Usually, when I write about the Isle of Colonsay, it is in connection with the Clan Macfie. This, of course reflects my family’s links to the clan and the island. It should be noted, however, that the Macfies gradually left Colonsay during the 17th century, after which they became part of the ubiquitous worldwide Scottish diaspora. Over the next century or so, a new family became predominant on the island, the MacNeills, a situation that is still in place today.
John MacPhee’s book, “The Crofter and the Laird” documents his year on Colonsay in the late 1960’s, during which time he interviewed a number of the MacNeills of Colonsay. For the most part, they had dispensed with the name MacNeill for everyday business (since they all had the same name), and substituted the places on the island where they lived as working surnames. Thus, Andrew MacNeill, who farmed the land on the island of Oransay (to the south of Colonsay, and ephemerally connected at low tide by spit of sand) was known as Andrew Oransay.
This Andrew Oransay turns out to be a major piping authority, and not only that, but a link to one of the two schools of piobaireachd. Piobaireachd players like to trace their piping lineage, through their various teachers, back to the MacCrimmons of Skye in the 17th and 18th centuries. The path back to the MacCrimmons splits (somewhat contentiously) in the 19th century, with two schools of thought claiming “correct” interpretation of the big music. One style ultimately came to predominate, although the second has always had its adherents, and Andrew MacNeill of Colonsay (as he is known in the piping world) turns out to be one of the latter. He won a few competitions before the Second World War, and appeared to be a rising star but, on returning from the War, never made the promised impact on the competition circuit. Still, he was much in demand as a teacher and a mentor, and it becomes clear that many influential pipers who did go on to competition victory could thank Andrew for his assistance in doing so. One who benefited from his help was William Barrie, a Canadian piper, who later wrote one of the most famous “new” tunes of the past few years, “Andrew MacNeill of Colonsay“. This tune has been recorded by the current World Pipe Band Champions, the Simon Fraser University Pipe Band.
He was also ready to help out anyone who asked for his piping help, including several members of the Bob Dunsire Piping Forums, an online forum for piping discussion (of which I am a member). Recently, one of the regular members asked fellow posters to supply any memories they may have of Andrew. A very interesting discussion has developed, during which at least one person has revealed he possesses a large amount of correspondence and taped material from Andrew.
The discussion is still ongoing (and I have yet to find out in which year he died), but little did I know when I walked/paddled across to Oransay with my family on a soaking wet summer’s day in 1985 to visit Oransay Priory, that I may have been yards away from one of the major figures in 20th century piping.