This is the first excerpt of an interview given in 1998 by Donald MacPherson at his home in Perthshire for Piper Press magazine…..
I don’t think there is any great secret about getting a good bagpipe sound, maybe some hard work. I have the belief that if pipers were to swap bagpipes, each would end up with his own particular sound irrespective of the instrument he played.
I was very lucky as a young lad. My father was an expert with the pipes and chanters. Willie Gray, Glasgow Police, used to come out to our house with all sort of instruments to check his chanter to find out where he was getting his sound. So there’s maybe something in the family. When I was a young lad I was very lucky because my father used to hand me the pipes when they were already going. All I had to do was blow into the bag and they went themselves, unlike many other young pipers who had to struggle to find reeds. Well, my father used to blow the reeds in for me and when he asked me to do a wee bit blowing he used to say ‘there’s no pleasure without pain, son’. My mother would chide him saying ‘the boy’s not going to blow these hard reeds of yours’. Maybe I heard a sound then that I had to live up to. My father always insisted that if I was going to be a piper I had to play properly or not at all.
My father was my only teacher and was always on hand to stop any bad habits creeping in. Other young pipers had to wait for their next lesson. My father was a piper in the Army during WW1 and afterwards went to Pipe Major John MacDougall Gillies for instruction. He was a founder member of the Scottish Pipers’ Association when John MacDougall Gillies was elected President in 1920.
My father did not compete much because he damaged his hand whilst at work. I was about five years old at the time but remember clearly how quiet the house became as he seldom played his bagpipes after that. Aged twelve, I joined the Boys’ Brigade pipe band and my father’s interest in piping was renewed. A BB officer gathered together scraps of pipes to make a half-sized set for me. I was very pleased to have a set, but my father was not impressed with the old sheepskin bag, torn cover and some old reeds. The following day we went to the next street where Peter MacNichol a reedmaker lived, and he fitted some to the half-sized set. Then we got a bag from Archie MacPhedran, who was the manager in Peter Henderson’s shop in Glasgow. He was pipe major of the Glasgow Shepherds band and said that when I was old enough I could join them.
Once home, my father carefully tied in the bag for me. His seasoning was a paste of flour, sugar, boracic powder and water. I was shown how to blow drone reeds. Reeds that leaked had to be discarded – these were the ones that didn’t stop when you blew a bit harder. I learned how to tie bridles using half hitches and how to select a chanter reed with a distinct ‘crow’, but not too hard to blow. After all his work the half-set were going really well to my young ear. My brother Iain and I always had to learn to tune our own drones. My father might indicate with a finger ‘up’ or ‘down’ but that was all.
At the BB I learned to play the open C and the high A with the F finger down and also the heavier throw on D. My father changed all of these: the C had to be played with the little finger down, the high A with the E finger down and the throw on D without the grip. I expect this was how he had this from MacDougall Gillies. The high A doubling had to have a slight emphasis on the high G when passing through it to the high A to create a fuller sound. These techniques were important to light music and piobaireachd, and are ones which I still favour.
From his Angus MacKay book he taught me my first piobaireachd, MacDonald of Kinlochmoidart’s Lament No. 1. He would play part of it on the practice chanter until I had it as he wanted it to sound, then he might sing it to make sure I had the correct feeling in the tune. Once we had been through the whole tune he told me not to ask for another lesson until I had it memorised. I came back about half an hour later and he was surprised that with only a little help here and there I could play the whole tune.
My father took me to many adult competitions to hear good players and he always encouraged me to listen to other pipers. In 1938, when I was 15, I entered for the Cowal junior competitions and won the juvenile March, Strathspey and Reel on the Friday and the 18 Years and Under Piobaireachd, the next morning. That was my first competition.
• To be continued.