Category Archives: History

History: P/M William Fergusson, Dornie Ferry and Loch Duich – Part 2

John Don MacKenzie

Solo adjudicator John Don MacKenzie concludes his interesting feature on the great composer Willie Fergusson and some of his tunes…….

There were a number of pipers from Dornie who joined the Scots Guards under P/M Willie Ross – one being my granny’s brother Christopher MacRae, Lag.

Another was Kenny MacKay, who after the war became keeper at Pait Lodge in the remote Loch Monar area north of Strathfarrar. He had a brother Farquhar (‘Fachie’) who in those days was thought of as ‘simple’ and remained at home in Dornie. They were both accomplished pipers and composers, Kenny of Gaelic song as well. I have a number of their hand-written compositions which were  given to me by Kenny’s son Iain – and they are musical indeed.

Kenny MacKay, Dornie and Pait

My grandmother said that the brothers would compose tunes and send them of to Glasgow for, on occasion, a fee of up to ten shillings (50p  in today’s money). Specific details are not known. It has been told to me by older folk from the area, pipers among them, that Fachie MacKay was the composer of Dornie Ferry! None of these people had any knowledge of P/M Willie Fergusson or his book.

Christopher MacRae, Lag

The slow air Loch Duich has been around in Kintail for many years and a Murdo MacRae, who lived in a hamlet known as Carn at the end of Loch Duich all his life, informed me it was a melody his mother sung in her younger days i.e. the turn of the last century. Murdie Carn  as he was known locally was an accomplished accordion player and played his box well into his late 80s. He died three years ago at the age of 92.



It may have been Willie Fergusson who gave Loch Duich its name for  inclusion in his book, but as I mentioned in Part 1 of this article, he doesn’t accredit a composer to Loch Duich or to Dornie Ferry or indeed any of the tunes in it. It is taken for granted that he composed them because they appear in his book alongside his other acknowledged compositions.

I’d like to emphasis at this point that this piece is in no way an attempt to take anything away from Willie Fergusson’s reputation or ability as a player or composer. As previously stated he was by all accounts a top class gentleman with an impeccable character .

The tune Loch Duich is in fact a much, much older melody than we realise having been composed in 1804 either as a pipe lament or song melody. Here is its story  from the now rare 1899 book ‘History of the Clan MacRae’: There was a Christopher MacRae, whose father lived in Torlishy [about two miles from Shiel Bridge]. He was a Lieutenant in the 2nd Battalion of the 78th Highlanders which was raised in 1804. 

‘He quickly came through the ranks and he returned to Kintail as a recruiting officer. Lieutenant MacRae, using his local knowledge and influence, brought 22 young men back to his battalion all from Kintail. In recognition of this feat he obtained an Ensign’s Commission for his younger brother Farquhar.

‘The departure of these men was commemorated (or mourned) by the air Loch Duich. The haunting melody expresses the sadness felt by the Kintail people as the Memory of Sherriffmuir and Culloden and its aftermath were still in their memory. The sadness was indeed well founded as Lieutenant MacRae and seven of the Kintail boys were killed at the Battle of El Hamet in 1807.’

Here follows an account of the battle from the memoirs of a General Stewart, CO of the 78th Highlanders: ‘Sergeant John MacRae, a young man about 22 years of age but of great size and strength of arm, showed that the Highland Broadsword, in a firm hand, is as good a weapon in close combat as the bayonet. MacRae, killing six men, cutting them down with his broadsword (of the kind usually worn by Sergeants of Highland Corps.), when at last made a dash out of the Ranks at a Turk whom he cut down; but as he was returning to the square he was killed by a blow from behind, his head being nearly split in two by the stroke of a Sabre.

‘Lieutenant Christopher MacRae, whom I have already mentioned as having brought 18 men of his own name to the Regiment as part of his quota for as Ensigncy, was killed in this affair with six of his followers and namesakes, besides the Sergeant.

‘On the passage to Lisbon in 1805, the same Sergeant came to me one evening crying like a child and complaining that the ship’s Cook had called him English names which he did not understand and thrown some fat in his face. Thus, a Lad who in 1805 was so soft and childish, displayed in 1807 a courage and vigour worthy of Ossian.’

