P/M Evan Macrae’s Memoirs and a Touching Tribute from a Former Pupil

Thirty years after his death, P/M Evan Macrae’s memoirs ‘Over the Chindwin to Lochaber – A Scottish Piper’s Memoir’ have been published by his son Duncan. Here he gives us the background to the book and insight into the character of his Gold Medallist father. Duncan’s report is followed by a tribute to Evan from his former pupil, Silver Medallist Moira Robertson (née Morrison).

I know you published an article last year which included my father Evan Macrae BEM. For your info the book is now ready. My father’s memoirs were written down during the last few years of his life, he died in 1991. My mother passed them to me and asked if I could perhaps see them published, as he wished them. After a couple of aborted attempts to sort them out we used last year’s lockdown to get to grips with it. I believe he was quite a humble man, and hardly mentions the pipe tunes he’s composed.

He didn’t even mention in his memoir his winning the Gold Medal at Oban in 1982. I felt I wanted to do justice to his memory and complete the picture. In a postscript to the book I have listed the competitions he entered and tunes he composed, more than 20.

Three of the most well known are probably Over The Chindwin, The Ardvasar Blacksmith and Duncan The Guager, which I know is played regularly as a folk/fiddle jig.

In the background of the photo of me is an unknown artist’s impression of Evan, I think copied from the front cover of Illustrated Magazine in 1952. This painting was found in a pub in London which was being refurbished and would have been thrown out. It was eventually presented to my mother and sister by Scottish & Newcastle Brewery.

The Foreword by Donald Cameron of Lochiel, 17th Chief of Clan Cameron, describes my father’s career: ‘Pipe Major Evan Macrae BEM was taught the pipes as a boy in Sleat on the Isle of Skye, and joined The Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders as a boy piper in 1938.

‘During World War II he went to India with the 1st Battalion of the Cameron Highlanders in 1942, and was appointed Pipe Major in 1944 during the Burma campaign. After the war he graduated at the famous Pipe Major’s Course at the Army School of Piping and gained a ‘Distinguished’ grading.

‘He then held the appointment of Pipe Major of the 1st Battalion of the Cameron Highlanders for an unprecedented 13 years, serving in Great Britain, the Far East and Middle East, Austria and Germany. His leadership earned universal acclaim for the high standard of piping and turnout for which the Cameron Highlanders Pipes and Drums were celebrated.

‘After leaving the Regular Army in 1962 he continued his Regimental service as Pipe Major of the Liverpool Scottish TA until 1967. In 1974 he retired to Lochaber where he became Piping Instructor to the Education Department of the Highland Region, and was a key figure in the remarkable resurgence of piping in the Camerons’ home territory.

‘He was awarded the British Empire Medal for services to piping in 1987, and his legacy continues to this day……….. He closed his competitive career on the highest possible note by winning the Gold Medal for piobaireachd at Oban in 1982. Evan Macrae’s memoirs are a unique personal account of a life devoted to piping in the Cameron Highlanders, and to encouraging the young pipers of Lochaber.’

Evan on the front of Illustrated magazine

In my Introduction I note the following: ‘This is not a war book, nor does it contain details of any war action; there are many other books that do justice to this genre. No, this is a memoir of a man who grew up with bagpipes, became a piper, served through several military conflicts while being a piper, and ended up giving back as a gift to others, his love of the Highland bagpipe.

‘That was his raison d’etre. To be a piper. I first became aware of dad’s memoirs when he was ill with cancer, but had not seen them. When he died my mother gave them to me in the hope I would make some attempt to have them published, as was my dad’s desire.

‘As I said, this is not a war story but a collection of experiences he had from growing up in Skye and the West Highlands to finally retiring in Fort William, where he ended up as a peripatetic tutor of bagpipes. I apologise for any errors but am only putting down what Evan wrote in his handwritten notes.

‘At his funeral, at which there seemed to be hundreds, I realised then he was a different man to so many people. He was a father, husband, grandad but also a soldier, musician, and teacher.’

1982 Oban Gold Medallist P/M Evan MacRae

My Memories of Pipe Major Evan MacRae

By Moira Robertson

P/M Evan MacRae was one of the most influential figures of piping in Lochaber and he bestowed upon the area a massive legacy in terms of its piping heritage. My own introduction to Evan, like countless others, was through the Lochaber Schools Piping Tuition programme in the 1970s and 80s.

Evan had taken on the job as piping tutor to the Lochaber schools and it was a job he excelled in. He had a fantastic way of teaching pupils of all ages and abilities, everyone was given the same opportunities and nothing was ever a bother to Evan. 

Evan possessed an incredible knowledge and history of piping and was always keen to share that with us.  Under his teaching,  Lochaber pipers enjoyed considerable success on the junior solo circuit. There wouldn’t be a week go by when there wasn’t a contingent of us away at competitions stretching anywhere from Invergordon to St Andrews and all points between.

It was testament to Evan that his pupils would always come away with prizes indeed many a time the call would go out when we arrived at competitions, ‘Oh no here comes the Lochaber contingent; we’ll get nothing today’. It was further testament to Evan that he would always give up his weekends to be with his pupils at these competitions.

The other great involvement for Evan was his time with the Lochaber Schools Pipe Band which he tutored alongside the late Alec MacDonald, another great stalwart of piping in Lochaber. At one point the band could muster 32 pipers in its ranks with many legendary trips away to play at Games, civic events in Dudley and even passing out parades at the police college in Tulliallan.

