Am Bratach No. 331
May 2019

Dougal the Tailor — the celebrated violinist of Bettyhill

Donald Hugh Mackay, known far and wide as Dougal the Tailor, lived in Bettyhill for most of his life where he carried on a tailor’s business. He was also known as a dancing master, composer, a collector of airs and a fiddler of some renown, especially for his Strathspey playing, the mark by which players of the national and traditional music of the violin in Scotland were judged in his day.

Dougal was born in 1864, probably at Loch Strathy where he grew up. Loch Strathy was a lonely outpost some distance into the hill, east of Strathnaver, where we believe his father was a shepherd. Dougal’s wife was Esther Swanson (1874 -1921). She was from Mey (or Dunnet, some records state) in Caithness. They had five children, three girls and two boys, including Sora (Susan) Gray, who married Robert Gray, an Edinburgh man whom she met whilst working as a nurse in Edinburgh. Sora and Robert’s son, also Robert, settled in Bettyhill in the more recent past, where he raised a family, including Mandy Mackay, to whom we are grateful for much of the information we have about Dougal. Dougal’s brother, Angus, known as Angie Hope, was also a fiddler. He taught Anson Mackay, boatbuilder and ingenious mechanic of Heilam who, it is recorded, had the temerity to beat his string teacher at a fiddle competition!

Dougal was on friendly terms with James Scott Skinner (1843-1927), in his time the best fiddler in Scotland and a pioneer of gramophone recording. On one occasion Dougal managed to persuade the self-styled “Strathspey King” to stage a concert in Bettyhill. This may have been in the early 1920s. Dougal himself was described as a “celebrated violinist, known as the Scott Skinner of the North” in the John O’ Groat Journal of Christmas Day, 1926. Five years earlier, on February 18 1921, the Caithness newspaper had carried an extensive report of a prestigious event held in Glasgow to honour a fellow countryman at which Dougal and two Mod medallists were among the main artistes. The occasion was the Glasgow Sutherlandshire Association Sixty-Fifth Annual Reunion which featured a complimentary dinner in honour of Rev Dr Adam Gunn, Durness. Gunn was a prominent Gael and crofters’ champion from Strathy who ministered in Durness for many years. The Groat reported: “Mr Dougal Mackay, the celebrated Strathnaver violinist and composer, made his first appearance before a Glasgow audience, and his skilful performances brought most enthusiastic applause, recalls being insisted upon with cheers of acclamation. A Highlander who has attained such proficiency as Mr Mackay showed can always count on a warm welcome from Highland audiences in the great city on the Clyde.”

Dougal lost is wife, Esther in 1927 when she was only 47 years old. He soldiered on himself until his death in 1942 at the age of 78 and it may have been during this difficult period of his life that he got into some debt, possibly as the result of imbibing the cratur to a greater extent than was good for his health. The owners of the Bettyhill Post Office and General Merchants, Munro by name, seized Dougal’s violin to pay for the debt but such drastic action did not go down well with local residents, many of whom seemed to have been rather fond of the errant fiddler who had played to them and entertained them for so long. One wit, who signed himself “A Mackenzie”, penned some verses with the title “The snaffling of Dougal’s fiddle”.

This may have been Allan Mackenzie of Garvault, near Kinbrace. Allan, a larger-than-life character, who died in 1959, was interviewed by Hamish Henderson of the School of Scottish Studies at Edinburgh University two years previously. He revealed that he had had when young received some lessons on playing the fiddle from Dougal. Dougal had also stayed with Allan and his wife Barbara for some six months towards the end of his life. Allan also mentioned some tunes that Dougal composed.

Although no recordings of the Bettyhill fiddler are known to exist and nearly all the music he composed and collected seems to have been lost, a fine Strathspey and reel medley, “Mrs Fraser”, composed by himself in honour of a manageress of Bettyhill Hotel has survived as has a beautiful air he collected, known as the “Portskerra Boat Song”. The three tunes, handed down orally, can be found on the CD, “Ùrachadh”, published by Taigh na Gàidhlig Mhealanais (Melness Gaelic centre). It is still available.

This tribute, presumably published in the John O’ Groat Journal, was given to us by his great-grandaughter, Mandy:

The Late Mr Dugald Mackay
Dear Sir, — The passing of Mr Dugald Mackay, violinist and composer, is indeed to be deeply regretted for Mr Mackay was a most versatile and talented gentleman of whom the people of Bettyhill may well be proud (as I know they were). When one spoke to a Bettyhill man one invariably asked him if he knew Dougal Mackay, the violinist. With a surprised look the native of this delectable district of Sutherland would instantly reply, “Oh, yes, I know Dougal very well; he is a splendid fiddler.” I believe it could be said of Mr Mackay that he was the Scott Skinner of the North for in the playing of pastoral airs, many of which were his own composition and in the rendering of Strathspeys and reels, Dougal, as his intimate friends were privileged to call him, was in a class by himself. No more shall we hear his fiddle but his name shall ever remain with all lovers of good Scottish music as a sweet and unforgettable memory.
I am, etc., Caithness Violinist*.

*Robert Mackay, Halkirk, poet and fiddler.

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