Jigsaw LeftJigsaw Right

Caithness Archives

The Pipe-Majors of Lochside:Part 3
The Hero of Magersfontein

 

He was a fine, handsome Highlander was James Macdonald Mackay. Seventeen years of age, blue-eyed with a head of dark brown hair and a powerful physique, James stood five foot ten in his stockinged feet. He was the fourth child and second son of Angus and Jessie Mackay, Lochside, Isauld by Reay, and on a Saturday in late 1880 he tied the knot with his true love, Isabella Sinclair. Reay church was packed with friends and good neighbours, come to see the wedding of old Angus the Piper's loon.

Having made their vows to God and one another, James and Isabella left the church to the accompaniment of one of Angus's lively wedding marches, man and wife, in the eyes of all the world a happy couple, newly-wed. The festivities began. There was feasting, dancing, Gaelic songs and, perhaps, the odd bottle going around, for everybody intended to make very merry on behalf of James and Isabella. It was a familiar scene, still enacted year-in, year-out all over the Christian world. Next day may bring sore heids, sore bellies, sore throats or worse; but a wedding feast postpones all ills until tomorrow. However, for James Mackay the newly married man, tomorrow never came. His bride left him before the night began. She confessed to having made a terrible mistake. James was not her man; that person was in America where she was now bound. Goodbye.

If the army exists for no other reason than as a refuge for men with broken hearts, then it serves a very noble purpose. Coming from a military family, the path to the recruiting office was a natural one for James Mackay to take. In December 1880 he enlisted for the mandatory 10 years in his father's old regiment, the 93rd Sutherland Highlanders, completing his basic training at Stirling while the 93rd was away in Gibraltar. When the regiment returned to Britain in April, 1881 they found an eager young recruit awaiting them - Private Mackay 734.

The amalgamation of Scottish regiments is not a new thing. In 1881 the 91st Argyll Highlanders and their Sutherland cousins, the 93rd, became the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. It was a marriage destined to become world famous over many years and in many places. However, it all started quietly enough with a lengthy tour of home garrison duty until, in 1889 the 2nd Battalion sailed to India where it was to remain until 1902. In India the Highlanders kept the peace along the remote and lonely frontiers, fighting warlike Wazirs and Pathans. Private Mackay played little part in these expeditions, having transferred to the 1st Battalion when it called at India en route from Hong Kong in 1892.

For almost 8 years the Highlanders whiled away their time within the confines of the British Isles. Edinburgh, Aldershot, Dublin; it was hardly soldiering fit for defenders of the world's greatest empire. James Mackay, who had been reared on stories of his father's Crimean adventures with the famous 'Thin Red Line', was probably less than impressed with the spit-and-polish round of parades and drill exercises. In 1895 regimental routine was spiced up by a record breaking march from Aldershot to Hyde Park Corner, 35 miles in 9 hours with Pipers Robb and Mackay taking turns to play the marching Highlanders on their way. It was an impressive feat, but it didn't compensate for real action. To find that one would have to journey to far off South Africa, the home of Zulus, Matabele and Boers.

The discovery of gold in the Witwatersrand area in 1886 promised to make South Africa one of the richest parts of the world. A gang of capitalist adventurers and money rustling financiers led by Cecil Rhodes, schemed to seize control of this potential El Dorado. Matabele and Zulus were soon defeated by the British Army, but the Boers were a different proposition. A race of fiercely independent farmers, the Boers were not interested in gold or diamonds. Land was what they coveted, the land purchased from the Zulus with the blood of their hardy ancestors. The Boers had next to no military organisation, their charismatic leaders excercised little disiplinary control; they had no idea of military strategy or tactics. But every Boer farmer was an expert horseman, a sharpshooter schooled in marksmanship from an early age, a hunter familiar with local terrain and well adapted to living off the land. Moreover, these riders of the veldt were armed with modern repeating rifles. Banded together in small commando units, they were clearly not men to be underestimated by General Buller, C-in-C of the British Army in South Africa.

By the time the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders docked at Cape Town in November 1899, the Boer War was a month old with Mafeking, Kimberley and Ladysmith under seige by the fighting farmers. Post haste the regiment set off as part of Lord Methuen's 10,000 strong column, sent by General Buller to relieve Kimberley. By now James Mackay held the rank of Corporal; he was also an official Piper, a natural development for a man born into a family of pipers, and who had been given a chanter in lieu of a baby rattle. The skirl of pipes had proved a powerful psychological weapon in past conflicts. How would it affect the Boers?

