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A Highlander Looks Back
Pipe-Major John MacDonald’s Memoirs


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 Crunluadh grace-note.

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 they do.

“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 background.

“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 was possible.

“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 a Fosgailte,

“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.


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