Famous Pipers – P/M Willie Lawrie, Ballachulish

Reader Eric MacIntrye reminds us today that it is exactly 100 years since the death of the great Willie Lawrie (see Letters). Many pipers are fortunate to  excel in one branch of our art either as a teacher, player or composer. Some are fortunate to master two; seldom three. But for Willie Lawrie this trinity of achievement came as naturally as mother’s milk. Genial, warm, humourous, articulate was how his contemporaries described him. He was, by any estimation, ridiculously talented but as his death in WW1 bears testament, cruelly fated. 

However, as Eric says in his letter, despite death aged only 35, William Lawrie, Ballachulish, will never be forgotten. How right he is; you cannot write these masterpieces and be lost to posterity: John MacDonald of Glencoe, Pap of Glencoe, Braes of Brecklet, Captain Carswell, Mrs MacDonald of Dunach, John MacColl’s March to Kilbowie Cottage, Inveraray Castle, 8th Argylls Farewell to the 116th Régiment de Ligne, and the Battle of the Somme. (Click this link to watch a video of the tribute paid to Willie Lawrie at this year’s Argyllshire Gathering where this last tune was played by Angus MacColl). Lord knows how many more classics Willie Lawrie would have given us had he survived the Great War. But let us not dwell on that. Let us remember him through the music he left and by reading firstly the story of his life as documented in this obituary in the Oban Times……

‘A Famous Ballachulish Piper – Pipe Major
William Laurie’ 

‘The death took place on the 28th [November 1916] in the Third Southern General Hospital, Oxford, of Pipe-Major William Laurie, Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, son of the late Mr Hugh Laurie, Loanfern, Ballachulish, in his 35th year. When very young, Pipe Major Laurie joined the Ballachulish Volunteers, and to improve his playing, he studied under champion piper John MacColl, being one of his cleverest pupils. He was soon promoted, and four years ago he was appointed Pipe-Major of the County Regiment. He was for some time piper to the late Earl of Dunmore and also piper to the late Colonel MacDougall of Lunga.

‘He won first prizes at all the principal Highland Gatherings in Scotland among the best pipers of the day. He won Gold Medals at the Argyllshire Gathering at Oban, the Northern Meeting at Inverness [1910, only the second piper in history to achieve this feat], with Gold Clasp, and at the Crieff Gathering – all championship first prize honours, and also money and other prizes at Inveraray, Portree, Fort William, Cowal, Bridge of Allan, etc. He held the record for the Inverness Gathering [Northern Meeting], having won of the same day first prizes for marches and strathspeys and reels.

‘Pipe-Major Laurie composed many tunes – piobaireachds, marches, strathspeys and reels. His Lament for the late Lord Archibald Campbell is considered to be a masterpiece of the day, and he played it before the ducal party at Inveraray Castle a few years ago. Some favourite pieces which he composed are The Pap of Glencoe, ClachIarick (Henderson’s Stone, Glencoe), John MacDonald of Glencoe, Captain Carswell, Inveraray Castle etc.

On display...Willie Lawrie's pipes in the Argylls Museum
On display…Willie Lawrie’s pipes in the Argylls Museum, Stirling Castle

‘On the outbreak of the war, Pipe-Major Laurie mobilized with his regiment, and in Redford, where they were training until May, 1915, was one of the first to volunteer for active service. He bore the brunt of the fighting and shared the privations of the campaign with his comrades until stricken down with illness several months ago. Many throughout the country and across the seas will learn with regret the passing away of this well-known champion of the national instrument. The military authorities and the hospital staff showed the greatest kindness to Mrs. Laurie while at Oxford, and everything that medical skill could do was done to save her husband’s life.

‘The remains arrived on Thursday evening 30th [November 1916] at his home and the funeral took place next day to St. John’s Churchyard and was largely attended. The service was conducted by Rev. D. McDonald, St. John’s, and Rev. A.S. McInnes, Glencoe. There was an impressive service in St. John’s Church, the singing of the choir being very touching. As the remains passed out the church, the Dead March in ‘Saul’ was played by the organist.
 Deceased leaves a widow and three children to mourn his loss, to whom the sympathy of the community has been extended.’

