Pipes & Drums Feature at Dollar Bicentenary/ Thoughts on Donald MacDonald Cuach


Our Dollar Academy correspondent has sent this
….A remarkable 243 pipers and drummers gathered at Dollar Academy, Clackmannanshire, over the weekend to kick off the start of the school’s bicentenary year.

With a parachute team arriving with the special bicentenary flag, which will fly over the Old Playfair Building this year, current band members and scores of former pupils (many in mature age ranges) got together to parade on the lawns for a large audience, approaching 2000, of family, friends and visitors from all corners of the world.

The concert performance began with the youngest chanter players (as young as eight) playing ‘Salute to John McNabb,’ the founder of the school two centuries ago. The various bands (Juvenile, Novice A and B and Massed Band) went through their paces in front of the Board of Governors, David Knapman, the Rector of the Academy, and guest, Colonel Johnny Stewart, the Lord Lieutenant of Clackmannanshire.

Two highlights amongst a sparkling programme included all of the former 23 Pipe Majors of the school bands playing the tune ‘The Dollar Boys’ (and girls). Then the pièce de résistance, Australian composer Lincoln Hilton’s ‘Dollar Sunrise Suite’ specially arranged by Pipe Major Matthew Wilson and music master Simon Burbury, a fusion of orchestra, percussion and pipe band. They should record it; it was so good.

The a few moist eyes as the whole ensemble played ‘Highland Cathedral’ as the teenagers leaving the Academy next week made their farewells. The ‘whole band’ photo [above] gives an idea of the scale of the piping and drumming programme at Dollar, and it was reported that each player received a personalised memento made from  part of the ancient red pine tree which grew next to the piping hut and which was sadly felled in a storm last year. The school’s technical team created personalised pieces of art from the timber and these will now adorn desks, tables and mantelpieces the world over. 

Piping Tutor Callum Beaumont presenting the Redwood Mementoes with Colonel Stewart, the programme leader

Colonel Craig Stewart is to be commended for galvanising his team to deliver the event. If you want to catch up with some of it you will find it all on the various Dollar Academy social media outlets.



Duncan Watson comments on the Donald MacDonald Cuach…..Having listened to some of the recordings from the competition held on June 15 (curiosity got the better of me) I must say that a lot could be written about it by some kind of ‘ologist’. However I doubt it would be appropriate as it seems  playing these settings as music is not permissible, the main pursuit being adherence to a score. Maybe a forensic pathologist might do the job best of all!

Where to start with an appreciative view of the playing?  I listened to some of the tuning and there were variations played in what could be described, for want of another word, as conventional. Even in these preparatory fragments of tunes, the players, who had without doubt good instruments, played with no apparent injection  of nuance.
This did not set a promising musical precedent for what was to come, and for me it almost put my teeth on edge. Then to the playing of the Donald MacDonald settings. There were efforts to include the ‘redundant’ low As, redundant  because if played as written they  intrude on the percussive rhythm of the taorluath and crunluath movements and the tune/melody.
As regards the cadences, which, from memory, Donald MacDonald describes in his published book as appoggiatura, the method of playing them as written makes little sense and is not in any way built into the rhythm of the music. Some of these motifs, if played with a sense of musical flow, could add to the passages of music. Of course in conventional styles there are often problems with these motifs too – irrespective of how they are written or how they are regarded. Sometime they are played almost in the same rhythm as a piece of regimental rifle drill. I doubt if that would even excite the late David Murray.

The pipers are not entirely to blame for doing what is expected of them with Donald MacDonald as they are getting paid nicely for it. At their level it is an easy £1000. Devoting 40 hours to one of the D MacD settings amounts to £25 per hour. And they are getting a pleasant day out with the hope that their fortunes could double with another £1,000 going to the winner.


Click on ad to enter National Mod Piping, Seniors and Juniors. Mod piping is on October 13 at Dunoon.


However, as leading players they have some responsibility for the music. I could not hear what adjudicator Allan MacDonald had to say in his summing up but I caught the word musicality. Unfortunately there was little music that I could hear in any of the playing. Craig Sutherland repeated the ground of his tune maybe four times. This may have been stipulated in the setting, but as the thing progressed, I thought ‘oh, not again.’  It had a simple sort of melody line and could have been quite attractive musically treated. His, and others’, attempts at the taorluath with intrusive low A notes did nothing but hamper rhythm. This was evident in other movements where the ‘redundant’ low A notes are written.

Winner Iain Speirs on stage at the Donald MacDonald Cuach competition. In the background are judge Allan MacDonald (left) and his brother Dr Angus, the piping convenor

I was trying to listen to this recording with an open mind and hoping for something even a little bit inspired but whether this is possible or even permissible in playing these settings I am not sure. To me the playing reflected nothing other than reproducing Donald MacDonald’s settings on good bagpipes. Music did not seem to be the pursuit, rather satisfying the adherence to a specific notation with maybe the notion that this would carry the day with a judge who has a reputation for his radical views.

These comments are nothing other than background stuff but the  playing served to underline that scores should not be strictly adhered to whether produced by the Piobaireachd Society,  Donald MacDonald or indeed any of the old sources.
Agree? Listen to highlights here. Unfortunately the YouTube recording of the whole contest has been taken down as far as PP could discover.

2 thoughts on “Pipes & Drums Feature at Dollar Bicentenary/ Thoughts on Donald MacDonald Cuach

  1. Interesting. Donald’s comment was, “Lack of freedom is the problem when you put music on a page, when you put it behind bar lines, lock it up.” He had many other things to say about it, none of which you would disagree with, I am sure.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.