Donald MacPherson’s Bagpipe: Sad News from Down Under

Disturbing information has reached me from Australia via a well known piper and acquaintance of mine, writes the Editor. It concerns the late Donald MacPherson’s bagpipe, that glorious instrument which in Donald’s hands made him the most successful competing piper of all time.

It was a pipe I had the good fortune to hear many times. We have several fine instruments on the boards today but none that quite captures the expanse and harmonic depth of Donald’s. As journalist and piper Tom Peterkin wrote in his eloquent Scotsman obituary in 2012: ‘The stunning effect of MacPherson’s flawlessly true chanter scale harmonising with an unwavering wall of sound created by his drones, took bagpipe tuning to a level of perfection that marked him out from his contemporaries. He produced a tone which the top pipers still strive to emulate today.’

When the maestro died the family decided the pipe should be sold at auction and it was. A gentleman in Australia, Newcastle, New South Wales to be more precise, won the bidding and, in 2013, paid a reputed £35,000 to take possession of the German silver and ivory Lawries.

The disturbing news? My informant reports: ‘I received a phone call from a piping friend last week to say he had had a tune on Donald MacPherson’s pipe. They had not been played since they arrived in Newcastle. I knew that the purchaser would have obtained them for bragging rights only. I was told that all the joints were jammed and some drastic measures were employed to separate them. A very sad state of affairs.’

Indeed. One shudders to think what the ‘drastic steps’ were. It underlines once more the responsibility all top professional pipers have to ensure that their precious instruments go to players who can appreciate and care for them, pipers who can do them justice. A pipe that has delivered at the pinnacle of solo piping deserves to be played by someone who themselves is playing at that level or shows the potential so to do. 

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I do not think any bagpipe is worth £35,000. This was a vanity purchase by a collector who obviously had little idea of how to care for the instrument, how to bring the best out of it – or even appreciate what it could do. Not many can. You really have to have been successful at the top level to understand the difference between the good and the really great. (That’s why we want former leading professionals judging the big events.)

Before it is too late and the inevitable cracks appear, the owner of this pipe should do the decent thing and put it up for sale for a reasonable price with the caveat that it must go to some promising Australian piper or currently competing professional. Such a charitable act might assuage the damage that has been done to the pipe and its reputation – and from what I hear the owner could bear the loss.

Of the pipe, readers may be interested to know how Donald came by it. Here’s an excerpt from my interview with him in 1997: ‘The pipes I play I got from a chap who worked with me in Singer’s [sewing machine factory] in Clydebank when I was working in the tool room there. He was a very nice man and we got talking about bagpipes. He said he had a set of pipes that he didn’t use. This would be in the early ’50s. He asked me if I had my own pipes and I said no, I used my father’s. So I bought the pipes from him for £15 [$23US approx.]. Bob Hardie [of RG Hardie & Co.] fitted a new, narrower bottom section in the bass drone.

‘They had a beautiful sound. Bob also gave me a dozen chanters to choose from and I picked one out. I had to get a new bag and I had a lot of trouble with my arm and had to experiment with the position of the drones. Bags were a lot of money, but over a period I eventually got the set-up I wanted. When setting up the pipe, the bag must be tight, stocks not turning etc. A good sheepskin bag could be left up all night and still be quite tight in the morning. My father’s  own recipe for seasoning with boracic powder, flour water and probably sugar, worked well because it kept the bag dry and tight. Unfortunately once at Oban in the very early ’50s I was tuning up ready to go on when suddenly the chanter seized…..’ 

Read the full interview here. And you can see and hear the instrument in the hands of the master on this YouTube video. Look how well cared for the pipe is too:

Listen to it and Donald’s playing on the PP Audio Archive.

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8 thoughts on “Donald MacPherson’s Bagpipe: Sad News from Down Under

  1. It may have been a vanity purchase, but in complaining about the price are we really saying that we begrudged Donald’s widow the money?

    As for the pipe itself, undoubtedly it was a good one but as we all know it is the driver, not the vehicle that matters.

  2. Contrast with this story. An aquaintance wanted to hand on her late father’s pipes so that they would be looked after and played. He was ex-army, had played them until he was 86, then had oiled them every six months until his death aged 99. They are in perfect condition, reeded up easily and have a beautiful mellow sound. It turns out they were probably made by Donald MacPhee, a Glasgow maker between 1872 and 1880. His workshop was taken over by Peter Henderson. They are not for sale.

  3. I am a drummer that has been at it since starting out in 1954. By this time piping and drumming runs thick in my veins. It is even for me a tragedy to think that this magnificent instrument could be lost for ever.

  4. I had the pleasure of being present at that recital in Cork in 1990. Also attended a full workshop with the great man himself. An incredible experience and treasured memory.

    1. Yes – I seem to remember, when I was a lad in the 50’s that £1 was worth around $4.80, until the labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson devalued the £ to $2.80 some time in the 60’s.

  5. What I /we I have heard of the purchaser at the time of purchase, this should not be a surprise! What a damned shame.

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