Andrew MacNeill of Colonsay

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.

5 Replies to “Andrew MacNeill of Colonsay”

  1. I can tell you that Andrew died in 1997. His widow, Flora (my Great Auntie)has recently
    celebrated her 90th birthday. Contrary to reports on the forum,
    Andrew spent the majority of his retirement on Colonsay and died there.

  2. I started learning the chanter from Andrew when he lived in Scalisaig around 1956/7 I was drafted in to the R.A.F. in 57 and when I returned Andrew was in Oronsay. So that ended my teaching from him He was tough but a very fiar man

  3. I met Andrew and heard him pipe in the summer of 1975 when I was part of a group of college students on an archaeological dig on Oronsay. It happened that at that same time, Lord Strathcona’s daughter was getting married on Colonsay. We students were graciously invited to the reception, and as I recall Andrew played there. He also came to the site of the dig near Seal Cottage on Oronsay and played for us while we worked. Best, though, was when he came to the harbor on Colonsay at dawn to pipe the ferry that carried the newlyweds (and coincidently our group of students) as we were leaving for Oban. We students were sleeping on the deck having spent the night there (having had to give up our berths on the boat for wedding guests) when out of the morning fog we were awakened by Andrew playing the pipes as he marched down to the pier to see the boat off. A memorable moment, unlike anything I have experienced before or since.

  4. I was born in Langenberg, Saskatchewan, Canada. 1960.
    I lived in Bredenbury, Saskatchewan, til I was 3 yrs old.
    I lived in Saskatoon, Saskatchwan, til I was 4 yrs old.
    In August of 1965, my Dad accepted a Principalship & teaching position in the town of Colonsay.
    The population at that time was ? maybe 450 – 500 people.
    When we did get street signs, we lived on Oronsay Street.
    I walked to school, most days, on that street, beside my Dad.
    Our family moved a few times, within Colonsay, throughout the years.
    My Dad Passed away in 2013. My Mom is still there. When I drive HOME now, I am welcomed by this beautiful monument at the ‘turn-off’ into my Town, ”’ WELCOME TO COLONSAY.. THE ILSE IN THE PRAIRIE”’.

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