Rabbie Burns and the Skye connection

You may be wondering what connection, if any, Rabbie Burns – an Ayrshire man – had with the Isle of Skye. In fact, there is a very important connection to Skye in Rabbie Burns’ life and indeed to the Gaelic language and culture.

As a young man, Rabbie Burns became friendly with Archibald Montgomerie who was the 11th Earl of Eglinton in Ayrshire. The Earl became a guarantor to the printing of some of Rabbie Burns’ work and very much a supporter of and patron to him. Archibald Montgomerie had his own connection to Skye, being brother of the great Lady Margaret MacDonald of Skye who some say defied her husband and helped her friend’s daughter, Flora MacDonald, and Bonnie Prince Charlie in their journey through Skye during his period of escape after the Battle of Culloden.
Archibald Montgomerie was also known as “General Montgomerie” having raised a Highland Regiment in the years after the 1745 Jacobite rising. This regiment became known as the Montgomerie Highlanders and was one of the first Highland regiments to fight in North America. The MacDonald family connection continued, in that many of the MacDonalds of Skye joined this regiment including one of the famous MacArthur pipers who were the hereditary pipers to the MacDonalds of Skye. Sadly, this MacArthur piper never returned to Skye, but the MacArthur piping tradition continued here on the island. They were pipers of great renown in Scotland, and they had their own school of piping in Kilmuir in the north of Skye and were themselves former pupils to the great MacCrimmon pipers in Dunvegan, Skye. The MacArthurs were so well regarded in their knowledge of piping and Gaelic music that they were known as professors. Wherever the MacDonald chief went he was accompanied by his right-hand man, the MacArthur piper, including during his time at University in St Andrews!

Pipers of this calibre were highly esteemed in Gaelic culture and considered gentlemen in Highland Society. It therefore comes as no surprise then that one of the MacArthur pipers later became personal piper to the Earl of Eglinton and spent a long time in Ayrshire. Local tradition here in Skye says it was this connection between the MacDonalds and the Earl of Eglinton that brought Rabbie Burns into contact with the MacArthur pipers. Indeed, it is said that when Lord MacDonald and the Earl of Eglinton were socialising in Edinburgh, Rabbie Burns was often seen in conversation and drinking with the MacArthur piper. It is believed that it was in these conversations in Edinburgh and Eglinton, that Rabbie Burns learnt a lot about Gaelic music and song and picked up influences and perhaps even melodies from Skye that he would later use in his own songs and poetry. Certainly, the influence was considerable as it is documented that MacArthur and Burns became friends and that MacArthur was the Highland piper who “introduced him to the beauties of bagpipe music”.

These MacArthur pipers, despite being resident in Trotternish in the north of Skye, would have been familiar with Eilean Iarmain and the Sleat peninsula because they would, of course, regularly play for Lord MacDonald in his residence at nearby Armadale Castle and of course on one occasion performed for Johnson and Boswell as recorded by them in their journey through Skye in 1773.

We therefore feel we are justified in celebrating this Skye connection to Burns on his birthday, the 25th of January!