Famous Pipers: Master Composer, P/M John McLellan, Dunoon

The recent WW1 commemorations brought to the fore some of the outstanding compositions by P/M John McLellan Dunoon. P/M McLellan was one of the truly great composers of pipe music with a host of melodies to his name, melodies that will endure as long as bagpipes are played. Just look at this sample list of masterpieces: The Road to the Isles (various names before being taken up by the sangsters and given this title), Bloody Fields of Flanders, Mary Darroch, Cowal Gathering, Dream Valley of Glendaruel, Glen Caladh Castle, the Taking of Beaumont Hamel and South Hall(At the Captain John MacLellan competition in October a discussion among the adjudicators revealed that South Hall was the name of a farm not far from Dunoon and presumably one the composer visited on occasion.) Many John McLellan (Dunoon) tunes will feature in the new book of regimental music associated with the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders due to be launched at the Piping Live festival next August. One of the compilers of that collection is P/M Jim Henderson, John McLellan’s great-nephew. We are grateful to Jim and to the Box & Fiddle magazine archive for the following biography which will be of interest to pipers the world over. 

Pipe Major John McLellan DCM of Dunoon
(1875 – 1949)
img_4460by P/M Jim Henderson

John [Jock] McLellan, as I remember him, was a very shy and quiet individual not given to pushing himself or promoting the great talent he possessed. Besides being a quite outstanding bagpipe music composer, he wrote songs, was a poet of some distinction and had a great talent for painting in both watercolours and oils. On the few occasions that I visited his home I recall two pictures which hung on the wall of his room.

The first was simply called ‘The Lochanside’ (the loch of the famous retreat air), while the other was skilfully achieved by using white and khaki block blanco normally used for cleaning army belts and equipment. Old soldiers will know exactly what I mean. Some sort of red stain was also used. The picture was of a wounded soldier being attended to while lying on a stretcher. These pictures, and others, are still within the family. My late father, Neil Henderson, who was Jock’s nephew, told me that Jock would do almost anything rather than talk about himself. I believe this is part of the reason we know so little about the great man. I remember, as a boy, asking him about how he won his DCM – all he would say was that it was ‘a long time ago’ and that he couldn’t remember. Fortunately I’ve been able to find out something about him from other sources, though not as much as I would have liked.

Before we go any further I must clear up a small matter of confusion that crops up from time to time. The late Capt. John A. MacLellan MBE was no relation and was a much younger man. I have met people who thought that they were one and the same person. The two men knew each other quite well. Capt. John told me when I was studying under him at Edinburgh Castle that he had corresponded with the ‘old gentlemen’ for some years in the ’40s.

The new Argylls book which will contain many of the compositions of John McLellan, Dunoon
The new Argylls book which will contain many of the compositions of John McLellan, Dunoon

John McLellan was born in St Andrew’s Street, Dunoon, on 8th August 1875. He was one of a family of six, all born in Dunoon, namely Sarah, Archibald, Margaret, John, Neil and Ann. Their parents were Neil McLellan and Mary Darroch McLellan who were born on Islay and Jura respectively. They came to the mainland in 1869 and were married in Greenock on 2nd June that same year. They set up their first home in Edward Street in Dunoon. Unfortunately Neil McLellan died at the very early age of 40 years and there is evidence that Mary Darroch McLellan took her young family back to her native Jura for a time. To have had six children and no husband must have been quite a struggle in those days. It is not known how long they stayed on Jura but eventually they returned to Dunoon.I have not been able to find out much about the family between returning from Jura and when John joined the Highland Light Infantry at the age of 17 in 1892. Much to my surprise and disappointment, I have not even been able to find out who taught him to play the bagpipes. Some say he may have been taught by Willie Lawrie, but Willie was eight years younger than John so this would seem unlikely. Some suggest John MacDougall Gillies may have had a hand in it, but again the timing is wrong. My late father told me that it had been suggested to him that John was self-taught but this would seem to me to be very unlikely. I have come to the conclusion that he and his brother Neil may have been taught during their stay on Jura after their father’s death. If anyone can shed any light on this I’d be glad to hear from them.
[wds id=”2″]
In the early part of his service with the H.L.I. he was stationed in Malta. I think it was here that he started naming his compositions after places he had served, to commemorate events or battles, or naming them after officers or friends he had served with. While serving in Malta he composed a 2/4 march entitled ‘The Bells of Malta’. It’s not a competition march but a nice melody for all that, as many of John’s tunes are. It was published some years later in the 8th Argyll’s Book which I will refer to later. The H.L.I. seemed to move about quite a lot as they saw service in Crete during the rebellions there, before moving to Egypt. His most famous melody at one time was entitled ‘The Burning Sands of Egypt’. More about this later.

