Keeping the pipes singing for monster in the deep: Piper MacKenzie's workplace has fine views over Scotland's most famous loch. Oliver Gillie reports

IAN 'SCHIMPF' MacKenzie played his bagpipes as he walked with steady steps across the courtyard of Urquhart Castle on the shores of Loch Ness. The tune was Schimpf Mackenzie's march, composed for him by an old friend from the Queen's Own Highlanders.

Mr MacKenzie, the first official piper to be employed by Historic Scotland, the government agency in charge of ancient buildings and monuments, has begun his tour of duty at the 16th-century castle. Whether the sun shines or a chill north wind blows, Mr Mackenzie must keep his fingers moving and his pipes singing for the monster in the depths of the loch.

'Rain is a problem,' Mr MacKenzie said, with thoughtful understatement. 'The humidity affects the reed and I have to keep retuning the pipes.'

The pipe has four reeds to be tuned - three drones as well as the main reed in the chanter. The instrument, a Henderson nickel and ivory mounted, is more than 100 years old but beneath the tartan is a modern waterproof bag to keep out the rain. But Mr MacKenzie's traditional woollen cloak is not waterproof and when it becomes sodden there is no peat fire to give him cheer. He must make do with a small radiator in a shed discreetly concealed in the castle moat.

Mr MacKenzie has a large repertoire of tunes, sad and cheerful, which he knows by heart. Many were learned over 30 years in the Army where he became known as Schimpf (meaning insult) because, as a young man in Germany, he was known for voicing strong opinions. Schimpf's march is played in homage to a friend, now dead, who composed the drum accompaniment.

Apart from deciding on his repertoire for the day Mr MacKenzie has delicate decisions to make about what dress he wears. Should it be the Mackenzie of Seaforth kilt in honour of his regiment, or the Cameron kilt worn by the Queen's Own Highlanders, or perhaps his own tartan, the clan MacKenzie? And should he wear the Glengarry, a smart cap decorated with regimental staghorns, or his Lovatt green bonnet, and should he wear the sealskin sporran or the dress sporran with goat hair and silver embellishment?

His choice for ceremonial occasions is the MacKenzie of Seaforth and he wore it proudly as he walked to the top of the castle tower, built by John Grant of Fenchie, Lord of Urquhart. There he played 'The Mist Covered Mountains' and 'The Auld Wife in the Mill Dust' as French and German tourists gasped with delight.

(Photograph omitted)

Comments