Category Archives: History

Famous Pipers: More on Captain John A MacLellan MBE

Additional information on Captain John MacLellan who featured in our post last week. This is from the programme notes for last year’s ‘Captain John A MacLellan MBE Piping Championship’ produced by the Army School:

John A. Maclellan was born in Dunfermline, Fife, in July 1921. He attended Fort Augustus Abbey School and joined the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders as a boy piper in 1936. In 1941 at age 19 he was named Pipe Major of the 9th Battalion , Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders, the youngest man ever named Pipe Major in the British Army.

He would subsequently serve as Pipe Major with the 1st Seaforth Highlanders, the Lowland Brigade and the 11th Seaforths. He was promoted to Warrant Officer Class 1 with his appointment in 1954 as Regimental Sergeant Major of the 1st  and 11th Seaforths and served in Germany, Egypt and Gibraltar. In 1946 he attended the Pipe Major’s course under Willie Ross and graduated with a Distinguished Certificate.

Captain John MacLellan at Fort George

He would later be sent for piobaireachd instruction to John MacDonald, Inverness, then the Piobaireachd Society’s official instructor. He won all of the major prizes and to this day he remains the only piper ever to have won piping’s ‘grand slam’ – the Open Piobaireachd at Oban, the Gold Clasp at Inverness and the Former Winners’ March, Strathspey and Reel at both gatherings in the same year, 1958, a record unlikely ever to be matched.

When he took over from the great Willie Ross in 1959, the Army Piping Class was being restructured as the Army School of Piping. Over the next 17 years he ran a centre of excellence at Edinburgh Castle with a long line of superb Pipe Major candidates studying under him.

IN 1963, with much of his best work still ahead of him, he was awarded the MBE for his contribution to the improvement of Army piping. Five years later he was appointed to a commission in the Queen’s Own Highlanders, becoming the first Director of Army Bagpipe Music.

During the 1960s and 70s he published six books of bagpipe music, many containing his own compositions and arrangements. He also turned to piobaireachd composition in which he excelled being thought by many to be the best composer of piobaireachd during the latter 20th century.

His Phantom Piper of the Corrieyairick (winner of the 1969 Saltire Society Award for piobaireachd composition) has entered the repertoire as a staple along with others such as Farewell to the Queen’s Ferry, A Welcome to Patrick Struan, the Salute to the Great Pipe and the Edinburgh Piobaireachd.

From 1978 to 1981 he and his wife Christine published the popular and influential ‘International Piper’ magazine. Captain MacLellan also became a pioneer of piping summer schools, travelling to set up and teach schools in South Africa, Australia the United States, Canada and New Zealand.

One of Captain John’s books. It contains the celebrated ‘Phantom Piper of the Corrieyairick’ piobaireachd

His home in Dean Park Crescent in Edinburgh saw many piping visitors and he was a great supporter of overseas competitors attending the major events. During this time he was also a prolific performer and contributor to the BBC’s piping programmes.

In 1962 he had proposed the idea of amalgamating the Army School, the College of Piping and the Piobaireachd Society under one umbrella to form the Institute of Piping which now includes the Royal Scottish Pipe Band Association, the National Piping Centre and the Army Cadet Force Pipes and Drums and comes under the umbrella of the Piping and Drumming Qualifications Board offering qualifications in piping and drumming at all levels.

Shortly after retiring from competition he devoted much of his time to the Piobaireachd Society and his work would form a significant part of his piping contribution during the rest of his life. He became Honorary Secretary of the Music Committee, one of the most influential and important appointments in piping, responsible for all aspects of publication, set tunes and judging. He was awarded the Balvenie Medal for his services to piping in 1989. John MacLellan died at his home in April of 1991 at the age of 69.

• We would be interested to hear from anyone who studied under Captain John at the Army School. Email

PP Ed’s Blog: Gourock Contest/ PP Audio Archive/ Argylls Book/ Bagpipe Muffler

Pleased to see such a healthy entry for the Grade 1 contest at Gourock on May 14 with Glasgow Police, Shotts, Inveraray and Scottish Power all to the fore.

There is a top down effect at these minor contests. If the big boys are there it gives the event the kudos it requires and brings in much needed revenue. Many of our smaller pipe band events have been struggling of late. I have always argued that the leading bands have what you might call ‘a duty of care’ for these contests. It is where many a youngster first get a taste for pipe bands and certainly takes the best music to the grassroots.