In 1899 the H.L.I. were bound for the South African War as one of the units of the Highland Brigade. At its outset everyone assumed, as always, that it would be short and sweet. I think the Boer War lasted four years and the Highland Brigade were in the thick of it. It was at one of these famous actions that John won the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM). He also composed the famous and well-loved retreat air ‘The Highland Brigade at Magersfontein’ to commemorate the battle.

There were other less well known tunes composed by John around this time, possibly just after the war ended. One which comes to mind is a nice little two-part strathspey called ‘Chasing De Wet’. General De Wet was one of the Boers’ more colourful generals and was an expert in hit and run tactics. The British chased him for most of the war, unsuccessfully, and the tune seems to be a tribute to him from Jock.

‘Surrender of Cronje’ and ‘The Fall of Port Arthur’ were another two tunes written about this time. These two tunes are attractive two-part 6/8 marches. All four tunes mentioned are published in the Cowal Collection of Modern Highland Bagpipe Music. I will refer to this book later.

John left the army in 1903 and joined the Govan Police Pipe Band. I believe his brother Neil was also a member of the band. Later this band became the City of Glasgow Police Pipe Band and eventually the Strathclyde Police Pipe Band. A number of John’s tunes were published in the old Henderson books under ‘J McLellan, Govan Police’. I’m not sure how long he served in the police band but it would appear he was back in Dunoon by 1904 or 1905.

On his return to Dunoon he started to teach and was probably the only teacher in the Cowal area at that time. His best pupil was one James Wilson whom I remember as a very good player. Two others who spring to mind were Charles and William Jeffrey both of whom I knew very well. Later on he taught my late father, Neil, and his brother Alasdair and John Henderson. I had the privilege to have lessons from him myself when I was a young piper.

In 1905 or 1906 John compiled and arranged the Cowal Collection. Most of the tunes in this collection were composed by John himself and being published for the first time were Lochanside, Heroes of Vittoria and Cowal Society amongst others. The book was published by a local gentleman called Joe Quigley priced at 1/6d (8p) – ah happy days! It should be pointed out that John McLellan was a very fine musician. The late Pipe Major Ronald MacCallum, 8th A&SH, told me John had attended the Army School of Music during his spell in the Army which would account for his fine musicianship. Not many pipers had these skills at that time. Besides the bagpipes he could play the piano, the fiddle and my father told me he was a top class penny whistle player.

jml-2John joined the 8th Argyll’s (TA) in 1912. They were the successor to the old 5th Volunteer Battalion A&SH some of whom had fought in the Boer War. Two years later the 8th Argyll’s, along with all the other TA units, were mobilised and before long were sent to France at the start of the Great War. John was off to war again at the age of 39. One wonders why men of his age were allowed to go?

He was in the band at the beginning of the war under Pipe Major George Ross. Pipe Major Willie Lawrie took over the band in 1915. About this time John was wounded at Laventie in north west France. How serious his wound was is not known but for some reason or another he was away from the Pipes & Drums for some time. I recall conversations I had with two local men Dan Wardlaw and Toak Smart (who was in the trenches at the age of 15) who said they had served with him in a rifle section for some time. They related to me how he had written a poem giving each of the members of the section a verse to himself. I know this to be true as I have the original in my possession. John wrote many fine poems in his time, one of which is inscribed on the Memorial at Buzancy in France.

