During a break in the lessons Donald told me: ‘When I arrived at Washington Street I discovered my bag had burst so my father called Donald MacPherson. I had been going to him for lessons for two months. We went up to his house in Bearsden [north west of Glasgow] hoping to come back with the bag from Donald’s pipes. We actually came back to the contest with Donald himself and his pipes.
‘Donald played them for ten or 15 minutes, handed them to me and blew them up. I was only 14 and thought I wouldn’t be able to blow them because they sounded so loud and projected so well. But I think I nearly blew the chanter out of its stock they were so easy. It was the most comfortable bagpipe I’d ever held as well. The bag shape was perfect and Donald was about the same height as me then. I discovered later that he had his own template for his [sheepskin] bags and I think he got them from Grainger & Campbell.
‘When it came my turn to play he tuned my pipes for me on the boards. It was the best instrument I ever played. The tune John MacFadyen was referring to was the Lament for Patrick Og MacCrimmon. I hadn’t learned it from Donald but from a man in Ayrshire called Archie McCroskie.
‘I started going to Donald two weeks before we went to the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto in 1972 with the Monktonhall Colliery band. [Donald’s father Willie was the pipe major and at that time they played in Grade 3]. I played Patrick Og at Cowal, Patrick Og at the SPA and Patrick Og at the competition in St Andrews and then Donald put me on to the Big Spree. That was the first tune I learned from him.
‘He was a wonderful teacher though he would never really explain things in detail. When I had been going to him for a while and was in my late teens I got a bit bolder and started asking him why we were playing a particular tune in a certain way. He would just look at you and say ‘because I’m telling you to’. There was no analysis; you just followed what he showed you.
‘Everyone knows what a brilliant player he was yet here was I, a young upstart, questioning him. I want to him from August 1972 until July 1984 when I went to America.’
On Facebook, Ian Larg, another piper mentioned in John MacFadyen’s Oban Times article wrote, ‘Brings back a few memories. It moved to Washington Street from the Highlanders Institute. Great competitions which I recall were held in spring and autumn. The spring contest was close to the Tayside Pipers Society event and the autumn contest just before the competition in St Andrews.’
Monktonhall Piper, Les Hutt, now in Inverness, wrote, ‘I remember a pretty packed hall by the time the jig came along – usually after tea! Some great players in those lists as well as tutors and pipers who were keen to help and encourage all the youngsters.’
After Monktonhall Donald joined Muirhead & Sons Pipe Band – as did Les Hutt. Donald now lives in Kansas City and is very active as a teacher passing on the knowledge he learned from Robert Hardie, Donald MacPherson and later, Andrew Wright.
Donald was an outstanding professional piper though not always keen on competing. When playing for the Highland Society of London’s Gold Medal at Oban and Inverness he took two seconds, two thirds and two fourths. We are delighted to have him on the teaching faculty of the South Florida Academy. He is pictured up top giving a tune at the ceilidh last night.