As with our article on P/M John MacLellan, Dunoon, we turn to ‘Box & Fiddle’ magazine for this next:
‘Pipe Major Willie Lawrie, was born in 1881, and started to learn pipes at the age of seven under the guidance of his father Hugh. When his obvious talent became apparent he was sent for full formal instruction to that master piper of Oban, John MacColl. A dedicated and enthusiastic pupil, his long hours of hard graft and practice, combined with his natural ability, paid off and he became a very successful and highly respected competitor at all the principal Highland Gatherings. He took top honours at both the Argyllshire Gathering (Oban) and the Northern Meeting (Inverness) in 1910, and in the following year again at Inverness he set a record which stands to this day by lifting all the first prizes including the Clasp for Former Gold Medal Winners. Among his adversaries were such notables as John McDonald and P/M G. S. McLennan of the Gordon Highlanders. He could also number P/M Willie Ross amongst his very good friends and the fact that he was personal piper to both the Earl of Dunmore and Colonel McDougall of Lunga was a clear indication of the esteem in which he was held.

Willie Lawrie's WW1 campaign medals
Willie Lawrie’s WW1 campaign medals

‘In 1912, after a period with the Ballachulish Volunteers, came the crowning accolade, he was appointed Pipe Major of the 1st/8th Battalion of his county Regiment, the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. At the outbreak of WW1 P/M Willie Lawrie was among the first to volunteer for active service and following a period of training at Bedford, in England, he went to France with the 8th Argyll’s. The appalling conditions of trench warfare, combined with prolonged piping on long marches, took their toll. He became seriously ill and was returned to England where after a few months, despite valiant efforts by medical staff, he died in an Oxford Hospital at the age of only 35, sending a shock wave of sorrow through the piping world both at home and abroad.

‘But all was not lost; the proverbial ‘silver lining’ was there – a legacy of some of the finest pipe marches to come from any source, tunes which are appreciated all the more as time passes and which will be around longer than any of us. His aforementioned ‘Pap of Glencoe’ is a swinging march…. Apparently the inspiration came to him during a walk with a friend from Ballachulish to Glencoe, with the ‘Pap’ lying dead ahead. This is a tune in a class of its own, very well structured but with a remarkable simplicity.

‘Pipe Major Lawrie’s love of his home environment and the fond associated with it is demonstrated in the titles of some of his favourite compositions: The Braes of Brecklet – which rose behind his home, John MacDonald of Glencoe, Mrs H. L. MacDonald of Dunach – great marches, and the good original strathspey Inveraray Castle which was brought to the fore by Glasgow City Police Pipe Band in the late 1940s. In contrast to the above ‘dignified’ competition type marches, a number of compositions written during his service with the Argyll’s were of necessity more in a retreat and quickstep march mould, but still very musical and with the same enduring quality.

A rare shot of Willie Lawrie pictured during WW1
A rare shot of Willie Lawrie pictured during WW1

‘In addition to his piping and composing abilities, P/M Willie Lawrie was also a good teacher, and for a number of years during the summer he would spend a couple of months on the islands instructing in his art under the auspices if the Piobaireachd Society. [Roddy Livingstone of the Piobaireachd Society has pointed out that there are brief references to Willie Lawrie running classes in Benbecula in Bridget MacKenzie’s ‘Piping Traditions of the Outer Isles’ (pages 94 & 96). She states that Angus MacAulay (Benbecula, London and later Whangarei, New Zealand) attended a class at Balivanich held by Willie Lawrie as ‘a lad of no more than 11’ which would coincide with the 1911/12 time window.]

‘Willie had a well-developed, almost philosophical sense of humour which came to the fore on one occasion after a court-martial when he led the Battalion off the parade ground to ‘A Man’s a Man for a’ That’.

• Listen to the BBC’s popular lecture on Willie Lawrie written and presented by Seumas MacNeill 40 years ago as part of their ‘Masters of Piping’ series here.