Famous Pipers – Donald MacPherson Part 3

More from our interview with the late master piper Donald MacPherson. Here he continues on the theme of bagpipe sound, something he was renowned for. The pipes he mentions were sold for a seven figure sum following his death. They currently belong to a piper in Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia…..

D-McP-playing-in-cardigan
Donald and his world-famous bagpipe playing in 1998 at his home, Curlew Cottage, Balbeggie, Perthshire. Picture: Derek Maxwell
‘The pipes I play I got from a chap who worked with me in Singer’s in Clydebank when I was working in the tool room there. He was a very nice man and we got talking about bagpipes. He said he had a set of pipes that he didn’t use. This would be in the early ’50s. He asked me if I had my own pipes and I said no, I used my father’s. So I bought the pipes from him for £15 [$23US approx.]. Bob Hardie [of RG Hardie & Co.] fitted a new narrower bottom section in the bass drone.

They had a beautiful sound. Bob also gave me a dozen chanters to choose from and I picked one out. I had to get a new bag and I had a lot of trouble with my arm and had to experiment with the position of the drones. Bags were a lot of money, but over a period I eventually got the set-up I wanted. When setting up the pipe, the bag must be tight, stocks not turning etc. A good sheepskin bag could be left up all night and still be quite tight in the morning. My father’s  own recipe for seasoning with boracic powder, flour water and probably sugar, worked well because it kept the bag dry and tight. Unfortunately once at Oban in the very early ’50s I was tuning up ready to go on when suddenly the chanter seized. Sure enough there was a lump of seasoning on the reed. So it was under the tap and a bit of panic, but fortunately I managed to get away with it and was successful. But that was the end of that stuff and I went on to ‘Airtight’.



I didn’t make reeds at that time. I used to go out to John Black in Milngavie and he and my father would go for a dram and leave me with a gross of drone reeds and I would go through them. I would be happy if I could take away half a dozen of each. My father used to look for a big fat bass reed because that was what he wanted, but I always went for a deep resonance. A soft bass drone is useless. It has to have that good buzz. That meant going through quite a lot until I got one. It had to go first time and the tongue had to lift freely without being too weak or too heavy. It is difficult to explain, but it had to have that ‘feel’ and through time you could tell what was going to happen to it. It had to stop when you put extra pressure on it without the slightest loss of air. If air was still flying through it it was useless.

The setting of the bridle was very important. The reed had to take the minimum of air. It had to be set at that crucial position where it would take the minimum of air without stopping under the pressure needed for the chanter reed. You didn’t want to lose any air anywhere. My bridles were of black waxed hemp. Not too tight, but tight enough to operate as a stop, the position from where the tongue would vibrate. I see some people with wee rubber bands. They are no good. The rubber can perish and lose its pressure. The bridle must act as a stop which governs the length of the tongue. As far as the tenors go, you wouldn’t want a reed that was too loud. But sometimes you did have to get a slightly louder tenor if you

Donald, Iain Snr., and brother Iain
Donald (left) after winning the Gold Medal at Oban in 1954, with father Iain Snr., and brother Iain

had a loud bass. It was always a question of balance. It is not absolutely crucial to get the two tenor reeds exactly the same because you could alter the tongues to get the drone tops tuning at the same place. The essential thing was that they were steady. You could have a reed that sounded good but one minute it was up and the next it was down. Bin right away with that one. I wouldn’t waste time with a reed like that. There’s no pleasure in being half way through a tune and the reeds start to go out. Unsteadiness usually tells you that a reed has had its day. Sometimes it pays you to re-tie SIUBHAL1the bridle. That can sort the problem if the bridle has gone. Bridles are very important in determining your sound.

[It should be noted that in his later years Donald was happy use synthetic reeds and used Eezidrone reeds on his ‘Living Legend‘ recording on the Suibhal label.]

On the drone slides I just used soft hemp, not the hard stuff. I used that all my competing days. I never played long enough for the pipes to get wet. People have all these great tubes in their bags. I never understood that. I tried it and found it unnecessary. I just used the wee ordinary water trap to stop the spittle going into the bag and after 15 minutes I would empty that.

I never cleaned, oiled or dried out the drones, but when I was with my father we used to have to dry the pipes out because we were all playing them. But I don’t do it with mine. I am lucky in that I am a dry blower. There is definitely something in that. I remember Andrew Bain in London playing once and when he finished he emptied his water trap and there was a great big puddle on the floor. I wondered what was happening. He was a terribly wet blower. I realised then that people like that needed the big tubes to hold the water.

I only ever played the pipes for half an hour at a time even when I was practising for Oban and Inverness. These were the two main competitions I went to. In those days no one had motor cars. I could get a train to some games and you could slip down to Cowal because it was handy for Glasgow. Other games I've only been about once; you know Newtonmore, Kingussie, Caol, Aberdeen. I went to Birnam two or three times because it fell on the week before Oban and Inverness and I could get a run through to get the fingers going.'

Listen to Donald MacPherson playing part of the Lament for Mary MacLeod on the bagpipe pictured and described above:

• Article to be continued.

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