I RECEIVED most of my tuition in
Piobaireachd from Calum MacPherson, at Catt Lodge, Badenoch. Calum was
easily the best player of Piobaireachd I have ever known. He hardly ever
played March, Strathspey and Reel, only Piobaireachd and Jigs. Each
morning Calum used to play Jigs on the chanter while breakfast was being
got ready—he used to sit on a stool near the peat fire as he played.
But his heart was in Piobaireachd. He excelled in heavy, low-hand tunes.
It was inspiring to hear him play ‘My King has landed in Moidart’.
Another grand tune of his was ‘Cille Chriosd’. I never heard anyone else
play ‘Donald Doughall Mackay’ in a way that appealed to me so much.
Calum had very strong fingers, and I never heard him once miss a
As I have said, Calum played a few Jigs on the practice chanter before
breakfast. I can see him now, in his old jacket, with his leather
sporran, sitting on his stool while the porridge was being brought to
the boil. After breakfast he would take his barrow to the peat moss, cut
a turf, and build up the fire with wet peat for the day. He would then
sit down beside me, take away all books and pipe-music, then sing in his
own Canntaireachd the ground and different variations of the particular
Piobaireachd he wished me to learn.
It was from these early associations with Malcolm MacPherson that I
realised that Piobaireachd must be transmitted by song from one piper to
another in order to get the soul of it—the lights and shades. Most of
the Piobaireachd players of the present day rely on the score, but you
cannot express in musical notation what you would like to. It is really
impossible. I wish that Pipers would make more use of Canntaireachd than
“Of the old Pipers, Calum MacPherson, Sandy and Colin Cameron, and Angus
and George MacDonald were outstanding.
Sandy Cameron was at one time with the Marquis of Huntly. He excelled in
tunes with light top-hand work, such as ‘The Lament for the Children’.
Angus and George MacDonald came from the Arisaig country. I remember
Angus playing ‘The Battle of the Pass of Crieff’. It was stimulating to
hear him. He got his playing from the Bruces. Angus was a proud old
piper, like old Calum—they never forgot they were Highlanders. I
remember what a fine performance George MacDonald made at Portree 40
years ago. It was the first time I went to Portree, and I still remember
the tunes he played. His Piobaireachd was ‘Kiss of the King’s Hand’, his
March ‘The 74th’, his Strathspey and Reel ‘Maggie Cameron’ and ‘John
Mackechnie’. George was with Farquharson of Invercauld when my father
was with the Earl of Fife.
“There was no difference in the timing of these old pipers. It was a
great pleasure to hear them. Their theme notes sounded clearly through
all the variations; they seemed to flow prominently through one
variation after another. This was made possible by the speed and
accuracy of the grace-notes in the movement, representing a harmonious,
rippling sound between the theme notes. The listener was carried away by
the distinct flow of the theme notes, with this harmonious ripple of a
“The beauty and harmony of these old Piobaireachd tunes are now in
danger of being lost. The present-day tendency, as compared with the old
players, is lack of harmony, Present-day piping is in danger of losing
its soul and its expression—its sentiment. The tendency now is to play
with the hands, and not with the brain, and the transmission by
Canntaireachd is shown in the comparatively modern controversy over the
so-called ‘Redundant A’ in Taorluadh. So long as Piobaireachd was
transmitted by Canntaireachd there was no reason for controversy, as the
sound expressed exactly the notes required. For instance, the Taorluadh
movement was played by sounding the D grace-note distinctly on low G,
then cutting up smartly to low A with an E grace-note. No redundant A
“Calum MacPherson told me that an Amach should be played to every
Crunluadh—but no Amach should be played to a Crun-luadh Fosgailte. I
once heard Sandy Cameron put an Amach on the Crunluadh Fosgailte of ‘The
Big Spree’. I asked him why he did it. He said: ‘The reason I put it in
was for a finger exercise, because it is a short tune and has no
singling in the Crunluadh’. Then he added: ‘It was never put in by the
old pipers’. I myself can vouch for that. Neither Calum Macpherson, nor
Colin Cameron, nor the MacDonalds from Morar ever put in an Amach after
“Regarding more modern pipers—John MacColl in his playing of ‘The Kiss
of the King’s Hand’ once gave one of the most harmonious performances I
ever listened to. On that occasion he appeared to be carried away by his
playing: it was, I think, at Birnam. I remember being much impressed by
Angus Macrae’s playing of ‘Macleod of Raasay’s Salute’. I remember how
impressed Pipe-Major Meldrum was by old Calum MacPherson’s playing of
‘The Kiss of the King’s Hand’. After that, there was nothing that would
satisfy Meldrum but to go to Calum for tuition.
“My father was in Paris with Glentruim after the Franco-Prussian War.
After leaving Glentruim, he became piper to the Earl of Fife. ‘Marion’s
Wailing’ was a great favourite of his, also ‘The Lament for the Union’.
My Uncle William was with King Edward VII when Prince of Wales. Duncan,
my third brother, was also a fine piper. My father was taught by Donald
Cameron, father of Sandy and Colin. My Uncle William composed a number
of Marches, including ‘Leaving Glen Urquhart’. My other uncle, Duncan,
composed ‘The Braes of Castle Grant’.
“When my Uncle William was with the Prince of Wales he had the
opportunity of hearing all the best players. He said that Duncan
MacDougall, Breadalbane, was one of the best all-round players of his
day. He used to say that the best man he ever heard was a nephew of John
Bain MacKenzie. Duncan Campbell was also very good; he was with Forbes
of Newe. Regarding the lighter class of pipe-music, I often think it was
a pity no record was ever made of the late Pipe-Major G. S. MacLennan’s
playing. George was a very modest man. His fingering in March,
Strathspey and Reel was brilliant. He was a master of this class of
music and we shall probably never hear his like again.
“When a piper is at his best, and is being carried away by his tune, he
sees a picture in his mind—at least that is how it is with me. When I am
playing ‘The Kiss of the King’s Hand’ I visualise Skye and Boreraig and
the MacCrimmons. The Piobaireachd ‘Donald Doughall Mackay’ brings to my
mind a picture of the Reay country and the fugitive MacCrimmon. I also
have in my mind a picture of the old pipers, and how they played the
tune I am playing. A piper in order to play his best must be oblivious
to his surroundings—he must be carried away by the beauty and harmony of
the tune he is playing.”
Here ends the paper by John MacDonald, M.B.E., Honorary Piper to H.M.
King George V and King George VI.