Some Musical Notes From Skye

First published last year in West Highland Notes & Queries, (Volume 4. Number 2), it is probably worth reprinting on this site as an example that the great piping names of the past would not have been completely insulated from the wider Scottish cultural scene.

The association of music and Dunvegan towards the end of the seventeenth century would normally bring to mind Rory Dall Morison, the blind harper, or the MacCrimmon family of pipers. However, trawling through the unindexed volumes of the Books of Council and Session has brought to light another perspective on musical life on Skye at that time.

On the 4th February 1717 (RD4/120 p 132), an Obligation between ‘Lachlan McFingon of Strathoordill to John McFingon’ eldest son of his second marriage which was made between them on the 19th October 1693 was recorded. The original document had been written by a Thomas Ross, servant to the Laird of McLeod and was signed and witnessed at Dunvegan. Apart from the respective parties, the other witnesses were John McLeod of Talisker and a William Niven, ‘Professor of Musick’.

The presence of a ‘professor of music’ at Dunvegan at that period would be intriguing, if it was just as a single event. It is even more so when he turns up again. This time the document, a Bond between Roderick McLeod of Hammer to Roderick McLeod of that Ilk, was entered in the Books on the 7 October 1719, (RD4/126 p 602-603). Signed and witnessed at Dunvegan on the 12 February 1696 it was for a loan to be repaid at Whitsunday 1697. In this case not only was it witnessed by ‘William Niven, Professor of Musick’ but the document had actually been written by him.

It is not clear why it should have taken so long before the deeds were actually entered into the Books of Council and Session. Such delays were not unusual but normally the documents still had some relevance and the second one here being a debt which should have been cleared long before is somewhat puzzling. It may have been a response to the post 1715 forfeitures and judicial processes meant that the parties felt it sensible to ensure all their previous dealings were centrally recorded.

The fact that the musician William Niven was involved in two deeds noted at Dunvegan in 1693 and 1696 suggests that he was resident there for at least that three year period. Furthermore, being there he would have to have had some familiarity with both the Blind Harper and the pipers; it is a pity he did not employ his evident writing skills to make some notes on them from the perspective of another musician.

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