The great Donald MacLeod died 35 years ago last month, writes the Editor. Today we mark this with a new slideshow (link at foot of column) depicting the life and times of the master piper with thanks to the unnamed reader who alerted us to this important anniversary.
Donald MacLeod was born in 1917 and died in 1982. He was one of the greatest pipers of the 20th century both in terms of his competition prowess and as an outstanding composer of pipe music.
He was born in Stornoway and initially taught the pipes by his father, Donald ‘Doyle’ MacLeod, Pipe Major of the Lewis Pipe Band. When, in the 1930s, P/M Willie Ross visited Stornoway on a teaching stint Donald attended his classes and was encouraged to join the Scots Guards. However he enlisted in the 2nd Battalion of the Seaforth Highlanders (1937) and whilst stationed at Fort George had tuition from John MacDonald, Inverness. This continued on and off for 25 years and laid the foundation of Donald’s extensive piobaireachd knowledge.
His pipe major in the Seaforths was DR MacLennan, half-brother of GS Maclennan. Donald was eventually promoted Pipe Major. On the outbreak of WW2 he found himself in France with his regiment as part of the 51st Highland Division. Like so many others he was taken prisoner at St Valery. Fortunately Donald managed to escape by diving into a ditch during a forced march. Donald, seldom spoke about this incident, but dismissed it once by saying that he ‘was so small and insignificant that the guards hadn’t notice he had slipped away’.
On any encounter with German soldiers he spoke his native Gaelic, was presumed to be eastern European, and allowed to go. He was picked up by the Resistance and eventually made it back home. He returned to France following D-Day and played the 7th Seaforths across the Rhine against the express orders of his Commanding Officer who recognised the danger to Donald and his unique musical qualities (see picture top). Donald very seldom spoke of his time during WW2 but it would surely make a wonderful documentary or film for Gaelic or non-Gaelic television.
His late wife Winnie spoke to me once of Donald never sleeping well and waking during the night with nightmares about his time during the conflict. Hardly surprising, and who knows the effect this had on his health in later life.
After the war Donald came into his own as a solo competitor adding eight Clasps to his Oban and Inverness Gold Medals as well as eight Silver Stars for the Former Winners MSR at the Northern Meeting. There is also a suggestion that he won the Inverness Jig competition nine times, many of them with his own compositions. He also won all the main competitions at Oban many times over.
He ranks among the greatest composers in the history of pipe music, taking his place alongside GS McLennan, Peter MacLeod (Jnr. and Snr.), John MacLellan (Dunoon), Willie Lawrie and John MacColl at piping’s high altar of melodic genius. In all he produced six books of ceol beag and one book of ceol mor. Some of his tunes have been set for this year’s piobaireachd competitions at Oban and Inverness marking an acceptance of his music which would surely have been a source of considerable pride to him.
There is one story that he composed the final two parts of his jig The Seagull ex tempore whilst on the platform at the Northern Meeting. Probably apocryphal but the fact that it has become part of piping folklore is indicative of his extraordinary compositional gift. The story was believable. One anecdote that is true is his composing the tune the Judges’ Dilemma whilst waiting on the outcome of the Jig competition at Inverness. By the time his name was announced as winner he had completed the tune in the margins of the programme. Donald later competed with this tune and others may have information on whether he won with it or not.
His music is as popular today as it was when first published. The list of classic tunes is considerable: Knightswood Ceilidh, Crossing the Month, Hen’s March, Butterfingers, Glasgow Police Pipers, Donald MacLellan of Rothesay, Susan MacLeod, Fiona MacLeod, Stac Pollaidh, Donald MacLean of Lewis, Dr Ross, MacLeod of Mull, P/M George Allan and whole host of beautiful Gaelic-inspired airs and retreat marches.
One of his final competition appearances was in the Knock Out competition run by the Scottish Pipers’ Association playing against another great composer, teacher and piper, Duncan Johnstone. Donald was pushed into second by the vote of the audience but was the first to congratulate Duncan, ‘It’s no loss what a friend gets’.
Donald was deservedly made an MBE in 1978, an award widely applauded throughout the piping world. Here was a man who could not have done more for our music and always with a quite, un-assuming demeanour.
After retiring from competition Donald continued to teach, judge and compose. He was the sole judge at Inverness when his erstwhile student Donald Bain, New Zealand, won the Gold Medal with MacCrimmon’s Sweetheart (the tune you’ll hear played on the harp accompanying the slides). Donald helped many others to achieve this accolade all of them outstanding pipers in their own right: P/M Iain Morrison, Angus John MacLellan, John Wilson and Andrew Wright to name a few.
Along with John MacLellan, John MacFadyen and Seumas MacNeill, Donald was instrumental in the establishment of summer schools in North America, particularly, in Donald’s case, in western Canada.
He pioneered the tuition by tape scheme whereby students would be sent lessons on a particular tune always accompanied by his characteristic ‘this is how it might go’ comment. These recordings were the basis for an extensive series of CDs issued by the Lismor label in the 1990s some 220 piobaireachd in all.
The Donald MacLeod Memorial Competition was established in Stornoway in 1994 to honour one of the best pipers of the 20th century. Initiated by the Lewis & Harris Piping Society our top pipers are invited to play Donald’s music. Each April large crowds gather to hear the work of this maestro performed on his native isle.