The photograph of John MacKinnon, the “Burnt Piper,” has him gripping a set of bagpipes with stubs of fingers. The write-up with the photograph tells us MacKinnon, born in Inverness County in 1869, worked in the coal mines and served overseas as a pipe major during World War 1. He was called the “Burnt Piper” due to having his fingers blown off in a mining accident. It was said that MacKinnon would never play again but he treated his stubs with oil obtained from eels and made them supple. In this way, he continued to pipe and became noted as a player. It was considered remarkable that he was able to finger technically demanding tunes on the stumps that remained of his fingers after the accident.
The persevering John MacKinnon, who refused to let the loss of his fingertips stop him from piping, is one of nearly 1700 pipers profiled in Scott William’s book, Pipers of Nova Scotia. Published this summer, William’s biographical sketches begin in the year 1773 when the ship Hector arrived in Pictou Harbour with piper John MacKay aboard.
Since the day of the Hector’s arrival, Nova Scotia’s Gaelic community has produced countless bagpipe players, and compiling biographical sketches of even a fraction of them would seem to be an impossible task; after all, nearly 227 years have passed since John MacKay piped the Hector settlers ashore.
However, six years ago that task was undertaken by Antigonish teacher, author, composer and noted piper Scott Williams. The result is a valuable reference source on more than 1650 pipers, many of whom have enriched the province with their music.
At first glance, it would appear that Pipers of Nova Scotia was compiled solely for the piping fraternity. But it is more than a book about pipers. In effect, the work celebrates our Gaelic cultural heritage as it relates to the bagpipes. With his biographical sketches of early Nova Scotia pipers, for example, Williams reveals the ancient ties between Scotland the old and Scotland the new.
Many of Nova Scotia’s earliest pipers were born in Scotland. One was John Roy (Iain Ruadh) MacKay. Born in Scotland in 1753, MacKay was the hereditary piper to Sir Hector MacKenzie of Gairloch. In 1905 he immigrated to Nova Scotia with two sons who were also pipers. MacKay is noted for bringing classical pipe music, piobaireachd, to the province. Another example is Donald MacIntyre. Born in Scotland about 1748, MacIntyre immigrated to Cape Breton around 1820 and sired a line of pipers; his son, grandson and two great grandsons were pipers. Another MacIntyre, also Donald, came from Scotland in 1826 and also sired a distinguished line of pipers.
Scott Williams notes that the MacIntyre family was “one of the strongest piping families in Nova Scotia,” and founded the very first pipe band in the province. The piping MacIntyres were only a few generations out of Scotland; they are typical of many Gaelic immigrant families who brought Scottish piping traditions to Nova Scotia.
In addition to celebrating the Scottish connection, Williams profiles contemporary pipers who were the “tradition bearers during and after World War 11.” Among them are Fraser Holmes, Wallace Roy, John A. “Black Jack” MacDonald, Ross Stone, Herman Beaton and Sandy Boyd, all pipers extraordinaire who today are household names.
In compiling Pipers of Nova Scotia, Scott Williams has provided us with a valuable resource, preserved our piping traditions, and created a work future generations will cherish.