So well done to all participants (not just those in Grade 1) and to those Grade 2 bands playing up – great experience for them. Here are the G1 bands and the playing order and times courtesy the RSPBA.

Grade 1 MSR – Ring 1
01 15:35 Scottish Power Pipe Band
02 15:45 Inveraray and District
03 15:55 Lomond and Clyde
04 16:05 Shotts
05 16:15 Johnstone Pipe Band
06 16:25 Glasgow Skye Association
07 16:35 Glasgow Police (pictured top)

Top of the Pops, piper Chris Terry, South Africa

The PP Audio Archive continues to attract many listeners and it is interesting to see, from time to time, whose recordings are the most visited.

By far the most popular recording, and therefore our ‘top of the pops’, is South Africa’s Chris Terry playing the piobaireachd, the Glen is Mine. Chris has had 896 listens so far. Second place goes to John MacFadyen, with 633 people dipping in to his Too Long in the Condition.

Next comes a recital by the imperious Alasdair Gillies with 606. Thereafter we have Donald MacPherson with a recital which includes Salute on the Birth of Rory Mor MacLeod, then the writer with 540 for his MacDougall’s Gathering closely followed by Jimmy McIntosh with 534 for Lament for the Children.

Here’s the list:
Chris Terry, Glen is Mine 896
John MacFadyen, Too Long in this Condition 633
Alasdair Gillies recital, 606
Donald MacPherson recital, 589
Robert Wallace, MacDougall’s Gathering, 540
Jimmy McIntosh, Lament for the Children, 534
Andrew Pitkeathly, light music 480
Donald MacLeod light music, 476
Robert Reid light music, 449
John MacDougall, MSR, 443
Angus MacColl MSR, 442

Other recordings of note: Gordon McCready’s winning tune at the recent SPA Professional has had 87 listens so far and Dr John MacAskill’s  self-penned piobaireachd Rubh An Dunain 118. Good figures after only a couple of weeks on the stocks.

Any reader who has recordings – band or solo – he/she believes deserves a place in the archive please forward same to the usual address. All of these recordings are offered free of charge both by the artists themselves and by Piping Press. The cost of the archive is borne by our advertisers so a big thanks to them for advancing piping education in this way.

The new Argylls book

The new Argylls book is in the home straight and the editors will this week be heading to the regimental museum in Stirling Castle to complete the final picture selection. Proofing will begin next month and this eagerly awaited publication will be launched during Worlds Week in August.

The book will have tunes by such expert composers as John MacLellan, Dunoon, Willie Lawrie. There will also be contributions from the Director of Army Bagpipe Music, Gordon Rowan, and the current Sovereign’s Piper, Scott Methven.

Scott Methven, Sovereign’s Piper

Gaita players in Spain can now practice with impunity even if they live in the least soundproof flat. It’s all thanks to this ‘practice muffler’ which fits round the hands and chanter. Might get a bit hot in there but better that than no practice at all. Thanks to Breton piper Patrick Molard for bringing it to our attention. What do you think guys? Would it be worth someone developing this for the GHB? Have a look:

BC Pipers Tune and Memories of Captain John MacLellan MBE

Rob MacNeil

Rob MacNeill, President of the British Columbia Pipers’ Association, has sent this: ‘April 20, 2017 marks the 30th Anniversary of the tune for the British Columbia Pipers’ Association.

‘In the lead up to the 1987 Annual Gathering, Captain John MacLellan [pictured top], who was adjudicating that year’s Annual Gathering with Robert Wallace, recommended that a tune composition competition be held for a tune to be named for the British Columbia Pipers’ Association.

‘On Easter Monday April 20, 1987, at the home of Ian and Mary MacKinnon, Captain John MacLellan and Robert Wallace announced that they had selected my submitted composition as the winning tune (sheet music is located here).

‘At the announcement, to which I was invited, Robert Wallace played the composition and Captain MacLellan indicated that he would like to include it in the reprint of his book ‘Music for the Highland Bagpipe’.

Rob’s tune with its inscription

‘Several years later, I framed the tune and formally presented it to the Association on December 8, 1990, on the publication of my first book of music. The Pacific Northwest is fortunate to have many bagpipe music composers whose great compositions capture the people, places, and events of our area and times. May more great bagpipe compositions continue to be created by the next generation of players.’