I’m sure these words were poor comfort to the families of the soldiers killed and the pipe tune composed for their departure would then have taken on an even more poignant role .

There are two graveyards in Kintail, Clachan Duich at the Glenshiel end of Loch Duich and Ard Dearg on Loch Duich’s south shore. The normal practice is at funerals for the piper to play ‘Theid mi Dhachaidh Crodh Kintail’ (loosely translated as ‘I will go home to Kintail’ at Clachan Duich and Loch Duich at Ard Dearg. Why? I don’t really know.

History: P/M William Fergusson, Dornie Ferry and Loch Duich – Part 1

John Don MacKenzie, Dornie

We are grateful to piping adjudicator John Don MacKenzie for this feature on one of the great pipers and composers of yesteryear, P/M William Fergusson. The above picture is of Loch Duich and Glen Shiel and is dated 1907.

Willie Fergusson (1885 – 1949) was born in Arbroath. As a youth, and now living in Glasgow, he became a pupil of Farquhar MacRae. He firstly was in a Boys’ Brigade band but ran away from home and tried to join the Scots Guards. Being under age his father was sent for and he was taken home. 

But as soon as his age permitted he joined the 7th Battalion Highland Light Infantry the Pipe Major where MacRae was P/M. This was most probably the reason for his choosing that regiment. In 1914 P/M MacRae resigned from the HLI and formed the City of Glasgow Pipe Band and later in the same year WW1 was declared. Willie was made P/M of the 7th Battalion  HLI at the age of 29.

He served in Flanders, Gallipoli and Palestine, then, following the Armistice in 1918, he restarted the City of Glasgow band Farquhar MacRae having died in 1916. The band included five ex-Army pipe majors. His  skill in setting chanters and drones, along with his teaching ability, was rewarded when they won the coveted World Championship title at Cowal in 1919.

Clan MacRae Pipe Band in 1932 three years after Willie Fergusson resigned

Confusion reigned however because newspaper reports incorrectly attributed the winning title to the City of Glasgow Police Pipe Band. Fergusson decided to rename the band in order to avoid further confusion. In honour of his friend and teacher Farquhar MacRae, and with the grateful support of the Clan MacRae Society, the band became The Clan MacRae Society Pipe Band. The date was 1st May 1920 and Major MacRae–Gillstrap, the MacRae Clan Chief and owner of Eilean Donan, the famous castle on Loch Duich, agreed to be their patron.

Eilean Donan Castle

Under Willie Fergusson’s leadership the Clan MacRae band went on to win the World Championship four times and become runners-up three times between 1921 and 1927. Another honour was that the  band were the first  ever to do a radio broadcast.

In 1929 Willie, a carpenter to trade, had a serious accident at work falling thirty feet down a stairwell. He gave up the leadership of the band and went of to convalesce in Canada. He later returned to Scotland and died in 1949 at the age of only 64. He had been predeceased by his wife Catherine nine years earlier. She was a native of Edinbane in Skye and there they spent many holidays, Willie learning to speak Gaelic.

P/M Willie Fergusson, brilliant composer and pipe major of Clan MacRae Society Pipe Band

Willie Ferguson was one of the great pipe band leaders but his other major legacy to piping were his compositions. He made many superb tunes. These included the 2/4 marches Kantara to El Arish, the Australian Ladies, and the Atholl and Breadalbane Gathering and the strathspey Dornie Ferry to name just a few.

In 1939 he compiled a collection of music entitled ‘Fergusson’s Bagpipe Melodies’. It contained 55 tunes mostly of his own composition. For some reason he chose not to attribute composers’ names to any of the tunes, so it is difficult to ascertain which were in actual fact his own works, or merely his own settings or indeed tunes by other composers .

As mentioned, it was in this book that  the strathspey Dornie Ferry first came to light, and also saw the first publishing of the famous slow air Loch Duich.

• To be continued.


PP Ed’s Blog: Old Pipes v New/ Gordon McCready/ Strathallan School/ Drumlough PB

I read the other day that according to a report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences an extensive study has shown that audiences actually prefer the sound of newer violins over those made by master craftsmen such as Antonio Stradivari.

