Bagpipemakers: An Interview with MacDougall of Aberfeldy

The following is taken from the People’s Journal newspaper of November 4, 1893. It is by their ‘Lady Correspondent’ and is headlined ‘An Interview with the Queen’s Bagpipe-Maker’. The subject of the article is Duncan Macdougall, Aberfeldy, renowned pipe maker. The article will be of interest to all those who study or collect or indeed manufacture pipes. It is written in the flowery style of the late Victorian times but that does not detract from its considerable historical worth. The picture above is of the Breadalbane Pipe Band with Macdougall far right.

The article begins with an extract from a poem ‘The Wedding of Shon MacLean’ by Robert Buchanan:

‘Then Shon took the pipes and all was still
As silently he the bags did fill
With flaming cheeks and round bright eyes
Till the first faint music began to rise

‘Like a thousand laverocks singing in tune 
Like countless corncrakes under the moon 
Like the smack of kisses and sweet bells ringing
Like a mermaids harp or a kelpie’s singing
Blew the pipes of Shon.’

I don’t know how it is but the fact remains that is gives a decided shock to the national feelings to learn that the bagpipes are not our national instrument, that they are only Scottish by adoption. They seem so interwoven with the national sentiment – like whisky and peat reek – from the days of Ossian to McCranky that it is somewhat of a deprivation to have to give them up!

The first time I see a Sassenach screwing up his face over a pibroch I will cast it in his teeth that it is an English instrument that he is listening to, and that it behoves him to grin and bear it decently. Ten to one he won’t believe me!

The bagpipes indeed were classic long before they penetrated into Britain at all. The Greeks knew them, and a friend to whom th e dead tongues of the past are as an open book, tells me that the instrument is shown in some of the wall paintings discovered at Pompeii. The pefferari of the Calabrian peasant is doubtless the lineal descendent of the classic model.

But in the 15th century the bagpipe was common among the country people of Poland, Italy, the south of France, Scotland and Ireland. It is a primitive instrument consisting of the bag which receives the air and the pipes which give it out, and its success entirely depends on the art by which it is modulated by the player.

But it was the Queen’s bagpipe-maker I started out to tell you about, not the national history of the bagpipe. It was in Aberfeldy I heard that such a distinguished professor of the art resided, and I was not long in finding a mutual friend who promptly undertook to make us know to each other. It was in his workshop that I came upon Pipe Major Macdougall, surrounded by the trappings of his trade, and assisted by his youngest son, Gavin, who promises one of these days to ‘rive his father’s bonnet’.

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Mr Macdougall comes of a line of pipers, his forefathers having migrated from the Lorn district of Argyllshire with the Campbells of Breadalbane. Piping is generally a hereditary occupation. As Buchanan puts it in his inimitable paean of the bagpipe which heads this article, speaking of the famous Shon:

‘Father and son since the world’s creation
The Macleans have followed this occupation
And played the pibroch to fire the clan
Since the first Duke came and the earth began!’

Mr Macdougall is of the same calibre, if not of the same clan. i n fact I have my private belief that he must be descended from another hero mentioned in the same immortal ballad, ‘Dougall Dhu of Kilflannan Shore’ who took part in the unique piping competition, for which vide the poem referred to.

Well, in the midst of his work I found Mr Macdougall, and met a hearty welcome, and it was seated in his workshop that I had a chat with the veteran about his art. For Mr Macdougall is not only a notable maker of pipes, he is a champion piper, and on high days and holidays wears an array of medals won in open competition which makes a glittering breastplate above the tartan.

His first victory was at Montrose when he was quite a young lad. He lovingly remembers the occasion. And throughout the prime of his playing life he has taken an honourable part in most of the great piping jousts going. He has carried off year after year all the pipe music honours at the Northern meetings, has won the gold medal of the Highland Society of London, and the seven years’ champion gold medal, and altogether lays claim to some six gold and thirty silver medals.

For fourteen years Mr Macdougall was chief piper to the Marquis of Breadalbane at Taymouth Castle until he relinquished the position for another branch of his art. It is interesting to notice that he represents the third generation of pipe makers – his grandfather, Allan Macdougall, having carried on that occupation in Perth from 1792 to 1834, and his father, John Macdougall, handing on the business to the year 1857. Mr Macdougall was for eight years Pipe Major to the Queen’s Edinburgh Volunteers, and has for 19 years held the same post in the 5th VBRH. At the Birnam camp of the corps the Pipe Major will have as many as 40 pipers under his baton.

To be continued.

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