The editor writes: ‘I remember the occasion well Rob and thanks for sharing that memory. It remains a fine tune and I certainly enjoyed learning it and playing it. That particular Indoor Meet  weekend was noteworthy in other ways too. I was with Captain John for over six days and it was piping, piping all the way.

‘What a fund of knowledge he had, and he and Ian MacKinnon whiled away the evenings reminiscing about Willie Ross and the old days with me an avid and very junior listener. John had strong opinions and preferences but that’s what made him interesting and these were ideas that he never considered better or superior to anyone else’s.

‘I like to think that, despite the age gap, John and I became friends and he was certainly encouraging and supportive thereafter. In his final years, when heart trouble meant he couldn’t blow, he showed an interest in getting a set of bellows pipes and I was glad to be able to offer a few pointers.’

John MacLellan bio for those who may not be aware of his considerable contribution to piping: John Archibald MacLellan was born in Dunfermline in 1921. His first piping tuition was from his father who had served with the HLI during World War One. Later he was taught by PM Iain MacLean, PM William Ross and John MacDonald, Inverness.

In 1936 he joined the Cameron Highlanders but transferred to the Seaforth Highlanders in 1941 to become pipe major. He took the pipe major’s course under PM William Ross in 1946 and in 1954 became Regimental Sergeant Major of the Seaforth Highlanders. In 1959 he took over from William Ross as the Instructor at the Army School of Piping in Edinburgh Castle, and in 1968 was commissioned as Captain. In 1964 he was awarded the MBE. His army career ended on his retirement in 1976.

Captain John A. MacLellan

On the competition scene he won many prizes, including the Gold Medal at the Argyllshire Gathering in 1957, the Open Piobaireachd in 1949, 1958 and 1959, the Gold Medal at the Northern Meeting in 1959, and Clasps in 1958 and 1963. In 1946 he won the strathspey and reel at the Argyllshire Gathering and both the march and the strathspey and reel at the Northern Meeting. In 1957 he won the march at the Argyllshire Gathering. He won the Former Winners march, strathspey and reel at the Argyllshire Gathering in 1948,1958,1963,1964 and at the Northern Meeting in 1947,1948,1949, 1958 and 1963.

He published several books of pipe music during the 1960s, Music for the Highland Bagpipe, More Music for the Highland Bagpipe, Bagpipe Music for Dancing, and Ceol Mor agus Ceol Beag. These books include several of his own compositions.

For many years he was secretary of the music committee of the Piobaireachd Society. A piobaireachd composed by him and named The Phantom Piper of the Corrieyairack won first prize in a composing contest in 1969. He also updated the old Logan’s Tutor and made several instructional cassettes for pipers. In 1964 he published The Pipers’ Handbook, a guide to the maintenance of the bagpipe with information on famous piping families and piping competitions.

From 1978 to 1981 he and his wife edited a magazine, The International Piper. John MacLellan died in Edinburgh on 26th April 1991.

Robert MacNeill’s music books are available from Terry Lee’s Tartantown web shop. The Captain John A MacLellan Memorial Competition is held each year at the Army School of Piping Inchdrewer House, Edinburgh.

Macdougall of Aberfeldy and that Feature of 1893 Part 2

We continue with our feature on Macdougall of Aberfeldy and the feature which appeared in the People’s Journal newspaper of November 4, 1893. It is by their ‘Lady Correspondent’ and is headlined ‘An Interview with the Queen’s Bagpipe-Maker’. This is a period piece of writing and the author is clearly no piper. Would that we could get our hands on some of the sets mentioned. There is relevant information on the ivory Macdougall used.

Mr Macdougall was inconsolable that he did not happen to be making pipes the day I was there. He had just finished repairing a set of bagpipes belonging to the Duke of Richmond and Gordon which lay in a box on the table. They were ‘upholstered’, so to speak, in Gordon tartan, the old set, and sported a cataract of ribbons no less than five yards of which is necessary to dress the drones and chanter properly.

He was preparing the reeds, an unseen but most important part of the mechanism as by their means the air is modulated. These are made of the best Spanish cane, bundles of which stood about in the corners. The reed is quite a small affair, about the size of your finger, one end flattened until the edges almost meet, and kept in position by a stout ligature, very neatly attached. These reeds have to be renewed yearly or oftener. It depends on the player and the climate.