Violin acoustics expert Professor Claudia Fritz, of the Pierre and Marie Curie University in Paris, asked seven world famous soloists to play at concert halls in Paris and New York in a blind test in which neither the performers nor audience knew which instrument was being played.

Old violins included two by Guarneri del Gesu (both made after 1740), six by Stradivari, and one by another well-known 18th century Italian master. On every occasion, the public preferred music played on newer violins.

I think it would be interesting to have a similar road test for bagpipes. I look around the solo professional platform and there are just as many top players competing on new or newish instruments as there are on old Henderson, Lawries etc. Certainly the fashion for the quieter, though rock steady, MacDougall bagpipe, has all but disappeared and attempts at copying this so-called (and surely misnamed) ‘Stradivarius of the bagpipe’ have all met with eventual disapproval despite early enthusiasm.



Of course there are beautiful sets of old pipes doing the rounds (see the PP Online Advertising pages) and they can raise an awful lot of moolah. How much was paid for Donald MacPherson’s German silver Lawries when they sold at auction to that chap in Australia a couple of years ago? Was it £35,000?

Donald MacPherson and P/M Terry Tully at the launch of Donald’s ‘Living Legend’ CD in 2006. The album  features his Lawrie bagpipe
Modern production methods have contributed to the excellence of the bagpipes now available to the fresh off the lathe customer. No longer are the bores anything less than concentric. Lengths of joints are exact to precise tolerances. Reed seats accurate and consistent. Wood is seasoned and carefully selected.

The result is an ease of set up and tuning that you do not find in many old sets. They can be a real trial to get going. My advice to prospective buyers has always been that unless the instrument has a proven pedigree – played in Grade 1 or on the professional board, or you’re getting it for a song – it may be as well to consider the modern set before plunging for the old Lawries or Hendersons of your dreams. You could be buying someone else’s trouble and there ain’t no comeback if you’re not happy.


Patricia Grant reports that Gordon McCready currently tops the John Milne Fine Arts Grampian Games Piping League though this doesn’t include last weekend’s Strathmore Games. Gordon is followed by Eddie Gaul, Calum Brown and Alan Clark. After the Fochabers Games Gordon was spotted entertaining motorists on the road home:


Strathallan School have sent this: ‘Our pipe band has been transformed under the direction of Craig Muirhead and Chris Armstrong – both accomplished pipers – and between them, they’ve brought our piping into the 21st century. Our pupils have performed alongside world famous Red Hot Chilli Pipers, played at Scotland’s international football match against Canada, Tartan Day in New York, closed T in the Park music festival, taken part in Beating Retreat at Holyrood Palace and played at the welcoming ceremony of the European Eventing Championship in Blair Atholl.

Ben Muir of Strathallan School and Scottish Power
‘Most recently, two of our pupils – Robbie MacIsaac and Ben Muir – competed at the British Pipe Band Championship as part of the Scottish Power Pipe Band. This was their first Grade 1 event and was quite an achievement for ones so young.’


John Kelly has sent this nice picture of the Drumlough Pipe Band from Northern Ireland. He writes: ‘Drumlough Pipe Band under the direction of Pipe Major Stephen Burrows have scooped their second win of the 2017 pipe band season.  The band won in Grade 3A at the Mid-Ulster Pipe Band Championships at Cookstown on Saturday 3rd June and the Co Fermanagh Pipe Band Championships at Enniskillen on Saturday 27th May.’


Outstanding Recital by Donald McBride Posted on PP Audio Archive

Featuring on the PP Audio Archive today is a recital given by leading piper Donald McBride in the Savoy Hotel, Kansas City, MO in March 2010. In it Donald displays all his mastery of timing and technique on a superb 1908 silver and ivory Lawrie bagpipe with a Hardie chanter (1975). 

Donald was taught originally by his father Willie Mc Bride, and played in his band, the Monktonhall, for many years. From 1972 until he emigrated to the United States in 1984, Donald went to Donald MacPherson for piobaireachd instruction. In the 1970s, he also played in the Muirhead & Sons pipe band under P/M Robert G. Hardie. When he returned to Scotland in 1996 until he moved to County Donegal in 2004, Donald took piobaireachd lessons from Andrew Wright. He has been placed 2nd twice and 3rd twice in the Gold Medals at the Northern Meeting and Argyllshire Gathering. He won the A Grade March at the Northern Meeting in 1982 and has been 2nd and 3rd in the Strathspey & Reel events at Oban and Inverness more times than he cares to remember. Presently he lives in Kansas City.