In 1916 Pipe Major Willie Lawrie died suddenly. Contrary to popular belief however, John did not succeed him as Pipe Major. The reason for this is unknown but the post was taken over by the aforementioned James Wilson of Dunoon, John’s pupil, who was at that time the youngest Pipe Major in the Army at 19 or 20.

During, or just after the war, John composed many fine tunes commemorating battles and events or simply calling them after serving officers and friends. They include ‘The Taking of Beaumont Hamel’ and ‘The Bloody Fields of Flanders’.

John McLellan at the time of the Great War
John McLellan at the time of the Great War

John became Pipe Major of the 8th Argyll’s in 1919 and remained in post through the reconstitution to being a TA unit again and finally retired from the 8th in 1930. In 1932 Cowal Highland Gathering organised a competition for an original march, the winner to be entitled Cowal Gathering. One of John’s tunes took first prize.After this competition the Cowal Highland Gathering Committee published the Fourth Cowal Collection containing the twenty best tunes, including the winner. No fewer than seven of John’s tunes were included in the book. ‘Cowal Gathering’ is a very fine 2/4 march and along with ’The Taking of Beaumont Hamel’, ‘South Hall’, ‘Bonnie Dunoon’, ‘Glen Caladh Castle’, ‘Colonel MacLean of Ardgour’ and many others have become ‘standard’ tunes for bagpipe, box and fiddle. It may be of interest to note that the famous 6/8 march ‘Ballochyle’ composed by a very young Peter MacLeod Jnr, Glasgow, was placed second in the competition.

On his return from the Great War John went to live with my grandmother, Margaret. I should point out that ‘Maggie’, as John called her, was his older sister. My grandfather Henderson had been killed in the war, so Uncle Jock seemed more of a grandfather to us than a grand-uncle.

When John retired from the 8th Argyll’s his successor was Pipe Major George MacDonald. George had been a very successful pipe major with his previous band, Millhall, winning the World Pipe Band Championships on three occasions at Cowal Games. Soon after taking over the 8th Argyll’s he set about publishing a book of pipe tunes composed by members and former members of the 8th. Of the 65 or so tunes published in this book, 40 were penned by John McLellan. I referred to one of those tunes in an earlier paragraph ‘The Burning Sands of Egypt’. Its original title, and that used in the book was ‘The Bens of Jura’ but nowadays we know it as ‘The Road to the Isles’. It was John McLellan who composed the tune for this world famous song.

During the thirties and forties John helped to teach the Dunoon Grammar School Cadet Pipe Band and sometimes helped out with the local BB band. During the Second World War the local Home Guard sometimes paraded a band of sorts. I don’t know how much he had to do with this but he composed a tune called ‘Dunoon Home Guard’.

Between 1945 and 1949 was the time I knew John, if a boy of my age could really claim to know him. I cherish the lessons I had with him and knowing him albeit for such a short while. It was only after I joined the Army that I found out the esteem in which he was held. He died suddenly on 31st July, 1949 at Dunoon Cottage Hospital after a short illness. He was buried, with full Military Honours, in Dunoon Cemetery.

In 1972 friends and the Dunoon Town Council got together and erected a ‘Memorial Plaque’ in his honour. It is situated in the Castle Gardens in Dunoon, opposite the pier.

The plaque erected in John McLellan's memory
The plaque erected in John McLellan’s memory

He was 73 when he died, not at all old in today’s terms, but I’m sure that readers will agree that his music will never die.

1 thought on “Famous Pipers: Master Composer, P/M John McLellan, Dunoon

  1. very well written jim i met jock a few times when i went with sandy tait for his weekly lesson as you remarked i remember jock as a very quiet and shy man the only thing jock and i had was we were both stationed in tel el kiber in the highland light infantry .

Comments are closed.