I asked how long the sheepskin bag of a set would last. ‘It depends entirely on the player,’ was the reply. ‘Some will make them go two years, others six months. It depends on the man’s breath. A player with an acid stomach will wear out his bag twice as quick as will a healthy man. I noticed this very much when I was in the Army.’

Perhaps you have never been in the near neighbourhood of a set of pipes – near enough, that is, to note their formation closely. I know I never was before. Well they are composed of the bag, which is generally of sheepskin, covered either with green baize or tartan. Then there is starting from this the cluster of pipes which looks so confusing, viz, the chanter which produces the melody, which is pierced with eight holes [sic], and has an imperfect scale. Of the three others called drones, two are in unison with the lowest A of the chanter and the third and longest an octave lower [sic]. It is the drones, of course, which are responsible for the droning or humming noise which is such a characteristic of the instrument.

It is on the chanter and the drones that the decorative art of the maker is most expended. Mr Macdougall made a beautiful set of pipes for use in Her Majesty’s household, which were exhibited at the Edinburgh Exhibition of 1888. These were entirely silver-mounted, and artistically chased with a design of Scottish thistles. He has also made pipes for use in the households of TRH [Their Royal Highnesses] the Prince of Wales and Alfred Duke of Coburg, the Duke of Fife, Lord Huntly and Breadalbane, Earl of Dunmore and many others. One of the most beautiful sets of pipes Mr Macdougall ever turned out was presented to the Caledonian Company of the Natal Royal Rifles by Sir Donald Currie MP.

Ebony, I was told, is the wood most commonly employed, as it takes a fine polish, and is very hard. For use in foreign countries, however, a brown wood called cocoa is best, as there is a native oil in the wood which prevents its cracking with the heat. For the mouthpiece ivory is used and I asked Mr Macdougall where he got it. ‘In Dundee’, he said. ‘I come down when the whalers come in. It’s sea ivory I use; the horns of the walrus, the husks of the sea lion and the blade of the sword fish. Here is a whole set of drones and chanter cut out of a huge narwhal horn; but it’s not a success,’ he added pointing to the streaks and chips which disfigured it. ‘Would vegetable ivory not do?’ I enquired, but was told it was too brittle.

Bone is occasionally used for the cheaper classes of pipes, but it quickly turns yellow. Peat reek too, soon spoils the colour of ivory exposed to its influence. You can imagine how tenderly the Highland shepherd or ghillie will wrap up his cherished pipes in his best plaid and commit them to the keeping of the big kist [chest] to preserve them from the pungent and penetrating reek.

Mr Macdougall turns the wood and ivory that he needs at a bench fitted with lathes of different sizes, and furnished with a bewildering variety of tools, gauges and planes and drills. ‘What do bagpipes cost?’ I bethought me to inquire after I had heard all about their components.

‘Sets can be got from 50s [shillings] up to £50 – according to the value of the mounting,’ was the reply. ‘The Queen’s set cost £60, but then there was a lot of silver on them. Practice chanters can be got from 5 shillings and 6 pence upwards.’

The beginner anxious to learn the pipes does not start off at once on the full set. To do so would be quite hopeless. He gets a practice chanter and learns the fingering, and that once mastered he is entrusted with the real instrument – at a safe distance, let us hope, from human habitation. For if the practising piano be irritating and the amateur violin maddening, what shall be the effect of the bagpipe in unskillful hands? The imagination refuses to picture it!

Duncan Macdougall, Aberfeldy
This brought me to ask whether the pipes were difficult to learn and how long it would take a beginner to acquire the art of playing. Mr Macdougall looked at me with a peculiar twinkle in his eye which expressed at once amusement and scepticism. ‘Some people never learn,’ he said with meaning emphasis. ‘After two years you might play a little but…’ There was much unexpressed. On the whole the impression remained that piping is one of the arts which should be acquired young.

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Leaving these commercial details, I found Mr Macdougall eloquent on the poetical aspect of his art. He knows all about the genesis and development of the pipes, and brought for my inspection a set of beautiful old English bagpipes, very slender and pretty, a chamber instrument with thin but pleasing tone. On this he played a piobaireachd, explaining as he did so the character of the music and the development of the air.