Editor Robert Wallace said: ‘A bit like the great Duncan Johnstone, Donald was an indifferent competitor never quite enjoying it the way his talent dictated he should.  He did notch up some significant prizes but these should never the only criteria we use when assessing a piper’s ability. You can be a great player and seldom have ventured on a competition board.

‘We are grateful that Donald  has now given permission for us to enjoy his superb playing via this recording. The piping is as good as anything you will hear on the boards today.’


Listen to the recital here.
Donald’s notes to the concert are as follows:

6/8 Marches to see where the drones will go! Brian Boru’s March/MacDonald, Lord of the Isles/Major Moir of Villeveque. The first march commemorates the march of the High King of Ireland, Brian Boru, and his army to the Battle of Clontarf in 1014, the object being to boot the Vikings out of Ireland. He and his army prevailed but poor Brian managed to get himself decapitated in the closing stages of the battle when some fleeing Vikings stumbled upon him in his tent where they caught him having a few premature victory cocktails! If nothing else the second tune is a reminder that the Clan Donald Lords of the Isles at one point owned about one third of Scotland, from their Earldom of Ross up in the far north, down through the western seaboard and islands and into their Irish possessions in what are now Counties Antrim, Tyrone, Derry and Donegal. I’m assuming the third march is to do with WWI since Villeveque is a town in Normandy and that’s where much of the senseless butchery took place between 1914 and 1918 in that most horrible of all wars. Amazing that beautiful music can come from such carnage.

Two-parted Strathspeys and Reels: Lady Victoria Ross/Lady MacKenzie of Gairloch/Duke of Gordon’s Birthday/Fiddler’s Joy/Forrest Lodge/Pigeon on the Gate/Daldowy’s Reel/Lady Monaghan’s/Skansen Reel/Traditional Irish Reel/Selma Reel. When pipers realised what treasures were in the fiddle music books that started appearing in the 18th and 19th centuries they must have thought they’d discovered the mother lode and these volumes were plundered mercilessly. These dance tunes are not of the same depth or complexity as most of the competition strathspeys and reels but are generally a lot more fun to play.

Slow Airs and Jigs: Muile nam Mhor Bheann/Smaointe (Mull of the Great High Mountains/Thoughts)/Jig of Slurs/An Fáinne Oir (The Gold Ring)/Catrin Williams’/Bessie Brown. First up here is the tune to Dugald MacPhail’s beautiful song of the same title. The first time I heard it played was by my brother Kenneth during a ferocious session in the West End Hotel in Edinburgh before he got sick and fell asleep under a table. Smaointe/Thoughts I got from the singer Deirbhile Ní Bhrolchain from the County Galway on the west coast of Ireland during a great night in the Lady Gregory Hotel in Gort. It took me seven days to complete the five-hour drive from Spanish Point in Clare to my house in Kilcar in County Donegal. It was pointed out to me in John Burke’s Armada Hotel in Spanish Point that the first two parts of the Jig of Slurs are actually from County Cork and I got this setting from the flute player Matt Molloy from Ballaghadereen in County Roscommon. The Gold Ring is one of the big Irish jigs. The Irish have ten parted reels and jigs which match I suppose our competition strathspeys and reels. Catrin Williams’ I composed myself for a friend who lives in London and which is published in Michael Grey’s book ‘Music for Everyone’, and Bessie Brown was composed by Captain D.R. MacLennan for the celebrated piper Bob Brown’s sister.

Competition March, Strathspey and Reels: Donald Cameron/Blair Drummond/John Morrison of Assynt House/Mrs. MacPherson of Inveran. If Angus MacKay had done nothing but publish his piobaireachd book in the 1830s he would have been granted piping immortality, but he also co-invented the competition march along with Hugh MacKay (no relation). The march is the traditional pipe band standard Donald Cameron. The strathspey, Blair Drummond, is a traditional tune that has stood the test of time, as have the two reels, composed respectively by Peter MacLeod of Partick and P/M G.S. McLennan. Someone once mentioned to me that he thought that Mrs MacPherson was the most perfect tune ever composed. It’s hard to argue with this.