Evan’s time and generosity also extended to those of us who continued on to the senior ranks of solo piping. Many a day would be spent at piping lessons in his house on Glenkingie Street  in the village of Caol just outside Fort William. Evan’s success with his teaching continued in the senior ranks as well with Alison Campbell being placed in the Silver Medal in Inverness and my own success winning the Silver Medal at the Northern Meetings in 1990, an achievement for which I will always be indebted to the patience, dedication and tutoring of P/M Evan MacRae.

  • The book is available here priced £8.50 in paperback. Copyrighted extracts are also available.

10 thoughts on “P/M Evan Macrae’s Memoirs and a Touching Tribute from a Former Pupil

  1. His first involvement with pipe bands in Fort William that I know of was with the Lochaber Junior Pipe Band which evolved into the Lochaber Schools Pipe Band. This I know as I was the Leading Drummer.

  2. I purchased your book just before the weekend and rushed it to my father, a slight smile on his face as he said “ah…. old nitty beard”. He has just phoned telling me he has relived every performance and every drink (many) afterwards. He served with you father in the the Camerons and also the Liverpool Scottish and was brought to tears to be mentioned in the book. He’s Billy Woodward the drummer. Many happy days they had and he regularly talks about your father. Matt Woodward

  3. My parents were big friends of the McRae’s when they served in Aden and I was given a chanter and started lessons with Evan, I also went to school with Duncan and Robina. He was a great character and had a great sense of humor.

  4. Reference was made to Evan and his pupils attending different competitions with significant success. It reminded me of an example of amusing Highland parochialism. Back in the day, there was a junior piping competition held in Dingwall (my home town). There was a big turnout of young players and the standard overall, very high. Unfortunately I could not be there. There was a newspaper report about the event.To the amusement of Donald Morrison and Evan, and probably anybody who read it, the newspaper report indicated that the playing standards were a credit to the players and the teachers. The report went on, ‘The competitors came from far and wide, even as far south as Fort William!’

  5. In 2006 I had the immense pleasure of visiting Pipe Major Andrew Venters, late Queen’s Own Highlanders, at Culloden where he showed me his collection of pipe tunes he composed along with a piobaireachd he composed in honour Evan MacRae. I unfortunately do not have the book to hand but if Andrew reads this or if anyone had this book it’d be nice to reproduce the score. Andrew sang the ground of the piobaireachd and what a lovely piece it was.

    I have a formal original photo of the Pipers and Drummers of 1st Battalion Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders in 1936 showing an extremely young Evan MacRae (without beard of course). If the editor would like to reproduce it here I can send on a snapshot of it.

    1. P/M Andy Venters…now there’s a name I’ve not heard in many a year. He was the P/M Instructor with the Queen’s Own Highlanders Cadet Force many many years ago, which in my time with the QOH Cadet Pipe Band included the famous Alasdair Gillies (RIP), a fantastic piper even at such a young age. Andy Venters was a great piper himself and spent a lot of time trying to get me to join the QOH but I joined RAF instead☺.

  6. That will be an interesting book. Of course I am as young that I did not serve in the forces. However, as a lot of pipers did, I knew Evan through piping. In the detail, Alex MacDonald is referred to and he was a cousin of Bob Nicol, one of the Bobs of Balmoral. Evan knew Bob in any case as Evan at times attended John MacDonald (Inverness) who had a liking for him apparently as he was an engaging person. As we know, Evan became the teacher at Fort William and was close to Alec MacDonald and Evan attended Bob Nicol and was put through tunes by him. I cannot recall what age Evan would have been at this juncture, but he had been away from competitive playing for some time and maybe a bit rusty. This is not to demean Evan, but he had for a while a problem with crunluath movements and of course he was/is not alone in this. However, Evan spoke about this quite openly to me, knowing of course that I also attended Bob. Evan, as I did, found Bob to be a down to earth, inspiring sort of person, and was not in any way pretentious. The crunluath problems were discussed and Evan told me that Bob’s advice was not to worry about them and the phrase, ‘if you miss one or two dinna worry about it, you’ll catch them the next time round’ meaning that when maybe there was a repeat of a phrase they would be OK. Simple words which seemed to relax Evan and of course he was able to conquer this problem. Bob and Evan of course were of differing age, but would have had more in common with each other than a lot of other of Bob’s pupils due to the John MacDonald connection. They spoke highly of each other to me. In tribute to Bob Nicol, Evan composed a piobaireachd, entitled Salute to Bob Nicol and sent it to me. I punched it up and played it in a radio broadcast. I would still have the score somewhere about my shambles of admin? In discussing the tune Evan was open to the tune being interpreted by the player, so was happy for it to be played. Maybe it will be mentioned in the book, but Evan made reeds and although I was never there, I understand his reed-making manufacture was in a shed at the back of his home. I had a close friend, Angus MacDonald who knew Alex and Evan. Angus was a joiner and as such was very good at sharpening chisels. Evan engaged Angus for this task. However, it seems what went on in that shed was a closely guarded reed making secret! I never did get to know his reed making process. It may have been similar to the method used by Bob Nicol.
    I recall Evan being in hospital in Aberdeen and along with the late John Stewart, we visited him. John had a great liking for Evan who had been his pipe major in the Camerons. This book will be an interesting read about a thoroughly nice man. I remember the event of Evan winning his Gold Medal at Oban with some glee!

    1. Please dig out the tune Duncan and send it on. I remember hearing Evan’s winning Flame of Wrath too. He was on near the end in the Corran Halls. It was going well and when he hit the crunluath variation we were all rooting for him hoping that he would make it through. He did – to everyone’s great pleasure.

    2. Duncan, fascinating info, thanks. I’ve listed all the tunes I’d found in the book but didn’t know my Dad had composed a piobaireachd (salute to Bob Nicol)
      I don’t play myself but as Rob Wallace mentions I would love to hear it if you have it as mp3
      Duncan Macrae

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