Next he produced a dainty little set of Irish pipes which are not inflated in the ordinary way by the mouth, but blown by means of a tiny pair of bellows which the player straps to his right arm and works as he plays. It suggested the hurdy-gurdy too much but the tone was mellow and pleasing. The Irish and English pipes are elegant little instruments but mere toys beside the great Highland or military bagpipes, whose wild scream has so often led an army into battle, rallied breaking ranks, brought cheer to fainting hearts and sung above the victorious warrior in Pibroch or in Coronach. Rudyard Kipling has written the paean of the drum in his ‘Drummer of the Fore and Aft’. Who will do as much for the piper, the hero of a hundred fights?

I don’t know anything sweeter than on a summer gloaming to listen to the plaintive music of the pipes as it steals down the glen. I don’t know a more moving sight in the world to a Scottish eye than a Highland regiment with ‘bonnet, feather an’ a’, marching to the martial music of the Gael, the pipers in front ‘pride in their port, defiance in their eye’ and every heart tingling to the pibroch. The pipes, indeed, in skilful hands can be made to answer to every gradation of feeling, as the subscription to an old German print has it:

He blows his bag-pipe soft or strong,
Or high or low, to hymn or song,
Or shrill lament, or solemn groan,
Or dance, or reel, or sad o-hone!
Or ballad gay, or well-a-day,
To all he gives due melody.

I am afraid that the bagpipes have all through this article rather run off with the bagpipe-maker, but I know no one will pardon this more readily than the genial Royal bagpipe-maker himself whose portrait appears at the head of this article.

Some readers may not be aware of the revered status of MacDougall of Aberfeldy pipes. Along with vintage sets of Lawrie and Henderson, they are among the most sought after of instruments. Characterised by a steady, if slightly muted tone, they are less popular now than hitherto. Nevertheless those who own these instruments seldom part with them. We would be interested to hear from anyone who has MacDougall pipes. Read Part 1 of this article here.

Bagpipemakers: An Interview with MacDougall of Aberfeldy

The following is taken from the People’s Journal newspaper of November 4, 1893. It is by their ‘Lady Correspondent’ and is headlined ‘An Interview with the Queen’s Bagpipe-Maker’. The subject of the article is Duncan Macdougall, Aberfeldy, renowned pipe maker. The article will be of interest to all those who study or collect or indeed manufacture pipes. It is written in the flowery style of the late Victorian times but that does not detract from its considerable historical worth. The picture above is of the Breadalbane Pipe Band with Macdougall far right.

The article begins with an extract from a poem ‘The Wedding of Shon MacLean’ by Robert Buchanan:

‘Then Shon took the pipes and all was still
As silently he the bags did fill
With flaming cheeks and round bright eyes
Till the first faint music began to rise

‘Like a thousand laverocks singing in tune 
Like countless corncrakes under the moon 
Like the smack of kisses and sweet bells ringing
Like a mermaids harp or a kelpie’s singing
Blew the pipes of Shon.’

I don’t know how it is but the fact remains that is gives a decided shock to the national feelings to learn that the bagpipes are not our national instrument, that they are only Scottish by adoption. They seem so interwoven with the national sentiment – like whisky and peat reek – from the days of Ossian to McCranky that it is somewhat of a deprivation to have to give them up!

The first time I see a Sassenach screwing up his face over a pibroch I will cast it in his teeth that it is an English instrument that he is listening to, and that it behoves him to grin and bear it decently. Ten to one he won’t believe me!

The bagpipes indeed were classic long before they penetrated into Britain at all. The Greeks knew them, and a friend to whom th e dead tongues of the past are as an open book, tells me that the instrument is shown in some of the wall paintings discovered at Pompeii. The pefferari of the Calabrian peasant is doubtless the lineal descendent of the classic model.

But in the 15th century the bagpipe was common among the country people of Poland, Italy, the south of France, Scotland and Ireland. It is a primitive instrument consisting of the bag which receives the air and the pipes which give it out, and its success entirely depends on the art by which it is modulated by the player.

But it was the Queen’s bagpipe-maker I started out to tell you about, not the national history of the bagpipe. It was in Aberfeldy I heard that such a distinguished professor of the art resided, and I was not long in finding a mutual friend who promptly undertook to make us know to each other. It was in his workshop that I came upon Pipe Major Macdougall, surrounded by the trappings of his trade, and assisted by his youngest son, Gavin, who promises one of these days to ‘rive his father’s bonnet’.