Piobaireachd (Theme only) Thainig mo Righ air Tir am Muideart. (My King Has Landed in Moidart). This tune was composed in 1745 by John MacIntyre at the start of a last-ditch effort by Prince Charles Edward Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charlie) and the Royal House of Stuart to reclaim the British throne from the German House of Hanover which had acceded to it in 1714 when the last Stuart monarch to reign, Queen Anne, died. The Jacobites raised their standard at Glenfinnan in Moidart in August 1745. Arguably the top three ‘lost causes; in the English-speaking world are that of Mary Queen of Scots, the Confederacy in America, and the Jacobite Risings in the 17th and 18th centuries in Great Britain. The fact that the risings failed has not dimmed the cause’s perennial popularity. On the contrary, the British establishment’s subsequent guilt trip over their policy of genocide following the rebellion lead to a veritable Brigadoon-like ‘Celtic Twilight Zone’ in the 19th Century and the creation of the Scottish tartan industry. The version I’m playing tonight has been raised a tone from pentatonic in ‘G’ up to ‘A’. The effect is that as a tune it sounds less sombre than it does in ‘G’. I got it from Robert Wallace, who got it from P/M Donald MacLeod, who in turn got it from P/M Willie Gray of the Glasgow Police. The original came from the manuscript of a Mr Simon Fraser in Australia. The tune is in the Piobaireachd Society Collection Volume 5, and also in Angus MacKay’s published book. Under the first line of MacKay’s version are the words, ‘Thainig mo Righ, s’air Tir am Muideart, Tearlach Stiubhart, Righ nan Gael’. (Came My King, on Land in Moidart, Charles Stuart, King of the Gael.)

An Coinleach Ghlas an Fhomhair/Seudain a’Chuain/The Foxhunter/O’Dowd’s/Jimmy Ward’s/Paddy Clancy’s/The Queen of the Rushes. The song is from the Gaoth Dothair area of Donegal and was made famous by the group Clannad from Croilí. Its English title is The Grey Stubble of Autumn. The next tune was composed by my friend Allan MacDonald and translates as Jewels of the Ocean. Then we have The Foxhunter in both hornpipe and 9/8 jig time. In the third part of The Foxhunter hornpipe I’ve tried to emulate the yelps of the hounds as they close in on the unfortunate fox. To finish off we have some jigs in 6/8 timing.

Calum Sgaire/The Gravel Walks/The Shetland Fiddler’s Welcome to Cape Breton/Humours of Tulla/The Humours of Elizabeth. The slow air is the tune to a song from the island of Lewis on the Outer Hebridean chain of islands off the west coast of Scotland. I got this from the singing of the late Micheál O’Dhomhnaill from Rann na Feirste in County Donegal where my father’s people were originally from before they moved to Scotland. The next three tunes are reels popularised by the playing of the great fiddler Natalie MacMaster from Cape Breton in Nova Scotia, and the last reel I composed for my great friend Elizabeth Scott from Shawnee. She keeps me sane when I’m on the American side of the Big Puddle.

• Donald can be heard playing piobaireachd on the PP Video Archive here.


Only just over a week to go! We can’t wait!

PP Ed’s Blog: Band Formations/ Muirheads Names/ Colin Thomson/ Braemar/Jack Lee

Those of us who have been advocating ‘concert formation’ for pipe band competition for many years were cheered by yesterday’s announcement that the Edinburgh Pipe Band Championship, to be held in Princes Street Gardens on June 18, will adopt just such a format.

All credit to John Hughes the RSPBA Lothian & Borders Branch Chairman, and Vice-Chairman of the Association, for taking this initiative. When I played there in the 70s the band formed up in the circle in front of the stage. Not so a week on Sunday with the pipers and drummers facing their listeners and the judges ranged before them but with the facility of moving about should they so wish.

