More Memories of Donald Mackinnon, Skye & Queensland

Reader Catherine Herzig has kindly shared her recollections of life and times with war hero and piper Donald Mackinnon. This is  a warm, personal memoir which gives a real feel for the man’s humanity and dedication to his music. We are grateful to Cath for sharing it with us. The picture above is of Donald in KOSB rig piping during the Korean War.

I was 12 when I had to take a year off Highland dancing due to knee issues and decided to learn the pipes while I waited for the knees to heal. Mum took me to Donald when he was living in Wavell Heights, a suburb of Brisbane. I learnt from Donald between the ages of 12 – 15. What an immense privilege. He had an enormous impact on my view of life. I had lessons with him each Saturday morning at his house and I remember having a group lesson as well in the hall at Wavell Heights High School.

Poor Donald used to lament our combined inabilities when it came to learning canntaireachd and also our laziness when it came to practice. Unfortunately, I can’t remember the other students very well. I do remember that we enjoyed ourselves learning as a group but my favourite times were always when I had my private lessons.

Donald always played along as I learnt the tunes and that was how I think he taught me musicality. I also had mum who was a fantastic violinist and she would help me at home when I practiced, talking about the value of each note, and between them both they passed on that piping, or any music for that matter, was about singing from the heart.  And Donald would always sing.

He’d sing and we’d laugh. His wife Ina was wonderful and she and mum would sit and listen as we played. I do remember being introduced to Lewis Turrell from New Zealand who was a lovey bloke and he used to have lessons with Donald as well. [Iain Bruce, who gave us the initial story on Donald, tells us that there are six of Donald’s tunes in the Lewis Turrell Collection of Bagpipe Music. Get the book here for only $15CAD.]

One funny memory I have was when Donald was taking me to the Callies Club. His mate arrived and he and Donald had one for the road before we set out – a rather large Vegemite jar of a light brown liquid! Those were the days.

In WW2, he started in Spitfires then got transferred to Mustangs.  I think that must have been when US joined the war and provided Britain with the planes because, from memory, Mustangs were American.

The Mustangs had a big air scoop underneath. Following one operation the rest of his squadron had come in but Donald was late.  From the barracks, Ina saw his plane coming in.  The scoop had been shot up badly and was actually facing sideways as he landed.  She remembered seeing a plane coming in to land at the airfield near the barracks where they once lived, smoke billowing everywhere and she said to herself, ‘That’ll be Donald’ – and it was. 

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There was also the time his plane got shot down over either the North Sea or the English Channel too. The rafts provided were very small and his head was sticking out one end and his feet, the other.  He was picked up by a motor torpedo rescue boat. Dad was pretty sure it wasn’t the only time he was shot down.

Donald’s Korean War regiment, the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, won a prize for step ups. Apparently, it was competition  to see how fit the men were. Donald said that the regiment made the last bayonet charge for the British Army. Dad also remembers Donald recounting how he’d play the pipes for the charge then afterwards he’d sit with the boys. He always had two water bottles on his belt and both were filled with Drambuie that he’d share round after the battle.

Dad remembers that Donald really did defy death in surviving his heart operations. Ina apparently had a hand in his survival after the bypass when the doctors took a big blood vessel out of his leg. He heard Ina yelling at him to come back so he did! His leg always caused him a lot of pain after that operation.

When Donald and Ina moved to Ormiston House I thought it was great. The little cottage was gorgeous. I’d sometimes stay for the weekend and have two lessons in a row! We’d also have lessons in Lord Louis Hope’s office in the actual Ormiston House which was Heritage listed. I’d get to wander through that old house at odd times and the grounds were just the most beautiful place to listen to Donald playing his lovely silver-mounted pipes.  

And the old Carmelite nuns loved him. I’d see a few around the grounds who had permission to come out of the monastery. He’d always give a hand when needed and I do remember Donald serving at the altar in the chapel. There’s a bit of a story behind those pipes for sure but not for me to tell. I did get a go of them a few times but they were pretty hard to blow.

Donald Mackinnon in later life

When he lived at Ormiston House he had a big German Shepherd dog. From memory, his name was Kaiser and he loved Queensland nuts. He’d crack the nut, spit the shells out and eat the nut. It was quite a feat knowing how tough the shells were.

Donald managed to get me my own set of pipes. They belonged to Rosie McLelland’s husband. We knew Rosie through the dancing of course. She’d always been in my dancing life and was a beautiful kind generous lady. So I was lucky to have them both. I do remember that Donald had a special recipe for seasoning his bag. He used it in mine as well. He always used honey, whiskey and alum but you had to be careful when you hung the bag up to dry that mice couldn’t get to it.  They loved it.

 He was great mates with Donald MacLeod. I still have my old music case (a hand me down from mum) and it has notes about this piece of music and that from ‘wee’ Donald (MacLeod) to ‘big’ Donald (Mackinnon) and I have a few of his pieces that he wrote in my manuscript book for me along with the exercises he gave me to practice. No computers back then; all by hand and I think so much more personal as a result.

Donald had the biggest heart in every sense. I’m thrilled that someone is looking to write about the great musician that was Donald Mackinnon. Some funny little notes to share. They might be of interest. Lovely, cherished memories for us but they may be too personal or ‘small’ for their purposes in Skye.

Donald’s actually buried in the Cleveland Cemetery here in Redland Bay where I now live. I think Ina’s there with him but there’s no marking on the grave. They were just the loveliest, most warm-hearted couple. Real characters. I’ll always remember Donald as a wonderful man with more music in his little finger than most people will ever dream of possessing.

• Read more on Donald MacKinnon here.

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