History: Ronald Morrison and a 1957 Broadcast on BBC Radio

This short piece recalls the grand old days of BBC piping broadcasts. It is taken from the Radio Times of 1957. Headlined ‘Broadcasting from Scotland – The Big Music of the Pipes’, it features the late Ronald Morrison. The caption to the picture above reads ‘Piper Ronald Morrison from South Uist, making his first broadcast, plays ‘MacCrimmon’s Sweetheart’ in the Scottish Home Service’. The accompanying article reads..

Only a minority of even the pipe music addicts have developed a love and understanding of piobaireachd, the doubling, tripling, classical ‘big music’ of the pipes – one of the most ancient applications in European music of the idea of ‘variations on a theme’.

Yet even without understanding (and how many of those who love to listen to orchestral music have a real appreciation of musical form?), a large number of Scots must respond to the playing of piobaireachd if only on account of the expert fingering involved in it.

And as often as not there’s an authentic story of old days behind the ‘big music’ played today. A case in point is MacCrimmon’s Sweetheart, which Scottish listeners can hear played on Friday night played by Ronald Morrison.

Angus Mackay, in his manuscript collection, called this piobaireachd a lament for Maol Donn, son of Connal, King of Kintyre. But the Clan MacCrimmon Society, in a recent pamphlet, ascribed the piece to Iain Odhar MacCrimmon (a member of the famous old Skye family, hereditary pipers to MacLeod of Dunvegan).

He is said to have composed it in favour of the great love of his heart – the sheepskin bag of his pipes. There is, indeed, another theory about MacCrimmon’s Sweetheart, that it was composed by Clanranald’s piper in memory of Maol Donn, a cow (the property of a widow woman in Benbecula) which wandered into a peat bog and was lost.

Ronald Morrison, Friday night’s executant, may very well favour the last theory on grounds of territorial loyalty – he comes from South Uist, an island namely for its pipers. He was a pupil of the late Pipe Major John MacDonald of Inverness, he has won the South Uist piping championship, and now lives in County Durham.

To be heard by Scottish listeners (in his first broadcast), he will come to the Newcastle studios, from which his pipe music will be appositely ‘piped up’ the line to the Scottish transmitter.

  • Ronald Morrison was born in 1919 and died in Glasgow in 2004. He was well known among the more recent generation of pipers as the convenor of the Uist & Barra Professional competition which he ran successfully for 20 years or so.
Ronald Morrison (centre) judging at Oban in 1994 with Tom Speirs (l) and James Burnet

He was also for a time an instructor at the College of Piping and had several notable private pupils including Angus MacColl, John Angus Smith and Graeme Roy.

In his playing days Ronald was a regular winner round the games and won the Cowal Open Piobaireachd in 1965. When he retired he was much sought after as an adjudicator. The bedrock of his knowledge were the lessons he received from John MacDonald, Inverness, and from RB Nicol, Balmoral, when they were commissioned to teach in the outer isles by the Piobaireachd Society in the immediate post war period.

Here is Ronald’s teacher, John MacDonald, playing the ground of MacCrimmon’s Sweetheart:

In a filmed interview Angus MacColl spoke highly of Ronald and how he had set him on the path to success in ceòl mòr.

Ronald’s older brother Fred was also a noted instructor and judge, and his nephew is the very successful piper Fred Morrison, a double Gold Medallist and much sought after recitalist and folk musician.

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