Gaelic broadcaster, writer and photographer, Cailean Maclean has unearthed a new piobaireachd composed by the late Dr John MacAskill. What’s more he has provided a copy of the tune and a recording of the writer playing it. Dr John, who died in 2003, was a renowned composer of such ceol beag masterpieces as the reel Lexie MacAskill and an article on him featured earlier in Piping Press.
Cailean writes: ‘Dr John and my father [Alasdair Maclean] were in conversation at a piping event in the late 1990s and the topic of Rubh’ an Dùnain arose.
‘This headland in Skye is the traditional stronghold of the Clan MacAskill where they operated as sea watchers (coastguards?) for the Clan MacLeod. Dr John had never been there and expressed an interest in visiting Rubh’ an Dùnain. A date for the seven mile walk out to the headland and back was arranged and my father and I spent an entertaining afternoon accompanying Dr John to his ancestral homeland.
‘On the return journey Dr John announced that inspiration for a piobaireachd has come to him. Months later he sent this MS of the newly composed tune. It was dated 22/05/99. I have a recording of him playing the ground at my parents’ house.
I attach scans of the MS and a couple of snaps of Rubh’ an Dùnain. The name means ‘the headland of the small fort’. In one shot you can see part of what remains of the fort and in the other is a short canal from the sea to a fresh water/brackish loch which dates back to the days of Norse hegemony in the Hebrides.
Later I found Dr John’s recording. The quality is not bad given that it was recorded onto a Sony Walkman cassette machine, using one mic only, and in the lee of the gable end of my parents’ house – it was blowing a collieshangie at the time.’
Robert Wallace writes: We are extremely grateful to Cailean for making this recording available to Piping Press and thus to the wider piobaireachd fraternity. The opportunity to hear Dr John playing is of itself of historical importance. The recording indicates what an expert piper he was – and also a great composer. Listen to Dr John with his tune on the PP Audio Archive.
John’s family was from Berneray in the Western Isles and, though his father and uncles were pipers, learned his piping at the College of Piping, joining the classes there in 1957. Later he received instruction from Donald MacLeod and Angus MacPherson, hence the latter’s inclusion in the picture below. When he started competing Dr John was immediately successful in the amateur ranks and later, when medical studies allowed and the urge was on him, would have a go at the professional.
A larger than life character, John MacAskill was born in 1944 and died in 2003. When he won the Gold Medal at Inverness, Seumas MacNeill wrote: ‘When the winner was announced men of discernment looked for ways to escape, men of experience prepared to batten down the hatches and men of neither are still wondering what happened.’
He combined general practice with work for the Scottish Football Association’s medical team. He travelled the world with the SFA and enjoyed nothing better than being helicoptered into the big stadiums, floodlights, massive crowds – the perfect stage he said for the man with the ‘best fingers in Scotland’! Those fingers had brought him, in addition to his Gold Medal, the March at Inverness in 1964, at Oban in 1966 and the NM Strathspey and Reel in 1970. Piobaireachd enthusiasts who would like a copy of this fine tune in Dr John’s own hand can download it in its entirety here.
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