On its trek to Kimberley Methuen's column was constantly harrassed by roving bands of Boer commandos, who would appear out of the blue, fire a few rounds from a distance, then hasten away on their hardy veldt ponies. To the British this was both incomprehensible and exasperating. One of their generals, Lord Kitchener complained that, unlike native tribesmen, the Boers preferred shoot-and-run guerrilla tactics to a stand-up fair fight that would decide the issue once and for all. It was not cricket; but then the Transvaal was not Lords or the Oval.

Dawn on November 28th saw the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders beside the Modder River, 25 miles from Kimberley. They were part of a reserve supporting a British force whose objective was to capture the vital railway bridge across the Modder. This bridge was believed to be in the hands of a small group of Boers who were expected to fire and run away as soon as the British came in sight. As the Highlanders approached the bridge, all seemed peaceful. Perhaps there were no Boers there at all? Perhaps they had already turned tail? There were Boers all right - 7,000 of them, complete with field artillery.

Within minutes the British troops found themselves in the eye of a firestorm. The Highlanders were not long a reserve; soon they were rushing forward to fill the holes Boer bullets had punched in the British line. Hands linked, the Highlanders forded the chest-high river, heading for the shelter of a farmhouse on the opposite bank. Once there they found their problems had only just begun. Within close range of the Boer sharpshooters, the Highlanders could go nowhere. It was going to be a long, hot day without food or water, under the muzzles of the Boer rifles. Burnt by the sun, their naked skin bitten by ants and bloodsucking flies, the Highlanders waited patiently for nightfall, any movement, however slight, a certain invitation for a sniper's bullet. At last it was dark. The Highlanders regrouped in preparation for a dawn attack on the Boer positions. Come daybreak, the British took the Modder River bridge unopposed; the Boers had vanished during the night, leaving behind less than 20 of their number dead. The British casualties amounted to 468, a quarter of them from James Mackay's Argyll and Sutherland Highlander battalion. It was an expensive battlefield baptism.

Between Methuen's column and besieged Kimberley was a commanding height known as Magersfontein Hill. As the British anticipated, this hill was occupied by the Boers. However, contrary to expectations and conventional military logic, the Boers were not defending the top of the hill - they were dug in around its base. Thus, while the British artillery bombardment of the hilltop was a pyrotechnic delight, it killed no Boers. During the early hours of December 11th, the Guards and the so-called Highland Brigade, which included the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders along with the Black Watch, Seaforth Highlanders and the Highland Light Infantry, advanced on Magersfontein Hill. The night was dark with no moon. Rain fell in torrents. The pre-dawn twilight found them in an extended line some 400 yards from the base of the hill on which, it was confidentially assumed, the shell-shocked remnants of the Boer defenders awaited capture.

Stealthily, led by the Black Watch the Highlanders advanced shoulder to shoulder across the coverless ground. All of a sudden a thousand light points pierced the gloom. Then came an erie ballistic whistle, the thud of bullets striking human bodies, the screams of men wounded, the last gasps of the dying. The Highlanders had marched straight into an ambush. Panic was king and confusion reigned. In the half-light soldiers ran hither and thither obeying a succession of ill-conceived and contradictory orders. Some fled, some ran towards the enemy positions, others had sense enough to seek the miserable cover of anthills or scrubby bushes. The fear of imminent daylight with its certain hail of Boer bullets possessed everyone. Retreat appeared to be the favourite option - rout and disgrace would surely follow. This seemingly hopeless situation was retreived by the bravery of one man.

In attempt to steady his bullet-stunned comrades Corporal Piper James Mackay stood up and, oblivious to the bullets whistling all round him, played the regimental tune AThe Campbells are Coming@. Inspired by James's heroic example, the rest of the Highland pipers struck up. The effect was instantly effective - most of the soldiers lay low, calmly awaiting whatever the Fates had in store for them. A brave few took it on themselves to storm the Boer positions, some even penetrating the enemy lines before being repulsed with major loss of life.

Magersfontein was the Battle of Modder River repeated with interest. At the close of another sun-scorched day spent on their stomachs, half eaten alive by insects, the British counted over 900 casualties, among them General Wauchope, commander of the Highland Brigade, who had been one of the first to fall. By lunchtime, the parched British soldiers began a slow, agonised withdrawal, crawling on their bellies out of range of the deadly Boer snipers, demoralised and thoroughly disheartened.

Back home the defeat of two crack British brigades - the Highlanders and the Guards - at the hands of a bunch of farmers was cause for general public mourning. To compound this gloom news broke of British reversals at Stormberg and Colenso in the same week as Magersfontein. It scarcely seemed possible. Was there nothing to celebrate? Suddenly, the name of James Mackay of Lochside was on everyone's lips. Written up in newspapers throughout the world, a drawing of it on every front page, James's brave deed made him the most famous piper in the world for a month or so. All that was lacking was a medal. On the testimony of his fellow soldiers at Magersfontein, James Mackay should have been awarded the Victoria Cross. No one had any doubt that, but for the piper's battlefield rendition of AThe Campbells are Coming@, Magersfontein would have been an even worse disaster. In the event, James Mackay's heroism received no official recognition. No medal, no mention in dispatches, nothing. As a soldier with nearly 20 years service behind him, James probably regarded his bravery as part and parcel of military life, something he was paid to do.

"Black Week" marked the end of General Buller's command in South Africa. He was succeeded by the Empire's premier soldier, Lord Roberts of Kandahar. Born and bred in an army barracks, Roberts was 68 years old when he arrived at the Cape. In his youth he had won the VC during the Indian Mutiny; his son had also won the coveted award at Colenso at the cost of his own life. But age and his only son's recent death affected Roberts's military judgment not one iota. He had been sent to South Africa to win a war. Win it he did, but first he carried out reforms which completely changed British military thinking and created the modern army that was so well prepared in August 1914.

Winter found the Highland Brigade resting up around the Modder River. Now and again they sallied forth on a reconnaisance mission such as the one they set out on in February 1900. At Koodoosberg, having captured the important river crossing there, they spent a morning splashing about in the cool waters of the Modder. Suddenly, shots were heard and a small reconnaisance party rode breakneck to the river hotly pursued by a group of Boers. The bathing Highlanders swiftly quit the water, snatched up rifles and, wearing little but their birthday suits, started firing at the Boers. Events settled down to a long-range shooting match that went on for several days until the Boers were seen retiring from the scene. Anxious to press home their advantage, the Highlanders set off after them. Their enthusiasm received a rude check. Ordered to cease pursuit and return to camp, they reluctantly obeyed, girning and grumping all the way back, wondering aloud who was the idiot who had cost them a certain victory. Back at camp the Highlanders came face to face with the man who had issued the order for their retreat - Lord Roberts.

The great soldier explained to them that their current mission was one of distracting the Boers and drawing their reserves away allowing other British units to engage their weakened forces. The Highland regiments had accompanied Roberts on his epic march to Kandahar during the Afghan War. Familiar with their capabilities, he had no intention of squandering them in small-scale actions. There would be fighting enough in future, he promised them. And so it turned out.

A week later, Piper James Mackay and the rest of the Highland Brigade were on their way to relieve Kimberley. At a place called Paardeberg the British came face to face with 5,000 Boers under their leader Cronje. After four days of cat and mouse fighting, Cronje found himself surrounded by four British infantry brigades under the command of General Kitchener. The Boer position seemed hopeless, with surrender the best option. But the fighting farmers were made of stern stuff. All night long they dug trenches in the hard ground. By morning they were ready to meet the British, who advanced in parade ground order across the river to engage them. Between the river and the Boers was a thousand yards of flat, barren terrain over which the Highland Brigade came marching to the skirl of its pipes. Closer and closer to the Boer lines drew the kilted warriors, expecting every second the inevitable rain of bullets. When the Boers' first volley rang out, it stopped the Highlanders dead in their tracks so murderously efficient was it. A second volley, equally deadly, and the Highlanders realised the suicidal nature of further advance. As one body they fell to the ground, desperately trying to scrape some protection with their bayonets in the hard earth. Paardeberg seemed set to be Magersfontein all over again. When evening closed a day spent cowering under a skin-blistering sun, the Highlanders retreated leaving 292 men dead, dying or wounded in the barren no-man's land. They had gained not one yard of ground, and the cries of the abandoned wounded caused every spirit to droop.

When Lord Roberts arrived at this melancholy scene he was astonished that his best troops had been ordered to attempt a full frontal assault across open ground against a well-prepared ememy. Next day he commanded the artillery to begin a non-stop bombardment of the Boer positions. A whole week this bombardment continued, killing some Boers but, more importantly, destroying the nerves and morale of the rest. When the British at last advanced on Cronje's entrenchments, they were met with half-hearted resistance from shattered men.

