John MacDonald Recordings – Glasgow Police or Inverness?

By Robert Wallace
By Robert Wallace

Many thanks to John Don MacKenzie, Dornie, for alerting us to this possibility regarding the John MacDonald recordings highlighted last week:

‘Hi Rab, I have been listening to Alan Lomax’s recordings; really good stuff and interesting indeed both in Scotland and abroad. It’ll keep me going for some time along with which has loads of John D. Burgess ceol mor on it. Willie Ross and John D are sparkling indeed and it’s great to hear them talking.

‘Having a great interest in piping like yourself, I’ve read a lot about John MacDonald. His only two pupils I knew well  were  Willie M. MacDonald and Donald MacGillivary. Both told me that they never heard him play the pipes as he was prohibited from doing so due to a bad heart and they were at him from 1948 onwards. Donald told me that his latter years he was quite poorly health wise, and frail. He wasn’t renowned for his light music although clearly would have been a good player.

‘On Lomax’s site it states that in 1951 he did a lot of recording in South Uist and there is no mention of him being in Inverness in 1951. Could it be P/M John MacDonald from South Uist playing, ‘Seonaidh Rodein’, or is it definitely old Johnny? I’m sure you also noticed that the player was using circular breathing! What do you reckon?’

I think John Don has a very good point and it would certainly explain the dexterity of the fingering we hear. As against that however is Lomax’s meticulous documentation of his sources, something his field reports were renowned for and on which his reputation was founded. When he is in South Uist he says so, as we can see from other field recordings carried out when he was in that part of Scotland.

Is it possible, however, that is it P/M John MacDonald, South Uist, recorded in Inverness, perhaps around the time of the Northern Meeting where he may have been competing? Against that must be the charge that if he were in Inverness why would Lomax search out J MacDonald (Glasgow Police) when he could go to the home of the oracle, J MacDonald (Inverness)? We know that the first had been a student of the second. Would Lomax settle for the pupil when the master was living up the road? It is stretching credulity to believe Lomax, a voracious researcher, would not have known of 5 Percival Road.

Consider, too, the longevity of John MacDonald, Inverness’s, playing. Was it at aged 65 that he won his final Clasp? Certainly in his 60s.

If it is John MacDonald (GP) he would have been in his early 50s when the recording was done and still in charge at the Glasgow Police band. Should we expect that the playing, in this case, should have been more accurate, the pipes better?

I met and spoke with John MacDonald, Glasgow Police, at the South Uist Games in 1980. He was tall, astute, his voice distinctly Hebridean. Listening to the vocals again I can’t detect that true west coast brogue I remember. Listening to the strathspeys and reels again, they point the other way – a definite hint of island dance music about them.

P/M Donald MacLeod, John MacDonald, Inverness, Donald MacGillivray and Mickey MacKay, all pupils of John MacDonald pictured with him at the Northern Meeting

When I interviewed the late Donald MacGillivray in 2001 he talked of his lessons with MacDonald 1946 – 48 and described him as alert, critical, aware, with a practice chanter always to hand. Donald often played a tune on his teacher’s pipes not his own, so MacDonald’s pipe would have been to hand and ready to play, not stuck under the bed. Of course a deterioration in his health could have occurred by 1951, the date of Lomax’s recordings, and no matter how ready the pipe he may not have been able to strike a tune.

Wouldn’t this be a first class research project for some able student to undertake? I am sure a forensic examination of Alan Lomax’s archive would point us to the truth and many thanks to John Don for raising the matter. For more on John MacDonald (GP) see Jim MacGillivray’s website and we would welcome other readers’ opinions on the playing etc. Read more about Donald MacGillivray here.

The main picture (top) shows P/M John MacDonald leading the Glasgow Police Pipe Band on parade at Buckingham Palace, London, probably in the late 1940s.

Sign up now for a great week of fun in the sun![wds id=”3″]


4 thoughts on “John MacDonald Recordings – Glasgow Police or Inverness?

  1. Having enjoyed the recordings of John MacDonald, I have to concur with the others who feel it is not J.MacD of Inverness but a much younger man. That player is most likely John MacDonald of South Uist, who was very adept at playing for dancers, and the light music I heard reminded me of hearing him do so at the Games near Lochboisdale.
    I note that the tape recording label states ‘Pipe Major John MacDonald’ but does not specifically say which one. My tutor, Malcolm MacPherson, learned his piobaireachd from John MacDonald, Inverness, and both played and sang in a style similar to his teacher; neither the ‘Kiss of the King’s Hand’ nor the canntaireachd reminded me of that style.

    It would be the first time a labelling mistake has occurred; recently I was in correspondence with The School of Scottish Studies which had placed a number of pibrochs on the Tobar an Dualchais website under the name ‘Calum MacPherson, South Uist’. When I listened to them, it was obvious to me that these were Malcolm MacPherson, Invershin, as he had taught me several of them. They were the remaining fragments of the complete Binneas is Boreraig collection which Dr. Roderick Ross had made in the early fifties, but then accidentally destroyed through playing them while inebriated.

  2. As far as John’s light music goes, we don’t have to speculate – we have plenty of recordings of him to prove it. To my mind he was the finest, most consistent player of light music I’ve heard on record from that era, bar none. There are also his settings, some of which Donald MacLeod published and a few of which have surfaced elsewhere over the years, which show real taste and careful attention to detail.

  3. very interesting. i have read old pipers saying John MacDonald Inverness was in fact a very fine light music player, top level at that too. I can’t recall who said it.

  4. John Don’s observation is of interest. I was sceptical of the suggestion that the recordings were of John MacDonald, Inverness, based on what Bob Nicol said of John MacDonald and others who knew him or met him in his last few years. The late John Stewart who hailed from Aviemore attended John MacDonald a few times for lessons and this was when John Stewart was very young and about 1950 or so. John MacDonald was always in his bed and obviously not able to play the bagpipe. There is an extract from a diary written by Sheriff Grant dated 1948 and this gives indication that John MacDonald no longer played as he was not in great health.
    for sme reason I was not convinced with the singing for maybe tge reasons discussed.

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