, Alberta, Canada.To commemorate the evening and preface Iain's Book ....Chief MacLeod wrote....

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