Review: ‘Over the Chindwin to Lochaber – A Scottish Piper’s Memoir’ by Pipe Major Evan Macrae BEM

Evan Macrae was the Pipe Major in the Cameron Highlanders for 13 years and served in various theatres of war and conflicts including places in the Far East – but this is not a war book. It is an easy, pleasant read. Evan was born in 1922 and commences with his earliest memories as a young lad, one of a family of four. Despite knowing him, I was surprised to learn that he was born near Muir of Ord at a place called The Corrie. Not mentioned in the book, this location is about a couple of miles from the church at Kilchrist, the scene of the event commemorated by the tune Glengarry’s March.

Still at an early age, the family moved to Killen and then the Strathpeffer area where his father was employed at Castle Leod. The family stayed in a house at Millnain about a mile and half from ‘The Strath’. Evan mentions a local land mark, a hill called Knockfarrel, known as ‘The Cat’s Back’ and describes the views from atop looking east to Dingwall, my home town. 

By Duncan Watson

Looking south west, it overlooks Lochussie and a bit of the Brahan estate, which was at one time owned by the Earls of Seaforth, the MacKenzies. This would have been the stamping ground of the famed Colin Roy MacKenzie for whom there is a Lament, and the piping family of the celebrated Donald Cameron. 

Evan had not yet been introduced to piping, and I include the above locations as piping enthusiasts will be interested in these locations which have entered the lore of piping. Fanciful, but would the traditions of such an area have had a subliminal affect on Evan later taking an interest in piping?

The family moved to Skye when Evan was a young lad and it was there that he learned to play the bagpipe, taught by John MacDonald, Ardvasar, the local blacksmith and a boyhood hero to Evan. This set him on a path for the rest of his life.

Evan’s mother was from Cathness. His father, a forester and handyman, had served in the Scots Guards and was a disciplinarian. Evan expressed interest in joining the Army and as Skye was a catchment area for the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders, that was the regiment for him. There was Territorial Army involvement prior to joining the regulars, his father commenting that he would not have been able to endure the discipline of the Scots Guards. And so in 1938 Evan entered miltary service as a Boy Piper/ Soldier stationed at Cameron Barracks, Inverness.

The book then takes us through his Army career referring to places he served in and those he served with. There are familiar names and it is interesting to list a few for this review, but reading the book is a must to get the proper feel of the times. 

The names coming to mind, in no particular order, are Pipe Major Willie Young, who would have been the earliest piping instructor Evan encountered in the Camerons. Later we meet the redoubtable Lt Colonel David Murray, Pipe Major Mickey MacKay, John MacLellan (Capt John) who was initially in the Cameron Highlanders, but transferred to the Seaforths as Pipe Major, James McIntosh who passed away recently, John D Burgess, Iain MacFadyen, John MacDougall, Iain Fraser, known as The Sheriff, John Stewart, James Hamilton, then known as Hamish Hamilton, and lots of others of interest.  

All of these men have now become part of the piping lore of the Cameron Highlanders as has Evan himself. His prowess as a piper led to his promotion to Pipe Major.

There are comments in the book which are amusing. Regarding the Army spit and polish, Evan recalls the wife of one of his Army colleagues thought that his ‘bulled’ (polished) boots were such a thing of beauty that she had them on a mantelpiece with flowers in them!

Reading throughout the book, I was astonished at the amount of piping parades, tattoos and engagements he carried out. Doubtless those involved would have enjoyed themselves and it seems that at times alcoholic refreshments were plentiful. 

In a chapter late in the book Evan makes reference to these refreshments and how they became a problem for him. In his words, ‘booze’ caused his downfall. Bravely and tragically, he bares his soul about his over indulgence, talking of his craving for alcohol and only being cured when he eventually admitted to himself that he had a problem.

However, ever resilient, Evan tackled the illness head on banishing alcohol and remaining sober and ‘dry’ for the remainder of his life. He counsels caution to young readers to be careful of all of this. 

Evan had various employments after being demobilised including an association with the Territorial Army, Liverpool Scottish Regiment, and for a spell with HM Customs and Excise which took him to Invergordon Distillery.  Whilst visiting John Burgess, who was then a schools piping instructor in Easter Ross, the idea of Evan applying for a similar vacancy in Lochaber was suggested. Evan got the job and hence the title of the book, ‘Over the Chindwin to Lochaber’.

Safe to say that it was in Lochaber that Evan had probably one of the most enjoyable and fulfilling parts of his musical life. His impact on piping in the area was immense. Evan acknowledges help from Alex MacDonald then the Station Master at Fort William and who ran the local pipe band.

It was Alex who suggested Evan have a shot at competing solo again. Evan recognized he was out of touch and Alex suggested visits to Bob Nicol of ‘Bobs of Balmoral’ fame for lessons. Alex was a cousin of Bob.

And so started regular sessions, with Evan travelling to Deeside and Bob going over tunes with him. (In the book there is a comment from Bob to Alex, asking if ‘young Macrae is coming this weekend for a lesson.’ Young Macrae was in his fifties at that time!) Initially Nicol suggested Evan’s playing was a bit rusty, but was basically sound. Ultimately these lessons bore fruit when Evan won the Gold Medal at Oban in 1982 with the Flame of Wrath for Squinting Patrick. 

In the book there is a list of tunes that Evan composed. One tune not included is his Salute to Bob Nicol.    Piobaireachd composition was a new venture for him, and Evan, worried about the worth of his composition, contacted Pipe Major Donald MacLeod, who Evan knew well from Army life, to ask Donald what he thought of the tune. (Donald was in the ‘rival’ regiment of the Seaforth Highlanders at the same time that Evan was serving in the Camerons.) 

Donald indicated there was something wrong with the tune. A little crest-fallen, Evan enquired what it was and Donald responded that what was wrong was that he, Donald, had not composed it himself!

Evan sent me a copy of the tune and although I am sometimes sceptical of modern piobaireachd, I was taken with it.  I briefly discussed the tune with Evan and he indicated that suggested minor gracing was a matter for the performer.  I sought and got permission to play the tune in a radio broadcast. 

Evan was not dictatorial about the way the tune had to be played and there were some departures from the written score. There were some interesting letters sent to me of positive comments regarding the composition. It was unfortunate that by this time Bob Nicol had passed on. I accompany this review with a recording of the ground of the tune and the music score (see above).

  • ‘Over the Chindwin to Lochaber – A Scottish Piper’s Memoir’ by Pipe Major Evan Macrae BEM is available here priced £8.75 + P&P.

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