The Battle of Paardeberg, fought on 27th February, 1900 was the turning point of the Boer War. From then on it was just a matter of time until the inevitable British victory. It was not a cheap victory. After Paardeberg the Highland Brigade had lost 24 out of 87 officers and almost half its compliment of 3,000 men. Exhausted, the Brigade awaited replacement troops from Britain. For the remainder of the war the Highlanders were involved in a few desultory actions, chasing the Boers all over the Transvaal, protecting provision convoys and troop trains, garrisoning lonely outposts. In fulfilling these duties they are estimated to have marched over 3,500 miles over veldt and mountain, many of them to the accompaniment of martial tunes played by James Mackay and his fellow pipers.

By December 1901, having served his 21 years, James Mackay was entitled to leave the Army. His comrades were still at war; the Army was his life, his love; James re-enlisted for a further 6 years. A year later, when the victorious Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders marched through Johannesburg, the regiment's pipes and drums playing AThe Barren Rocks of Aden@, at their head was Pipe-Major James Mackay of Lochside, Isauld. At the end of 1902, James returned to the scene of his former heroism, being one of a select band of Highlanders present at the unveiling of the Brigade's Magersfontein monument.

Five years went by, years spent peace-time soldiering in England. In September 1907 James Mackay came home to Isauld to bury his father, Angus. At the funeral he was chief mourner. Did he wear on his breast the Queen's South African Medal with its clasps AModder River, Paardeberg, Driefontein and Transvaal@? Probably. It was a time of sorrow and reflection. James's 6 extra years Army service was almost up. He was 44 years of age, 27 of which had been spent serving his country. Did he want to sign on for another stint? Did he want to go off on another tour of India with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders? Or should he stay home and look after his mother, return to crofting? On December 3rd, James Mackay handed in his kit and walked out of the barracks for the last time. He was going home.

As his father before him, James returned to a hero's reception. Unlike Angus, however, James seems to have harboured no unpleasant memories of his army days. What the pair did have in common was their love of piping. James, too, found himself in demand to entertain at dances and weddings throughout Reay parish. He also became a respected member of the local Literary Society, and a Parish Councillor well known for his skills as a public speaker. Part of a piper's duty is to train successors in the art. James Mackay was never short of pupils, some of whom developed skills equal to those of their mentor.

With his future in front of him, James Mackay determined to remove a painful page from his past. He applied to divorce Isabella Sinclair on grounds of desertion. The result was a formality. He was now free to marry Mary Munro, a widow with 6 children, whose husband Robert had been struck by lightning at Forsie on his way home from Westfield church in 1895. It was a fortunate match, Mary's children taking to James as if they had been his own, especially Robertina, the youngest who was still in her mother's womb when her natural father was killed. As time went by these children grew and made their own ways in the world. Two of the boys went off to Canada; the others left Caithness to seek work in the industrial towns south of the Ord. Mary and James settled down to a contented maturity.

In 1935 the children came home to Lochside. Their father was dead. James Macdonald Mackay passed peacefully away on July 5th, at the age of 72. His life had been a full one; he was well known and much loved; a soldier and a parish statesman. He deserved a fine send off. His funeral was a large one, the whole of Reay turned out to pay their respects. Two Seaforth Highlanders represented the local regiment and Sergeant-Major Leed came from Thurso to sound AReveille@ and@The Last Post@, the Army's farewell to a loyal soldier who truly deserved a medal for his bravery at Magersfontein. That he failed to receive one probably didn't bother him. James Mackay was not a glory hunter - the knowledge that he had done his duty was reward enough.

His widow Mary was 74 years old when her husband died. She let the Lochside croft to one of her Mackay relatives and moved to Roadside, Brims. When war came in 1939, Mary went off to stay with Robertina and her daughters Katherine and Beatrice, in Edinburgh, where she passed away on 30th November, 1942. She was 81.

To Katherine, Beatrice and their cousin, Marigold Taylor we are indebted for much of the information on which this series on the Fighting Pipers of Lochside has been based.

Return to Archives Index

 

David Bews 1998
Steven Cashmore 1998


Information contained on this page may only be used for personal use,any request for full or part publication must be carried out through the Highland archive.

Send information for these archives to william@internet-promotions.co.uk

 

Advertisement