How bands will form up at Edinburgh

It really is hard to believe that in the 21st century pipe bands remain the only musical grouping in the world – I repeat, in the world – which turns its back on its audience. We want parity of esteem with other musicians, we know we deserve respect for what we do, yet here we are still conforming to a militarily inspired performance model dating back to the founding of the RSPBA in the 1930s.

Old traditions die hard and when I first went on about this some years ago one judge at the time (now thankfully retired) said he disagreed with any change because he wouldn’t be able to hear the drones properly! Since when was the great Highland bagpipe ever listened to ‘drones first’? Can you imagine a solo piper standing on the stage at the Argyllshire Gathering with his kilted backside pointing at his judges and other listeners. Yet that would appear to be a fair extrapolation of this gentleman’s logic if applied outwith pipe bands.

P/M Robert Mathieson bravely helped our cause a few years back when his band, Shotts & Dykehead, performed the ‘big turn out’ at the Worlds. The roar from the crowd in the main arena as the pipers and drummers reversed the inward circle to outward has never been heard before or since. The bands volume change, the freeing up of the sound, will live long in the memory.

For those of us campaigning for this change over many years it has been a long struggle. Edinburgh saw the birth of the Scottish Enlightenment. Let us hope that Mr Hughes and the L&B branch  have ushered in a pipe band equivalent.


Former Muirheads piper Norrie McDonald (left) writes from Canada: ‘Here are the names of the pipers and drummers in the Muirheads band in the photo taken at Princes Street Gardens in 1967. Hope all is well: Front – P/M Bob Hardie, Jim Dow, Davie Hutton, P/Sgt Andrew Dowie; Second – John Finlay, Ronnie Motion, Bob Richardson, Eric Shields; Third – Jimmy Anderson, myself, Derek Boyd, Jim Elmslie; Drum corps – L/D Robert Turner, Peter Anderson, Jim Williamson, Davie Bruce, Dick Hamilton, Jock Waddell, Jim Crawford.’

Thanks Norrie; great days and a great band:


Two new letters today, both concerning Colin Thomson (pictured top). One asserts a connection with James Matheson, Bathgate, and the other that Willie Ross made a mistake in naming the eponymous tune in his Book 3 after CT. Read them both here.



Sold in four days! The power of Piping Press ensured a quick sale of the Peter Henderson silver and ivory bagpipes advertised by Neil Walker a few days ago. And are we surprised to learn that Braemar Gathering’s senior piping events are now oversubscribed? Why they advertise on PP too! And good benches don’t do any harm either. Here’s the intimation from the Gathering:
‘Senior Open Piping – Entry NOW CLOSEDDue to the high demand for places, application for entry for this year’s Senior Open Piping is now closed. We have a great field entered this year with top class competitors from home and abroad taking part. Junior Open Piping – Entry STILL OPEN. Register via our online process – https://www.braemargathering.org/piping-entryLocal Senior and Junior – Entry on the day.’



Jack Lee from BC: ‘I thought I would let you know what I have been up to as some pipers may find it helpful and interesting.  I just uploaded another 60 tunes to our Lee & Sons Tune Library, which brings the total on our site to 3,500.  Included in the 60 tunes were the last few piobaireachds from the Piobaireachd Society Book 16.  I have now recorded all piobaireachds from the Society’s Books 1-16.

‘I finished recording and uploading the first 15 books two years ago.  No sooner had I recorded the ‘first 15’ and the Society published Book 16.  I really enjoyed studying, playing and recording Book 16.  There are some terrific tunes in there, such as Cave of Gold, Hail to my Country, The Sword’s Lament, etc.  There is also a very nice alternative setting for Glengarry’s Lament.  But there is one piobaireachd, The Piper’s Salute to his Master, which takes piobaireachd complexity to a whole new level.  Previously, I had regarded the Nameless Lament from the MacArthur Manuscripts as the most difficult piece ever played.  The Piper’s Salute to his Master is much more difficult.  The technical and memory requirements are really something.  But the tune is just under 28 minutes in length so the piper’s endurance is tested like no other piobaireachd ever published.

‘In total I have put 3,500 tunes on our site, all recorded by me on the full bagpipe.  That includes 280 piobaireachds.’


Only ten days to go to!!!