My Days Learning from the Greatest Piper in the World – Iain Murdo Morrison

The passing of P/M Iain Murdo Morrison six months ago still resonates among those who knew him. Here reader Alasdair MacIver looks back on his time with the master piper. Alasdair is pictured above right with Iain Morrison junior playing at a house ceilidh in December 1990 as their proud tutor looks on.

It has taken me some time to be able to write this. Iain Murdo Morrison was my tutor, my mentor, and I regarded him as my second father. He instilled in me a discipline, a philosophy, and introduced me into a world of music that will be with me forever.

When I was a young lad, 3 or 4 years old, my cousin, Duncan MacDonald, was competing against the likes of Alasdair Gillies. That was where my fascination with piping began.

By Alasdair MacIver

It was by fortunate coincidence that my family moved back to Lewis in the mid-80s as that coincided with Iain Murdo having left the Army after serving in the Queen’s Own Highlanders for 21 years.

He took up the post of teaching in schools due to the Comhairle nan Eilean Siar’s [Western Isles Council’s] push for the Gaelic culture to be part of the primary school curriculum.

‘Boxer’ Doyle, being the brother of Dòmhnall Beag MacLeòid, had been prominent in keeping the flame lit. (The wee man had taught Iain Murdo the ways of ceòl mòr, so there was a connection.)

It was 1986, I was a young lad of 10 years old in Tong School. The headmaster came into our class and asked who would like to have lessons on the chanter. Out of 20 pupils 20 raised their hands, and we all congregated in the school canteen.

There stood Iain Murdo at the top of the classroom and stated in proper military fashion: ‘If you think you’re coming here to get out of lessons, think again! This will be the hardest class you have!’

The following week, there were eight of us in the class. As the weeks went by, Iain would allow the best pupil to take a chanter home to practice. Week 1, Donalda got it. Week 2, Iain got it. Week 3, Vanessa got it.

I was gutted, but determined to show I deserved a chanter for my efforts. I still didn’t bloody get it! As the weeks went by the class number dwindled, until there were only two of us left. And I still hadn’t got a chanter.

This will be the hardest class you have!

P/M Iain Murdo Morrison

I was beginning to think I was perhaps better concentrating on football or something else. Finally, after mastering the G gracenote scale, my hero gave me a chanter.

The words he said that day, live with me even now. ‘Do you know why you haven’t had a chanter, Alasdair?’
‘No, sir.
‘Because you were the only one, out of all of the pupils that I know who has practiced without one. The reward is not the chanter, the reward is the music!’

From that day, I ended up being the only pupil in Tong school that had 30 minutes a week for 18 months, one on one tuition with the greatest piper in the world. I never realised how much of a privilege that was at the time of course.

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In 1988, Iain Murdo and Boxer held a summer piping school in the Lews Castle. The amount of talent there was incredible.

Anna Murray, Neil Smith, Audrey MacKenzie, Angus MacDonald and Mhairi Irvine were all Boxer’s pupils.
Peter MacKay, Iain Morrison Jnr, Martin MacDonald and yours truly were Iain Murdo’s pupils.

The interaction, the creativity, was inspired. (I remember a tune called The Hippopotamus being created during that summer!)

Sadly, Boxer’s health deteriorated shortly after that and Iain Murdo took the mantle of teaching us all. Our local competitions were of the highest standard, and the recitals performed by the world’s best pipers in hotels in Stornoway provided a platform for our Hebridean talent as supporting acts.

Iain Murdo loved competing, and wanted the Island pipers to shine, just as Donald MacLeod and he himself had done.

Anna Murray, Neil Smith, Audrey MacKenzie all went to the junior competitions at the Northern Meetings and performed like Trojans! Neil Smith went on to senior competitions and excelled.

Iain Murdo…he loved to compete

These guys paved the way for our wee generation of pipers. Iain Morrison Jnr, Peter MacKay and myself were up there with the best young pipers in the country.

Make no mistake, Iain Murdo Morrison was a military Pipe Major. His standards were set. Not high. It had to be PERFECT! When you got it wrong, you knew. It wasn’t a shout or a snarl, nothing like that. It was ‘The Look!’

When you got it right, however, the smile and the joy in his eyes made you want to get it right every time. Iain once said to me after playing The Lament for the Old Sword, ‘Well, Balach, you have the one thing many people don’t…….the Blàs!’

I asked him what that meant. He said, ‘Only a man with music in his heart has it!’

It was one of the most beautiful things anyone has ever said to me.

Those days were the best in my life; he gave me the ability to do something I love. Iain Murdo will always be my mentor, my teacher and my friend.

Knowing him, Flora, Catherine, Donalda and Iain Beag, being welcomed into their home at 56 Back and being a part of their lives for a brief time has, and always will be, a part of my life and a memory that brings me joy.

Drummer beat, and piper blow,
Harper strike, and soldier go,
Free the flame and sear the grasses
Til the dawning Red Star passes

Far a bheil feadhainn ann a tha air èirigh bho bhith a ’tuiteam, gheibh thu uain a thig gu bhith nan Leòmhainn!

2 thoughts on “My Days Learning from the Greatest Piper in the World – Iain Murdo Morrison

  1. Iain Murdo Morrison was a wonderfull friend and an absolute musical genius. Thank you Alastair for sharing your story.

  2. Wonderful to hear of Iain’s teaching from another adoring pupil. And what a revered address amongst fortunate. Thank you very much for sharing such precious memories Mr MacIvor.

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