Famous Pipers: Donald MacPherson BEM – Part 1

Donald MacPherson 1922 – 2012, was the most successful competitive piper in history, with a staggering collections of first prizes at the premier gatherings at Oban and Inverness.

Born and brought on Clydeside, he was taught solely by his father Iain, a disciple of John MacDougall Gillies. As a boy Donald won all the solo amateur competitions available to him in and around Glasgow. During WW2 he served in the RAF where he suffered an accidental injury to his left arm. He managed to overcome this and he launched his professional piping career in 1947. In 1948, in only his second year of serious competition, he won both the Gold Medal and Open Piobaireachd at the Argyllshire Gathering. This last he was to win a total of 15 times out of 24 appearances.

At the Northern Meeting he won nine Clasps and six Former Winners’ MSR titles. For a time in the early 1970s he was employed at the College of Piping but a disagreement with the then Principal Seumas MacNeill ended that relationship and for the rest of his life Donald refused to play in front of Seumas MacNeill or to enter any competition he was involved in organising. Thus he never played in the early Glenfiddich competitions or the Silver Chanter, events at which he would surely have triumphed. However he always considered the Argyllshire Gathering and the Northern Meeting the pre-eminent events. ‘It is nice to win anywhere’, he once said, ‘but win at Oban and Inverness and you go into the history books.’

He was awarded the BEM in 1986 and on retiring from playing, judged and taught extensively. James Murray and Stuart Shedden were two of his Gold Medal-winning students.

Donald still played well when in his 70s, and here is an account of his performance at the Piobaireachd Society conference in 1998 written by Robert Wallace…. ‘Donald MacPherson’s captivating performance…… proved that in piping it is not only never too late to start – it is never too late to stop. At the age of 75 he thrilled the audience in the Royal Hotel with his immaculate rendition of MacIntosh’s Lament and a range of light music. Most were of the view that his piobaireachd would have taken top honours on any competition board.

‘Yet should we be surprised that a man of his seniority is still able to produce such a stunning performance? After all John MacDonald, Inverness, won four Clasps at the Northern Meeting after the age of 60. And anyone who takes the trouble to attend the Lochaber Masters competition for retired professionals, to be held at Fort William later this month, will hear excellent playing. lain MacFadyen has picked up the first prize twice, again with tunes that would rank with anything heard on the professional circuit today. This level of performance by senior pipers suggests two things. First, maturity in piobaireachd playing often comes with maturity in mind and body. Second, the retired professional should be seen and heard more.

‘Top marks to Lochaber for giving a lead here. Moreover Messrs MacFadyen and MacPherson have given encouragement to all. Right through the grades, age should not be considered an impediment to the production of satisfying pipe music. By getting the instrument reeded and tuned properly, and by judicious selection of material, years of pleasure can be had, and be given, by the senior members of the piping fraternity, no matter the ability level. A young person’s game? Perhaps, but anyone fortunate enough to have been at the Royal Hotel on April 25 would be forgiven for thinking otherwise.’

• To follow: Donald MacPherson ‘In His Own Words’. Click here. The top picture shows Donald piping at his home, Curlew Cottage, in Perthshire in 1998.

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