History: P/M Donald MacLeod As I Knew Him

Next month sees the annual Donald Macleod Memorial competition in Stornoway, Isle of Lewis. Few people knew the late pipe major as intimately as the author of this article for whom Donald wrote the popular 2/4 march ‘P/M Jim McWilliams’…….

By P/M Jim McWilliams

 Today everyone can look up the achievements of Pipe Major Donald MacLeod MBE on Wikipedia. However, you can’t get to know or appreciate what a fine man he was from lists of facts. Therefore it is the real ‘Wee Donald’ that I will introduce here. I was very fortunate to have known him as a close friend over twelve years. ‘Wee Donald’, as hundreds of his Canadian friends knew him, was a giant in so many ways – teacher, player, composer, and even more so as a man – and he had an enormous and lasting influence on piping in western Canada.

My introduction to Donald took place at Fort San in the Qu’Appelle Valley in my home province of Saskatchewan. We had invited him to join us as guest piping instructor for our Piping and Drumming School at the Saskatchewan Summer School of the Arts in 1967. Donald had been highly recommended by a fellow instructor, Pipe Major Bill MacLeod of Pine Falls, Manitoba, who had been a class-mate and close friend of Donald in 1942 at the Army School of Piping at Edinburgh Castle.

‘Willie’, as he was known in Saskatchewan, had been Pipe Major of the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders of Canada at that time. As promised, Donald was an outstanding success and served as the Guest Piping Instructor at our summer school from 1967 till 1981, and was scheduled to continue forever when he died suddenly at home in 1982.

When the news spread hundreds of Canadians felt heart-broken by our loss. A dedicated teacher, Donald would work well beyond his allotted class-time teaching and encouraging anyone and everyone. Generous and warm-hearted to all – staff, students, or spectators – Donald was loved and is still remembered. One student, Jack Lee, who attended with his brother, Terry, still glows with admiration when he declares, ‘Donald MacLeod was the greatest piper ever’.

Wee Donald treated everyone equally and was exceptionally generous with everything – from replacing broken reeds and chanters, mailing free hand-written music requests, to quietly giving expensive items as gifts. As one student, now Pipe Major Iain MacDonald of Regina and Director of the Saskatchewan Pipe Band Association Summer School, recalls, ‘Donald always took time for people, and whether it was playing Lord Lovat’s Lament for my mom after a recital at Fort San (she being a Fraser) or helping people with their reeds in the shop at Grainger’s. Donald was always interested in the people he met. What a gift he was to all who met him!’

I cannot recall Donald ever speaking critically about anyone. His only ‘almost negative’ comment came during one of our late-night instructors’ ‘socials’ at the local Legion when someone asked Donald about the actions and rumoured negative comments of another Scottish piping celebrity. Wee Donald’s quiet reply was, ‘let’s not waste our time on that’.

One of Donald’s most amazing talents was his ability to compose instantly. One night while staying with me and my family in Moose Jaw he offered to take over my job as ‘lullabyist’ for my three-year-old son, Lachie. Within minutes I heard the creation of a remarkable new tune from Donald’s chanter in Lachie’s bedroom. It turns out the melody ‘just came to him’. That was the birth of Lachie’s Lullaby, later to be featured at the Edinburgh Tattoo. Both our sons, Lachlan and Colin, called him ‘uncle Donald’.

Donald and Lachie

Another Donald MacLeod charmer, Echo Lake, was composed in about five minutes in Willie MacLeod’s car while Willie filled his gas-tank alongside the lovely lake of that name in the Qu’Appelle Valley. When we asked Donald how he composed it he replied that ‘we don’t compose tunes; they are out there in the air just waiting to be discovered’.

To P/M Donald MacLeod, the finest piper I ever knew

In August, 1969, moments after Donald arrived at the school directly from Regina airport, as always, we instructors swarmed to his room to welcome him. He pulled his chanter from his luggage, then from his pocket a cigarette package with some mysterious short-hand written on it, and commenced playing a four-part march we had never heard. We were all congratulating him on his creation (or ‘discovery’) when he turned to me and asked, ‘Do you like it?’

‘Of course,’ I blurted, ‘it’s great!’ Donald smiled as usual and replied, ‘Good, because it’s yours,’ and wrote ‘Jim’s’ on the package. We had just witnessed the premier performance of the tune now well-known as Pipe Major J MacWilliams. It was supposed to be named ‘Pipe Major Jim McWilliams’. After it appeared in Book 5 Donald apologised for the two printing errors. Obviously I was fated never to become famous.

To be continued.  Listen to Jim’s march here played by Inveraray & District: