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Mini Biographies of Scots and Scots Descendants (L)
Leslie, Donald Rory


My pipe major when I was a boy was Donald Rory Leslie, a native of Skye who had run away from home, been turned back as too young by the Army, then ran away again this time to sea, where he served as a cabin boy and later as man before the mast in the old square-riggers, which were then still plying the seas.

When WW I broke out, he served with the Camerons throughout the war, and later in the Irish Rebellion in the 1920s.

Painting of Piper McKay, 79th HighlandersDonald was a big man even in his old age, and a real Highlander!   He  was a gaunt, rugged, craggy old man, then in his seventies, with the look of a Highland eagle, a shock of white hair, and eyes as blue and chill as his native lochs.

He was a stern Presbyterian, and past Grand Master of both his Orange and Masonic lodges. He was a skilled custom builder, and  still worked hard every day.

Our band, though originally started as the Clan MacGregor Society pipe band, was dressed, accoutred, and armed as the Camerons of a century ago. Though we wore MacGregor kilts, our cap badges and gear were Cameron.

Our pipe chanters were Hendersons (many of them very old), because Donald said only Henderson still made them "right", (i.e., with the flat-pitched sound that he considered important to piping because it produced a "Gaelic" sound).

Our tunes were the great tunes of the Cameron Regiment, which had included the favorites of the Cameron clansmen who had first embodied the Regiment; "Gaibhaidh Sinn an Rathad Mor" (We'll take the High Road"), played and sung by the Cameron clan as they marched behind the Gentle Lochiel to join their Prince at Glenfinnan, "The White Cockade",  "Hey, Johnnie Cope" and "Over the Water to Charlie" , and many other Jacobite tunes, as well as the great tunes of Regimental history, speaking of places they had been, and battles lost and won.

I remember him speaking of  Pipe Sergeant Kenneth MacKay of the 79th Cameron Highlanders at Quatre Bras, part of the battle of Waterloo. When the French were trying their best to break the Camerons' square, MacKay strode forth playing the famous piobaireachd, "Cogadh no Sith" (War or  Peace). His inspiration helped the Camerons hold firm.  Donald told us his story, then played for us "Cogadh no Sith".

Speaking of that, if you wonder what Donald might have looked like in his youth, a good reference is the famous portrait entitled "Cogadh no Sith". It depicts MacKay at Quatre Bras,  MacKay's face is very similar to what I imagine Donald's was at the same age.  A strong, indeed, almost uncanny resemblence!

The tunes were all played in the very hard-core Gaelic style that characterized the Camerons in the old days.

As you may know, the Camerons were the last of the truly Highland Regiments, in that they had a preponderance of Gaelic speakers.

Donald told us that in WW I, they had ordered the Camerons to stop speaking Gaelic in the trenches, as it had led to some men being injured when green English troops in the next trench thought the Germans had gotten into the trenches!

He was a very hard-bitten, dour old man. Sometimes if we would ask him where Dougal or one of the other fellows was, he'd snap back; "Hanging on the barbed wire at Mons!"

After the Great War, he went back to sea.

Once in a pub after a parade, he was tossing back his Black & White scotch, and an ornery drunk started on him - the usual - "Hey! Guys in skirts! What are you? Sissies?" etc. Donald ignored the lout until he reached for his Cameron Officers' dirk.

Faster than you would believe, it was out of its sheath and quivering in the top of the bar!  Donald growled, without even looking at the idiot; "Touch it again and you'll be wearing it!" The drunk stumbled back, and his friends hustled him out. Luckily for him!

He was a tremendous piper of over 60 years experience, and could also play "ceol mor" ("big music" aka "piobaireachd" meaning "piping" - the classical form of Highland pipe music), with the familiarity of a Gael who also knew the stories and the words from earliest youth.

Donald had a bout with laryngeal cancer in the early 60s, and beat it. He had part of his larynx removed, though, and spoke in a crusty, hoarse voice, like a loud whisper.  Despite this, he still very impressive, and always got his point across!

He was generous also. The small amount of money he took for tuition was put towards a set of pipes if the pupil "graduated" into the band.

He had been told to quit smoking and piping, but though he quit smoking, he told me (about 1963) that he would die piping.

That proved true. Some years later, after I had left the area, I was told that he had a piping student one evening, and that he had then gone into his study after the student left. His wife later found him there, slumped over the table, his practice chanter still in his hands.

He had a son, Dougal, a US veteran of Korea who unfortunately predeceased him, and Dougal had a son, also named Donald, and another son, Robert, who I have since re-connected with.

He was a tireless and energetic man, a true son of the Gael, a stern taskmaster, and a great teacher. I will always remember him.

(Note: Since the original publication of this article here, several members of the old MacGregor Band and Donald's grandson, Robert Leslie, have gotten in touch with me. They provided me with the pictures below, two of which show Donald as a young man on one of his ships with his shipmates. I believe Donald is the man in the center in both shipboard pictures.  In the MacGregor Band picture, the gentleman on the right as you view it is Donald's son, the late Dougal Leslie, who sadly died quite young of cancer. I cannot recall the name of the young man to his left, though I know his face, and the gentleman in the left rear rank with the elegant mustachios is Carl McLaughlin, a talented woodworker and custom framer who later became PM of the band.  If anyone has any further information or wishes to get in touch, you may contact me here: seamus45@gmail.com)


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