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In the Spotlight: Angus Mackay

A couple of months ago guest blogger Aislinn Hunter drew our attention to Robert Cowtan, a nineteenth-century Bethlem patient whose claim of personal acquaintance with Queen Victoria was taken by his doctors to be indicative of a dissociated mental state, but whose professional and social connections lent at least a remote feasibility to the claim. In this, the last of our year-long series of In the Spotlight posts, we highlight a Victorian patient who, along with Cowtan and many others, made a claim to intimate royal acquaintance.

Angus Mackay was admitted to Bethlem twice, first in February 1854 for a stay of eight months, and then in November of the same year, this time for fifteen months. According to the notes of his first admission, he initially occupied himself by writing letters to senior officers of the Royal Household and ‘interfering’ with the affairs of other patients on his ward, but by the summer had recovered sufficiently to be granted leave. According to the notes of his second, he harboured ‘delusions regarding plots to destroy the Queen and Royal Family’, indeed ‘numerous and dangerous delusions respecting the Queen and Prince Albert’. After his second discharge from Bethlem, he was transferred to Crichton Royal Hospital in Dumfries, whose doctors provided further details of the ‘most prominent’ of these delusions, ‘that Her Majesty is his wife and that Prince Albert has defrauded him of his rights’.

So far, so unexceptional, as any student of Bethlem’s nineteenth-century casebooks used to reading accounts of imagined celebrity attachments might say. Yet Mackay’s case was a little different, as from 1843 until the onset of his illness Mackay was in fact Household Piper to the Queen. His 1838 compendium of piping history and tunes, A collection of ancient Piobaireachd or Highland pipe music, was destined to remain a standard work of reference for generations. For as long as Mackay enjoyed royal patronage, it must have seemed that his own life was destined to be as settled as his piping reputation. Yet by the time the Queen published Leaves from the Journal of our Life in the Highlands in 1868, Mackay’s post had been filled by another, Her Majesty shortly observing that he was ‘considered almost the first [piper] in Scotland…he unfortunately went out of his mind in the year 1854’.1

Mackay’s story ends sadly, for in 1859 he escaped from Crichton Royal, but drowned in attempting to cross the river Nith at Glencaple. Victoria heard of his death, though she got its date wrong in her Journal, and may well have recalled him to mind, however fleetingly, when inscribing and sending a copy of it to Bethlem, where it remains in our library to this day.